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Motorcycle Dispatch Rider Douglas Sunbeam Triumph

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#1 old_timer

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Posted 09 July 2013 - 06:49 PM

I am currently researching Motorcycles of WW1. Begining with pre-war procurement and testing as well as their use during the war itself.

I am intrested in unusual uses and any personal accounts from diaries letters etc of day to day use, maintanance and transport of the vehicles and spares from factory to the front.

I am a volunteer at the Brooklands Museum in Weybridge Surrey. I stumbled across information about the use of the Curcuit for testing bikes in 1913 and use of the track during the war for Royal Corps of Signal activity.

It would be good to gather some information for publication and if possible gather some information about the Brooklands Connection.

Within the next few months I will be in contact with the IWM and National Archives as well as reviewing references to Motorcycles in the Great War Forum.

Please feel free to leave any random piece of information, but please do your best to reference the source as best you can.

#2 Scalyback

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Posted 09 July 2013 - 08:43 PM

Small point. Royal signals did not exist til 1920.

In the great war it was all dealt with by the Royal Engineers. Both corps museums should have information on what you need.

#3 NigelS

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Posted 09 July 2013 - 08:43 PM

Welcome to the GWF Old_Timer. If you haven't already come across it 'Adventures of a Despatch Rider' by Capt WHL Watson, should be of interest (it cover his service on the Western Front from August '14 to February '15, but doesn't cover technical matters in any great detail); available for free download on Project Gutenberg Here (he later moved from being a despatch rider to tanks, writing 'A Company of Tanks' Click - but that's another story)

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#4 W.J.Caughey

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Posted 09 July 2013 - 09:03 PM

Yes welcome to the GWF Old_Timer, have a wee bit on the Ulster Motor Cycle Club from Belfast newspapers on my website, maybe no use to you but feel free to use and i can dig out the originals articles if needed.
And good luck for project.

https://sites.google...otor-cycle-club

Walter

#5 old_timer

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Posted 15 July 2013 - 12:21 PM

Thanks to you all for the information so far. As you can see I am starting from a low knowledge base, but determined to do be acurate and look to you for a prod if I get anything wrong.

I will be posting a few questions in due course.

Thanks again.

#6 nickshelley

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Posted 22 July 2013 - 10:05 PM

Hi there

My area of interest overlaps with yours - my brother and I are researching the early despatch riders recruited by the Royal Engineers in August 1914 (of whom WHL Watson was one). Many of them were sent to France in such haste that they took their own bikes (at the Army's expense) because there was no procurement programme in place when war broke out.

Have a look at our posts under 5th Signals Company which was the Unit to which Watson belonged.

You should also - and most certainly - get hold of a copy of a newly published book by Michael Carragher which covers all you want to know - "San Fairy Ann - Motorcycles and British Victory 1914-1914" published by the Firestep Press (www.firesteppublishing.com). Michael is also a contributor to the forum.

best wishes

Nick Shelley

#7 centurion

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Posted 22 July 2013 - 10:18 PM

Some "other" uses

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Nurses at the front

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Distributing pigeons from a mobile pigeon loft

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Mobile wireless

and there are many more if you look at other countries (France for example)

#8 mmm45

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Posted 22 July 2013 - 10:21 PM

http://hmvf.co.uk/fo...torcycles/page3

Phelon and Moore bikes used by RFC ....made in my home town

Ady

#9 johnboy

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Posted 22 July 2013 - 11:16 PM

I have seen pictures of m.c sidecar combo's with a machine gun mounted on the sidecar. Can anyone tell me what they were used for? If it was for communications, surely a solo had more chance of getting through?

#10 Bingo794

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Posted 22 July 2013 - 11:23 PM

What a fascinating subject.........http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96x53GPU5Ag

1917 Matchless combo with Lewis gun.

As a lover of all things with two wheels, I will watch this thread with anticipation :thumbsup:

#11 DavidB

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 03:53 AM

Ady,
thats a great link you put up. Lovely to see all those old bikes again, many of them pristine. Was particularly interested that from the beginning the P and M used a chain final drive,

a most efficient form of transmitting power to the rear wheel, when other manufacturers were using all sorts of odd drives. A lot of foresight there.

#12 centurion

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 08:46 AM

I have seen pictures of m.c sidecar combo's with a machine gun mounted on the sidecar. Can anyone tell me what they were used for? If it was for communications, surely a solo had more chance of getting through?


They were very effective machine gun carriers. Although the gun could be and and sometimes was fired from the side car it was usually taken to a firing position and dismounted and fired from a tripod. Machine gun carrying combos performed one of the roles carried out in WW2 by Universal and Bren Gun Carriers. During the German offensive of 1918 such machines proved very effective in rear guard actions. The gun would be fired from its carrier parked in a defensive position at advancing German forces, usually from the side car facing the rear. When the position looked to be out flanked the carrier would roar off to a new defensive position and start the process again. Despite the illustrations of some more fanciful publications they were not fired on the move as the vibrations would cause the rounds to be fired wildly in such a way as one's own troops were in as much if not more danger than the enemy's.

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#13 centurion

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 09:03 AM

You might find this item I wrote some time ago useful. Unfortunately limitations on posting photos on this forum mean that some illustrations are missing. Edit - all uploads seem to be failing at the moment so I'll try and post some later

Cycles and Motorcycles

The bicycles.

Given the mechanised nature of much of World War One it is difficult to think of the simple pedal bicycle (or push bike) playing a part. Nevertheless it did play an important role in all armies and in combat situations (rather than just being a convenient way to get from the camp to the nearest estamet). In 1914 the German army used cyclists as scouts and it was some of these who made the first contact with the Russian army before the battle of Tannenberg. British and German cyclist units engaged in scouting duties actually fought each other before Mons, dismounting to fire from prone positions but using their bikes to disengage and report back to their respective commands. In Italy the Bersaglieri had a cyclist unit that was used to get troops quickly to vulnerable parts of the line to plug breakthroughs or stiffen the defenders as necessary.
Cyclists also proved useful in patrol and security roles. The following examples illustrate this. The French canal system played an important part in supplying the armies but could be very vulnerable to sabotage, a small amount of explosive applied in the right place could cause a whole stretches (or pounds) of canal to drain and even just opening all the paddles on a lock could cause significant harm, stranding boats in some sections. Cycling troops proved ideal for patrolling the tow paths being quiet and able to go where most other vehicles could not. Some key British canals were similarly patrolled. In 1914 there was a fear that the Germans might carry out raids across the North Sea and land troops in Yorkshire and Northumberland, it was for this reason that units such as the Huntingdonshire Cyclists (a volunteer battalion) found themselves patrolling the North Yorkshire coast.
For much of World War One the security of the Allied field telephone system was compromised as the Germans had found a way of detecting and amplifying the electric signal caused by the ground return on these devices. Although the security breach was known about, how it was being achieved was not discovered until late in 1917. In the meantime there was a ban on using the system to convey important tactical information. As a result couriers carried all important messages between the front line trenches and command posts in the rear. It was here that bicycle mounted despatch riders proved to be vital for they could provide that link often cycling along the communications trenches. They could manhandle their bicycles over or round obstructions and were, importantly, a silent mode of transport.
Cycle ambulances were also used, presumably the intention was to provide a quiet, smooth ride for the patient but in a photograph of an 1917 Austrian cycle ambulance the patient appears to be suffering as much from the terror of the ride as any injury.
Most armies had military bicycles built to their specifications, these were often folding bikes so that they could be carried on motor transport, trains etc as needed. The Italian forces actually had two different designs, one for the infantry and another for mechanised units. It was not unusual to see bikes strapped to the side of armoured cars and lorry mounted guns. Even after the war RAF DH 9a aircraft patrolling Iraq often carried a folded bike strapped to the fuselage so that in the event of a forced landing the observer could pedal off to find a phone (as hazardous an undertaking then as it would be in today’s Iraq).

Motorcycles

The importance of the motorcycle in World War One is often overlooked. They were ubiquitous and acquired in huge numbers. The US government alone between 1915 and the end of 1918 purchased more than 80,000 motorcycles (50,000 from the Indian Motor Cycle Corporation, 20,000 from Harley Davidson, 1,800 from Cleveland and others from overseas manufacturers, mainly British) Harley Davidson also supplied motorbikes to the Canadian army. Britain used more than 48,000 bikes mainly supplied by BSA, Royal Enfield, Phelon and Moore, Triumph, Douglas and Clyno with no less than 48 other motor cycle manufacturers. British motorcycles were also used by Canadian, Australian, Belgian, French, Russian and US forces. Belgian FN bikes were used not only by Belgium but also by some Australian units. Italy, which used some 6,400 motor cycles, put a heavy load on Bianchi and Fiat. Austro Hungary used bikes made by Austro Daimler, Austro Fiat, Graf und Stift, and Puch. Germany made nearly exclusive use of NSU motorcycles some of which may also have been supplied to Bulgaria and Turkey.
Motorbikes were used in a huge variety of roles including: mounted infantry, scouts, patrol and security duties, despatch and courier duties, very light transport (with sidecars), ammunition carriers, medical supply carriers, casualty evacuation (with sidecars) and signals.
Motorbike mounted infantry used their motorcycles for transport but fought on foot. The photograph of two Bulgarian motorcyclists shows that even firing from the pillion of a moving motorcycle was a problematic action, unless perhaps one was contemplating an assassination. The action of the Australian solo rider was more worthy of a circus act than a serious military manoeuvre, one winces to think of the effect of the front wheel hitting a rut or rock whilst he is engaging in this Wild Bill Hickock performance. American motorcycle mounted infantry were deployed in the 1916 Mexican campaign and France sent a similar unit to Petrograd.
Motorcycles were used for scouting and patrolling in Belgium and Northern France in 1914 and for patrol work in theatres where warfare was comparatively open and mobile. The Australians used motorcycles for this in the Middle East but found that machine gun armed Model T’s could do a better job, having a longer range and being able to carry fuel and water. Various military police units and others responsible for security behind the lines used motorcycle patrols throughout the war.
It was in the role of despatch delivery that the motorcycle proved invaluable. Despatch riders were a reasonably quick and secure means of delivering written orders, reports, maps, aerial photographs, signed authorisations and many other items. The relatively insecure nature of most forms of electronic communications at the time made this even more important. Despatch riders would at times have to carry messages through artillery bombardment and enemy fire. This often involved riding down cratered roads (whose positions were well marked on the maps of the enemy’s artillery), often having to dismount to lug the bike over or round debris, dead horses or even human bodies. Towards the end of 1918, as fighting on the Western Front became more fluid, Allied despatch riders could find themselves behind the German front lines delivering messages to and from units that had broken through. It was probably a motorcycle despatch rider that rode 12 miles behind the German front line, through a shattered German Army, to tell the advance armoured cars of the British Tank Corps that the war was over.
Behind the lines despatch riders effectively provided what could be regarded as a military postal service. Women despatch riders were often used away from the front although some could find themselves under artillery fire. Even away from the combat zone the speed of delivery that the motorcycle could provide was often vital. For example getting the photo’s taken by aerial reconnaissance to headquarters as fast as possible, in 1918.such jobs were often carried out by some of the first women to serve in the RAF.
The medical services also made use of the motorcycle both as a means to get medical personnel and supplies quickly to where they were needed and as a means of casualty evacuation. In the latter role a sidecar was used to carry the patient. This could sometimes been a fairly crude arrangement, for example the American approach of a stretcher strapped to the top of a standard Harley Davidson side car, however the French did produce a specially designed, enclosed, sidecar specifically for carrying prone wounded. Evacuation could sometimes be carried out under fire by both male and female medical staff.
Whilst being used directly as a means of communication the motorcycle also supported the signals operation. Motorbike mounted linesmen were used to both patrol and maintain military telephone and telegraph networks. Field telephone lines were sometimes laid by motorcycle combinations from reels mounted on side cars. Motor cycle combinations carried wireless transmitters. One interesting aspect of the signals work was the distribution of carrier pigeons. The carrier pigeon was much used during the First World War (and Blackadder fans may be interested to know that it really was a court martial offence to shoot a pigeon, albeit probably not a capital one). However pigeons fly home and it was necessary to continually distribute birds from the lofts to infantry (and tank) units. This was done by motorcycle using special pigeon carrying packs strapped to the riders backs.

#14 centurion

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 09:19 AM

Armed and Armoured Bicycles and Motorbikes


The world’s first armed road vehicle was not a lorry, bus, car or even a motorcycle but a pedal cycle. In the 1880s various armed forces were experimenting with units of armed cyclists, these were not as ridiculous as might at first seem to be the case. These troops fulfilled a similar role to that of mounted infantry, fighting on foot but using their mounts for relatively rapid transit to the scene of action. A bicycle has some advantages over a horse when used in this role for it is unnecessary to reserve men to be horse holders whilst their comrades engage the enemy. A mounted infantry unit could loose up to ten percent of its firepower as men were detailed for this task. Nor do cycles need supplies of fodder (a substantial part of the supply train of an army of the period was devoted to carrying food for horses). A cyclist unit does not need to be supported by farriers and vets (although it might need some mechanics). In general most bicycles are more docile than a horse and it is usually quicker to teach a man to ride a bike than a quadruped.

It was probably to provide fire support for such a unit that in 1888 G.H.Waite of the Humber Company of Nottingham produced a machine gun armed pedal cycle. This vehicle was a three seat quadricycle with its crew in tandem formation. The steerer and middle pedaller had racks on which their rifles would be carried whilst the rearmost cyclist had an air cooled Maxim machine gun mounted on a pivot in front of him. Quite how this would have been used is difficult to see. The heads of the forward pair of cyclists were in line with its muzzle whilst the position of the gunner’s saddle would make firing to the side difficult. There was no separate mounting for the Maxim to allow it to be used when it was dismounted from the quadricycle. The saddles and wheels of the quadricycle were so positioned as to make it awkward to use the gun when not in the saddle. There would appear to have been no provision for a container for the ammunition belt. Not surprisingly the British Army did not consider the armed quadricycle. Even if its layout had been better military traditionalists already viewed both the machine gun and the cycle with some suspicion, a combination of the two would have been doubly damned in their eyes. Its interesting to note that a G H Waite was later associated with the Clyno motor company who produced the majority of British machine gun armed motor cycle combinations in World War 1.

Ten years later the French firm of DeDion produced a motorised quadricycle (the late Victorian equivalent of the modern quad bike). This could carry a driver and a passenger. The first sat on a saddle and steered with handlebars whilst the passenger occupied a seat in between (and slightly ahead) of the two front wheels; this of course ensured that they would be first to the scene of any accident. This vehicle inspired the first of a long line of Renault cars. It was also either built under licence or copied in other countries. One producer was the British firm of Beeston Motor Cycles in Coventry. In 1899 the inventor Frederick Simms converted one of these vehicles into a motorised scout. The passenger seat was replaced with boxes for an ammunition belt and an air cooled Maxim machine gun was fitted on a tube steel frame in front of the handlebars. This had a relatively small armoured shield. The whole thing was a sort of early quad bike armed with a machine gun.

As an armed motor scout this vehicle would have been of problematic effectiveness. Its rider would have been extremely vulnerable to return fire and it would have been next to impossible to operate the gun and drive and steer at the same time. A scout vehicle’s prime task is to reconnoitre the enemy and report back, it is not to sit and fight, any gun carried is for defence. Given the forward pointing gun with limited traverse the Simms motor scout could only operate in an offensive mode. It was not adopted by any military organisation. However the idea of using motorcycles to carry machine guns was adopted. Initially the first true motorcycle to carry a machine gun was in service with the Canadian 80th Militia regiment in 1908, they used a Harley Davidson motorcycle and sidecar combination with a forward facing Maxim gun. Its inventor, a Sergeant Northover, was to become better known as the inventor of the Northover projector issued widely to the British Home Guard in the 1940s. (Northover emerged from WW1 as a captain in the Canadian Army, retiring as a Major. He then went on to win a number of shooting championship medals at Bisley and other international competitions).

Northover’s idea was copied by American forces almost exactly as the enclosed photo of another Harley Davidson side car combination shows. At least one was fitted with an armoured shield positioned at the rear of the sidecar and another with a smaller shield for forward firing.. These armed sidecars were used to support units of motorcycle mounted infantry. Such vehicles may have been used against Pancho Villa’s forces in Mexico in 1916. The gun was either dismounted for firing or fired from the stationary vehicle, the driver dismounting to act as the ammunition feeder. Both Colt and Hotchkiss machine guns were used.

By the outbreak of war in 1914 the idea of using a motorcycle and sidecar combination to carry a heavy machine gun had been translated into material form by a number of British manufacturers the chief of which were Clyno, Enfield and Scott. As with the armoured car it was the Royal Naval Air Service that led the field but eventually such vehicles had been taken into service in the British Army equipping units of the Machine Gun Corps. These were machine gun carriers, much as were the post war Carden Loyds and the Bren gun carrier of the Second World War. They were a means of getting a Vickers machine gun, its ammunition and crew as quickly as possible to the point where they were needed. The gun could be dismounted and deployed on a conventional tripod mounting (also carried on the machine) or from the sidecar itself whilst the vehicle was stopped. It was rarely, if ever, fired from a moving vehicle in action. The severe shaking and jolting would make aiming extremely problematical and any bullets arriving anywhere near the enemy would be the result of sheer chance. The gun was sometimes fired rearwards from the sidecar of the combination when stationary, this was a useful tactic when providing a rearguard for the vehicle could quickly roar off to a new position when the advancing enemy became too close.

At least one British motorcycle combination of 1914 was armoured, its make is not known. A photograph exists of bewhiskered and rather well fed French officers examining the vehicle and doubtless expressing some satisfaction that they would not be asked to ride in or on the dammed contraption. They make it difficult to see the details of the machine but it is obvious that the armour plate would only have protected the lower regions of its crew. The position of the gun suggests that this was intended to be fired from the moving vehicle.

By mid 1915 it had become obvious that the war in France was for the foreseeable future going to be relatively static and trench based. There was little or nothing for the motorcycle combinations to do and eventually many of their crews were retrained and became tank crews. However a Motor Machine Gun Brigade was maintained. During the German offensive in 1918 their mobility proved invaluable in providing a rapid response to plug gaps in the line created by the German assault. Casualties were inevitably high as their crews fought numerous rearguard actions to slow down the attack and make time for new defences to be established.

The first armoured single seat motorcycles were not military but police vehicles. In the 1920s a number of American police departments produced armoured motor cycles to fight gangs of bootleggers. Such vehicles were produced in both single and combination versions. Armour was confined to a frontal shield covering most of the rider’s body. Armament was usually a Thomson sub machine gun (Tommy Gun or Chicago Piano). The New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles police departments used bikes of this type. In New York they equipped what was known as ‘the Gunmen’s Squad’. They were capable of speeds of up to 100mph. Riding a heavy armoured motor bike at 100 mph whilst firing a Tommy Gun at a speeding vehicle (which would no doubt be returning fire) sounds like enough excitement to last any police officer for a long time.


#15 centurion

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 09:36 AM

Photos seem to work now so here are some to go with my last 2 posts
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Bulgarians
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Australian show off
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US Motorcycle infantry
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US stretcher carrier

#16 centurion

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 09:41 AM

and a few more

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French stretcher carrier
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More US motorcycle infantry

#17 centurion

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 09:50 AM

And to go with the 2nd part
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Motor cycle machine gun brigade

#18 johnboy

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 10:03 AM

Nice piece Centurian.
If the bikes were used as machine gun carriers, were they operated by a two man crew.? Were they attached to Divisions or were they roaming ' trouble shooters' ?

#19 centurion

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 10:23 AM

Two man crews. Organisationally they were treated in the same way as the rest of the Machine Gun Corps and allocated in much the same way.

#20 centurion

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 10:31 AM

British, American and Russian Motorcyle machine gun carriers (and a British armoured one)
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#21 centurion

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 11:57 AM

And the classic view from the rear
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In this arrangement they would have been used for rear guard defence with the driver dismounted and looking after the belt feed

#22 centurion

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 12:13 PM

And men of the US Army Motor Machine Gun Corps
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In practice in Mexico it was found that 3 men, a gun and lots of ammo strips was too much weight for the bike on rough ground (the norm in Mexico) and they used a two man crew - driver got off and doubled up as the loader. Note the tripod clamped to the side of the side car - whenever possible this would be used.

#23 Bingo794

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 08:32 PM

Love the pic of the barmy Australian solo rider taking aim on the move.........I wonder if he could hit anything?
Brilliant read and pics, Centurion.
Richard

#24 johnboy

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 08:49 PM

Two man crews. Organisationally they were treated in the same way as the rest of the Machine Gun Corps and allocated in much the same way.



How many would have been allocated to an infantry division? For example , how many bikes were in 54 brigade? What I am trying to ask is when reading war diaries, how can you tell if the MG section was bike mounted. ?

#25 charley_bourne

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Posted 23 July 2013 - 08:55 PM

I used to know a bloke who owned a WW1 dispatch riders motorcycle as part of a collection. It had a tyre stuffed with grass done as what was literally a field repair for a flat tyre.





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