Military Bicycles in War & Peace: WWII Airborne Folding Paratrooper Bicycles

by Eric Shalit on January 7, 2015

Folding American-made Columbia 'Compax' bicycles were tested by the U.S. Marine Corps but saw no action in Europe in WW2. Nevertheless, the myth that the Compax was used on the battlefield helped Columbia in its advertising battles for market share.

Above: British BSA Airborne Folding Paratrooper Bikes were used in all the major landings including D-day and Arnhem.

That bicycles have been used by the military is not surprising. The fact that they were designed specifically for use by paratroopers during WWII is another matter. While I am in no way glorifying warfare, I think the use of the bicycle for combat shows another dimension of this amazing invention. The history of this subject is so deep and interesting that I expect to publish additional articles in the future as time permits.

Additional Resources

One of my favorite vintage bicycle resources is www.oldbike.eu, which is published by an enthusiast named Colin, who buys, sells, and collects vintage bicycles, motorcycles, and ephemera. Based in the UK he has access to some incredible old machines from across Europe. His thorough devotion to researching the history of these machines makes them accessible to those of us who may never own them. Here’s an excerpt from his page about the use of the BSA folding bicycle by British paratroopers during WWII.

The BSA Airborne Bicycle was developed at a time when the only British Troop-carrying glider was the Hotspur. Like the Welbike, transport for the paratroopers was needed that was small and could easily be transported. As a result, BSA, who made the M20 Motorbike, developed a bicycle that could be folded in half so a paratrooper could jump out of an aircraft with it. When folded out, it was used as a conventional bicycle. They were used in all the major landings such as D-day and Arnhem.

Ironically the greatest use of the BSA airborne bicycle in action was by British and Canadian infantry on the invasion of Normandy, France (D-Day 1944 June 6) in the second wave. Some had been used on the invasion of Sicily in 1943 by Canadian infantry (Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment “Hasty Pees” re: Farley Mowat).

The BSA airborne bicycle was used in battle, but not as much as originally planned. The plan appears to have been that the bicycles would be mass produced and make the airborne soldiers mobile once they had landed. It was better and faster than walking.

The British-made BSA Junior Parabike was a non-folding kids version of the BSA Airborne Bike used during WWII. Pretty cool!

Military Bicycles of WWII is another excellent site, published in Belgium. It features photos and info about American-made military bicycles.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Pablo December 29, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Great post Eric. The BSA bike with the arched top tube and drop bottom bracket (3rd photo from top) is the inspiration for the modern Pashley Paramount. Check it out when you have a chance.
-pablo

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