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27th July 2004

Opinion: Memories of Military Motorcycles Pt.2

Frank Authers started riding British bike in 1934, and finally bought his dream Norton some four years later. And then World War Two broke out...

How I started motorcycling is explained in the first episode of this tale. Then early in 1938 I traded the Matchless at King's of Oxford for a 500cc BSA combination. I have a feeling that it was an ex-GPO bike. I used the BSA until shortly before joining the RAF in August 1938. For a while there was no more biking for me. I was on 2/- (10p) a day then which didn't pay for much in the way of motorcycling. But by the spring of 1939 I was stationed at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire and my pay had gone up to 3/10 (about 18p) a day, and I thought about another motorbike. So one Saturday afternoon I went to a firm in London and bought a 1936/7 350cc Norton, I think it was about 30 or 35.

I loved this bike and spent the summer bombing around the Oxfordshire countryside on it, crumpet-hunting mostly - and quite successfully too as, in those days, we mostly went out in uniform. The bike had to be kept in one of the hangers, in a numbered bay space, as they were not allowed to be left around the camp.

Just like CHiPs in black and white...

War was declared on the 3rd September 1939. I listened to the Prime Minister's announcement on the radio then took the Norton out, put a gallon of petrol in at the nearest garage (I think it was 1/10 (9p) a gallon), then went for a spin around the countryside. Two days later I was given 48 hours leave and rode the bike to my parents' home in Devon and back. Within a week my unit moved over to France as the Advanced Air Striking Force. I came back to England about a fortnight after Dunkirk but never got back to Benson, so I never saw my Norton again. I don't know what happened to it - things were very hectic at that time and it was the least of anyone's worries.

In 1940 after leaving France I was posted to RAF St Eval in Cornwall and, after a while, managed to buy an Ivory Calthorpe. I think it was a 1937/8 model. Whenever I could scrounge enough petrol I would go home to Tiverton (about 100 miles) on it. My memory of this time is poor, probably due to the fact that I was blown up in a lorry in which three other lads were killed. So I do not remember where I bought the Calthorpe, what I paid for it or even what happened to it when I was posted out to the Middle East in August 1941.

I arrived in Egypt in December 1941, but it was not until after the battle of El Alamein in 1942 that I next got in the saddle. I was in a small unit following in the wake of the Eighth Army, taking over recently captured airfields. We settled in Tobruk for a while, and just outside Tobruk was a compound which was used for storage of captured enemy equipment. I developed a friendship with the RASC Corporal in charge of this compound, in which there were a large number of BMW motorcycles. With a few bribes (such as RAF equipment, shoes in particular as the army only had boots), I got to riding these bikes around.

Eventually, I think it was a bottle of whisky that did the trick, I managed to get one off him to take back to my unit -- on the strict understanding that I had found it in the desert myself and it hadn't come from him. There were plenty of sidecars lying about, they were not considered of any importance or worth gathering in, so I soon found a fairly decent one and fitted it to the BMW. I had to paint out the Afrika Corps symbol, which was a palm tree with a swastika half way up the trunk, and replace it with an RAF roundel.

...only colder, by the look of it.

The BMW was a welcome addition to our meagre transport situation on this small unit. I used it for collection of rations from the RASC depot set up in the desert, and also to take the occasional sick or injured to the nearest field hospital, and as a general run-about. The CO thought it was a wonderful thing, especially as I taught him how to ride it.

Sadly our HQ, who were by then in Benghasi, got to hear about it and as they had a DR with no bike I was ordered to hand it over to him. When he collected it I could tell that he'd had little or no experience of riding with a sidecar, but off he went. He didn't get that far out of Tobruk before having an argument with a tank transporter! Luckily he was not badly injured but the bike was a write-off. The engine was OK so we took it out of the mangled wreck and eventually fitted it into a boat which we used to muck about in, visiting some of the 49 charted wrecks in the harbour. (More whisky came off one of them, a half submerged supply ship). Our marine engineering skills must have been very poor, as on the first trip out the boat drew so much water up through the shaft from the prop that we couldn't keep up with the bailing and it sank with all hands! We recovered it, I then fitted the engine to a rotary pump, and when I left Tobruk it was still working, pumping some salty, brackish water from an old well.

In the next epsiode: riding through all of Italy to keep a lady happy...


I have written a book detailing my 30 years service in the RAF from 1938 to 1968, which is available from me, priced at 9.95 including delivery to the UK. Call 01392 874171 or email

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