Op Banham ready to roll: Restored WW2 despatch bike set for commemorative ride to Berlin
Military veterans flocked to Birmingham’s National Motorcycle Museum last week to witness the reveal of a restored 1944 BSA M20, which is set to be ridden from Normandy to Berlin in June 2022.
The near 80-year-old machine has been brought back to life by the museum and the recently re-established BSA company on behalf of the Veterans Living History Museum (VLHM) who plan to retrace the steps of WW2 despatch rider Lewis Banham (see below), before meeting the man himself in Germany on Friday, June 17.
“We are all pretty patriotic here at the National Motorcycle Museum,” Director James Hewing told MCN. “We’re a British collection, but this goes a little bit deeper than that. We have supported forces charities in the past and it’s something that we really believe in.”
The handover event, which took place at the museum last Tuesday, was attended by members of the VLHM as well as 99-year-old Lewis Banham and around 20 veteran motorcyclists from the Royal Signals Riders Branch.
“This is just what we do for each other as veterans. The call goes out and everybody comes to arms,” commented VLHM volunteer and ex-Airforce serviceman Duncan Balderson, who will be one of three riders piloting the restored BSA across Europe.
He continued: “Working with Lewis has been an absolute privilege. He’s incredible and it brings a lump to my throat when I stand here and look at him and think of what he went through.”
The challenge, which has been named ‘Op Banham’ will kick off on Gold Beach in Normandy on June 10 – the beach Lewis landed on in June 1944 before bravely riding into danger on his M20.
The journey will continue through France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany, raising money along the way – with 12 additional veterans in attendance to support the riders and also benefit their own mental health and wellbeing, following prolonged periods of isolation during the pandemic.
Alongside the original M20 machine, the team will take a brand new BSA Gold Star to celebrate the fact the bike is set to arrive in dealers in June as the first new model from the resurrected firm, now owned by Indian manufacturing conglomerate Mahindra Group.
“What’s better than the old bike and the new bike doing the trip?” rider and museum volunteer Wayne Hester added. “With BSA and the NMM in support it’s just given us such a head start.
“The restored bike is amazing. I keep saying that one word – amazing – but it is, and they’ve kept the patina like we asked and it’s stunning. I just can’t wait to ride it.”
This restoration work has been carried out by father and son duo Colin and Wesley Wall, who transformed the bike in around five weeks. Lewis’ former military number was then added to the petrol tank, and it’s now affectionately known as ‘Old Faithful’ – the name Banham gave his own machine in 1944.
Speaking to MCN, 80-year-old Colin said: “They didn’t want it altered or modernised. It had got to have the patina of age, so it was more a case of checking things over right the way through.
“The front brake on it is unbelievably good, which is rare. We rode it around the car park, and it actually braked very well.”
The bike was fired up on the day, with Lewis unable to resist a few twists of the throttle to an applauding crowd. He was also handed his own surprise despatch letter from Colonel Steve Davies MBE and will re-join the bike in Germany at the end of the ride.
Meet the brave wartime motorcyclist whose tales have inspired modern-day riders to recreate his epic journey
First published on 16 December 2022 by Saffron Wilson
It’s been 76 years since the end of the Second World War yet the memory of those six years of relentless fighting lives on in the accounts of the veterans who experienced it, men like Lewis Banham who was a despatch rider in the D-Day landings.
With radio susceptible to interference and prying ears, the only way commands could be securely issued was in person. With their Army-issue bike, gun and a few supplies, despatch riders were tasked with delivering messages to infantry on the front line, without the enemy knowing.
It’s little wonder, then, that their exploits have captured the imagination, with events like the Despatch Rally, and the Veterans Living History Museum’s Operation Banham – which is set to recreate Lewis’s D-Day journey in summer 2022 – celebrating these heroic riders.
Lewis Banham, now 99, is one of the last remaining riders who landed on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944. The then 21-year-old from Weir, in Lancashire, was posted to the 44 Infantry Brigade, 15 Scottish Infantry Division and was only four weeks married when he began his part of the war effort.
“We went across on liberty boats and were anchored off-shore,” Lewis recalls to MCN. “They lowered the bikes three at a time. You waited, got on the landing craft, and got on your bike. At the beach, the ramp went down and the Irishman who was first ended up in the drink!”
Although there was no gunfire on the beach as they landed, the shore was being shelled from further away, so Lewis had to move fast. He carried with him a Sten gun, pistol, 48-hour ration pack, gas mask and the grid references for his mission.
His training had stood him in good stead though. Assigned to despatch work simply because he could ride a motorcycle, he practised off-road riding on the Welsh dunes at Prestatyn and found post offices and churches using map references as all signposts had been removed for the duration of the conflict.
On the continent
Once Lewis landed, work started straight away. Throughout his trek towards Germany, Lewis saw things that most of us wouldn’t even be able to comprehend but managed to share some memories as we sat down and chatted over cups of tea.
“Falaise was bad,” Lewis remembers. “Germany got a pasting. I had to ride my bike through the bodies,” he pauses. “But I felt sorry for the animals. The cows had their legs in the air, and they swelled up and burst. It was like steam coming off them and were full of maggots… And the stench… god.”
He had a number of near misses that would’ve taken his life if he hadn’t had “someone looking down on me”, says Lewis.
“There were two of us. I was riding, he was pillion and we saw the farmhouse where we wanted to be. I didn’t know how far we had to go so I left the bike and walked across this field. They’d put white tape down, but we didn’t see it. We just heard a voice that said, ‘don’t move, you’re on a minefield,’ and the sergeant guided us out,” he recalls.
“Once, we were right busy, and the sergeant said he’d take a message… And he got killed taking it. It could have been one of us.
“We picked him up, put his body on a door and carried him off the road. You left him there and the unit comes picking the bodies up.”
But for every memory that makes you stop and think, Lewis remembers moments that make him laugh all these years on.
“We were on a tree-lined road and I’m dying for a Jimmy Riddle. I stop and I’m watching the road and there was a maid milking a cow – she got an eyeful of me!”
Although Lewis had to adapt quickly and see things most of us couldn’t ever imagine, he brightens when speaking about his Army-issue bike. Affectionately named ‘Old Faithful’, the BSA M20 was with Lewis from the start to the end of the war, and only had to be mended once during that time.
“We were being shelled, and when they stopped both of my wheels were punctured. My mates’ bike was a write-off because a piece of shrapnel had gone through the crankcase. I had to mend mine, but he got a new bike!”
Preferring to stay in farm buildings or houses that had been cleared of booby traps, there were nights where Lewis and his bike had to stay off the road, but out in the open.
“I slept on the bike many nights. The ground was damp, so I put the bedroll on the bike, my head on the pillow and my feet on the tank. I never fell off… Luckily.”
Lewis took part in Operation Epsom on June 26 and captured five enemy soldiers from the 12 SS Panzer Division. He went on to help liberate the city of Caen, as well as Bergen-Belsen. But despite his heroic actions, he wanted to tell MCN about things that were quintessentially British.
“You got parcels from home and if there was any tea and sugar, they’d give it to me. I kept it all in an ammunition box and when we stopped, I made a brew. We had flimsy cans of petrol, so you cut them in half, pierced it with a lot of holes, three-quarter fill it with earth, pour petrol and put a match on it and it would burn for a long while. That’s how we used to brew up while we’re on the road!”
Nearly a year after Lewis landed on that Normandy beach, the ceasefire was called.
“One thing I remember – I could hear the birds singing. That stuck out. I could go out on my bike and not think I was going to be shot at. It was a lovely feeling.”
But his duties weren’t finished yet. After the war, Lewis had a month’s leave in England then went to Austria and Vienna before he came home for good.
As we look at Lewis’ medals, namely the ’39-’45 Star, France/Germany Star, Defence Medal, the Dutch Liberation medal and the Lègíon d’Honneur from France, Wayne Hester and Jimmy Elsworth of the Veterans Living History Museum tell me about their plans to keep Lewis’ story alive.
Veterans Wayne, Jimmy, Patrick, and David are planning to recreate Lewis’ journey by rebuilding his beloved BSA M20 and riding the route he took during the war, with Lewis set to greet them in Berlin.
“We’re going to put a legacy in place for Lewis,” says Wayne. “We’ve bought the motorbike, so us four veterans are going to strip the motorbike down. Then on June 10, 2022 we’re going to set off and start the journey from Normandy to Berlin.”