Monday 16 November 2020

Motorbike Research from the 1920s, 30s and 40s for Under Dark Skies

I'm eighty-thousand words into writing a novel loosely based on my granddad's experience in World War Two.  He was in France in 1939 and 1940 during the Blitzkrieg and the Battle of France.  Weeks after Dunkirk he was still trying to make his way back to Britain from occupied France as continental Europe fell to the Nazis.

I've always found that period of the war interesting.  Germany had the initiative and everyone else was struggling to understand what armed conflict had evolved into after two decades of incredible industrial progress following the trenches of WW1.  The allies weren't proud of their losses early on and it has since become an embarrassing and forgotten period in history.  If you don't believe me, just look up how many movies and books came out of the final year of the war when the allies were winning.

The novel, tentatively called Under Dark Skies (though I'm not married to that title), tells the tale of my granddad's service in a Royal Air Force Hurricane squadron sent with the British Expeditionary Force to France to stop the inevitable German invasion.

I've tried to keep it as accurate as possible, but in the absence of any specific details (my grandfather was never vocal about his war experience), I'm taking some other influences and mixing them in, Quentin Tarantino style.  Inglorious Basterds is one of my favourite World War Two films and I love the liberties he took with history, so much so that it's tempting me to do the same.

Bill was a member of the RAF White Helmets and a handy gymnast back in the day.  I've taken his
hidden-to-me, life-long affection for motorcycling, mixed in a bit of Guy Martin and Steve McQueen, though I don't know that Bill's history needed it, but it's just how I like to write.  Back in university I got into a difficult to get into creative writing course.  Leon Rooke came in a few times to help us with our writing process and commented on my ability to convey action effectively.  I like flowing, scripted action and that is the backbone of this book.

The fictional Bill's war experience was also influenced by this news article I found in a 1941 newspaper about motorcycle based 'suicide squads' who wreaked havoc inside Nazi occupied Europe.

That's out of the Spokane Daily Chronical on Saturday, January 4th, 1941!

I've had a tough year at work and needed to find a way to work off frustration, so when I can't sleep at 5am in the morning I get up and escape into 1940 France, it's been a life saver.

One of the enjoyable side effects of writing an historical novel is that you end up doing a lot of research in order to look like you know what you're talking about.  I have an equivalent of a minor degree in history, but the digging you do when writing in a time period is much more nuanced, and this case, very motorbike focused.  Here are some of my favourite motorcycle specific research bits from writing this thing:

Motorcycle Focused Research from Under Dark Skies

1938 Triumph Speed Twin:  I was looking for a state-of the-art fast bike to use in France that would outrun a supercharged German Mercedes staff car (that was a good scene to write).  Triumph's Twin was a massive step toward modern motorcycles and an early candidate for the job, though not what I eventually settled on.

1930s supercharger speed record bike from Italy (I was looking up ideas for a customized 'uncatchable' suicide squad bike...

History of military motorcycles. 

Triumph 3HW, Triumph's WW2 bike has a history closely tied to company and Coventry's brutal experience in the war:  
Triumph History overall:

Inge Stoll: Bavarian motorcycle racer and sportswoman - I'm looking to diversify the cast a bit towards the end. It's hard to do in the British military of 1940:

Peugeot used to make motorcycles!  They were quite common in France in 1940 where I'm spending my time.  I needed a bike that a local would have, so I had a look at the Peugeot listings:
NSU was a German moto manufacturer.  German bikes have a very distinct style back then that was quite divergent from the lighter more handling focused British machines, though the NSU 351 OSL is a pretty little thing:

The operating manual for a T-100 Triumph Tiger!  I'm partial to Tigers and a chance to bring the T-100 that started the breed into the novel was too good to miss:  The original instruction manual is really handy when I'm writing about details on the bike, like where the controls are.  I could just make it up, but then I might as well have just written a book about moon nazis in rocket-ships.

RAF bikes of WW2 (some good photos in there):

BMW bikes in WW2:
... and sometimes you want to know how they sound:
... which is just like Jeff's tractor!  I'm sure there's a BMW that doesn't sound like a tractor, but I've yet to find it.

1930s vintage motorbikes riding across France:
This one was handy from a bike and a geography angle.  A nicely nostalgic thing too.

Motorcycling in 1936:

Scottish Six Days Trial ended up playing a part in Bill's backstory (so there is a bit of Ross Noble inspiration in there too).  I liked the idea of Bill's amateur riding background somehow elevating him from lorry driving but didn't want the flash of road racing.  I get the sense that Bill's motorcycling was frowned upon by family and was never recognized as something that might improve his lot.  SSDT seemed like a good amateur-accessible option that demonstrated not just exceptional bike craft but also a toughness of spirit:

German women in the 1930s seem quite sports driven.  Ilse Thouret was another Bavarian motorbike racer who looked like a real tough nut:
Bill was a freemason so I'm thinking about bringing on of these women in as a daughter of one (freemasons were killed in death camps as jewish sympathizers).  If the Craft gives you the willies maybe you can take some consolation in knowing that Nazis hated it.

I was looking for a retired French moto-racer who could help Bill sort out a modified 'uncatchable' bike.  Louis Jeannin was one of few French winners, having won the 350cc championship in 1932, but I was reduced to wikipedia for the only mention of him:    
I ended up giving him a shop at 16/18 Rue de la République, 57240 Knutange, France where Bill goes to pick up a modified T-100.  Jeanin raced Jonghis, which I'd never heard of, though they have an interesting history:

1939 Tiger T100 for sale at Bonhams!  If the book does well and Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Ewan McGregor and Orlando Bloom all pick up the movie rights (they're all big bike nerds) then I'll get myself that T-100:

Looking for a cheap bike a lower class Cockney kid would ride and came across the BSA Blue Star thumper:
Banger’s bike at home: (est.) top speed 75mph.  Good nick name for a kid who rides a single cylinder banger.

1946 Triumph repair manual!  At the end of the war production lines were restarted with little updated because things were so exhausted.  This was a brilliant find as it details all sorts of bits and pieces that help me detail mechanical happenings accurately:

A Belgian sniper makes his way into the story and has become central to it.  I wanted him on something that spoke to Belgian industrial arts and came across the Gillet Herstal 720 AF - a state of the art machine that never saw wide production due to Belgium's invasion:
Gillet Herstal 720 AF motorcycle and sidecar (Belgian) a great Russian resource on motos of war!

A fantastically named French combination option: The Moto Gnome Rhone with Dragon Porte sidecar!

I was looking for an alternate German Sidecar combo since everything has been very BMW focused on
the German side, then I came across the Zündapp KS 750, a combination so good that the German government asked BMW to build it instead of its iconic boxer (BMW refused):
A fine example of German modernist design.  They're big and heavy though (over 30% heavier than the svelt Belgian Gillet Herstal combination).


Those are just the bike related links.  I have more than a dozen pages of links and notes on all
sorts of mad details.  At one point I got lost in WW2 vintage brass blowtorches (they're paraffin fueled!):

When I wasn't looking up details on British warplanes that simply didn't work well, like the Fairey Battle that I'd never heard of before, I was digging deep into fasteners used during WW2 (Germany was metric which is a problem if you're working on a German vehicle in a British hangar).

Writing UDS has been a great trip at a time when I'm frustrated by people's response to a crisis and can't go on any other trips anyway.  Thematically this erupts out of the text with regularity.  This weekend we're off to try and take out Luftwaffe high command at the HQ of Fliegerkorps VIII in Roumont Château, near Libramont in southern Belgium (check out May 26th).  At this point the story is writing itself and I'm often surprised at the direction it takes.  In my best moments I'm reading it as I write it, lost in time.