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RAF Scampton, The Dam Busters, a dog, autocycles, and me!

by Martin Wikner

During the New Year break with my wife ill with the flu, having carried out my nursing duties, I found myself sitting in front of the television watching an old black and white war film: ‘The Dambusters’.  I’ve seen this many times before but this time I noticed that political correctness has got in the way and any reference to Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s dog’s name was fudged out.  Well, most of us know what his canine companion was called, so we won’t go into that.  As many of the scenes on the ground were filmed at RAF Scampton, I studied what I saw on the film and certainly recognised some of the buildings.  You see, I made a visit there about a year ago to deliver a car to one of the construction engineers working for a firm relaying the surface on parts of the runway.  While there I did my best to snoop around and I came across the grave of the Wing Commander’s dog.

The grave of the Wing Commander’s dog
The grave of the Wing Commander’s dog at RAF Scampton.
You will have to get past the armed guard on the gate to view it
though luckily they granted me an entrance pass.

Anyway what’s all this got to do with bikes I hear you say?  Well, the story, whether fact or fiction, is that after the dams raid, Excelsior (or Norman?) presented 6 or maybe 10 autocycles to RAF Scampton for the squadron’s use, presumably as airfield runabouts.  Maybe the truth is somewhat clouded in myth because I have a grainy picture captured from the ’net of Guy Gibson riding an autocycle, most probably at Scampton and in the picture we also see running in the background his dear old dog, whom we can’t name for fear of outraging someone.  What is known as a fact is that his dog was killed on 16th May 1943, just outside the main gates by a car in the late afternoon of the day of the raid.  Before leaving for the dams raid Squadron Leader Gibson left instruction that the dog should be buried in the grass outside his office at midnight just as he would be commencing his first bombing run.  So maybe the bikes were delivered before the raid because the dog is very much alive in the picture.

Guy Gibson VC riding an Excelsior Autocycle
Wing Commander (before promotion) Guy Gibson VC
riding an autocycle with his faithful companion.

The dog’s grave has stayed in the same position ever since the night of the raid except when it was temporarily covered over while they did the filming of the movie in the late 1950s

Well, what’s it got to do with me?  On my visit there I found RAF Scampton eerily quiet.  The Red Arrows, who are the sole occupants based there, were in Cyprus at the time training.  Many of the buildings, including some of the hangers, look to be very much unchanged since the war.  So after having a nose around and inspecting the dog’s grave I set about delivering the car, which involved me driving down the runway to where the contractors were; it was kind of spooky as I watched the hangers shrink into the distance through the rear view mirror.  I imagined the Lancaster bombers rolling down the runway all those years ago, and was I driving along the route where Wing Commander Gibson VC rode the Excelsior autocycle followed by his faithful black Labrador dog?

I have to say, it was kind of ironic that I was driving down the runway in a German car!

July 2015


Dear Andrew,

Hope you are well.

I have just read the article ‘Excelsior at Scampton’ and believe it to be incorrect.  It has been known for decades in the Norman club through ex-workers, that the Norman brothers, who were in the RAF, gave half a dozen or so bikes to the Dambuster squadron.  I believe this to be an honest mistake, as I kept calling my Norman an ‘Autobyk’ and not ‘Motobyk’ before I bought my 1939 Junior model.

Best wishes
Adam Knopp

So, what is the autocycle in the picture?  Excelsior or Norman?  As Adam says, Fred Norman did present Guy Gibson with a motorcycle but this is usually quoted as being a Lightweight Motor Cycle.  Norman made a machine called the Lightweight Motor Cycle; this was a ‘proper’ motor cycle, not an autocycle.  Martin, in the article, points out that this picture must have been taken before the Dambuster raid.  Therefore, it is very likely that the autocycle is nothing to do with the gift from Fred Norman, but another machine altogether.  Is it an Excelsior?  Maybe, as Adam suggests, that suggestion is a result of confusion between Excelsior’s and Norman’s model names: Autobyk and Motobyk.  All autocycles look pretty much the same from the front, and the picture isn't very clear either.  It looks as if there is a speedometer on the left-hand fork leg and having the speedometer there rather than on the bars suggests that it has a spring fork.  Also, is that the filler cap on the bike’s right-hand side?  The autocycle that matches those criteria would be a Francis–Barnett!

September 2018