Issue 15 Mar-Apr 2008
Back Issues

WWII Matchless

A lady dispatcher remembers

Sixty five years ago Anthea Spencer was an army dispatch rider. Barbara Alam chats to her about her memories.

I'm always very proud to be part of any bikers rally, protesting about something or standing up for what I think is right. I was at one a couple of weekends ago and, because I was riding pillion this time, I had plenty of time to be thinking about historic "fights for rights", and the interesting stories of people who've been involved in any such battles.

My mind turned to someone I'd got to know recently at my neighbour's summer party, a petite and rather fragile-looking lady called Anthea Spencer, known as "Granthea" to her grandchildren. She's 87 years old and, over a few glasses of wine, she'd revealed that during World War II she'd been a motorcycle despatch rider for the British Army.

I'd wanted to find out more about what motivated her to join up and make her stand against Hitler rather than staying at home and doing something more mundane, so I popped round to her house one afternoon for a chat. She was as sharp as a pin. I asked her how she became a despatch rider, and her eyes sparkled.

"Oh, I'd wanted to ride a motorcycle ever since I was quite young. My elder sister's boyfriend took me for a ride on the back of his motorbike, and I thought 'Cor, this is good'. After that I always had a yen to ride one myself.

'Look, here's a photograph of me which was taken in 1943 at Crook o'Lune camp. The soldiers used to call the camp 'Spinsters Retreat'! I was 23 then, and I'd been in the Army about a year. I think that motorcycle was a Matchless.'

Anthea settled back into her comfy armchair as she continued. 'Let me tell you how I came to be on the motorcycles. You see, when war had broken out I was 17, and had originally got a job working in Munitions building parts for aircraft. Sounds glamorous but what it really meant was working long hours in a factory, drilling holes in bits of metal. It didn't mean a thing to me and was very boring. I wanted a more exciting life so I joined up in 1942. My mum was horrified!

'I was in the women's ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service). They trained us girls to drive lots of different vehicles at Camberley - staff cars, lorries, ambulances, all sorts. I even drove a steamroller because there was a lot of road-building and repair work going on. I spent time at the quarry picking up rocks to make roads, and driving them about in a big tipper truck. I loved that truck, it took some real driving - it didn't have synchromesh gears, you had to double declutch it.

'I knew how to drive before I joined up, of course. In those days there was no official driving test, but the Army used to put you through a test for each type of vehicle you learned to drive. For the ambulance test I had to reverse down a bumpy zig-zag lane with a bucket of water in the back, and if I'd spilled one drop then I would have failed.

'We girls worked in three different 'Parks', and most of our work involved preparing the vehicles and making them ready to be shipped out to the war zones. Once the vehicles were ready, we used to drive them in convoy down to the ports. I think we used to do all the convoys at night, because I remember it always being very dark. The vehicles had no lights, there were no street lights and the buildings had blackened out windows, so it was difficult to see where you were going!

'I remember one night I couldn't see where the truck in front of me had gone. I thought the convoy had all turned right, so I turned right - and ended up in a field. There weren't many accidents though, because our training was very thorough. Sometimes it was treacherous, being out on your own in a vehicle in the winter in the dark, with all the frost on the roads. If you broke down you had to get out and go and find a phone box.

'We had to do all our own maintenance on our vehicles, too. They were very particular about it and we used to get inspected all the time. Just simple things like oil, lubrication and air in the tyres. We had to keep them spotlessly clean, too. I worked at Chatham for a while and had a great time. The town was full of sailors so we were always out having fun.'

I asked Anthea what sort of things she used to do on her days off, and she grinned broadly as she replied.

'What did we do? My dear - do you mind? That's private! I had a wonderful war, although that's probably a terrible thing to say. You see, we had no idea about all the bad things that were going on in Japan or in the German concentration camps. In those days we didn't know about all those dreadful things until some time after the war had ended. We just got on and had a good time - you see, we never knew what would happen tomorrow. We never worried about anything, we just didn't care. It all seemed so unreal.....'

Anthea went quiet for a moment, as she looked back across the years. 'I suppose there aren't many of us left now who can remember what it was like...' she said, pensively, before she continued.

'....Oh yes, I was going to tell you how I became a despatch rider. Well, although I'd gazed longingly at all the motorcycles on the base in Chatham, and even dropped one of them on my foot, I wasn't given the opportunity to ride one. Then one day I got posted up to Lancaster and it was there I got the chance. I just happened to mention to a bloke at the depot one day that I'd like to ride and he said 'Right, come on then, I'll take you out and teach you' - and he did. He sat on the back and reached around me to the handlebars, and we went wobbling off down the road. He was always there on the back to start with, until I got the hang of it and could go out on my own.

'Then when the Army wanted despatch riders, I volunteered. I used to collect a pile of envelopes containing the daily orders from the office each morning and then ride round and deliver them to the other bases. I never knew what was in the envelopes; I just put them in my panniers and got on with the job. There were only two of us girls doing it, me and a Scottish lass. We often used to get mistaken for officers when we arrived at the other bases because we had to wear ties when we were out riding on duty, and only officers wore ties. It was funny, being saluted all the time by the men.

'If we were riding around at base we would mostly wear big overalls over all our clothes. For riding I used to wear boots, with jodhpur trousers, and I had a thick jacket for the winter. We always had to wear our helmets. I did come off a couple of times, once on a main road when I just slithered into someone's front garden but wasn't hurt, and once soon after I'd passed my army riding test. I was on top of the world, cock-a-hoop, and I went off down the road at full tilt and drove straight over a fresh cow dollop. Of course the bike went over and slid up the road, and I landed in the cow dollop. I was covered in it. You know, I've never told anyone about that - I was so embarrassed!

'I met my first husband through the Army. He was a radiographer and was stationed in the medical unit on our base. He'd not long come back from a posting in India. I actually met him in the pub - my first view of him was through the bottom of a beer glass, I'm afraid.

'We married fairly soon, even though I'd never even met any of his family. In those days, if you weren't married by the time you were 24 you were 'on the shelf'. We just had friends and colleagues to our wedding, no family. People did that sort of thing all the time then. Really it's amazing that we made a go of it - we were together for 30 years before he passed away, and had two lovely children. 'I taught my husband how to ride a motorcycle after the war, when we were discharged. We lived in Dulwich and he worked in Dartford and we couldn't afford a car, so we got ourselves what we used to call a 'picky-picky', a little Bantam. When we went to collect it from the shop I rode it home, with him on the back. Once he'd learned how to ride it, he used it for getting to work.

'Later, we bought a bigger bike with a sidecar. We used to go on holiday with it, to Scotland. I'd sit on the back and we'd put the children in the sidecar. Sometimes if it was raining I'd get in the sidecar as well and put one of the children on my lap. We didn't make it all the way up there in one go, we used to have to camp overnight on the way. So would Anthea get on a motorcycle again? 'Oh dear, no.....bikes are so big and powerful... 'That's it - Cut! (Ed)


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