The GBLA stamps

Here’s a shortened extract from Stranded in the Six-Day War about how the seafarers on trapped ships in the Suez Canal created their own stamps – miniature works of art.


Soon after their arrival in the Bitter Lake, some seafarers began to create their own GBLA stamps to stick on their letters – tiny, hand-crafted works of art made using a variety of materials found on board. Home-made stamp making required remarkable ingenuity. It continued throughout the time the ships were in the Suez Canal. Different methods were used, all involving painstaking work. Some stamps were drawn by hand, and printed using inks, crayons or even coffee grounds for colour. Other stamps were produced from potato cuts or carved from linoleum, and then coloured with inks.

Entire envelopes were also decorated (George Wharton)


Stamp artists
The Poles were the masters of stamp creation. Captain Brian McManus commented that the Boleslaw Bierut’s Third Engineer, Kassimir, was a talented artist and it took him more than two months to make a set of stamps. He produced the 14 Ships Issue in February 1968 – 14 different stamps showing each of the ships: ‘Hulls, accommodation, funnels, mast, derricks and cranes and all distinguishing features are shown in their correct proportion’. They were all accurately coloured and showed the national flag. It was an extraordinary achievement to do all this at the scale of a postage stamp.


Each series of stamps had a theme; sport was a popular subject. The ships took it in turns to host sailing regattas and produced stamps to commemorate the event.

Agalampus regatta stamp (top) and stamps with the GBLA symbol (left) – an anchor and figure 14 for the number of ships (John McPherson)


Stamp showing table tennis and to record the GBLA Olympics in September 1968 (Steve Elford)


The stamp designers frequently created stamps that were relevant to life in the Suez Canal. For the first Christmas on the Bitter Lake, Captain Kudrna printed stamps with a Christmas-tree motif. There was clearly a big demand at this time of year. The stamp creators also celebrated anniversaries, marking the passage of time stranded in the Bitter Lake. Looking back, Captain Bryan Hill remarked, ‘Somehow there never seemed to be a dearth of quite logical occasions to celebrate and therefore a stamp issue to mark the event.’

Original unused strips of stamps kept by Captain Bryan Hill. These marked the first anniversary in the Great Bitter Lake (June Nelson)


World events in stamps
Some stamps recorded life in people’s home countries and the wider world. In July 1969, a Polish electrician designed a GBLA stamp to mark the landing of the first human being on the Moon. Through their art, the seafarers maintained their connection with their homelands and the world outside.


‘Mailed on Board’
Since the seafarers used different currencies, paying for stamps was complicated. After a while, it was agreed that joining the GBLA entitled a member to a regular supply of stamps. In addition to the postage stamps, the ships were given identical rubber ‘Mailed on Board’ stamps, displaying an anchor with a ‘14’ on it, double stripes to represent the Suez Canal, the GBLA initials and the name of the ship.

The ‘mailed on board’ stamp (Steve Elford)


Returning crew members often took post back to their country, where the shipping company added national stamps and forwarded the letters. The rest of the time, once a letter had a GBLA stamp on it and had been franked ‘Mailed on Board’, it was cancelled by the vessel’s post office and sent to an Egyptian post office where Egyptian stamps were added.


According to Captain McManus and Captain Hill, mail was sometimes franked by the Egyptian postal authority with only a GBLA stamp on it. Captain Hill believed this helped to prove the ‘independent sovereignty of the GBLA’ – as if the 14 ships formed a separate little nation in their own right.


Stamp commemorating the departure of the ships from the Suez Canal in 1975. The caption says ‘Homecoming of the Münsterland after eight years in the Great Bitter Lake’. (Steve Elford)


Farewell stamps (Wilhelm Schifferdecker)

13 thoughts on “The GBLA stamps”

  1. Karl W Franzmann

    Hi Cath, I’ve just finished your excellent book. A mine of useful information !

    With reference to my earlier query, I would love to hear from you.

    Regards, Karl

    1. Dear Karl

      Thank you very much for your kind comment. I replied straight away to your query through Amazon – perhaps you did not receive it? I need your own email address to send you the information that you asked for.

      1. Hi Cath,
        Great article. I used some of the information in the book about independent postal initiatives in Poland in the times of communism. Can you send me memories regarding the GBLA Post issue? Scans of fragments of memories in which sailors of the Yellow Fleet mention events related to the mail. I will be grateful for your help. My e-mail address: [email protected]
        Best regards

  2. Karl W Franzmann

    Dear Cath ,

    Thanks for your contact through Amazon. I did attempt to send you my email address through Amazon but suspect that their filter blocked it?

    Yes, I am still interested in any scans from Bryan Hill’s book that you could share with me. My email address is:

    [email protected]

    Kind regards, Karl

    1. Thanks for getting in touch Vic Barton. Do you live in the UK? There may be another GBLA reunion in Liverpool in 2019 so please let me know if you’d be interested in coming if it happens.

      All the best

      Cath Senker

    2. Hi Vic, when were you on the Scottish Star? I too was on board at the start of the voyage ending of course in the Bitter Lakes, I was the Galley boy looking after the passengers with the second steward, whose name I can’t remember, I was 17 + when we got stuck.

  3. My brother Russell Shore was on the Scottish Star in 1968 and was caught aboard in the Great Bitter Lakes. He’s retired now and living in Kiama, New South Wales, Australia. Can I still buy a copy of this book for him for Christmas? Please reply to my email:
    [email protected]
    Thank you.
    Harvey Shore.

  4. Hello Cath,
    My brother Russell Shore was on the Scottish Star in 1968 and was caught aboard in the Great Bitter Lakes. He’s retired now and living in Kiama, New South Wales, Australia. Can I still buy a copy of this book for him for Christmas? Please reply to my email:
    [email protected]
    Thank you.
    Harvey Shore.

  5. Pingback: El gran bloqueo del Canal de Suez | Santiago el marino

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