Raising Dust in the Desert – The story of Alan Johnson, Despatch Rider

Two years ago I was privileged to meet Alan Johnson. Alan is now 99 (April 2019) and is probably the last surviving Royal Corps of Signals Despatch rider. He spent 5 years in Egypt, was a present during of the El Alamein campaign, and was a founder member of the famous Bar-None MCC. I have spent a lot of time researching, verifying and writing up his remarkable story. It is never going to be an earth shaking work of great literature but it contains great detail about how the military machines we love were actually used – in this respect it is quite irreplaceable.
Title: Raising Dust in the Desert – ISBN 978-1-9160809-0-4 Published in 2019 by Simon Warner.
Price £12.50 ( + £2.50 pp for mainland UK, £6 for Europe, £8 for USA and Australia / NZ)
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or
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Who will this book appeal to ?
  • Classic and Military Motorcycle enthusiasts
  • Persons interested in the history of the Second World war
  • Persons interested in WW11 social history
  • Persons interested in the history of the Royal Corps of Signals
  • Persons interested in the history of the famous ‘Bar None’ Motorcycle Club
  • Persons interested in the history of organised Trials and Sand Racing (Speedway)
Synopsis
In 1939 war was declared and Alan Rothwell Johnson, a budding commercial artist, was suddenly out of work. He immediately went down to Salford Docks and signed on as a Merchant Seaman. Aboard the ‘Pacific Ranger’, and ignoring the threat from U-Boats, he sailed in one of the first North Atlantic Convoys – bringing aeroplanes and much needed food back to England.
Alan was a dyed-in-the-wool motorcycle enthusiast and so, back home and on the dole, he soon joined the Royal Corps of Signals to become a Special Despatch Rider for
3rd Air Formation Signals in the Middle East.
This is Alan’s story. The story of a winter’s voyage in the North Atlantic, the story of life as a ‘Don-R’ during the Desert campaign, the story of how he became a founder member of the famous ‘Bar-None MCC’, and the very unusual circumstances by which he eventually drove back home…
Recounted by Alan and edited by Simon Warner, this is a fascinating account of social and military history mixed with a healthy dose of adventure… mostly on motorcycles.
2020 is the 100th anniversary of the Royal Corps of Signals…
…the same year that Alan will reach his own centenary.
Introduction
In February 2017 an article I had written about the origins of the renowned war-time Bar-None Motor Cycle Club was published in the ‘Old Bike Mart’. My interest in Matchless motor cycles used during the war had led me to research the ‘Bar-None’ which started in 1944 in Egypt. I also knew that there was also another club from just before the war, the Bar-One Motor Cycle Racing Club. The similarity of names seemed worthy of a dig in the archives and that in turn prompted the article that started this all off.
In March that year a letter appeared in response to my article, it came from Geoff Brazendale in Carlisle. The letter spoke of Alan Johnson, the subject of this book. It told me Alan was a founder member of the ‘Bar-None’, that he was still with us and that he was living in the Lake District. I wrote to the OBM editor and asked for him to forward a message to Geoff but nothing happened. After a couple of month’s waiting I got out the phone directory and started searching. Surely ‘Brazendale’ couldn’t be that common especially when I also knew he was from Carlisle? I eventually tracked down Geoff and asked if he would broker an introduction with Alan…
I first met Alan in June 2017 at his house in the Lakes and was immediately struck by his personal presence. At the age of 90, whilst riding his vintage AJS motorcycle, Alan had suffered a debilitating stroke. But now, though aged 97 and confined to a wheelchair, he remained absolutely crystal clear in his thoughts and opinions. Over the course of a number of visits I have had the privilege of recording many of Alan’s life recollections and in particular those of his career as the ‘Number One Despatch Rider’. Alan has allowed me free access to his archive of material and this book seeks only to bring this all together as a celebration of his life. Neither he nor I have the intention to try and glamourise these events. We hope that others will see this account for what it is: A true and accurate depiction of a small slice of history.
Any additional material that I have included within Alan’s narrative is placed [In italics]. Alan has a full-time carer, a lovely lady called Aileen, who said this to me: ‘On first meeting Alan in October 2015 I was amazed by his ability to tell a story in detail about all parts of his life. The stories are revisited but the details do not change. His memory is incredible. The most remarkable part of the man is his determination to get better and to be able to walk again. As he nears his centenary he is still striving to be the best he can, which I think has been his motto throughout his life’.
Much of this work has been transcribed from the many hours of recordings I made with Alan as he recounted these events. Some has been taken from articles that Alan wrote himself – the story of his going to sea, ‘A Winter Voyage’, and then ‘The Long Way Home’, and of course his ghost stories, are particular examples. If you are offended by some of the expressions used, please don’t be. I have tried to keep this account in Alan’s voice and these events of many years past should be retold as they were and not with a gloss of political correctness. I’d ask you also to excuse any lapses of grammar or even the occasional minor repetition. As you read why not imagine yourself, as was I, listening to Alan recount his story: His gently firm manner, his ‘northern’ accent, his humour and opinions formed through working class roots and perceptive observation, and all whilst sat in the grandeur of the Lake District.
Alan Rothwell Johnson was born in 1920. His life has been enjoyably full. He has enthusiastically indulged in many pursuits both professionally and in his spare time. Art, motorcycles, and mountaineering each figure highly in this list. This love of motorcycles has been lifelong and he holds the serious conviction that motorbikes are made to ride. He became a Signals Despatch Rider in 1940 and remained so for the duration of the war until his demob in 1946. When we were talking about the production of this book Alan wanted to make it clear that he had no regrets about his Army Service – it was, he said, “Like being in a fantastic motor cycle club”, and he thoroughly enjoyed it. Alongside good friend Geoff Brazendale (author of the sidecar owner’s bible ‘The Sidecar; A History’) he was a member of the Vintage Motor Cycle Club (VMCC) for over 30 years. At the age of 80 he began to write more seriously and put some of his experiences, wartime and otherwise, into print. (See also Alan’s Ghost Stories at the back of this book). In this respect he describes himself as a ‘Johnny come lately’ but this typical self-deprecation masks many previous contributions to a variety of motorcycle publications. Alongside his career as a commercial artist (he eventually became Creative Director for one of the biggest advertising agencies in Manchester) he is also an accomplished marine artist. He went to art school and spent lots of time as a student wandering around Salford docks capturing on canvas ships from all over the world. Always aiming high, his ambition was to be the best marine artist in the country, he has had his work displayed in the Salford Art Gallery near to those of Lowry – whose house Alan used to pass each day on his way to school.
Alan’s uncle had motorbikes and would take Alan, aged 4, sat on a pillow strapped onto the carrier, all around Lancashire, to places like Rivington Pike and Blackpool. Predictably Alan gained a love of motorcycles and even more naturally he wanted, when old enough, one of his own. Eventually he saw a 250 side-valve Matchless advertised in the local paper for 15 shillings and that became his first motorcycle. As he began to earn more money he was able to buy a 250 BSA Blue Star on which he once went down to Devon. “The Blue Star was a belting bike. It was always a good un”.
There’s still something of a mystique, a cloak of glamour surrounding the term ‘Don-R’ (the name comes from the phonetic spelling for D in Despatch Rider); one imagines a raffish sort of character, scurrying about with messages of world-shattering importance on a trusty motor cycle supplied for free by the military authorities. But it wasn’t quite like that…