George Brown, WWII Dispatch Rider
I was born on 17th October 1921 in Plumstead, South East London and shortly after my parents moved into a council house in Eltham. We were very much a working class family. My dad was a civil servant earning three pounds and 10 shillings a week.
My parents raised four children on hardly any money, so luxuries were hard to come by. But we didn't go short of anything. We would go to the Common sometimes and my dad would say 'You can either have some sweets between you and walk home or you can take the bus home.' We always took the sweets!
My first bicycle cost five shillings. My mum paid sixpence a week until it was paid off. Later, I bought a Hercules, a so-called racing bike, on a hire purchase. My dad said 'If you can't pay for it you can't have it!' So I took a job at the butcher's shop and took on milk and newspaper delivery rounds too.
Aged 11, I would wake up at 5:30am for my paper round, and then I would ride around on a bike with a basket delivering for the butcher. It helped bring some money in.
My school report read 'George is sometimes very lazy but when he works, he works well.' I was a disappointment though, as I was quite bright. I went to Eltham Central School and everybody expected me to do well, but I failed the exams that would have got me into college. I spent too much time working.
Instead, I took the London Chamber of Commerce examinations, which don't exist now. I had to take French, English, Maths, Shorthand Typing, and Book-keeping. I was hauled up before the headmaster and he told me that I would fail again. One of the Geography teachers had been in the butcher's shop and saw me poke my head out of the cold store with meat hung over my shoulder! She told the headmaster, and he said that work would cost me again. Anyway, George Brown passed every exam and I gained a Distinction in every subject except French.
When I was only young, along with a friend called Pip Walters, I managed to get my hands on an old 150cc Cotton motorbike. We couldn't ride it on the road because we were too young, but we would push it to the garage, put in a gallon of the cheapest petrol and take it up to the fields to ride it. By the time we were old enough to ride properly, we were experts.
After leaving school, I took a job with a company that obtained patents for people who had invented a new product. I got the job as it involved shorthand typing. Very often, I didn't know what people were talking about as everything that needed a patent was very technical.
When the Second World War started, there wasn't much happening in the patent business, so I found work at De Havilland, an aircraft company in Edgware. I used to ride there on my motorbike, and then of course the Blitz started. Every morning, I would ride through London when it was on fire and bombs were dropping. It was quite a performance, I can tell you, and it wasn't just one day either. It was day after day, with roads closed everywhere and fire engines rushing around. Unless you saw it, you can't imagine what it was like.
My first motorbike was an AJS. It was built by a chap who lived near us and made parts at the Matchless
factory. I would talk to him as he made this motorbike and so when he was called up, he asked me if I would like to buy the bike. I rode that until I joined the Army myself. I used to ride on Edgware Road, which was all wooden blocks back then. When it rained it was so slippery and I used to come off the bike all of the time!
I joined the Army after seeing an advert in Motor Cycle Magazine. Pip joined at the same time. The War Department was looking for experienced motorcyclists to join as Dispatch riders with the Royal Corps of Signals. I thought 'That's brilliant – ride and be paid for it!' I took the King's shilling and reported to Belfast on March 5, 1941. There was no training as they assumed you knew how to ride.
I was given a 500cc BSA motorbike, a slow old thing but very reliable and comfortable. We were really just glorified postman. Regiments were all over Northern Ireland because there wasn't a great deal of fighting in Europe at that time. My job involved providing dispatches, three times a day, to these regiments. By the time I finished, I knew Northern Ireland like the back of my hand.
Sometimes a rider would be woken up in the middle of the night with an urgent message and would set off in the darkness. It didn't matter if it was raining, snowing, if there was a storm, or if the roads were covered in ice. You had to go. I once was asked to take a message out, and I questioned it. They said 'You're in the Army now, and you don't ask why, you just do it!' Still, I always say it was the best job in the Army.
We worked to a timetable, so the unit always knew what time we would arrive so they could have their stuff ready to collect. We would be in trouble if we were late, but the unit was not allowed to keep us beyond our leaving time. If they did not have something ready in time, we'd say 'hard luck, I have to go.'
I played football, as a goalkeeper, when we were in Northern Ireland. I would play every Wednesday for the Army team and on Saturdays with a unit team in the civilian league. There were some very good footballers in Northern Ireland at that time including some Scottish Internationals.
I was told off a speeding once or twice. We would be confined to barracks for a week if we were caught speeding, but it was very difficult to do. The fastest I ever went was 84mph on a G3 Matchless and I thought I was flying! When we were in Northern Ireland, we used to time ourselves on regular runs and try to beat each other's times!
We had a variety of bikes during the War including a Royal Enfield, a Matchless and an Indian, which was a cockeyed bike as everything was on the wrong side! We rode many miles and after about 70,000 miles they would be withdrawn from service.
At the start of 1944 we were sent to a camp in Essex and issued with Sten guns. It was well-known that Sten guns would sometimes refuse to fire or even carry on firing even after you had released the trigger. They did as they pleased! During firing practice one day, a chap pulled the trigger and his gun wouldn't stop firing. He turned around to face us and said 'Look Sarge, it won't stop!' Luckily, he didn't shoot anyone, but we all learnt a lesson from that.
When D-Day came, hundreds of troops were all gathered along the side of the road in Essex, camping until they were called up. After a couple of days, Pip and I were fed up, so at night we would disconnect the speedometers, push our bikes up the road and ride home! We did that a few times, but one morning we cruised back and everybody had gone. We caught them up at the dockside in Tilbury, and were put on one of the US-built Liberty ships.
The English Channel was rough, and halfway across a landing craft came out to transfer all of our gear. That was a real performance! They tried to put a scrambler net down the side of the ship but realised that people could get squashed between the two crafts. Eventually, they hoisted us over 20 at a time in a scrambling net, using a crane. They did the same for the bikes, but lost one of the trucks. It went down to the bottom of the Channel. But we made it, and a few days after the first D-Day landings I rode up the beach.
We didn't really know what to do, but we were there. We moved to a proper headquarters and our job was to run
dispatches wherever and whenever they were needed. Often, different units could not be reached and it was down to us dispatch riders to convey messages to them. We would find them, pass messages to the Commanding Officer and then head back.
The job was now more dangerous as there was always the sound of gunfire and aeroplanes, but for us riders it wasn't too bad as the German Air Force was far more concerned with our troops moving quickly across France. We were always well behind the front line. We were not fighting - we were the communications team, ready to
service them all.
After a spell in Lille and Brussels, we went to Antwerp, based at Radio Antwerp, when they decided to take our motorbikes away and give us jeeps! They never asked us if we could actually drive them! I saw the steering wheel, clutch, brake, and thought 'It must be just like a motorbike!' I didn't have any real trouble at all.
Two days later, I was on a special dispatch, driving an officer somewhere, and snow was coming down hard. The officer tapped me on the shoulder and said 'Do you always drive with the hood down?' I said 'I like to be out in the open!' I was used to riding a motorbike and seeing what was happening all around me.
There were burnt out trucks, cars, jeeps and aeroplanes everywhere, so we would raid them for parts to improve our own jeeps. We carried on with the dispatch service, moving from Antwerp to Germany, near when the dam buster raids were carried out. The war finished in May 1945 but I stayed at the barracks until August 1946.
As we were advancing into Germany we went through towns like Cologne that were smashed to pieces. But Cologne Cathedral still stood there, almost untouched. In Hamburg, I saw people living in a building where one whole wall had been blown away. All of the furniture was still there. The people would take a Rolex watch off their wrist for a packet of coffee or a tin of baked beans.
We would occasionally lose a dispatch rider, normally through a road accident. It wasn't unheard of for riders to fall down a shell hole and go missing for a few days! I was a fast rider, but I didn't have many crashes. I did smash up a Matchless with only 32 miles on the clock. I was riding in Belfast on a foggy day, when a woman driving her children to school came straight out on to a main road and I hit her in the side. I broke my fibula and tibia. They fixed me up and then decided that they hadn't done it properly, so they broke my leg again and reset it correctly.
When the Germans were making a last push in late 1944, I was sent to deliver an urgent message to an anti-tank Regiment in The Ardennes. They could not be contacted so I was sent with instructions. This was a rare
occasion when I was told to be careful, as the place was 'alive with Germans snipers.'
I rode through The Ardennes in darkness, but I didn't encounter anyone or hear a single gunshot. I made it to them just in time, as one soldier was cooking breakfast. You should have heard him swearing as he read the message! They had to immediately move everything to a new position. But that was the way it was.
To an extent, I did enjoy the War. I had some jolly good times, although bad times too. One night, we all rushed to the Antwerp Telephone Exchange where our radio operators had been billeted, after it was hit by a V-2 rocket. We tried to find people in the wreckage but it was an impossible task. We lost a lot of our radio and wireless operators.
I returned home and was demobbed. I received £73 from the Army and of course I bought another motorbike! I needed a job so went back to the patent agents, only to find it wasn't like it used to be. So I left and took a job as a shorthand typist at a small food importing firm, with an old Czechoslovakian in charge.
I sat down to type up some records. The boss said 'I thought you could type?' and I said 'I can if you give me a proper typewriter!' They had given me a typewriter made in about 1815 and when you pressed a key they would fall backwards, hit an ink pad, and then transfer forward onto the paper. It took forever!
When the boss died in 1962, the business went up for sale. I had been there since 1946 so bought it and we moved to a warehouse on Crucifix Lane, London. The business was Mark Lane Milling Company. We imported food for the delicatessen and catering industry. We imported lots of things which today are commonplace, but when we started out nobody had heard of such foods. We brought over caviar, asparagus, snails, ravioli, gherkins, sauerkraut, all kinds of drinks like Appletiser and Cranberry juice, fruits from Australia, food from South Africa and even canned beer from Germany.
We used to have a fine old time visiting wholesalers and delis trying to sell our products, but eventually they came around. Brewers laughed at the idea of canned beer at first, would you believe? We are responsible for bringing over many products that everyone enjoys today.
Businesses really enjoyed buying from us because we had a good name and good sales reps. We supplied Harrods, Sainsbury's, Fortnum & Mason, Selfridge's - everybody who was anybody. What happened though was that we would introduce these products and then once the supermarkets noticed an uptake, they would negotiate a better deal directly with the supplier, as they had the buying power. That went on with so many lines that in the end we were banging our heads against a brick wall.
Eventually, in 1980, we sold the business to United Preservers Ltd, although I stayed on with the company for a further seven years. Thelma and I then opened a deli in Worthing and a second in Partridge Green.
I met Thelma in 1954. I had moved to Lancing and one evening I was riding up to Eltham to see my sister and I hit a car at a crossroads, breaking my back. A friend of mine, another Dispatch rider, married Thelma's sister and told her about the accident, so whilst I was recovering at my sister's house, Thelma started writing to me. She helped me through it. Then one day, I was fed up with lying down and started walking!
We moved to Pound Cottage in Partridge Green in the summer of 1976 and it's always been a lovely place to live. We launched a B&B in 1987. We wondered if anybody would want to stay here, but it did really well for a while. We've reached the point now where we don't push the B&B side of things but we're still open!
Recently, Thelma saw an advert in the Argus as Royal Enfield was seeking former dispatch riders for Goodwood Revival. They treated us like Royalty, giving me my own jacket, and I was interviewed by the BBC. It was great to sit on one of those old Royal Enfield's again as it brought back old memories. Of course, I can't have a motorbike any longer as I'm 93, but I still ride my bicycle about 40 miles a week.
I rode in the Big Cycle Ride in July, which was very hard, but I raised £447 for St Catherine's Hospice. The blue bag scheme in the village has passed £40,000, which is all down to the efforts of the villagers who donate items for sale.
It is hard to say if I'm the last of the WW2 dispatch riders. I'm the only one that Royal Enfield found. A lot of people responded to its national appeal, but they were all people whose grandfather or father was a dispatch riders in the War. I was the only one who was there.