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Wrapping, strapping, chaining and tying

(or are they dispatch riders?)

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In military terms ‘dispatches' could be anything from routine reports to the most urgent of secret messages on which a battle could be lost or won. Before the age of electronic communications, to dispatch a rider between front line positions was a risky business. Travelling close to enemy lines could involve mines, sniper fire and risk of capture because of the secret nature of the material being dispatched.

The job attracted a special breed of men


Even in the days of horses, in the army hierarchy DESPATCH RIDERS always had a special, slightly maverick image - something of a law unto themselves as long as they got the dangerous missions accomplished.

When motorcycles first came into service, the men who rode them became icons of cutting-edge technology. The protective gear they wore was essential to the rigours of the work, but also to their image. By the end of World War Two electronics were taking over, but essentially secret documents were still entrusted to these risk-taking rough-riders - and the latest in motorcycle technology was at their disposal.

Even in peacetime on any army or air force base, as a sub-section of the transport section they were still very much a race apart. By the Fifties their souped-up bikes, distinctive high-leg laced and buckled boots, sleeveless brown leather blanket-lined ‘jerkins' (usually cinched at the waist by a webbing belt) were unique to their do-and-dare status. In wet weather the all enveloping "Don R" coats were a classic design (described in detail below) .

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Pictures of authentic DESPATCH RIDERS from different periods are difficult to find. I'm still hunting. Even today I'm told that small special bike-riding units exist in the army.

The magazine photo at the head of this page has the caption “Thanks to technological advances by the military, diesel-powered bikes with bulletproof tyres have been realised.”

(Photo left) Don R boot close-up in a barrack-room brawl

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Motorcycle display rider teams at army Open Day events were always a top attraction as they did stunt riding; pyramid balancing on speeding bikes and jumping their machines through hoops of fire. In a tradition dating back more than a century, a type of man applied to join these elite units. As part of a day-and-night rapid response team they lived, worked and slept dressed and booted and ready for action. When no action was demanded they often made their own. The pranks and camaraderie were legendry. They were tear-aways, and within their close-knit group were sometimes highly unpredictable in their behaviour.

Genuine descriptions of the type of escapades ARMY DESPATCH RIDERS sometimes indulged in would be welcome. A couple of authentic hear-say stories are on line and I'm looking for more.

Also, if anyone has any of the gear stored away, opportunity to take some photos would be welcomed.

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Dear Len,
... further to our discussions about army Despatch Riders ...
My first-hand experience was in the R.A.F. when I was in Signals and protocol still insisted that Sealed Orders must be delivered by hand - so we had to call upon a small team of jack-the-lad motorcyclists who seemed to be a law-unto-themselves in our small 'Transport Section'.
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I'd also met up with a couple of these self-styled 'aces' on courses. This had given me dropping-in status at the hut which was their exclusive domain. There they ate, slept and hung-out when On Watch as their duty hours were called. A wryly anarchic bunch and not averse to causing a bit of trouble when they had time on their hands.

We also had Navy personnel on the base, and it wasn't unknown for a lone rating on his way back from the mess to get jumped and a blanket thrown over his head before he was left tied naked to the door of one of the Women's blocks. It was usually assumed who the culprits were - but nobody could ever prove anything - and it did at times provoke attempts at reprisals by the navy - which were welcome skirmishes.

To get assigned as a "Don R" you had to be something of a bike nut. Any wanna-be motorcycle enthusiast on the base would try to find an 'in' with these guys. A potential joiner might be sounded out and perhaps put to some sort of test - offered a spin on a pillion. This could result in some near-the-knuckle and challenging trickery which was usually put-up-with if it meant getting in with the 'in' crowd. In preparation for a trial run ... to be given boots a size too small or with specially prepared stubble innersoles ... or subtly modified gear that, once put on, was not so easy to get off again without assistance; once seated behind a Don R for a trial spin, instructed to put hands around the rider's waist only to find the wrists cuffed - or other members of the team suddenly on hand to clip boots to the pillion foot-pegs before the bike roared away into the darkness and a remote hut on the other side of the air-field for what were known as 'evaluation' exercises.

Much was only hear-say but I was shown modified padded bike mitts with adapted wrist closures. Very much my territory even way-back-then - and I found a group I got to know well, responded well to discussions about Houdini and the ins-and-outs of tying up scenarios as we drank cocoa in the Don R hut while they were on-call. In fact, I helped modify one of the standard old-fashioned open-faced pudding basin crash helmets by adding a couple of extra fixings. For an unsuspecting wearer, these were explained as an experimental wind-break face protector ... but they were, in fact, so an efficient gag could be added unexpectedly.

Len, you mentioned briefly a "Despatch Rider experience (opportunity) you had during your army service. Not sure whether this was a real-life adventure or a situation which, since the event, you've managed to build into a satisfying fantasy of what might have happened. Whichever, more details would be appreciate ... for the record ...


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Also arrange photo shoot if any of the kit can be found

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