My kids and I took a trip down to tiny Gillespie Field east of San Diego for their semi-annual airshow, “Wings Over Gillespie,” this past Saturday. As with any such show, the focus is on military aircraft and it just happened to be the weekend of the 65th anniversary of the Normandy D-Day invasion that was the beginning of the end of World War Two.
I wasn’t thinking of this anniversary when we decided to make the trip, but when we got there, the first demonstration we caught was of a paratrooper deployment featuring a plane that actually dropped soldiers into Normandy on that June 6th day back in 1944 (in the background of the photos below). After watching the precision landings of the parachutists, we heard some loud popping sounds and followed the crowds over to a re-enactment of a battle between US and British allies and the Germans. It was all very exciting with incredibly detailed outfits and gear assembled by the re-enactors. Oh, and the Allies won (in case you were wondering).
I also wasn’t thinking of D-Day when we walked over to the US, German and British ‘camps’ set up by the actors to see their gear up close and found a bicycle on display. It was a replica of a BSA folding military bike in matte green paint. I took a couple of photos that I posted on Twitter, but later in the day, we came across Private Ken of the British Army riding his BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) across the tarmac.
We flagged the friendly soldier down, and in typical ‘Brit’ (he was actually from Riverside or San Bernardino) fashion he enthusiastically and patiently entertained all our questions and requests for photos. What we learned was that some of the paratroopers deployed in the D-Day invasion were equipped with these folding BSA’s along with their weapons, rations and other gear. With a bike, the troopers could cover more ground more quickly than on foot. A rifle could be be mounted along the top tube and he described a range of other packs and panniers that the bikes would have setup with back in the day.
Ken showed us the simple and sturdy folding mechanism using wing nuts. I asked him about the coaster brake, and he admitted that this was only major difference between this Norwegian-made replica and an actual BSA that would have had caliper brakes.
I’d always known about the Swiss army’s use of bikes fairly recently (I think Ochsner used to distribute them a while back) and that other armies had used them over the years, but to learn that bikes were used during the Normandy invasion was fascinating. And not just behind the lines, but actually inserted behind enemy lines right in the thick of things.
As my 3 year old son said throughout the day, “that’s pretty cool.”
[Update: Make sure to read the comments to this post since Ken Glaze (Private Ken in the post) fills us in on a few more details about his bike.]