During World Wars One and Two Wrens undertook the dangerous job of being Despatch Riders delivering messages around Naval Bases and Dockyards.
Wrens on wheels
The use of motorcycles by the armed forces began to come into use during World War One. Even though the Navy had relatively few land bases, it recognised that motorcyclists were a good means of maintaining contact with these bases.
Therefore one of the more exciting job categories open to members of the Women's Royal Naval Service was working as a despatch rider. These women had to take their share of the more difficult despatch jobs and were not sheltered due to being female. The Wrens often had to make journeys at night, on poor roads and using only acetylene lighting. However, the female riders proved themselves safe and reliable, and equal to their male counterparts.
There was a necessity for Wren Despatch Riders again at the outbreak of World War Two. The first four Wren motorcyclists entered service in 1939, attached to the Intelligence Department.
The Wrens worked long hours, undertaking eight hour watches and journeys that were often tedious and hazardous.
Missions could also be dangerous, such as collecting bombs or cases of live ammunition for delivery to London for subsequent evaluation.
Trips through London involved avoiding parked vehicles as well as obstructions from bomb damage. The slippery and uneven surfaces of docksides presented some of the greatest hazards of all, especially in poor weather conditions.
'We were always taken for men'
The WRNS category with the most unique uniform was that of the Despatch Riders. The Wrens had to concoct a variety of warm and weather proof clothing that would keep them insulated and dry whilst out riding.
The end result was the creation of someone who looked very far removed from the glamorous Wren officer of the recruitment posters.
The Riders looked rather unfeminine due to their uniform and were frequently mistaken for being male. They also did a job not considered typically women's work.
These problems did not really bother the Despatch Riders themselves - they seemed to have found it rather funny!
B Holford-Smith served as a Wren Despatch Rider from 1943 to 1945. She describes the uniform -
'Our uniform was different from that of the majority of the Wrens, in that we wore breeches and gaiters and our jackets were cut like hacking jackets and we wore caps with peaks when not wearing crash helmets. This meant we got let off most parades, as we rather spoilt the look of things. However, when on duty, as regards jackets, we mostly had to resort to what was provided for male Dispatch Riders, this was a heavy rubber-proofed, khaki top, usually far too big, so that it reached down to our knees, so Wren uniform breeches sufficed, except in extremely wet weather. The gaiters and socks provided for us proved far too draughty, so were only used on "ceremonial occasions". Those who had contacts in the Fleet air Arm sometimes managed to acquire flying-boots, but most had to rely on the humble "Wellie" stuffed out with sea-boot stockings - even so, on long journeys on wet days it was sometimes necessary to stop and empty our "Wellies" out. During the ice and snow in Winter, on a long journey, one got so cold one felt almost frozen into a permanently fixed sitting position. A flimsy pair of goggles was provided but these were apt to mist up, they were not much use, so we did without. The bright yellow gauntlet gloves and whatever thick scarves we could scrounge to stop wind and rain going down our necks, completed the picture - so it was not surprising that we were actually taken for men while actually on the job. This fact had its funny side, once on arrival at an Army Camp with no facilities for "Ladies", a Guard was called to escort me to the "Gents". He too thought I was a man, and probably imagined I was under arrest or something, for I was marched off and at first he didn't want to let me out of his sight!'
Women on wheels - three stories of WRNS Despatch Riders
Below are three stories of WRNS Despatch Riders who served during World War Two.
One of the more famous stories of the heroics of the Wren Despatch Riders was that of Pamela McGeorge.
She had undertaken an urgent despatch to the Commander in Chief at Plymouth when an air raid broke out. The explosion from a bomb threw her off her motorcycle, destroying it in the process.
McGeorge abandoned the motorcycle and ran half a mile across the rubble whilst the raid was still on, in order to deliver her documents safely to Admiralty House.
She volunteered to go back out on duty again as soon as her task was completed. She later received the British Empire Medal for her courage.
Another well known Despatch Rider during World War Two was Violet Fraser, who was aged 45 when she joined the WRNS in 1939.
Fraser initially worked at Whitehall and then served for five years in London's docklands.
The dock workers and seaman expected Fraser to only last a few weeks before she would feel out of her depth. However, Fraser proved the doubters wrong and completed her arduous shifts the same as everyone else.
The dock workers soon developed an immense respect for her, taking her in as one of their own close knit community.
Upton joined the WRNS in 1942, age 27, as a Despatch Rider. She had previously worked for the Red Cross on board the SS Viscountess ambulance ship.
Her first WRNS posting was to HMS Vulture, a Fleet Air Arm training airfield at St Merryn. Betty put herself in for a transfer to the Commander in Chief's staff at Portsmouth since there was not much work beyond the confines of the airfield.
The women divided into three groups, operating from a Nissen hut on the forecourt of Southwick House, the location of the Supreme Headquarters Allies Expeditionary Force. They rode Ariel 350cc bikes.
Upton recalls -
'We carried maps, of course, and found our way to the more unfamiliar places by grid references - but such places were often hard to find, since they too were camouflaged or disguised as coal dumps, haystacks or made to appear as derelict buildings. All sign-posts had been removed lest they might be of help to an invading enemy and we were not supposed to stop and ask where we were - no one would tell you anyway - and it was suggested that it might not be wise to reveal that we were women.'
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