Past & Present

Rocket Post Reality

Rocket Letter Museum nan Eilean.jpgOne of the letters from the Scarp Rocket Post which the Post Office subsequently made sure were dispatched by conventional means.Source:  Museum nan Eilean Collections

The event most often recalled, in potted histories of Scarp, is that of the ‘Rocket Post’; the experiments undertaken by a German called Gerhard Zucker in 1934. It is worth dispelling some of the oft-repeated myths which surround those events, particularly the real motives behind Zucker’s activities. Most of the following details are taken from a very well researched article by Christopher Turner for Cabinet Magazine, in Brooklyn, USA.

On his arrival in Britain in 1934, Zucker proposed the use of his rockets to develop an airmail service. It is now known that he gave a presentation in Berlin in 1933 to a large group of assembled Nazi officials, whom he tried to convince that his rocket model could be used to launch bombs. Instead he was taken and locked up for a few hours for psychological testing. That same year he attempted a launch, which failed, and resulted in a ban from the German authorities on any further attempts.

In 1934, he came to London to the International Airmail Exhibition. Zucker had already come up with the idea of including a mailbag of postcards in his future rocket launches. This was on the back of previous experiments of that nature by an Austrian rocketeer called Friedrich Schmiedl. In contrast with Zucker, Schmiedl’s competence as a rocketeer was not in doubt, but the Austrian abandoned his work with rockets due to their potential application in weapons development.

At the Airmail Exhibition, Zucker met the London stamp dealer C. H. Dombrowski. He and Dombrowski hatched the plan to produce commemorative stamps for each rocket launch, in the hope they would prove to be much in demand with collectors and a lucrative money spinner. A rocket flight followed on the Sussex Downs, which flew a short distance. Press coverage the following day claimed this was part of a plan to develop a rocket post between Dover and Calais which would deliver in one minute.

It is believed that Scarp was chosen as the location of the next test flight following national media coverage of an incident which occurred on the island in January 1934. Chirsty Maclennan from Scarp experienced difficulties during childbirth of twins. She gave birth to the first child, Mary, at home in Scarp, but complications required her removal to hospital in Stornoway, which happily resulted in the birth of another healthy baby girl called Jessie. Much was made in the press of the fact that the girls had been born on two separate islands, in separate counties, and on different dates. The girls became affectionately known locally as Miss Harris and Miss Lewis.

In July 1934, Zucker attempted to launch a rocket from Scarp to mainland Harris, which instead exploded, showering the surrounds with the 1200 letters contained within the capsule. Three days later, Zucker attempted another launch from Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, intended for Scarp, which met a similar fate.

Following his failed attempts on Scarp and at Amhuinnsuidhe, Zucker tried another rocket launch on Lymington Golf Course in Hampshire, claiming it would cross the sea to the Isle of Wight. Instead a gust of wind caught it after launch and it veered off course, landing in a bog a few miles away. The Home Office had tried to prevent this launch. Zucker’s activities did not have the support of the British authorities by this point. The Postmaster General who had sent staff to attend this demonstration, was reprimanded for doing so, as it conferred an air of legitimacy on activities which were now understood to be dangerous to the public and poorly planned. Zucker was later arrested, and spent two days in prison after leaving a dangerous load of gunpowder in a railway station cloakroom. He was deported soon afterwards, accused of defrauding the Post Office with his bogus stamps and of being a danger to the national security of the country. A further arrest followed in 1936, by the German authorities, for fraud and embezzlement, for the selling of stamps for two rocket launches in Ostende, Belgium, which never took place.

Zucker joined the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, until he was badly wounded in 1944, and later became a furniture dealer in West Germany. He was not, despite reports to the contrary, involved in the development of the V-2 rocket propelled bomb.

It was many years later, in the 1960s, that Zucker defied the ban placed on him by the German authorities and launched more rockets in public. Sadly, when one of his rockets exploded, shrapnel scattered over the crowd of spectators and killed two schoolboys. Zucker served a six-month prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter. The West German government subsequently banned all civil rocket experiments.

By Joan Cumming, 2014

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