At the tender age of 17 and as the proud owner of a 125 cc 2 Stroke BSA Bantam motor bike, I thought it would be fun to ride on a bigger and more powerful bike. But as I lacked the financial means to do anything about this dream of mine, I cast around to see if I could come up with a workable solution.
Happily for me, a friend suggested I had a look at the local Territorial Army Regiment (sort of like the National Guard, but much older and certainly much more traditional) as my friend thought they used dispatch riders, who obviously rode on motor bikes of a rather larger type than the miniscule bike I rode.
So I tracked them down, and went along on the evening that they all got together to do military type things at their depot in Reigate, and before I knew it, I was signed on as a Gunner (artillery talk for a Private) in the Surrey Yeomanry, Queen Mary’s Field Regiment, Royal Artillery as what was called a Don R, or Dispatch Rider.
I rather assume that this meant that I would be dashing hither and thither all over the battle field, carrying enormously important dispatches from HQ to the Field Artillery battery to which I belonged. In fact it turned out that whilst occasionally I did indeed carry dispatches about ration strength and similar housekeeping stuff, for the greater part I was used to pick up bedrolls and similar that the rather silly officers in my battery had forgotten to bung into their jeeps when leaving the camp in the morning.
I was far and away the youngest person there, as most of the rest were old warriors from the Second World War (this was about 1959) who were only members of the T.A (Territorial Army) as a sort of social club for old men, and who had very little interest in being military – which suited me fine, as I was (and am) a convinced pacifist, and if there had been any other way to get hold of a large motor bike I wouldnt have been anywhere near this mob.
I know, hypocritical of me, but I really did want to ride a real motor bike.
So there I was, not only the youngest member of the regiment, by about 30 years, but also the only bearded and relatively long haired member of it. Not a very impressive beard, after all I was only about 17, but it was a beard. As we were all volunteers doing this military bit in our spare time, the army could not force me to shave my tiny, unimpressive beard off. So there I was, unique.
Our activities on what was called “Drill Night” consisted for the most part in sitting around with beer in the hand discussing battles in the Western Desert which all my fellow soldiers had taken part in, and a small amount of military stuff, such as polishing the barrels of the 25 pounder howitzers we used when being military.
Most of them had been in self-propelled guns during the war, which were heavy cannons mounted on tank chassis. So they told me all about the pleasures of being in Germany, where they never needed to bother with camouflaging their vehicles when they stopped in any villages or towns, as they simply drove their tanks into the back of the houses, lurked there happily all night, and then simply drove out the front the next day and went on their merry way – the houses of course, collapsed as they went. But being German houses this was unimportant they felt.
For my part, when I was being military, I went and tinkered with my bike, a 1937 vintage M-20 500 cc side valve, girder forks rigid back-end BSA with the most insanely low gears you could imagine.
Damn thing only went about 50 mph, but it could drive up the side of a house its gears were so low.
This is the first part of what I plan to be a multi part series of memoirs of my military youth, a time of glory, hangovers and occasionally being shot at and shelled – and being the proud possessor of a Sten Gun (a sort of cheap, nasty and unreliable sub-machine gun) which they occasionally let me carry on my back as I rode around on my bike. They were never stupid enough to let me have any bullets for the thing though. So in the entire 3 years and 175 days I was in the TA, I never got to fire it even once.