Friday, June 4, 2021

One woman's story of riding for Britain in World War II

Women soldiers pose with motorcycles.
ATS women dispatch riders on Royal Enfield motorcycles in 1943.

It's a classic wartime photograph, and now we know a bit more about it.

The time is 1943, and the five young women in uniform are dispatch riders for the British Army's Auxiliary Territorial Service, assigned to the great military base and naval dockyards at Chatham in Kent. Their three motorcycles are Royal Enfield WD/C models.

The women are identified on the back of the photograph as, from left, Bobbie, Vera, Eileen, Joan and Joyce. We know only Joyce's full name, as the photograph was kept by Joyce Preece.

Joyce's daughter Lorna Sargeant recently emailed me a scan of it.

We know a good deal about Joyce's service in World War II because in 2005, under her married name Joyce Sargeant, her memories were added to the BBC's WW2 People's War archive.

A 1945 photo of her in uniform on a Royal Enfield WD/CO motorcycle appears with the BBC memoir.

You can still read online most of what Joyce wrote at this link.

It's a light-hearted story of a very brave girl, 20 years old in 1941 when she joined up. She'd never driven even a car before but was accepted for training as a driver, starting on three-ton lorries. Later she'd volunteer for training as a motorcycle dispatch rider and was "thrilled to pieces" to be accepted.

Unfortunately a few key paragraphs Joyce wrote are omitted from the online archive. Joyce died in 1999, but Lorna was able to find and email the missing bit, which completes a fascinating story. I'll get to that in a moment.

First, it's helpful to know two things:

One, the Auxiliary Territorial Service was the women's branch of the British Army during the Second World War and since members were originally volunteers they were at first required to salute only their own officers. That changed in July 1941, when they were given full military status.

Two, the popular phrase "What is this, Scotch Mist?" became current after 1940. "Scotch mist" is an ironic term for rain in Scotland. But the phrase "What is this, Scotch Mist?" is roughly equivalent to saying sarcastically "Oh, yeah? Well what do you suppose this is, then?"

The "missing part" of Joyce's story goes like this:

The Despatch Rider course like all the others, passed too quickly and before long we were on our way back to Chatham, all of us proudly having passed the course. Four of us bike-riders shared a bedroom in the Victorian house, way up in the attic. Eileen came from Tottenham, Ver's home was Hull, Joan came from Cornwall and I was the Essex girl from Woodford Green. Our friend Bobbie made up the fifth member of the team.

There was often much amusement in being a Despatch Rider. We rode around Chatham wearing leather jackets, riding breeches, knee-length leather boots and, of course, crash helmets. We were all slim in those days (not so now!) and must have looked like men in the crash helmets with our hair all tucked out of sight; but we still wore our make-up as usual.

One day I was taking the post down to Chatham Post Office and when I came out four sailors were lined up alongside my bike each nudging each other and saying 'go on you ask,' 'no you ask,' 'no you,' but none of them had the courage to ask what they wanted to know: was I male or female?

So I got on my bike and said to them "So what do you think I am? Scotch Mist?" and rode off on my trusty bike.

One day I rode into a near-by barracks and on entering the office almost bumped into a rather gorgeous blond officer, but he scowled at me and walked past. I went to see the Regimental Sergeant Major I had to deliver the package to and was amazed when he bawled at me, at the top of his very lungs: 

'What’s the matter with you soldier, don’t you salute an Officer when you see one?'

I was so shocked, I couldn’t answer him. I just blushed scarlet, dropped the package on his desk and fled. I reached my bike and kicked the engine over to start it up. I was furious to hear roars of laughter coming from the office. Then a sergeant came out and said he had been sent to apologize. All the others in the office had realized the Regimental Sergeant Major had made a mistake.

I was still very angry and told him to go back and tell his R.S.M, 'Yes! I did salute officers, but only A.T.S. officers!' and with that, I roared away on my bike.

I was, though, to see again, my lovely blond officer. He was to attend one of our dances a week later. He came up to me and said. 'I have to speak to you. When I bumped into you at our barracks, I had just been into the office to ask if there was a motor bike available for me to ride and was refused. I went out sulking, and of course when I saw your bike parked there I thought: typical. There's no bike for me to ride but this slip of a girl is riding around barracks on one. I was livid.'

I told him what I thought of his R.S.M and we both finished up having a good laugh. I was to see Blondie often, for we became very good friends. He told me quietly one evening that all the barracks were moving on. By morning, they would be gone. We said our goodbyes.

Many months later, several of his men arrived back at our barracks. Sadly, they told me that Blondie had been killed over in France. He had been on his beloved motorcycle and had ridden straight over a land mine. He was killed instantly. My pillow was wet with tears that night. I will always remember him fondly as an Officer and a Gentleman.

It's well worth taking the time to read Joyce's full story on the BBC website.

And there is more. Daughter Lorna noted there were stories her mother told her that did not appear in the version that went to the BBC.

"For example," Lorna wrote, "if the girls were going out for the night they wore their hair in curling 'pins' under their helmets. One day she arrived on a parade ground with a full troop of soldiers being drilled; the bike skidded, mum fell off and her helmet (which wasn't done up) also came off and the soldiers ran to pick her up curlers and all. She was very embarrassed."

Jan Vandevelde, a student of Royal Enfield military motorcycles, identified the three motorcycles in the 1943 photo as Royal Enfield WD/C models. The model C used a 350cc single-cylinder side-valve motor. The Royal Enfield Joyce rides in the 1945 photo is the WD/CO, the "O" standing for the overhead valve version of the motor in a substantially similar motorcycle.

Woman soldier seated on motorcycle.
Joyce Sargeant on her Royal Enfield WD/CO motorcycle in 1945.

1 comment:

  1. I love this story! What a wonderful glimpse of a time we can hardly imagine.


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