Bills War 1943 - 44

The story of William Bryan

 The Story of Private William (Bill) Bryan’s World War 2 Service in 1943 / 44 

William (Bill) Richard Bryan was my wife Dot’s and his son Keith's father, my father in law and grandfather to Bethan, Gareth and Caroline. He served in World War 2 as a Dispatch Rider in Italy in 1943/44.

Dispatch riders were military messengers used to deliver urgent orders and messages between headquarters and frontline military units. They had a vital role at a time when telecommunications were limited and insecure. The British often referred to dispatch riders as Don R’s.

This is his story.
There are only 2 photographs of Bill in uniform and, from the background, it is likely that they this was taken in Italy in early 1944 we think probably in Naples.
Like many ex-soldiers, he said little of his war service and experiences but with his battered, but invaluable, army service book and various other sources I have been able to piece together his army service.

He enlisted in Shrewsbury on the 17th June 1943 into the North Staffordshire Regiment as Private William Bryan 14630178. Like many at that time, he was likely to have been ‘called up’ for army service. He was born in 1910 and so would have been 33 years old. To leave his wife Madge and 4 year old daughter Dot at home, as well as his job and means of income, to enter a dangerous war somewhere in the world must have been a difficult experience. He completed his initial training on the 23rd August 1943 and further training on the 6th of October 1943.

His training report read:

Driving – Very Good.
Maintenance – Good.
Battle Drill Training – Good
Weapon Handling – Very Good.

Following that training and with an obvious aptitude for driving and maintenance, he was sent to Keswick in the Lake District to complete a carrier (Dispatch Rider) course with the 4th Battalion Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry.
The school was at Portinscale near Keswick and the Derwentwater Hotel was one of the buildings used for accommodation. Riders were taught over the Newland Valley Road, the Honister Pass and Skiddaw.
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William Bryan

 Training in Keswick

The instructors were experienced motor cycle riders, two of which were Isle of Man TT champions. One was Freddie Frith a Grand Prix world motorcycling champion and 5 time winner of the Isle of Man TT. Professional speedway riders, a very popular sport at that time, were encouraged to volunteer as dispatch riders.

Freddie Frith is on the left.

Bill completed his course on the 10th December 1943 with the following remarks:

A hard and willing worker and will make a first class carrier man. Has shown a very useful mechanical knowledge.
This was signed on his service record by the Carrier Platoon Commanding Officer.

As a young man he always wanted to be a vehicle Mechanic and in those days it was fairly normal that you had to pay for your apprenticeship. Unfortunately, his father was unwilling to pay the cost, something he regretted in later years. 

Typical Dispatch Riders Motorbike (Norton 500cc).

Typical Uniform

He would then have had a short home leave before being sent to join the Regiment in Italy.

The North Staffordshire Regiment in 1943 fought in North Africa and on 8th December 1943 the battalion landed on the Italian mainland and was on its way to join the American 8th Army forces fighting around Monte Cassino when they were sent to Salerno to begin intensive training for a new amphibious landing.
Bill joined his battalion in Solerno for 5 weeks of training which suggests that he traveled to Italy very soon after he completed his training in Keswick.


His service record shows that he completed :

 5 miles in 1 hour (on Foot)
10 miles in 2 hours  
Fired Artillery
Fired a 2” mortar and thrown No36 grenades.

At the end of this training period, the Battalion traveled by sea up the coast from Salerno, passing Sorrento and crossing the Bay of Naples to the City of Naples. There they were joined by many troupes to prepare for the landings at Anzio, a town further up the coast and near to their objective, Rome.


After the war, Bill talked about Sorrento and Naples and of his wish that he could return there with his family but sadly he never achieved that dream.
The battalion was chosen to be one of the two leading units to land on the Anzio Beachhead (Operation Shingle) and did so at 0200 hours on the 22nd January 1944.

Anzio Landings

Fortunately, the landing took the Germans by surprise and so the troops landed in significant numbers from the 22nd to the 29th January with relatively few casualties. The Battalion was part of the American 5th Army under the overall control of General Mark Clark.

General Mark Clark

By midnight on the 22nd January 36,000 men had landed and secured the beachhead. The Staffords were well entrenched on the beach by 6 pm. On 7th February the Staffords found themselves holding the Buonriposo Ridge when it was attacked. Bill talked about being pinned down under heavy shelling for nearly 6 days. A severe fight ensued and the North Staffords surrendered the ridge only after they had suffered 323 casualties and expended their ammunition.

The battalion, now only two companies strong, spent until May 29th, in a stalemate situation that was more reminiscent of WW1.

The long delay in advancing to Rome was caused by the Germans stern defense of Monte Cassino where one of the great battles of the war took place. Monte Cassino was a monastery on top of high ground and the battle for the high ground and the way through to Rome took almost 5 months to achieve. The cost to the Allied forces was over 40,000 dead whilst the Germans suffered only 10,000.

History now shows that this phase of WW2 was not one of our great successes.

Monte Cassino and Rome

During this time Bill would have been constantly been in danger delivering documents and orders between the regiments.
Finally, on May 30th the breakthrough occurred and American forces led by Clark entered Rome within 3 days.

Bills service record shows that he received medical treatment on 28th May so it is reasonable to assume that he received the injury that effectively ended his active war service on that day. Since publishing this blog I have discovered that his motorcycle hit a land mine and was literally blown to bits so he was very fortunate to survive.

A shrapnel wound in his leg took away a large part of his calf and the record shows that he was taken to hospital in Rome probably within a day or two of the Allied forces entering the city. There is a letter from the family to Rome dated the 18th October which suggests that he spent many weeks in the hospital there.

His army service record shows that he had 14 days disembarkation leave on the 30th October 1943.

Dot remembers going with her Mum to visit Bill in hospital in Bromsgrove near Birmingham.
That would have been the All Saints Emergency Hospital which was a rehabilitation hospital, a Victorian building originally built as a workhouse.

Dot remembers seeing him in an all blue outfit.
At one point, probably while he was in Hospital in Rome, the medics discussed the possibility of having his leg amputated below the knee but I am not sure whether he refused to give consent or they decided that his leg could be saved.
Dot also remembers him with crutches and metal calipers on his leg.
During this time his Regiment was part of the D Day landings on the 6th June 1944.

Following more treatment, he received his discharge certificate on the 5th February 1945 and was finally discharged on 29th March 1945 with a total active service of 1 year 286 days.

Here are some images of his Service book –

Like many thousands of men and women, he was taken from his family and employment and sent off to experience the horrors of war. Like my father, he survived to return home but he had an injury which would seriously affect the kind of job he was able to do.

After his return home, he was employed at what was then called the Air Ministry at Cheadle, Staffs which was a listening station and part of GCHQ in Cheltenham.

I first met him when I met Dot in 1956. He was a lovely man, not wealthy in money terms but very generous with his time and he was always there for us as we set up our first home in 1960.

Sadly he died in 1964 at the age of 56 and never had the joy of seeing his grandchildren. It was a privilege to have known him – he was the nicest man I have ever met - and hopefully, this history of his war service will be read by future generations of his family. 


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Dot with her Mum and Dad in 1943
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