Motorcycle memories

John in 1939

John in 1939

MY LOVE of motorcycles started in 1933 at the age of 16. In those days not many youngsters could aspire to owning a car but for £3 I bought my first motorbike. It was an old inline twin Douglas 60cc on which the rear cylinder was prone to seize, no doubt due to lack of oil. I then progressed to an Ariel Sloper and an Excelsior 350cc bought, of course, on hire purchase, from Messrs Pride and Clark of Brixton.

Then 1940 arrived, together with my call-up. The government had an arrangement with Graham Walker, former Isle of Man TT winner, that allowed motorcyclists to be seconded
to the Royal Corps of Signals, if they so wished. After initial training at Prestatyn, North Wales, including PT on the beach in February (brrrl), I was posted to Aldershot Command Mons Barracks as a despatch rider.

My first assignment was as a pall bearer to a despatch rider who had been fatally injured in a road accident.

I rode various machines, including Ariels and Indians that had been imported from the USA under Lease Lend. These had pan saddles, foot clutches, hand gear changes and twist grip control of advance and retard. I then had BSA 600ccs which, although sloggers, had little ground clearance so were not suitable for cross-country work.

While stationed at Aldershot I had many runs to Storeys Gate in London, which was Sir Winston Churchill’s HQ. These runs were usually at night and often occurred during air raids. My return journey would, of course, take me via the family home at West Wickham in Kent. My main worry was that the petrol tank might be damaged by shrapnel and how I would explain this and not finish up in the glass house (military prison). Luckily I got away with it.

On one trip the rear tyre was punctured with the valve pulling out from the inner tube and so was irreparable. I waved down a passing truck which was full of Americans. They hoisted the bike onto their lorry and took me to their depot where I was given a sumptuous meal. Thank you, America.

I was then posted to Italy and sailed from Liverpool to Brindisi in HMS Ceorgic. I was transfered to Cattolica, which had been Mussolini’s summer residence. On landing I was attached to the 73rd Medium Regiment Royal Artillery and would take messages from the base to the forward batteries. We then pushed on to Bologna and through the Argenta Gap towards Padua. We were equipped with jeeps and armoured cars, both with four-wheel drive which was essential in the atrocious mud.

Eventually peace was declared and my mobilisation number 26 came along six years almost to the day since call-up. So it was back across the Channel to be issued with pinstripe suit, travel warrant and ration book.

Now at 93 and driving a 23-year- old Nissan Sunny automatic. I’m counting my blessings.

John Nicholson, Bognor Regis, West Sussex.