Friday, April 17, 2020

Was Royal Enfield's Flying Flea really a fighter?

Illustration of a soldier riding a motorcycle across a battlefield.
A grim-looking soldier rides a Royal Enfield Flying Flea on a battlefield.
This well-known illustration shows a British soldier riding a Royal Enfield Flying Flea across a battlefield. There is a burning German tank in the background, and war planes roar overhead.

There is an equally well-known wartime photograph of this very soldier and his Flying Flea motorcycle (note his tea mug attached to the motorcycle!).

The illustration shows the shattered tree of a battlefield. But the photograph of the soldier lifting the little motorcycle is obviously posed, meant to illustrate the light weight of the Flying Flea.

Soldier lifts a Royal Enfield Flying Flea to show how light it is.
And here he is, tea mug, Flying Flea and all.
The photograph was probably shot on a training ground.

So, I wondered: what was war really like for Royal Enfield Flying Flea motorcycles, once they reached the battleground? Not many photos seem to exist of the little Royal Enfield motorcycles being active in the combat zones of World War II.

The answer could be that they just didn't work.

What??? How can that be?

The Flying Flea (formally called the WD/RE by the War Department) is famous because it could be dropped by parachute to embattled paratroopers. Royal Enfield applauded the service rendered by its little motorcycle in the post-war brag book "A Proud Record," printed to record the company's contribution to victory.

Historical videos do show that Flying Fleas were transported by air (many, apparently, inside gliders, rather than dropped by parachute).

Royal Enfield Flying Flea being loaded into an assault glider.
Still from wartime footage of a Flying Flea being loaded into a glider.
Used in many documentaries, this shot probably dates to Operation  Varsity in 1945.
Clearly, the Flying Flea went to war. But what happened after it reached the Landing Zones with British airborne troops?

The Landing Zones may be as far as they got. I'll explain later why this might be so. But first of all, why were the Flying Fleas going to battle in the first place?

Dropped by air, to airborne troops presumably automatically surrounded by the enemy, what good is a motorcycle?

I assumed their only use would be for dispatch riders, to carry messages. But an authority on Royal Enfield military motorcycles disagreed with that conclusion.

"The bike was not intended for dispatch riders, but for the commandos," he wrote.

"The purpose was to be able to move faster to the place that they had to capture. For instance, in Arnhem the dropping zone was a large grassland outside Arnhem. But the commandos had to capture the bridge, which was a couple of miles away. The idea was to move as fast as possible to the bridge, capture the bridge and stay there until the rest of the Army was there. Unfortunately the Arnhem bridge was 'a bridge too far.'"

I have read that Jeeps, landed by glider near Arnhem and specially equipped with machine guns, were to carry out exactly that mission (but were stopped before they could reach the bridge). Were the Flying Fleas supposed to do that too?

Models of Royal Enfield Flying Fleas carrying soldiers into combat.
Realistic miniature Royal Enfield Flying Fleas move out to attack.
Modelers and war gamers have at least imagined such a scenario. Battlefront Miniatures Ltd. created striking models of four Flying Fleas riding in formation. The caption explains:

"The troop rode into battle upon the lightweight 125cc motorcycles such as the famous Royal Enfield 'Flying Flea.' This motorcycle was so light it could be lifted over obstacles, but so small that it only carried the rider and his personal kit, making one motorcycle per man a necessity."

These models are for use in the company's "Flames of War" game, and the caption doesn't specifically reference being dropped by air or rushing to seize a bridge. In fact, the website suggests the motorcycles would allow a "Blitz Squad"of infantry to keep up with light tanks and deal with troublesome anti-tank guns they come across.

Maybe so. But consider that, in an airborne operation, you'd be paying Air Mail postage to deliver one motorcycle per soldier for that assault squad. Not very economical. One Jeep could hold four soldiers and machine guns too.

Soldiers prepare motorcycles to be packed for airborne invasion.
Still from Imperial War Museum film "Sixth Airborne Division Prepares for D-Day."
"Military Police attend to their Matchless and Enfield motorcycles."
Police need a full-service motorcycle, with lights, horn and comfy seat.
(Shot June 1, 1944 Copyright IWM  A-70 25-2)
There's another thing that bothers me. When you look at the Royal Enfield Flying Flea you see a complete motorcycle, with full fenders, sprung seat, chain guard, tool kit, tire pump, headlight with black-out shroud and tail light. Even a bulb horn!

It seems a bit much to give to soldiers who are going to use it on a one-way ride to a bridge, dump it in an alley and take up positions. (The assault Jeeps used at Arnhem could have been used later for other duties, such as fetching ammunition or transporting wounded, things the Flying Flea wasn't equipped to do).

Am I wrong? Does anyone know of an account of the Flying Flea in use in the Normandy invasion or at Arnhem?

There is at least one photo of a Flying Flea in use in a combat zone. I'll show you that next time.

But one final note: The blog Arnhem Jim includes a "Detailed List of the Arms and Equipment of a British Airborne Division Circa 1944."

It lists, among thousands of other items, "Motorcycle, Lightweight, Royal Enfield WD RE light ("Flying Flea") or Matchless G3L  (529)."

That's 529 lightweight motorcycles, not counting an additional 704 other motorcycles (Triumph 3SW, James ML or Ariel W NG). Plus an "unknown" number of Welbike scooters.

The paras really were equipped to put a lot of soldiers on two wheels.

Next time: Did the Flying Flea work in battle?

Meanwhile, here's a look at that historical video of a Flying Flea being loaded on a glider for Operation Varsity.


4 comments:

  1. Hi David, thanks for the series of articles on the Flying Flea, I've been enjoying them.
    My understanding is that the original intention of the three 'airborne' motorcycles used by the British Army (the Welbike, James ML & RE Flying Flea) was that they were indeed for commando use and for re-grouping once the paras had landed. The effect would indeed be rather scatter gun - a whole load of guys with parachutes and a load of motorcycles all coming from the sky at the same time, the hope would be that there would end up a motorcycle relatively close each commando. As far as I know Arnhem was the only time they were actually dropped from the skies. As you say they did also see service in gliders. From my experience however of what I have seen historically and heard anecdotally was that most of the airborne bikes were actually used as runabouts around airfields and bases and were actually very suited to this purpose. All in though they were a complicated and expensive solution to the problem - if they were for regrouping a bicycle would be a far easier, cheaper and more useful tool. I believe this turned out to be the case - far far more BSA airborne folding bicycles were made than the airborne motorcycles. As with so many things there is a simple solution and then a complicated one...

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    1. Indeed, if you look at the equipment list for an airborne division (linked to in the item) you see 1,907 BSA standard bicycles AND 1,362 "Bicycle, Airborne, Folding" listed. With all the gear they carried, imaging wobbling forth on a bicycle. Thank you for your comment.

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  2. After this whole Wuhan Flu thing blows over, you might do well to contact the Imperial War Museums for further research assistance via https://www.iwm.org.uk/contact-us (see link to contact form near bottom of page). The IWM is a network of five museums, and their main library and research center is located at Duxford in Cambridgeshire.

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