Re-evaluation of Wartime Communications: British Despatch Riders and Communications Reliability during the Second World War

Communication has long been an essential part of successful warfare. General Sir Anthony Farrer-Hockley wrote that he knew ‘of no military operations which were not dependent to one degree or another on communications; the more difficult the operations the more crucial the dependence.’[1] The current historiography of military communications during the Second World War centres upon the wide use of electronic means and importance of radio. The complexities of ‘modern’ warfare, however, betray the assumption of wholesale reliance upon technological innovations and advancement and reveal a neglected difference between innovation and implementation. In the instances where these ‘advanced’ methods—mainly radio—were either unsuitable or unreliable, the means of continuing the lines of communication depended upon proven methods and often came in the form of despatch riders, whose primitivism as human messengers challenges the extent to which innovation and progression are portrayed in the current historiography.

This essay argues that the role of the despatch rider was essential during the Second World War, despite the tendency for historians to focus on electronic communications. By utilising the diaries and accounts of despatch riders, the essay looks specifically at the European and North African theatres to reconstruct the realities of keeping the lines of communication open and begins to redress the gap that exists in the historiography of wartime communications, allowing a more accurate conceptualisation of the logistics and infrastructure of the British military.

By Sarah McCook, PhD Candidate, University of Durham

(This is an abstract from our forthcoming book on transformation and innovation in the British Military)


[1]Anthony Farrer-Hockley, quoted in Philip Warner, The Vital Link: The Story of Royal Signals 1945-1985 (London, 1989), p. 3.

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One response to “Re-evaluation of Wartime Communications: British Despatch Riders and Communications Reliability during the Second World War

  1. An interesting argument no doubt. Military communicators will always endeavour to exploit any method that provides for the effective, dependable and rapid passage of signals traffic. There remains a tendency for both soldiers and historians to highlight newer technology for obvious reasons, but in essence the Second World War’s despatch rider and his earlier Great War counterpart were simply motorcycle-mounted versions of their horse-borne predecessors.

    Realistically they were merely runners by other means. Since the breakthrough of the all-terrain sandal, military message carriers have wanted to get mounted. If you are not a believer go ask Pheidippides, whose necessary departure from his comfort-zone for the cause of effective military communications in 490 BC proved fatal. You might argue the shockwaves are still impacting on traffic in central London.

    As Tony Horror-Blank’s quotation in Warner (1989) clearly demonstrates, the lessons learned from colleagues in his adopted regiment at Arnhem are well worth remembering. The evolution of wireless/radio and ultimately data telegraphy, with micro-wave and satellite technologies have brought countless benefits (albeit some slightly dubious), especially to the civilian population.

    However the arrhythmic beating of the electro-magnetic pulse will one day play havoc with such systems. Then it may well be back to Don10 telephone cable, boots combat and the modern equivalent of Melchett’s Speckled Jim for short/medium and longer range military communications systems you just know you can trust.

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