The Birmingham Small Arms Company has a long history as a firearms manufacturer and was also well-known as the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer during WWII. In 1939, BSA began production of a military version of their M20 commercial motorcycle that was fitted with a Lucas light which is a military signaling lamp and other additional equipment.
It was powered by a 12hp single-cylinder 500cc side-valve engine and offered superb reliability and ease of maintenance. Modifications were made during the course of the production and late-war motorcycles featured an air filter fitted onto the fuel tank. Over 126,000 units were produced during the war and most of them were deployed with the British Army. They saw service on every front for a wide range of duties including liaison and supply convoy escort. Some were also used by the RAF and British Navy.
BSA workers employed making the M20 were killed in an air raid on the BSA factory in Armoury Road, Small Heath, Birmingham on the night of Tuesday 19 November 1940. The factory was one of the main targets for the Luftwaffe and at 9.25pm a low flying aircraft dropped two bombs which destroyed the southern end of the BSA building in Armoury Road. Rescuers included BSA's own fire brigade who pumped the Birmingham and Warwick canal dry putting out the fire. As well as 53 workers killed and 89 were injured. Much of the factory and equipment was destroyed or damaged but BSA had 67 factories so work was transferred elsewhere and production of the BSA M20 continued.
After the war, the M20 continued to serve throughout 1950s and some were even used until the end of the 1960s.
By Dick Leighninger
Can you imagine taking flying lessons in an open cockpit military trainer with the instructor in the back seat giving you instruction through a rubber tube connected to the earflap of your cloth or leather helmet? Well that’s the way cadets learned how to fly before and during WWII. The apparatus was called the Gosport speaking tube.
When WWII started, pilot training for the military included the Primary, Basic and Advanced phases. The Basic (BT-13/SNV) and Advanced aircraft (T-6/SNJ) used by the Army and Navy had electronic intercoms for communication. The Primary trainers (Stearman/N3N/PT-22) did not. Therefore, they had to use the Gosport.
Designed in England by flying instructor Robert Smith-Barry at the School of Special Flying he opened in Gosport, England in 1917, the Gosport was a thick rubber tube about 6’ long, with a split in one end that attached to short metal tubes in the cadet’s helmet, and at the other end a rubber mouth piece that the instructor somehow attached in or near his mouth with leather thong attachments. The tube was routed through the dashboard on the instructor’s side, behind the cadet, to the front where the cadet sat. See pictures attached.
Unfortunately, there are no longer too many WWII pilots who experienced the Gosport to tell us how it worked. But we do know Gosport like speaking tubes were common on military vessels during the war. The speaking tubes were used to communicate between decks and compartments in the ships. Speaking tubes were installed on ocean going vessels long before World War I, so this may be where Mr. Smith-Barry got his idea for the Gosport.
The Minnesota Wing currently has a Gosport and cloth flying helmet in its collection and there are plans to install the speaking tube in the Ryan PT-22 at some time in the future.
Due to the urgent need for more pilots in World War II, the United States Army Air Forces lowered the entrance requirements for aviation cadets to admit eighteen-year-olds with high school diplomas. Enlisted men in the Army could also be allowed to enter flight training. Sergeant pilots had also existed, but it was an awkward situation. Such people had the responsibility of operating airplanes, but did not get the benefits or pay that commissioned officer pilots did. Pilots who were commissioned officers were also reluctant to accept the enlisted pilots and new recruits with just a high school education as their peers.
In May 1942, the USAAF asked Congress to create a new grade above the enlisted ranks but below that of second lieutenant. On July 8, President Roosevelt signed Public Law 658, establishing the grade of flight officer (F/O), equal in status to that of warrant officer junior grade. Like warrant officers, they held a place between the enlisted and commissioned officers. Often described as a "third Lieutenant," they wore the uniform of an officer but had the rank insignia of a blue bar with a gold bar across the middle. This was informally called the "blue pickle."
The most famous person to be a Flight Officer was also one of America's most famous pilots. Before he broke the sound barrier flying the Bell X-1, Charles Yeager was an enlisted man. After being accepted for flight training, he graduated as a Flight Officer during the war. During his time as a fighter pilot, he was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant, and continued to rise up the ranks of the USAAF and later, the United States Air Force. By the end of the war, many of the other Flight Officers had also been promoted to commissioned officer status with the rank of Lieutenant. Exactly when the last flight officers entered service is unclear, but the law authorizing the grade was not repealed until July 1947, two months before the Air Force became a separate service.
Sources: "The Third Lieutenants” By Bruce D. Callander and J.H. MacWilliam
Air Force Magazine, Sept. 7, 2008
"He's a Flight Officer Now"
Yank, the Army Weekly, December 2, 1943
Smoke markers were used in bombers from the late 1930s through World War II. They were filled with white phosphorous and were dropped by the lead aircraft when the target had been determined. It signaled the remaining aircraft to drop their bombs. They identified the general target location for the other planes in the squadron. As you can see in the picture the smoke markers point to the target.
The wooden ones floated and were a smoke-producing flare designed to be dropped by an aircraft over open water for drift sighting during the day or night. When the drift signal is thrown from an aircraft it floats on the water and gives a light and smoke which are visible to an observer in the airplane from which it was dropped. These signals are used in obtaining the drift of the airplane from which it was dropped.
This month’s featured artifact is the M8 flare pistol. The M8 Pyrotechnic Pistol was the standard 37mm signal flare launcher used by the United States Army Air Force during the Second World War. The weapon is a double-action pistol with a simple break-open breech-loading design, with a cast aluminium frame, stamped steel parts and a bakelite (plastic) grip. The two distinctive curved projections at the top are the latch for opening the breech at the rear, and a hook for securing the pistol in an aircraft. Alternatively, it could be secured by the muzzle using the four rectangular locking lugs seen on the end of the barrel if the aircraft had the appropriate mounting. The mount was really a little door that would have been fastened to the aircraft and allowed the barrel to extend through the aircraft’s outer skin. It was spring mounted to absorb the recoil.
Different colored flares would have been used by the flight crews near the airfield to communicate different types of emergencies such as: wounded aboard, radio out, gear malfunction or other types of in-flight emergencies. This would give the appropriate emergency ground crews and aircraft controllers a heads up as to what to expect when the aircraft touched down. This type of pistol could also have been used by crews during a water ditching situation to signal rescue vessels or aircraft from a life raft.
This type of pistol can be seen being used in early movies such as 12 O’Clock High and as recently as the 2014 tale of survival about Louis Zamperini titled Unbroken. Interestingly, this particular pistol has the manufacturer’s stamp of EVCC, which stood for Eureka Vacuum Cleaner Company. Eureka built these pistols under contract for the U.S. Government during the war. Eureka, like many manufacturers, had completely switched over to producing only materials for the war effort and along with the pistols made parts for B-29 bombers, C-47 transports and an automatic fire-control device, among other things.
From the museum archives comes these two interesting armbands that were worn by volunteers of the Reichsluftshutzbund or National Air Raid Protection League in Germany during WWII.
The red armband would have been worn by members in urban areas who had the specific task of extinguishing fires caused by incendiary aerial bombs. This was an important task as the fires caused by hundreds of incendiaries were initially small and could be quickly extinguished if caught early, but left to burn could grow in size and cause immense destruction as evidenced in the firestorms they caused in cities like Dresden and Hamburg.
Likewise, the blue armband with the white ‘O’ signified a member of the Luftschutz Crowd Control unit. These units helped to maintain order and attempted to keep panic from setting in during and after air raids so that the firefighting units could complete their tasks.
The Luftschutz was a dedicated civil defense organization that started as a volunteer organization, but after 1935 was obligatory for nearly all German civilians. By the Spring of 1943, membership reached over 22 million in response to the increasingly devastating air attacks Germany experienced during WWII.
The Loop Antenna was used for navigating by radio, which was a common practice in WWII, just as it is today. Obviously, modern radio navigation antennas look much different! Antennas like this would be attached to the top or bottom of an airplane’s fuselage. The Loop Antenna was part of a system known as a radio compass. Instead of having a flight deck indicator needle pointing toward the north pole, the needle with a radio compass would point toward a broadcasting radio station at a known location on a map. The antenna would pick up the station’s signals.
As shown in one of the attached pictures, the strength of the received signal depended upon the position of the antenna relative to the station. An air crew would tune in the frequency of the radio station, and based on the strength of the received signal, the direction of the station relative to the airplane could be determined.
Picture four shows three ways the Loop Antenna was used on airplanes. On Miss Mitchell, the loop antenna is enclosed by a black teardrop shaped structure, as shown in picture two.
On June 6, 1944, a young man from South St. Paul, Minnesota was among the thousands of US Troops that made history and defended our freedom with the invasion of Normandy. That young man was my dad, George Alex, Jr. During the Normandy Invasion he served on board LCI (L) 414.
George Alex Jr. was born on September 2nd 1925 and entered the U.S. Navy after his 18th birthday on November 12th, 1943. He was assigned to the LCI (L) 414 on March 17th, 1944, and by March 24th, he departed Norfolk, Virginia on board the LCI (L) 414, bound for England. His ship reached Falmouth, England on April 12th. At 12:00 AM on June 6th, the ship departed England for Omaha Beach in Normandy, France to land Army troops for the invasion.
George Alex Jr. continued to serve in the Navy until January 3rd, 1946, when he was discharged and returned home to South St. Paul. He married, raised a family, and continued to live there for the rest of his life. He passed away on July 8th, 2012 and is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in South St. Paul.
The history of the local museum, its former use as a Naval training base during the war, and the location in South St. Paul make this a perfect place to display the uniform of a South St. Paul man that served his country. My family and I are honored at the opportunity to display the uniform and share the story of his service. This display is how I got involved with the Commemorative Air Force and I am proud to be a new member.
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