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27th July 2004

Opinion: Memories of Military Motorcycles Pt.3

Posted to a Spitfire Squadron in Italy in 1944, Frank Authers needed to visit a young lady on the other side of the country. Luckily, there was a bike on the unit which no one else was using...

How I started motorcycling is explained in episodes one and two of this tale. After my time in Tobruk, the next time I was able to ride a bike was in the summer of 1944. By then the war had progressed favourably and I was now a Sargeant on 249 Spitfire Squadron, based on the Adriatic coast of Italy. We were part of the Balkan Air Force. There was a squadron motorcycle at the MT section, but no DR. The pilots and crew used to bomb around on the bike within the airfield boundaries.

I had been based in Naples prior to joining 249, after landing on the Salerno beaches from Sicily. During my five months in Naples, like most of the lads, I had got myself a girlfriend but I had not told her that I was leaving when I was posted to 249 Sqd. So I got the idea of borrowing the bike to pay her a surprise visit. I approached the Engineering Officer, who was also officer i/c MT, and he approved. He gave me a Form 658 authorising the trip by saying on it; 'collecting urgent aircraft spares.' This allowed me to draw fuel at any service unit. I also got a three day pass from the CO. I obtained a reasonable set of tools, including puncture outfits, and set off early one morning.

Almost cetainly not the adriatic coast...

I had to ride down the Adriatic coast to near Bari before heading across Italy, coast to coast, to Naples. I had probably only gone about 50 miles when I had a puncture in the rear wheel which I repaired at the side of the road and set off again -- only to have another puncture in the same wheel after a few miles!

Again I repaired it. I then had another puncture shortly after and seriously considered giving up the trip, but this was in a small village and there was a small garage nearby. I pushed the bike to it and had a chat in my best Italian to the aging owner. I parted with a couple of packets of cigarettes which were then free issue (and I was a non-smoker, but they worked wonders as bribes). Once again, I got the tube out but it was pretty shot. The aging Italian, who was by now my best friend, poked around and came up with an old tube of some sort which was roughly about the same size. So this was fitted and I bade farewell, promising to drop some more fags in on my next trip (some hope!) and was off.

The rest of the trip was completely trouble free, and quite successful I might add. I had a smile on my face for most of the trip back. Again I didn't tell her that I was leaving as she had some delusion that I was going to marry her... I don't know how she got that idea (again, some hope!).

I then didn't ride a bike again until some time after the war. I was back in England and was a Provost Sergeant in the RAF Police. This entailed riding bikes as part of my duties, mainly escorting convoys of 60 foot long, with a Bedford prime mover carrying partly dismantled Lancaster bombers from a base in Gloucestershire to an RAF station in East Anglia. This was a two day trip on which we had to liaise with the Police of every county we passed through. This was before by-passes and in some towns signs and other items of street furniture would have to taken down for us to get through. We were not very popular. I had two corporals, also on bikes, assisting me on these journeys and we certainly got some serious biking in.

When delivered, we shot straight off back to our base in Gloucester. I remember my neck getting very chafed through constantly looking backwards to see if my two corporals were following! The bikes themselves were a mixture of numerous British singles, BSA M20s were most common, but there were Triumphs, Nortons, etc. As they were all in military trim you didn't always know what you were riding without closer inspection.

I left this unit and then served in Germany as part of the occupation force, where again I often rode motorcycles as part of my job, for VIP and convoy escorts etc. Some of the roads in German towns were made of black cobbles, these were as smooth as ice, and when wet were very hazardous. After two and a half years in Germany, the next time I rode a bike (if you can call it that) was in 1966. I was posted out to Singapore and bought a little Suzuki 50. I enjoyed it but I really like something of at least 350cc.

Back in UK and based in Lincolnshire in 1968 came the last time I rode a service bike. I had to go to a depot somewhere in Lancashire with a couple of corporals. to collect some Triumphs. They were twins and really state of the art compared to what I had ridden before; a large fairing with windscreen incorporated the police blue flashing light. We put the wind up a few motorists on our way back that day -- you could see their brake lights go on when they caught sight of us in their mirrors!

I left the RAF shortly after this and didn't ride again until 1972.

I had been in the car trade after leaving the services and because of my knowledge and interest in cars, particularly the old ones(pre-war models) and motorcycles, I was commissioned by a local businessman to find and acquire a number of vehicles for a museum. This I did for a few years and he now has a very good collection of some 50 or so cars from the 1920s on, and a good size collection of bikes, mostly pre-war. This is at Sandy Bay, Exmouth, open Easter to October. I have no connection with it now but reckon it is well worth a visit.

This job rekindled my interest in old British bikes so I acquired a number for myself, a Sunbeam S7, a BSA B31 and my favourite, an ex-AA patrolman's outfit. This had a BSA A7 bike on it when I bought it, and the sidecar was in green metalflake. I soon found the correct M21 for it, and restored it in the full AA livery. I then put a tradesman's, wooden crate type sidecar on the A7.

The restoration of the AA bike, got me very interested in that particular model and I am now, at the age of 83, restoring my seventh AA outfit. I also have a 1925 350cc AJS, a 1937 BSA B26, a 1938 BSA M19, and a 1954 Velocette MAC. I would be interested in acquiring an AA sidecar box, wood/metal skinned, for my current project.

You'd think that the AA sidecar resoration bug would have worn thin after the seventh go...

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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