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Secret messages of the despatch riders

Monday, 23rd March, 2020

The other despatch motorcycles in Mr Trappel’s collection: (from left) the Royal Enfield from England, the BSA from Normandy and the Matchless from the desert campaign in Africa. PICTURE: Craig Brealey The other despatch motorcycles in Mr Trappel’s collection: (from left) the Royal Enfield from England, the BSA from Normandy and the Matchless from the desert campaign in Africa. PICTURE: Craig Brealey

By Craig Brealey

In World Wars I and II top secret messages were hand-delivered by a serviceman or woman on a motorbike. Known as despatch riders, each was armed with a pistol because the enemy knew what they carried in their saddlebags.

The messages were entrusted to the despatch riders because telephone and wireless transmission could be intercepted by the enemy.

England and the Commonwealth employed powerful British-made motorcycles such as the BSA, Matchless and Royal Enfield, and after WWII many of them were painted black and sold to the public. 

In the Barrier district some were bought by station owners and used for mustering. Little remains of them but abandoned frames or forks and few now would know their history. 

But in Broken Hill the son of a WWII veteran has always known. For decades, Tony Trappel sought them out and has assembled from parts four despatch bikes from nearly all the theatres of the war.

His latest was used by the Air Force in Australia, said Mr Trappel.

He has about 20 motorcycles but the despatch bikes are his favourites. 

“I absolutely prefer these old girls because of the history of them,” he said.

“Tracing the history of these wonderful motorcycles, making some of the parts and building these bikes is all part of the fun.

“This is the fourth in my army collection and it is my last.”

The others in the collection are a BSA from the invasion of Normandy, a Matchless employed in the Africa campaign, and a Royal Enfield from England.

The men who rode them were called “Don-R” (despatch riders) and it was dangerous work, said Mr Trappel.

“I saw a photograph of a despatch rider in Normandy, sitting on his bike and looking up at a windmill. The caption said he was deciding what to do because there might be a sniper in the tower,” he said.

They also had often to ride at night guided only by the light from small hole in the otherwise blacked out headlamp.

Mr Trappel said he owed his lifelong love of motorbikes to his father, Ron, who fought in New Guinea and the islands.

After the war, Ron was a racing bike rider in Newcastle and Mr Trappel still has his 1954 Matchless 500.

On Anzac Day in 2002, he was invited to lead the procession along Argent Street on one of his war bikes and broke all the road rules with impunity.

“I was on the wrong side of the road, chasing a police car without a helmet,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Mr Trappel’s sheds hold motorcycles in various states of repair, and he said his sons were always onto him to get them finished.

“We’ve always had motorbikes in the family,” he said. “I’ve loved them all my life.”

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