A British Weapon - the BSA Paratrooper's Folding Airborne Bicycle Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A British Weapon - the BSA Paratrooper's Folding Airborne Bicycle

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A photograph of a folding paratrooper's bike.

During the Second World War Britain had a secret weapon – the BSA Paratrooper's Folding Bicycle.

One of the major problems, faced by paratroopers on raids into enemy territory, was how to get to the intended target quickly and silently, without being spotted. When dropped from aircraft the unguided parachutes drifted and paratroopers often ended up dispersed over a wide area, with valuable time lost in regrouping. Also, paratroopers were often dropped a distance from the intended target to minimise the risk of being spotted. A lightweight means of allowing paratroopers to regroup quickly, reach their target speedily and quietly without being detected was needed. The paratrooper's folding bicycle allowed this to happen.

An additional advantage of the bicycle as a means of transport was that it did not require fuel to operate; petrol stations and fuel depots were often among the first targets destroyed in war zones.

The Bicycle

BSA – Birmingham Small Arms company – had produced bicycles for the British Army during the Great War, including a folding variety which worked by means of a single-lever hinge with a thick tube running from the top to the bottom of the frame, approximately halfway between the saddle and the handlebars. This specialist manufacturing knowledge made them the perfect choice to produce the paratrooper's folding bicycle.

The WWII version was a completely different design to its earlier counterpart, more suited to the unique needs of a paratrooper. It was lighter, which was of benefit when taken in large numbers on board gliders, and had a completely different folding mechanism. Instead of one central lever hinge, the main fold was achieved through two wingnuts, 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 top of the frame itself was unusual in that unlike most diamond-frame bikes, which have the same thickness frame for all four tubes, it had smaller twin cylindrical top tubes.

In addition there was a wingnut that, when unscrewed, allowed the handlebar to fold out of the way. The bike also was equipped with simple cylindrical spindle pedals, rather than the flat square pedals that cyclists' feet usually rest on. These could be pushed through the pedal crank shaft so that, when folded, the pedals did not get in the way.

Unlike modern folding bicycles, the paratrooper's folding bicycle had a full-size diamond frame and full-size wheels. The bike weighed 21lbs (9.5kg), even less than the original design specification, and it is believed over 60,000 were made, half the number of bicycles made during the Second World War. The BSA logo of three rifles was prominently displayed.

The bicycle was named the Paratrooper's Folding Bicycle but also officially known as the Airborne Bicycle. Although it is sometimes called the 'Parabike', this nickname is incorrect and was first used at a later date to market children's versions of the bicycle.

The Bicycle in Combat

Paratroopers would drop from aircraft gripping the bicycles in their hands. They were never strapped to the paratroopers' backs, as popularly depicted – obviously this is where the parachute was kept.

A drawback of the folding bicycle was that it had to be abandoned in a conflict situation. It was impossible to ride the bicycle and fire a rifle at the same time. Nor was the bicycle fast enough to allow for a quick escape from enemy fire, and it offered no defensive protection. For these reasons the bike was designed to be disposable.

An infantry unit was expected to be able to walk up to 25 miles (40km) in a day at an average speed of 3mph (4.8kph), however paratroopers mounted on bicycles could travel up to 75 miles (120km) at an average speed of 10mph (16kph).

The bicycle was used in a few operations by both British and Canadian troops from 1942, including Norway in 1942, Sicily in 1943, D-Day, during the second wave of the Normandy invasion, and Arnhem in 1944.

By D-Day however, lighter motor vehicles, such as Jeeps, had been introduced that could be carried in gliders. Operations such as PLUTO1 ensured that fuel was available to keep these vehicles running. With means of transport no longer needing to be disposable, the reliability placed on the humble bicycle was reduced. The bicycles were still used, however once disposed of they were quickly acquired by those living locally to where they were abandoned. They became a common sight in parts of rural France and the Netherlands after the war.

Operation Biting

The Bruneval Raid, known as Operation Biting, was a raid against a German radar installation at Bruneval, France, on 27 February, 1942. Scientists believed that analysis of the equipment at the German radar station could help prevent the loss of British aircraft, and so a raid to attack and capture the key components of the dish was planned. As the area had heavy coastal defences, only an airborne assault landing far enough outside Bruneval to avoid raising suspicion, followed by evacuation by boat, would succeed.

On 27 February airborne troops of 2nd Parachute Battalion, led by Major John Frost, parachuted a few miles from the radar station. They used their folding bicycles to get to their target quickly, which they successfully raided, dismantled the radar dish and even kidnapped one of the scientists involved. Using the bicycles they then retreated to the evacuation point, where after a brief battle with the Germans defending the coast, were picked up and returned to Britain.

Postwar Success

Even before the Second World War ended, in August 1944, BSA began advertising in the Cyclists' Touring Club Gazette that they planned to release a children's version of this bicycle, which went on sale in November 1945. This, and surplus 'adult' versions of the folding bicycle were the first bicycles BSA sold to the British public after the war ended, and were advertised with the words

The BSA 'Junior Parabike', a novel design that the dealers are distributing in time for Christmas. Its appearance is based on the famous BSA model used by British parachute troops.

As well as being smaller, these bicycles were manufactured without the ability to fold but with proper pedals. They were sold between 1945-53 and a few were exported. They featured mud guards, a rear pannier rack and bike stand and came in boys' or girls' versions. In 1953 BSA separated its bicycle and motorcycle divisions, selling the bicycle division to Raleigh in 1957.

Imitators – the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Many of the surplus BSA folding bicycles were sold to Denmark. These proved very popular due to their simple but effective design, so much so that in the early 1950s a Danish company manufactured approximately 500 of their own version of the BSA bicycle, calling them 'Parabikes'. Differences included a single back-pedal brake, rather than the original two brakes, and as they were intended for long-term use rather than being disposable were built to a higher quality.

This iconic design lives on today, 70 years after its introduction. In June 2011, a British bicycle manufacturer, Pashley, who has been manufacturing bicycles in Britain since 1926, used this design to manufacture a model named the 'Parabike'. This is based on the classic BSA Airborne Bicycle, but like the Junior Parabike it is not foldable and has modern features such as 5-speed hub gears and fully enclosed drum brakes.

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