Tim Marlow - The Welbike

Tim Marlow - The Welbike

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A History of the World in Spy Objects - Episode 20: Tim Marlow - The Welbike

NARRATOR: What ghosts lie hidden in the archives of espionage? What story might an unassuming item yield when placed under the right light? I’m Alice Loxton, and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects.

Ask any designer facing a seemingly impossible brief and they’ll tell you. Necessity is the mother of invention. The higher the stakes, the greater the determination. And none were higher than those faced by the Special Operations Executive. The SOE was formed in secret by the British Army at the outbreak of World War II.

TIM MARLOW: The Special Operations Executive was fundamentally responsible for deploying agents and supplies to aid the resistance in occupied Europe during World War II and then subsequently to help the landings in occupied territory.

NARRATOR: In an earlier entry to this collection, you met Joan Bright Astley - the formidable assistant to Special Operations Executive head Sir Colin Gubbins and you heard about the SOE’s remit to deploy special forces behind enemy lines with the explicit purpose of causing as much chaos as possible. A daunting task. Yet those secret agents were not alone in their mission. They had scores of helpers back on home soil, assisting in any way they could. One such division was based out of a stately home in the town of Welwyn, about an hour north of London. The mansion had been known as Frith House but that’s not what the SOE called it.

TIM MARLOW: During the Second World War, this was called Station IX, which was a research and development center. It's a kind of real-life Q lab.

NARRATOR: Perhaps now is the best time to introduce you to the man telling this story.

TIM MARLOW: I'm Tim Marlow, the CEO and director of the Design Museum in London. I'm a historian and art historian by training. I have an amateur fascination with spying and surveillance but sometimes it crosses into my professional life so I'm very curious to explore those boundaries and how they're blurred.

NARRATOR: At Station IX, during the height of World War II - that line between design innovation and espionage was very blurred indeed. A series of groundbreaking devices were invented in that stately mansion, each one bearing a reference to its town of creation: Welwyn.

TIM MARLOW: There was the Welrod.

NARRATOR: A simplified pistol, with an in-built silencer.

TIM MARLOW: The Welpen.

NARRATOR: Another pistol - this time contained within the casing of an innocent-looking fountain pen.

TIM MARLOW: And the Wel-gun.

NARRATOR: You guessed it, another gun. This time of the sub-machine variety. Did I mention the objective was to cause as much chaos as possible? Yet none of these is the item that Tim Marlow has chosen for inclusion in our collection.

TIM MARLOW: The item I want to take you on a journey with now - metaphorically, though you could actually do it literally - is a motorbike, a folding motorbike devised in 1942 and known as the Welbike.

NARRATOR: Remember, the SOE was in the business of parachuting undercover operatives into enemy territory. Just about as risky a maneuver as you can imagine. 

TIM MARLOW: And the feeling was that when parachutists were dropped or when supplies were dropped, was that the enemy would see the parachutes coming down and be able to try and get to where they landed. And that, therefore the resistance or parachutists needed a means of quick exit from the scene, from the drop site. 

NARRATOR: Hence the need for a motorbike that could be parachuted, alongside an operative, from a moving plane. Remember when I said necessity is the mother of invention? That applies here.

TIM MARLOW: The bike itself is the length of an average motorcycle. It's just over four feet, but the wheels are small, barely, I'd say a foot in diameter, and the entire mechanism is not much more than that. It looks like a sort of prototype for a lawnmower, to my untutored eye, with its single-speed mechanism. It's got a very low-slung saddle that barely hovers above the back wheel, and therefore anyone who rode it would have to have their feet either up in the air or resting on perhaps the two metal stanchions that run the length of the engine. The handlebars are much closer, I think, to those of a normal pedal bicycle than a motorbike. But the thing folds down and has to be contained in a canister that was only just over four feet long, 51 inches or about 130 centimeters, about 15 inches or 38 centimeters high - that's just about knee height - and then about a foot or 30 centimeters wide. 

NARRATOR: The Welbike was an astounding example of what Station IX could achieve when they put their minds to solving a problem.

TIM MARLOW: There were two men behind it. One was Major John Dolphin. He became Lieutenant Colonel. He was a keen motorcyclist, an engineer, and a designer, along with Harry Lester. These bikes were put into production. There were three different marks or versions of it. They managed to get to 30 miles an hour and they were pushed. Between 1942 and ‘43 there were over 3,600 of them produced. Marines and RAF were issued with them.

NARRATOR: But as with all technological innovations, there were some teething problems of a kind that could be disastrous in the field.

TIM MARLOW: One of the problems was weight difference - the canister containing the bike and the paratroopers were different weights. As I said, the bike weighed about 30 kilos, so they landed quite a long way apart. So actually there was a problem finding them. So you’re standing at the drop site trying to find out where your motorbikes landed. The other issue was small wheels, difficult in rough terrain. Drop sites tend to be in relatively rough terrain so that was an issue. And the third problem, - which I think is rather touching that people might not have considered at the time, and it seems easy with the benefit of hindsight to think how obvious it was - was how incongruous a grown man… it tended to be man, but a grown man or woman,  a human being… would look on a small bike like this, fleeing from a drop site. In other words, if they were seen by anyone, it would clearly draw attention to the fact that he was someone on a very strange-looking bike with the legs akimbo trying to go off at speed. 

NARRATOR: Hardly the most inconspicuous of entrances, which explains why the Welbike was only in production for about a year.

TIM MARLOW: By the end of the war, larger gliders and the technology around that enabled larger motorbikes to be dropped. And so, in fact, they were quicker, better able to deal with the terrain, and also less noticeable, less incongruous.

NARRATOR: Even though the Welbike was phased out of action relatively swiftly, its reputation didn’t die with the war.

TIM MARLOW: Some of them were exported to the USA and sold in New York in a department store. John Dolphin, the originator, set up the Corgi motorcycle company in Southport in northwest England and produced 27,000 Corgi scooters that evolved the technology of the Welbike folding motorcycle.

NARRATOR: In fact, the legacy of this nimble little vehicle is writ large upon the landscape of cities around the world to this day.

TIM MARLOW: I have a folding bike. I've always felt slightly clown-like on it. I like its convenience. But having discovered the Welbike folding motorcycle, I feel a certain sense of unearned glamor when I cycle around the city on my folding bike. And I also think the lesson of this is the ingenuity of design. The idea that a problem is confronted by design, and it gives us opportunities in this case to survey, reconnaissance, and get in behind enemy lines, but also the idea that you learn and modify through failure.

NARRATOR: If you’re curious where you can wrap your eyes around this awkward innovation, born of necessity - well, Tim Marlow has a suggestion for you.

TIM MARLOW: Where can you see a version of the Wel–folding motorcycle? Well, the best place I'd say is the SPYSCAPE collection in New York City.

NARRATOR: I’m Alice Loxton. More clandestine secrets await in the next episode of A History of the World in Spy Objects.

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