by Laura Storey
RECREATING AN EPIC WARTIME JOURNEY
With radio messages in danger of being intercepted and troops often deep into enemy territory dispatch riders played a crucial role in World War Two, but they are often unsung heroes, and their stories are very rarely told. However, these riders journeyed hundreds of miles, often alone and in dangerous, occupied territories to deliver sensitive messages to the front line.
Lewis Banham from Weir, Lancashire was called up for service three years into World War Two in April 1942. He was trained as a dispatch rider and was given his BSA WDM20 motorcycle and a Smith and Weston 38 revolver. Six days after D-Day, Lewis sailed from Canning town on the liberty ship Empire Duke. When landing at Gold Beach, he was handed a Sten gun, a 48-hour rations pack and a grid reference of his mission then was ordered to ride to Arramanches through enemy territory.
Now nearing his 100th birthday, Lewis Banham is one of the only WW2 dispatch riders still alive today. To commemorate his centenary, the Veteran’s Living History Museum is retracing his steps through Europe, riding on an original BSA WDM20 motorcycle.
“When Lewis landed on D-Day beach and got his ration pack and weapon,” Wayne Hester, one of the directors at the VLHM explains. “He was told where the next group of soldiers would be and the dispatch he carried would tell them their next move.”
Lewis describes this experience to the VLHM: “I was given a dispatch to deliver and a map reference. I used to go to the intelligence map because you might get there and Jerry might be there! You’ve got to make sure. We were told – if you’re going to be captured – burn the dispatches!”
I heard the zing of a bullet flying past, so I dropped down and rolled in the ditch
Aside from the threat of capture, Lewis had to contend with booby-trapped roads. “At night, you had to be very careful, they used to stretch a wire across the road. I used to carry a pair of pliers handy and, if I came across a wire, I used to cut it.”
On his journey across Europe, Lewis was crossing front lines to deliver dispatches and, one night, he was ended up on the receiving end of enemy fire. “There was one place where there were lots of sniping going on and I heard the ‘zing’ of a bullet flying past, so I dropped down and rolled in the ditch and laid still. I thought, where could that have come from? On my right was open fields, on my left there was an open field with a small copse, I waited, got a magazine and shoved it in my Sten gun and sprayed the cospe with 32 rounds of ammunition. I stood up, got no response… so I carried on then!”
Staying true to the Veteran’s Living History mission of bringing history to life, the team, Wayne, Jimmy, Patrick, David and Duncan, are recreating Lewis Banham’s epic journey. “One of the commanding officers is writing a dispatch and we’ll be setting off from Blackburn on the 10th June to deliver it, we’ll be in Berlin to hand Lewis the dispatch on the 15th.”
Just like the dispatches Lewis kept hidden from prying eyes, this final dispatch too is confidential, with only Lewis and the commanding officer knowing its contents.
The team plan to travel through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, following the same route Lewis Banham originally took, as part of the We’re All in This Together Project. “It’s a two-year project and it’s to help veterans get out of isolation since Covid,” Wayne explains, “It’s important when we’ve all been stuck at home. It’s to bring people together and do something worth doing.” The project was set up by the Armed Forces Covenant which supports army personnel, veterans and their families. “We’ve selected another eight veterans that are coming with us on our journey.” Wayne explains.
Three of the team will be riding an original BSA WDM20 motorcycle from 1944. BSA has also provided new motorcycles following the relaunch of the company almost half a century after it shut down. “It’ll be a mixture of old and new,” Wayne grins.
Their journey is being turned into a 40-minute documentary which will be screened at an exclusive black-tie event which will help fund the cost of the journey, with the remainder supporting the Veteran’s Living History Museum.
If you want to join the VLHM on their journey to deliver Lewis his final dispatch or buy tickets to watch their journey in person, visit their website on vhlm.co.uk.
NorthernLife May/June 2022