The Wrens – Flying Motorcycles for the Royal Navy

September 18, 2017

Well, “flying”…the brave lasses of the U.K. Women’s Royal Navy Services mostly kept their motorcycles on the ground, but the Navy’s choice of lightest weight vintage bikes surely resulted in a little air here and there. WRNS member Joan Burns got clocked by a bobby at 53 mph riding her motorcycle to work. When she joined, the Wrens, as women serving in the WRNS were called, were short on uniforms. So Joan dyed a pair of her own jodhpurs blue and blacked her riding boots. Later, she would deliver vital secret orders to the D Day invasion force. Wren McGeorge earned herself a medal unsuccessfully dodging falling bombs but successfully delivering her despatch. Read on to learn more about the role of women motorcycle despatch riders in WW I and WW II.

woman motorcycle despatch rider in Wrens service

Wren Despatch Rider Joan Burns – wrens.org.uk

Formation of The WRNS a.k.a The Wrens

The first foray of the Wrens into service began in 1917 in World War II. In two short years the force grew to 5,000 before disbanding in 1919 at the end of the war. They were revived again in 1939 to help in WW II and continued all the way til 1993 when they were integrated into the regular navy. The force quickly grew to around 3,000 brave patriots by the end of 1939. By the end of WW II, around 75,000 women served in the Royal Navy as Wrens.

From “Never at Sea” to “Free a Man for the Fleet” to Death at Sea

In WW I, Wrens were limited to duties on land, supporting the navy as cooks, sail makers, and support staff in the intelligence corps, among other tasks, but never at sea. In World War II, the Wrens task lisk expanded. Women could serve as meteorologists, radio operators, and even airplane pilots. Of the 10,000 people working at Bletchley Park to crack the German Engima code, around two thirds were women. Contrary to what some articles will tell you, and in contrast to the slogans, some Wrens did serve as boat crew. In fact, twenty two Wrens died at sea in a single incident when the SS Aguila was sunk by a U Boat en route to Gibraltar.

Wrens serving in signal intelligence - two women by computer

Wrens serving in signal intelligence

Women Motorcycle Despatch Riders

Radio communications in WW I and WW II were not what they are today. Signals were not as reliable. And while the British scrambled to crack codes, they knew their foes would do the same with any intercepted radio message. Consequently, motorcycle despatch riders were an important method of communication during the wars. Men served as despatch riders, but under UK leadership new women could ride too. They began by recruiting the top competition riders of the day. They needed women who were fast, fearless, and good mechanics to boot. When they ran out of expert riders to recruit, the Wrens began training new women motorcyclists.

Wrens women motorcycle despatch riders in 1941 - two women in uniform on motorcyclcs

Wrens women motorcycle despatch riders in 1941

A Dangerous Race

The Wrens were kept away from battlefronts, but they still risked their lives in service to their country. Over 300 Wrens died in WW I and WW II. Around 100 died while serving as despatch riders. Many were decorated for their dedication and their heroic and fearless service.

Wren McGeorge received the British Empire Medal. McGeorge was serving in the town of Plymouth. She was tasked with carrying an urgent message from one command center to another on her motorcycle as quickly as possible. Normally, racing through city streets at top speed involves some degree of peril. As McGeroge could tell you, that degree of peril rises incrementally when you have to run the course with bombs falling all around you.

Fortunately for McGeorge and the war effort, the bomb that destroyed her motorcycle miraculously left her with only minor injuries. Without a second thought, McGeorge valiantly sprinted the remaining half mile on foot and delivered the message. And then volunteered to go right back out. Many other Wrens risked life and limb racing around London during the Battle of Britain. Their legacy is celebrated by several organizations. For more information, you can check out the Association of Wrens at Wrens.org.uk.

group of women motorcycle depatch riders in the wrens

More Women In Motorcycle History

We’ve got more tales of the bold and brassy pioneering women of the early days of motorcycling. Check out the Van Buren Sisters‘ tale of riding across America when they were not even allowed to wear pants. Or Bessie Stringfield, a black woman who rode fearlessly through the American south near the turn of the century. Or Della Crewe, who rode all around Central America when the motorcycle was a new invention. We’ve got stories about crazy pioneering guys too – like Fritz Von Opel who strapped a rocket to his motorcycle or Glenn Curtiss who rigged his with a blimp engine. And of course, the legendary Burt Munro who tinkered with his 1920 Indian for around 40 years before setting a unbroken land speed record on it. Or bookmark this for later and just go riding now. Have fun, and keep the rubber side down!