Dispatch riders: swift messengers on motorcycles in both World Wars

Dispatch rider Frank Shaughnessy of the 2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery. Photo: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3202240 . *** L’estafette Frank Shaughnessy, du 2e Régiment antichars, Artillerie royale canadienne. Photo : Bibliothèques et Archives Canada, MIKAN 3202240

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By Jay Rankin, Army Public Affairs

Ottawa, Ontario — Tucked in the LeBreton Gallery in the Canadian War Museum are two motorcycles bearing the history of a special trade that was prominent in the First and Second World Wars.

The museum has a Harley-Davidson and a Norton motorcycle on display that were used extensively by Canadian Dispatch Riders. A Dispatch Rider – variously called DR, Don R, or Despatch Rider, which was the British spelling – were military messengers on motorcycles in a time of low-tech solutions.

Of particular note is the fact that it was a Canadian Dispatch Rider who carried the first films of the D-Day landing away from the beaches of Normandy for shipment back to Britain.

Before motorcycles were put into service, Dispatch Riders rode on horseback or bicycle. In Egypt during the First World War, even camels were put to use carrying these military couriers.

Duties of Dispatch Riders

The duties for the riders, a trade in which both women and men served, commonly involved delivering maps, orders, intelligence and situational updates that could not be sent – for security and logistical reasons – through telephone or radio.

They often led the way to new locations after delivering new orders. Sometimes the riders would even deliver equipment, caged live homing pigeons and medical supplies. 

It was a dangerous job that required all forms of skills with the bikes, from quickly navigating dangerous terrain to fixing a bike in the field, all while under the constant threat of enemy fire. Among other tactics, the enemy would set neck-level trip wires across dark roads and known trails.

“Because they were on their own and they had to use their own wits, Dispatch Riders, if they came under fire, or their access to road was denied by enemy fire, then they would have to go cross-country,” said Eric Fernberg, Canadian War Museum Collections Specialist for Arms and Technology.

“These are the original off-roaders,” he said.

Quick reaction to enemy fire, cranking up the speed, and getting off the road was usually the best defence for a Dispatch Rider, who often travelled alone by day and under cover of night and carried little in the way of weaponry.

Norton vs Harley

The Norton was the preferred bike of Canadian riders, even though Harley-Davidson today is a better-known brand. The Norton was a British-made vehicle, meaning it was favoured by Commonwealth forces over the American-made Harley. The Norton also had a higher clearance from the ground, making it superior for off-roading. The Harley also did not perform as well in wet conditions, “particularly on European roads – they tended to slide off the road,” noted Mr. Fernberg.

The Harley was favoured more by other trades that employed motorcycles, such as military police from the Provost Corps who spent a lot of time patrolling on paved roads. It was heavier than the Norton and was meant to be driven on maintained asphalt. As well, there just were not enough Nortons being produced to go around to everyone who rode.

“We ended up purchasing Harleys just because of the great demand,” Mr. Fernberg said. “There’s an absolutely great demand for these bikes – or any type of bike. We ended up using over 10,000 of these bikes.”

Only those with own bike could apply in early days

Generally, the Dispatch Rider was a niche, volunteer job, initially requiring previous motorcycle experience, and soldiers had to bring their own bikes to service.

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