Dispatch Riders In Modern Warfare

A Graphic “Story of the Day”

From the August 1944 Issue of Motorcyclist magazine

For the launching of invasion operations in Normandy by the Allied Expeditionary Force, vital time-tables were linked up between the Dispatch Rider Letter Service, the Air Dispatch Letter Service and a Naval Dispatch Boat Service, the time-tables being arranged long before operations began.

The popular conception of a dispatch rider is of a motorcyclist racing through shot and shell with some life-and-death message when all other means of communication have been cut.

He still has to do that, but the main role of the dispatch rider in the modern army is not the spectacular one of the mounted officer who galloped down the lines with the general’s orders to his troops, but rather of a one-man mail train, running at the same times daily to the same places and arriving at each place on the way at the scheduled time.

Reliability, not speed, is the first essential, though a turn of speed may be necessary at times to keep to schedule.

Before World War I, the British Army had no motorcyclist dispatch riders. Immediately on the outbreak of war the need for them was realized and about 50 young men who rode motorcycles were recruited from the Officers Training Corps at universities all over Britain, put into uniform, given corporal’s stripes and sent to France with the Royal Engineers (Signals) in August 1914 as the only amateurs in Sir John French’s little army.

Those dispatch riders, wearing the white and blue arm band recently adopted also by the U.S. Signal Corps in Europe (to give them priority on the road), made themselves indispensable, and motorcyclist dispatch riders became an important part of every Signals unit in the British Army.

At first, when there was no definite front line and no one knew exactly where anyone was, the dispatch riders’ job was mainly that of carrying special dispatches, but, when formations and units became more organized, the regular “Dispatch Rider Letter Service” came into being, each headquarters delivering and collecting dispatches at regular times daily at the headquarters of formations under its command, and at headquarters of miscellaneous units in its immediate area.

Time-tables are usually fixed in this way: The highest formation-perhaps the headquarters of an army group-announces the lists of formations and units at whose headquarters its D.R.s will call and the times when they will do so. The formations under its command-the headquarters of armies, corps, divisions and brigades-then arrange their runs in turn, the services being made to “connect” as far as possible without unnecessary overlapping or duplication of “through” traffic that is, traffic addressed to a headquarters to which delivery is made through another headquarters.

Even when warfare is mobile and headquarters are constantly on the move, a Dispatch Rider Letter Service is established at the earliest possible moment. It may be only a skeleton service, but it all concerned are informed about it, it may save the use of many special dispatch riders and conserve their energies for emergency runs.

When invasion of Britain was imminent and air raids were causing disruption of telephone, telegraph and railway communications, a vast D.R.L.S. network was created, runs radiating from the War Office to all parts of the country and linking up at each Command headquarters with subsidiary runs to corps and divisions and defense establishments of all kinds. At that time dispatch riders were often blown off their cycles by blast; some were killed by bombs; and many more crashed in the blackout into bomb craters and debris thrown about the streets. It is the boast of the Royal Signals that, in spite of all hazards, every dispatch was delivered.

Petrol, meanwhile, was becoming scarce in Britain and for the longer runs such as from London to Scotland-about 400 miles-dispatch riders conserved their supplies by leaving their motorcycles at the rail terminus or taking them in the guard’s van and travelling by train to the nearest point to which the dispatches were assigned.

In the Middle East, where a vast Allied army was being built up to protect the supply routes to India and later, to Russia, the first regular Air Dispatch Letter Service came into being. The D.R.s did not actually fly, but it was considered essential to have some of them in the “A.D.L.S.” offices at the airfields to see that the old methods and traditions of the dispatch rider service were carried out in the new courier service.

In the desert, more disappointments were in store for the keen motorcyclist, for experience quickly showed that while the machines would stand up well to the conditions, a truck was essential for the longer runs. The reasons were that a navigator was required, and, even with expert navigation, units were so constantly on the move that dispatch riders in search of them found themselves alone in an empty desert for days at a time. It was necessary therefore to carry 3 days’ food and water, cooking appliances, blankets, fuel for 200 miles, sand channels or mats for use in the event of being “bogged” in the soft sand, spade and shovel, map and compass, and the crew’s personal belongings.

Some of General Montgomery’s D.R.s used small lightly-armored scout cars known as “dingoes”. They carried rifles or light machine guns and occasionally had to defend themselves against enemy aircraft. Some (unofficially) went into action with the tanks.

On the Italian war front, D.R. sections, partly equipped with motorcycles and partly with jeeps, have ably discharged heavy responsibilities. The D.R.L.S. office at Bari was at one time handling 11,000 packages in 24 hours. Fortunately, the Italian State roads were in excellent condition, and runs up to 100 miles and more gave no trouble-except in wet weather when they became rather dangerous. Even on these routes it was found advisable to reckon on a speed of no more than 20 miles an hour, but even this was about three times faster than in Tunisia where, on some daily runs from a Corps Headquarters, there were often no proper roads.

The organization of traffic is essentially one for men of practical experience and, at the big D.R.L.S. offices, it has been found advisable to have three specially trained D.R. clerks solely employed in keeping up to date what is known as the location list-that is, an index of the “address” of every formation and unit to which dispatches may have to be delivered. Two men worked in turn inside the office and a third went out in a truck or motorcycle verifying locations.

The Dispatch Riders’ Information Room is also a regular feature at the headquarters of most formations in the British Army. Here maps are kept up-to-date showing locations, state of roads, demolitions and, of course, enemy positions. Every D.R. arriving at headquarters is closely cross-examined by the D.R. superintendent (a non-commissioned officer) or by the D.R. officer, to find out if he can add anything to the common pool of knowledge already recorded.

A British motorcycle company moving into action across a sandy tract of country.