Useful…Or useless?

By the end of the First World War, motorcycles had become vital military equipment. While most were lusty singles or V-twins, odd lightweights were pressed into service. This feature enters tiddler territory, to look at some of the under 125cc machines signed up later.

Words: Richard Rosenthal Photographs: Mortons Archive

It’s 1943. An aircraft can be heard, then spotted, in the weak autumn sunshine.

Private Jackson of the British Airborne Forces is on the ground, concealed in the undergrowth surrounding a wood, his parachute folded and hidden, scanning the skies for the transport plane. Unknown to the young soldier, he’s under surveillance too…

The plane appears, circles and at intervals drops four tubular, steel structures. Jackson knows what to expect, as do his colleagues, also hiding nearby in the undergrowth.

A miniature motorcycle being loaded into a transport plane – not to be dropped out in a crate, but bound for Burma to be used as a communication device.

But local farmer Robert and his young daughter Emily are eagerly watching the drama unfold from their hide. Minutes earlier they’d spotted the Allied Servicemen parachute to earth after rolling out of an aircraft, gather their parachutes and disappear silently from view.

The steel cages briefly plummeted then, one by one, their parachutes opened. Jackson and his colleagues waited. They knew what was happening, but Robert and Emily were mystified.

As it was envisaged… A Welbike snuggled into a parachute container.

A sudden gust of wind forced the parachutes to drift towards the woods, then one began to fold dangerously inwards, the weight of the cage accelerating its descent. Just in time, the wind dropped, and all serenely completed their descent.

Moments later, the cages landed with a succession of dull, muted thumps – well, three dull thumps and one of snapping branches, the errant plot snagged in trees.

Commandos wade onshore from landing craft, with one carrying an Excelsior Welbike.

Jackson and his mates ran to their precious loads and were soon hurriedly folding and hiding the parachutes while Private Potter successfully swung on the branches to be rewarded by a clatter, as the fourth cage dropped heavily to earth. Recovering the parachute proved harder.

The men unfastened their cages, removed small motorcycles, hid the packaging and mounted their tiny machines, with Potter’s lightweight bearing the scars – including a mildly buckled front wheel – gained falling from the trees.

Read more and view more images in the June 2019 issue of TCM – on sale now!

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