Exhibit of the Week: BSA airborne bicycle – Eden Camp Museum, Malton

Nick Hill, Eden Camp Museum manager is pictured with the BSA Airborne bicycle which is on display at the museum.
Nick Hill, Eden Camp Museum manager is pictured with the BSA Airborne bicycle which is on display at the museum.

Bicycles were a very popular and well-used form of transport during the war for both civilians and military personnel.

The bicycle provided a faster means of travel than walking, whilst they were cheaper and more readily available than motor cars. They were also easy to manufacture, maintain and transport, and would work in most weather conditions. Those civilians that had motor vehicles were restricted from using them because of the rationing of fuel. Private vehicles were also often commandeered for military use. Bicycles provided the main form of transportation for the civilian population, not only in Britain but also in many of the occupied countries of Europe.

For more than a century the bicycle was used by the military around the world, and up until the year 2001, the Swiss Army still had a Regiment of Bicycle troops.

Probably the most well-known of all designs of military bikes is the World War Two BSA Airborne bicycle, second pattern. This bicycle was invented by William Henry Taylor in the early 1940s when he was Works Manager of BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) cycles.

For the design, he received a £100 Christmas bonus. It was given the nickname the ‘parabike’ due to its intended users, though this was never its official name. The bike was designed for use by the British Airborne paratroopers to ensure they had a quiet way of travel that was also faster than walking.

The paratroopers would hold the folded bikes out in front of them, with the wheels attached to the parachute suspension line as they parachuted from planes. Brackets on the main frame of the bike allowed rifles to be mounted to the bike. The bike weighed just short of 24lbs and would fold using the twin tubed seat mechanism. Instead of one central lever hinge, the main fold was achieved through two wing nuts, one on the top and one on the bottom of the bike’s frame, that was hinged to allow the frame to fold back on itself. 

The bike was used in action, however not as much as was intended. The greatest use of the BSA Airborne bike in action was by the British and Canadian forces in the D-Day landings on Normandy and Arnhem. Many were abandoned after a few days when they became more of a burden than a use to the men. However, images show the bikes on the back of tanks and loaded onto jeeps, so they clearly continued to be a useful additional vehicle for the paratroopers during the remaining years of the war.

The prisoners at Eden Camp also used bicycles to get themselves to the farms on which they worked, which in some cases were up to 15 miles away. Former Eden Camp POW, Helmut Mildner worked as a bicycle mechanic during his incarceration, maintaining the bicycles of his fellow prisoners. Prisoners from Eden Camp were even known to have used their bicycles unofficially to travel through to York on a weekend in order to meet up with other prisoners who were held in camps that were located nearer to the city.

l Eden Camp Museum is open seven days a week from 10am to 5pm.