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My wartime memories of West Wight 2: Trouble with Motorbikes in the Civil Defence

by Isle of Wight Libraries

Contributed by 
Isle of Wight Libraries
People in story: 
Vera Woodhead (nee Callaway)
Location of story: 
Freshwater, Isle of Wight
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
01 November 2005

Vera Callaway

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Lois Cooper and has been added to the website on behalf of Vera Woodhead with her permission and she fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

In late 1941 I had to give up my job delivering bread for Orchards Grocers as the war was getting worse and the local Civil Defence needed a Dispatch Rider. I had never ridden a motorcycle before, but I had passed my driving test in Sept 1939, the month war broke out. I was delivering milk in my father's milk van so learnt to drive then.

Our Civil Defence HQ was at Kingsbridge, Brookside Road, Freshwater. I was fitted out in a Navy Blue coat and trousers and peak cap. The coat had white lanyards, which I though looked very official, and also some long gauntlet gloves and a pair of goggles, which I rarely wore. My first motorcycle was a Coventry Eagle — quite a small bike, and I think it was black and red. I had to kick start it, not like today's models where you just press a button. My leg was quite bruised at times when it kicked back at me. The fuel was a mixture of petrol and oil, and if it wasn't mixed right it would go for a while and then stop, so I had to get off and give the bike a shake. That would work sometimes.

The first thing to do was take in what the Motor Mechanic, who was in charge of all the trucks, ambulances etc, told me. He said sit on the bike Vera, switch on the engine, kick start then turn the throttle out slowly. That went OK. “Now”, he said, “Off you go up to the top of Queens Road”. But he didn't tell me how to stop. So off I went, up Queens Road, down Camp Road. I thought I had better keep going — it will stop sometime I hope. Well, as luck would have it, the bike stalled. I was pleased as I thought I would be riding around for a while. Anyway I pushed the bike back to HQ! We all had a good laugh. I soon sorted out how to stop, which was simple really, just turn the throttle back!

About six months after I started, another Dispatch Rider was needed, as there were lots of notices, gas masks, and baby's gas masks to take around the West Wight. (The babies’ gas masks were quite large and a lot of the babies were frightened of them. We had to show the mothers how to use them, but of course we hoped they wouldn't be needed.) My colleague, a friend named Joan, was given the job of riding the other motorcycle, an Ariel. This was rather larger than the Coventry Eagle, so we decided she would learn on the smaller bike. I gave her the same instructions as I had. At the bottom of Queens Road, Joan got over the bike with her feet still on the ground. She started it up, turned up the throttle, but let the clutch out too quick. The bike set off on its own and went into the ditch outside the Conservative Club, with Joan still standing with her legs apart wondering where her machine had gone! We all had a good laugh. After a while she was OK, but wasn't too keen on riding it, so in a month or so she took over the job of chauffer for the Chief Officer of the Civil Defence, and we would swap duties now and again.

The Coventry Eagle motorcycle used to cause trouble now and again. Sometimes when I was out delivering in the outlying country areas it would break down. Usually the plugs only needed a clean as they would get oiled up, but if I couldn't get it going, I would have to find a phone somewhere in a house or a phone box and ask one of the men to come and pick me up and put the bike in the back of one of the trucks — quite funny at times, something like Dad's Army!

At the end of 1943 we moved to a larger HQ at Down House in Totland and we stayed there till the end of the War.

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