WW2 memoirs come thick and fast these days. There’s everything from the D-Day hero who parachuted into Normandy fighting his way through an enemy held town with one boot on and armed only with a banana, five rounds of ammo and a cafetiere! There’s the tank commander who tore across the Western Desert on his own with no water or food battling the AfrikaKorps in just his pants. Then there’s the commando despatch rider ….the memoirs of, well, a despatch rider with the commandos .Dull ?Not a bit of it .
As the subheading says this is the story of a despatch rider with the Royal Marine Commandos and follows one Raymond Mitchell from D-DAY to Deutschlandand covers the period from 1944-1945.
So what’s in a year of a man and his motorcycle during WW2?Well quite a lot as you could imagine.
Mitchell’s war actually started back in 1940 when he joined the Royal Marine Commandos at the relatively young age of 19. He was already a veteran of the Sicily and Salerno amphibious landings before D-Day (covered in Ray’s book Marine Commando: Sicily and Salerno 1943) so was no stranger to ‘getting his feet wet’ as it were. It’s a story about a remarkable guy who is modest and straight talking, as it were;which makes for the most pleasant and easiest of reads.
The story is truthfully told as one would expect. I dare say some of the incidents have been fogged with time and maybe the add or splash of danger here and there but then again who wouldn’t? The guy was catapulted from teenager to soldier in a few short bounds and yet by D-Day was already a hardened war veteran. You get a sense of Mitchell’s love of his job at the time but make no mistake; his was lonely and often dangerous work. It’s also very clear that his love of motorcycles and ability to ‘roam at will’ made for quite a decent war compared to, say, the infantry. This isn’t lost on the author either and again you realise that he was a genuinely liked chap simply because of his honesty and willingness to help others.
There are fifteen chapters, all as gripping as the previous, and a handy glossary of military terms for non combat types which included ‘Tiddley’ , ‘Erk’ and my favourite the ‘Benghazi Cooker’For me the best photos in the book are the author’s own. Let’s be honest, if you’re riding a motorbike a camera isn’t going to add too much extra weight is it? Mitchell makes no attempt to hide the fact he was partial to the odd ‘unofficial sight seeing trip’. Whether he was delivering official orders or off scrounging his mates breakfast for them in the form of eggs or bread from the French populace he seems to have a tale to tell on turning every corner, and that’s what I like about this book… Honesty.
He’s wounded on more than one occasion and has more than his fair share of near misses. On several occasions he’s even ‘picked out for special treatment by Jerry’ due to his important role as messenger. It’s funny, it’s sad and it’s everyone’s grandfather who ever served in the Second World War.
The last chapter is somewhat sad and poignant especially to anyone who has ever lost close friends. His time to reflect on life away from war torn France, Belgium or Germany seems painfully short and the lack of support is something that is, unfortunately, continuing today.
If you never tire of listening to wartime anecdotes or you’re too young to remember the old boy down the pub or you never heard your grandfather’s tales then this book is for you. Keep both hands on the handlebars, watch out for the shell holes and ride off somewhere quiet with a copy. And don’t forget your camera!
Reviewed by Phil Hodges for War History Online
COMMANDO DESPATCH RIDER
From D-Day To Deutschland 1944-1945
By Raymond Mitchell