The Female Dispatch Motorcycle Riders Of World War II

The female dispatch riders of wartime England

Women riders pose with their motorcycles.
Initially, only single women aged 20–30 were called up, but by mid-1943, almost 90 percent of single women and 80 percent of married women were employed in essential and often dangerous work including that of motorcycle dispatch rider.Imperial War Museum London

Imagine the darkest night—pitch-black, not for a moonless sky, but because of the preemptive blackout preceding a barrage of German bombs. With an urgent message, a dispatch messenger rides a 342cc Triumph through the night. The little machine tops out at 70 mph, and the courier is headed over 200 miles southwest, away from London and through the night, over unknown and narrow hedge-lined English roads.

On a patched tire and using a flashlight in place of the bike’s broken headlamp, the rider navigates across Dartmoor, a rugged stretch of peaty marsh and granite uplands, the last daunting obstacle before reaching Plymouth. The trip takes a nail-biting 10 hours, but the message arrives safely, steadfastly delivered like uncountable other wartime dispatches in Great Britain by a woman.

An appreciative Admiral J. M. James of the British Royal Navy recounted this story about one of thousands of women to serve their country during its greatest time of need. Despite serving with distinction like wartime heroes across England, many of these daring messengers also served in modest anonymity and were reabsorbed into the fabric of British life after the war.

The Women’s Royal Navy Service first formed in the United Kingdom in 1917 during World War I. Once the war to end all wars ended, the WRNS, nicknamed the “Wrens,” was officially disbanded. Women returned to their families because other occupational options for them at the time were few.

A dispatch rider on a 250cc BSA C10 receives her orders.
A dispatch rider on a 250cc BSA C10 receives her orders.Imperial War Museum London

By September 1939, Hitler’s ambitions were evident, and the war in Europe was escalating. Great Britain and her allies declared war on Germany, and soon the Wrens activated once more. Dame Vera Laughton-Matthews, daughter of a prominent naval historian and mother of three who herself served as a Wren from 1917 to 1919, was named director of the organization as the German army crossed the Vistula River and took Poland. By the end of that year, the Wrens totaled 3,000. By war’s end, the number of women who served in the British Royal Navy would balloon to almost 25 times that number.

At first, Wrens performed jobs traditionally done by non-enlisted women, such as cooking and typing. As the war progressed and more men were sent to fight against the Axis, their jobs on the homefront fell to the willing hands of their wives, girlfriends, daughters, and sisters. One of the most noted and hazardous of those jobs was that of the motorcycle dispatch rider.

On all sides and almost every front, riders played a critical role in the war effort. They delivered urgent orders and messages between headquarters and remote units, including important supply-chain information, classified battle memos, and letters between generals, embassies, and the Admiralty—even D-Day invasion orders were tucked into drab canvas satchels in the care of plucky women on whose two wheels the future of the world balanced.

Heroism was not uncommon. On April 22, 1941, while carrying an urgent message to a command post at the Devonport, Plymouth, shipyards, an important port for the Allies due to its proximity to France’s Normandy coast, Wren Pamela McGeorge was caught in a bombing raid and blown off her bike. McGeorge’s motorcycle lay in gnarled pieces, but even as Luftwaffe munitions continued to explode around her, she ran the remaining half-mile to deliver her dispatch. Immediately after, she volunteered to go out again. For her bravery, McGeorge received the British Empire Medal.

Initially, the Royal Navy recruited proven riders, mostly competitors from local race circuits such as Brooklands. Soon pioneering women who had ridden Harley-Davidsons or Velocettes in reliability trials or racing events in the pre-war motorcycle boom joined their ranks. Early motorcycles were demanding. As well as needing an ability to ride, these women had to know how to perform basic maintenance on their bikes—checking oil and tire pressure, changing flats, and repairing or replacing chains. These were not ladies who worried about getting grease underneath perfectly filed fingernails.

A Women's Royal Air Force rider takes a tea break aboard her 500cc Phelon & Moore.
Female motorcyclists served with distinction in both World Wars. Here, a Women's Royal Air Force rider takes a tea break aboard her 500cc Phelon & Moore.Imperial War Museum London

McGeorge's motorcycle lay in gnarled pieces, but even as Luftwaffe munitions continued to explode around her, she ran the remaining half-mile to deliver her dispatch. Immediately after, she volunteered to go out again. For her bravery, McGeorge received the British Empire Medal.

Dispatch riders biking in snow.
By 1940, all of the navy’s dispatch riders were women, sending men previously tasked with the job to battle the Reich on the front.Imperial War Museum London
A motorcycle messenger awaits orders at the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) training center, Camberley, 1941.
Keep calm and ride on. A motorcycle messenger awaits orders at the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) training center, Camberley, 1941.Imperial War Museum London

At the start of the war, motorbikes were requisitioned for military use, but British manufacturers were quick to start building machines for the war effort. Several models were used by the dispatch Wrens.

BSA’s lightweight 250cc C models were initially introduced in 1938, starting with the single-cylinder side-valve C10. It was equipped with a coil ignition, a three-speed hand-shift transmission, and drum brakes, and it rode on a rudimentary girder fork in front with no rear suspension save a spring-loaded saddle. C10s made a max of 12 horsepower. A foot-change gearbox came in 1939, followed by the overhead-valve C11 with a magneto instead of a coil.

Triumph, at the time headquartered in Coventry—a little less than 100 miles northwest of London—produced the 3HW, a side-valve motorcycle expressly made for military service. It used a four-stroke, single-cylinder engine that made 17 hp at 5,200 rpm.

Royal Enfield joined the war effort with its 350cc single-cylinder side-valve WD/C (the WD standing for war department) and later with the overhead-valve WD/CO model. None were particularly quick, but they were light and simple to operate, perfect for England’s dodgy country roads.

As wartime need increased, the navy recruited and trained more women to ride. They were taught basic skills—kick-starting, shifting gears, braking and turning. Because these riders would be ducking traffic and the rubble from bombed-out buildings, they learned evasive riding techniques, and how to take cover behind the bike if necessary. They took to the challenge: By 1940, all of the navy’s dispatch riders were women, sending men previously tasked with the job to battle the Reich on the front.

Wren dispatch rider wears fine weather kit.
The fine weather kit worn by Wren dispatch riders.Imperial War Museum London

Desperate to serve her country, 18-year-old Bunty Marshall applied to the women’s auxiliaries of every branch of the British military. Commissioned by the Wrens, Marshall initially wanted to be a driver, but within a few days of leaving home on July 1, 1941, she was informed she would instead become a dispatch rider. Tackling the new mode of transportation didn’t come without fanfare. According to Marshall’s accounting, the rookies gained quite an audience their first day, when word got around the naval base that three women wearing sundresses—they didn’t as yet have uniforms—were getting on and off motorbikes in the training paddock.

Marshall had a scant week to master riding before being stationed in Rosyth, Scotland. Four years into her service, while delivering documents to Edinburgh, some 15 miles from her post, Marshall crested a hill on her bike. A light armored vehicle attempting to overtake a truck hit her head-on. She crashed through the windshield and ended up in the hospital, fortunately with nothing more than some scratches and a broken nose. To her dismay, her messenger bag was never recovered. While her days as a dispatch rider were over, Marshall continued her service as a driver until 1946.

London-based dispatch riders worked 24/7, though safe passage through the city became increasingly difficult as the Blitz intensified, wreaking havoc around them. In her memoirs, “Skipper” Laughton-Matthews mused that in spite of the dangerous nature of their jobs, “the Wrens were calm, cheerful, and lived up to everything one would hope of the women’s branch of the navy.”

Reports of bravery such as McGeorge’s and Marshall’s piled up, and by October, 1942, the Wrens stopped actively recruiting for the dispatch position. Those already serving remained, but no new riders were trained—a testament to the toughness of the job and the women who executed it.

Of the almost 100,000 British women who served during World War II, 303 gave their lives during active duty, of whom almost 100 were dispatch riders. The Wrens continued in active service until 1993, when they were officially integrated into the naval branch of Britain’s military. Today the Association of Wrens, an organization for all women in the Royal Navy, past and present, celebrates and preserves the history of their now 100 years of heroic service to sovereign and country.