Travelling light

Last Sunday, I was binge-watching war movies.
, a documentary on the training regimen of the United States paratroopers, from 1943 was on this weekend’s watch-list. It was produced by the United States Office of War Information, a division created exclusively for disseminating information pertaining to World War II and dismantled immediately after the guns fell silent. The film was essentially a pat on the back for the US paratroopers who were engaged in desert combat in north Africa during the War. So, it did turn out to be a bit syrupy; however, the congratulatory tone did not drown out the harsh realities of life as a paratrooper.

Due to the nature of their mission, paratroopers are often on their own. If they were lucky, they sometimes had a tiny machine for company. I am yet to meet a paratrooper, but over the years I have met some of their pint-sized allies: foldable motorcycles and bicycles bunged into these soldiers’ survival kits, as they slipped into the skies with a prayer and a parachute.

These machines show up at gatherings of vintage vehicles and do they grab attention! In fact, on Saturday, an exhibition of vintage bicycles had been organised at the Seafarers’ Club in Chennai. Two foldable WWII cycles charmed visitors. Many years ago, I had held these foldable WWII cycles, thanks to V Prabhakar and V Sridhar, two brothers who own them. These cycles came from the stables of Birmingham Small Arms (BSA). BSA was making machines for WWII and it had a rather difficult brief for the cycles it had to make for the British force’s Airborne Division. Eons before the technology of making super-light-weight frames arrived, BSA was expected to make a cycle that was not meant to be an ounce heavier than a healthy one-year-old child — 9.5 kg.

Reduced weight and greater flexibility were obviously features much favoured in foldable machines made for soldiers descending in parachutes on enemy territory. The Welbike, which had been made by the Excelsior Motor Company for two British airborne divisions during WWII, was another baby. It weighed a mere 32 kg, so despite a single-cylinder, 98cc engine, the Welbike still offered remarkable power to ride on. The Welbike and their patrons made a striking contrast: A robustly-built paratrooper astride what looked like a toy bike, and going about a lethal mission.

Quite sometime ago, when VS Maniam, a collector of vintage bikes, let me look at his well-preserved Welbike, I could not tell the difference between the Welbike’s wheels and the ones on a kid’s tricycle. Maniam let me in on a secret. The Welbike was indeed wearing ‘kid’s wheels’. As he could not source the original tyres, he’d put on those made for a kid’s bike and they fit well. The Welbike is said to be the smallest foldable vehicle made for the British force. Being so curiously small-sized brought it out of retirement, in a different form and name. After the War, there weren’t many around. There is a belief that some of these machines had to be destroyed by the very soldiers they served. Legend has it that after completing a Welbike-enabled mission, a soldier was expected to consign it to flames to avoid leaving a trace for the enemy to follow.

The memory of the Welbike was revived in the Corgi, another 98cc, its spitting image, but sturdier. Between 1948 and 1954, the Corgi Motorcycle Company made the diminutive Corgi motorcycles, which had a good run, fuelled by nostalgia. As the Corgi was not going on a paratrooping mission, it was allowed to have a sturdier frame. While Welbike is an extreme rarity, there are enough Corgi motorcycles around for enthusiasts to run clubs.

The congratulatory tone did not drown out the harsh realities of life as a paratrooper

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