The Excelsior Welbike Motorcycle
World War II was a conflict marked by rapid technological advancements and innovations. The development of specialized vehicles played a crucial role in reshaping the strategies of both Allied and Axis forces. Military strategists recognized the dire need for improved mobility among airborne forces.
The answer to this pressing requirement came in the form of the Excelsior Welbike, a small, lightweight, and economical motorcycle designed specifically for air-dropping paratroopers or glider deployment reconnaissance units.
The name “Welbike” emerged as a fusion of the location of its inception -the village of Welwyn in Hertfordshire, England and the word “bike,” a colloquial term for a bicycle. This motorcycle prioritized practicality over comfort. The initial version lacked features such as suspension, mudguards, or lights and was equipped with only a single rear brake.
Although the Welbike was not a mass-produced military vehicle like tanks or jeeps, it played a significant role in enhancing the mobility and flexibility of airborne and special operations units during World War II. Its compact design and ease of transport made it a valuable asset, allowing troops to cover greater distances quickly and quietly.
Origins and Development: Excelsior Motor Company
The origins of the Welbike can be traced back to the early 1940s, when British military planners recognized the need for a lightweight, easily transportable vehicle that could be deployed alongside airborne troops during airborne operations. This requirement led to the development of the Welbike, which was envisioned as a means to enhance the mobility of paratroopers and commandos.
The SOE set out to create a motorcycle that could fit inside a CLE Canister. CLE, short for Central Landing Establishment (later Container, Light Equipment), represented a versatile airdrop container used for various supplies, from food and ammunition to general provisions.
Their vision was to create a motorcycle that could fit within a standard airdrop container measuring 130 cm in length, 35 cm high and 30 cm in width. The development of the Welbike began, and a prototype was swiftly produced in 1942 and subjected to rigorous testing, including parachute drops.
The brilliant minds behind this compact marvel were Harry Lester, and Lieutenant Colonel John Dolphin, both employees of the SEO and avid motorcycle enthusiasts. The design was inspired by the German use of air-portable motorcycles during the Crete campaign in Greece.
The design blueprint was entrusted to the Excelsior Motor Company, a British company located in Birmingham, England, known for its expertise in manufacturing motorcycles for the general public.
Excelsior undertook the mass production of the Welbike, with some refinements made along the way, such as replacing rubber handlebar grips with more durable brass and canvas versions. The Welbike proved economical and swift to manufacture, so much so that the entire vehicle, including the frame and engine, was painted in one continuous process right on the production line.
The resulting prototype of the Welbike was a rugged and effective machine. Its design prioritized portability, simplicity, and ease of use. It was extremely lightweight, weighing only 34 kg.
It featured a 98cc two-stroke Villiers single-cylinder engine paired with a single-speed gearbox. Ignition was powered by a flywheel magneto. This small but efficient engine allowed the bike to reach a top speed of approximately 45 km/h to 48 km/h.
Due to the confined dimensions of the container, the Welbike was intentionally compact. Its frame adopted a twin-loop tubular construction, with folding handlebars and a telescopic seat tube. Lacking suspension, lights, and equipped with only one brake to minimize weight, the design focused on essential functionality. When folded, it measured just 71 cm x 41 cm x 30 cm.
Another distinctive feature was the diminutive gas tank, holding a mere 3.7 liters of fuel and positioned beneath the carburetor. To ensure a smooth operation, the gas tank had to be pressurized, and to expedite this process, a hand pump was incorporated into the Welbike’s design. (It was intended that the tank be pressurized before the jump to save precious time.). It provided an operational range of 110 km to 140 Km.
Deployment of the Excelsior Welbike in WWII Missions
A total of 6,641 Welbikes were produced from 1942 until the end of World War II. They saw action in parachute drops and beach assaults, but their performance was limited, particularly in rough terrain where the small 10-inch wheels struggled with mud.
Welbikes were often carried aboard transport aircraft, such as the Douglas C-47 Skytrain or the Horsa glider, along with paratroopers. Upon landing behind enemy lines, troops could quickly assemble and deploy their Welbikes to enhance their mobility.
Once airborne, the Welbike and its accompanying troopers descended to the ground via parachute. Upon landing, the paratrooper would embark on a mission to locate their designated motorcycle. Identifying the Welbike was relatively straightforward, as it descended with a distinctive green parachute. To further alleviate any confusion, the container carrying the motorcycle was clearly marked.
The paratrooper would unfurl the bike, adjust the handlebars into position, and secure them in place using spring-loaded pins. The seat was then pulled upward, and the footrests were folded outward. All of these tasks could be accomplished in a mere 11 seconds, ensuring rapid deployment upon landing.
Due to its silent operation and small size, the Welbike was well-suited for reconnaissance missions. Commandos and Special Forces often used these bikes to scout enemy positions, gather intelligence, covert transportation of agents, and conduct hit-and-run raids.
Royal Marines and commando forces also found the Welbike to be a valuable resource, employing it during crucial missions, including the Normandy and Anzio landings. Airborne units relied on the Welbike during operations like Arnhem and Operation Market Garden.
While the Welbike offered valuable advantages in terms of mobility and range, it also had its limitations, primarily associated with its container. Paratroopers did not consistently land in proximity to their motorcycles, often necessitating a time-consuming search before the vehicle could be utilized. Furthermore, advancements in glider technology rendered the Welbike less reliable, as alternative, heavier, and more practical engines could be transported directly alongside airborne troops.
Legacy and Post-War Era
After the war, some surplus Welbikes were sold, though they lacked a front brake, rendering them unsuitable for use on British roads. Lieutenant Colonel John Dolphin, the original designer, endeavored to create a civilian version of the Welbike, which he presented to the engineering firm Brockhouse Engineering.
This led to the production of the Corgi, a civilian motorcycle featuring the single-speed Excelsior engine. However, the Corgi’s slow speed and lack of refinement made it ill-suited for the post-war market, and production ceased.
Excelsior Motor Company, meanwhile, continued manufacturing motorcycles for a period, including the Talisman, a popular 250cc two-stroke twin. However, by 1964, Excelsior ceased motorcycle production, ultimately folding a year later. The factory transitioned to producing accessories for Britax, a car accessory company that briefly revived the Britax-Excelsior brand, releasing limited numbers of motorcycles during the late 1970s.
The Excelsior Welbike remains a symbol of wartime innovation, reflecting the British commitment to providing specialized mobility solutions for their troops. Although the Welbike’s battlefield utility was limited, its compact design and ease of deployment continue to inspire the development of lightweight and portable transportation solutions in both military and civilian contexts.
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