2011 Articles

OCT 13 2011
Battle of Britain Motorbikes - A Tribute to The Few

I first saw the Battle of Britain 'Few' tribute bike on a dull, damp Sunday at RIAT in 2007. It immediately caught my eye as something a little different from the displays of shiny Range Rovers, Fords and other automobilia that are inexorably creeping in to the ground displays at our airshows.

The bike was a striking piece of art, very well thought out and superbly executed. I took a few shots, rueing the weather, and thought it'd be nice to shoot the bike in sunshine. There was nobody by the bike, and no contact details or other information, so the moment passed.

Fast-forward to June 2011 and an overcast Fathers' Day at Beaulieu. The annual hotrod and custom car show had attracted me, and, as I wandered around the myriad of cars, vans, buses & bikes, admiring the creativity of their owners, I came across a bike painted as a memorial to the crews of Bomber Command.

I spent some time admiring and photographing it, before chatting to Ken Rothery who was responsible for the stunning paint-job on the bike. I explained that I'd seen a tribute to the Battle of Britain on another bike, years ago. "I did that one too; same bloke owns both of them. He's around here somewhere. Come back in a bit and have a chat with him."

A couple of hours later, I was deep in conversation with Colin Sims, the owner of the bikes, and plans were being hatched.

Fast-forward again to October 2nd, 2011 at RAF Coningsby. It's the annual Lincolnshire Lancaster Association Day where members get to see the BBMF up close and are treated to a private flying display. I arrived at 0745 and had just finished booking in at the guardroom when Colin and his partner Caroline arrived with the bikes. After a quick chat with Yvonne Masters, the BBMF's Public Relations Officer, to clear what we could & couldn't do, the bikes were unloaded and the shoot began in unseasonably glorious sunlight.

When we'd finished shooting the bikes with the aircraft, they were returned to the crowd-side of the barriers and were set up in their display places. Even before the LLA members were allowed access, the bikes attracted a lot of interest, with many admiring comments on Ken's artwork and the bikes in general.

I took some time after the shoot to speak with Colin about the bikes and his inspiration for bringing them into being.

The Bomber Command bike is a new-model 900cc Triumph Bonneville. It was chosen for this project on the grounds that it is a big bike, with lots of tank and bodywork area to act as a canvas. This was a lesson learned from the 'Few' bike where a lot of parts had to be modified to increase the area available for Ken to work on.

The 'Few' bike is a modified 1100cc Harley-Davidson V-Rod with a water-cooled Porsche-derived engine. The V-Rod was chosen not just for looks, but also the V-twin engine, harking back to V-for-Victory and Churchill's signature gesture. The bike had to have a lot of modifications done to increase the area available for paint, including a new tank and wider fenders - modifications which made it a lot more expensive and lengthened the build time.

The work was carried out by Ken Rothery, another Reading local, and a man well known and respected on the custom bike scene for his craftsmanship with both metal and paint. The Triumph was the result of the learning process from the V-Rod, taking only around a year from Colin conceiving the idea to the bike being completed. The V-Rod was a different story, with Colin taking three years to obtain the permission of Sqn Ldr Basil Gerald 'Stapme' Stapleton DFC to use his image in the artwork, and around a further three years for the build and paintjob to incorporate his other ideas, such as the groundcrews, the wives and girlfriends, and quotes from Churchill's speech. Colin's own description of his role in the build and paint? "I helped make the tea..."

What was the inspiration for the 'Few' bike? "I grew up with my grandad's and great-grandad's stories from the war, and my gran's stories of life in the Blitz - 76 days of continuous bombing - and I felt that there must be some way that I could show a little respect for these people and what they've done for us. Without these brave people, and the civilians, we wouldn't be here now." With so many iconic images and words, the Battle of Britain was an obvious, if challenging, battle to create a memorial to.

And the Bomber Command bike? "That was a follow-on from doing airshows with the 'Few' bike and talking to people at them. From Bomber Command 55,573 men gave their lives - for us - and there was no memorial to them, nothing out there. Actually, they were called all sorts of things, so I did it against that. Now of course there's the Bomber Harris memorial."

You've mentioned the use of "Stapme's" image on the bike, and the problems surrounding it, what was the process and your approach during the design phase? How did you bring your ideas to fruition? "I'd always wanted to use an image of a pilot on the bike, but being a biker, people are always wary of you, wary of what your intentions are. I got in touch with the author of Gerald's book via the Spitfire Society, and after a lot of emails and a lot of persuading, I was finally given his permission. When I saw his picture, with that handlebar moustache, he was full of character, the cocked hat, he was just the perfect man for the job. When I met him, I was really humbled, he's such a nice, down-to-earth fellow."

What was his reaction when he saw the bike? "His first question was 'why did you spend so much time and money on this bike?' - my answer was 'Gerald, after all you've done for us, this is nothing, nothing at all.' He couldn't believe what we'd done. I spent the afternoon with him, it was truly humbling."

The artwork on the bike has a number of nice touches - the 'sweetheart' on the sepia picture sharing the front fender with Winston Churchill is Colin's grandmother - a copy of a 1936 photo. Colin didn't know this was going to be on until the bike was unveiled for him. The photo on the rear fender is Ken's aunt, whose husband served in the RAF, and on the tank is the grandmother of another friend.

Just four weeks before the bike was due to be shown in public for the first time, there was a dramatic change on the tank artwork. A new photo had been found by the team of Spitfires flying down the Thames over Tower Bridge. Many hours of carefully painted existing artwork were sanded off the tank and the race against time to apply the new artwork was underway. It was completed, after many late nights of hard work, in time for the unveiling party - a real tribute to Ken's work ethic and service.

What about the other aircrew signatures on the bike? "When we'd finished the bike, I wanted to show it to Gerald. Luckily, there was a book-signing arranged in London that we'd been invited to, so we took the bike along to him there. As luck would have it, there were another three pilots there Wg Cdr John Freeborn DFC*, Wg Cdr Peter Ayerst DFC and Wg Cdr Tom Neil DFC* AFC AE. At the end of the signing, they agreed to sign the bike, along with Flt Lt Terry Clark DFM who told me a few stories of his experiences too.

Are there any plans to get the Bomber Command bike signed? "It's in progress."

As with the 'Few' bike, Colin is still having to work hard to put across his motives for creating the bike. Everywhere the bikes are displayed, they generate interest, questions, conversations. The bikes spark interest in history in people who would not normally bother, and serve to make people who see them think about the reality behind the images. They are truly moving tributes in both senses of the phrase.

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