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