Designed by the Germans, copied by the British and thrown out of aeroplanes over occupied Europe, the Royal Enfield Flying Flea was the most successful military motorcycle developed for use by airborne troops in the Second World War. Ironically, the British Army would not have benefited from this light weight vehicle had it not been for Nazi anti-Semitism.
During the 1930s DKW Motorcycles of Germany had exported their RT100 model to the Netherlands. However, their Dutch importer, RS Stokvis and Sons, had Jewish directors and in 1938 DKW was forced to withdraw the franchise when the Nazi Government banned trading with Jewish-owned businesses. Keen to replace a popular model, RS Stokvis turned to Royal Enfield in the UK, who copied the frame and forks from the DKW and added a 125c engine. Unveiled at the Rotterdam show in 1939, few of these machines were produced before the outbreak of war and after that Royal Enfield concentrated on manufacturing conventional 250cc and 350cc motorcycles for use by despatch riders.
That might have been the end of the Flying Flea, but by 1942 the War Department was looking for a light weight motorcycle suitable for use by paratroopers and the Flying Flea was submitted for trials. Radio contact often proved problematic, with sets becoming lost or damaged during drops, so motorcycles became an essential communication tool. Weighing just 126 lb (less that one third of the weight of the popular Norton 16H WD model) the Flying Flea seemed ideal on paper and proved reliable in trials.
Royal Enfield strengthened the wheels which had buckled on landing during testing, and added folding footrests and handlebars so that the bike could be packed in a steel tubular cage and attached to a parachute. Production of the rather unimaginatively named WD/RE commenced in 1943 and it was not long before the Flying Flea, as it was soon nicknamed, was in active service.
In practice, few of these bikes were dropped by parachute, as manhandling a motorcycle and cradle weighing more than 200lbs out of an aircraft was no easy task, let alone doing so accurately over a dropping zone. So the majority of Flying Fleas arrived by glider, as it was possible to pack them in four at a time using a special harness. Their light weight made them easy to pick up and move over obstacles and ideal for traversing rough terrain, where heavier vehicles would get bogged down.
The Flying Flea was not the only motorcycle that the British developed for paratroopers. Around the same time the secret Military Research Establishment designed the Welbike, a small folding motorcycle that would fit into a standard parachute container. Unfortunately a combination of low power and tiny wheels, plus the need to reassemble the bike having removed it from the container, meant that these bikes were impractical in the heavy combat situations experienced by paratroopers.
After the war the Flying Flea enjoyed a new lease of life, providing inexpensive transport in times of austerity, and remained in production until the early 1950s.