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The CIA Museum … Artifacts: Welbike

The CIA Museum is home to many interesting artifacts associated with the Central Intelligence Agency’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS); foreign intelligence organizations; and the CIA itself. The following article is the sixth in a series that will explore the Agency’s amazing history through the artifacts in the CIA Museum. This article focuses on the Welbike.

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Imagine parachuting behind enemy lines in a particularly hostile area during World War II. After landing, you would want to get away from the drop site as quickly as possible and carry out your mission. Luckily, Allied soldiers — including those serving with the OSS — were equipped with a mode of transportation called the “Welbike” during air drops that would allow them to escape quickly and safely.


The Creation of the Welbike

The original Welbike was designed by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) — a WWII British secret organization for sabotage and guerrilla warfare — in the early 1940s for use by British airborne forces. Its name was a combination of the words Welwyn — taken from the name of the village, Welwyn Gardens, where the SOE operated a secret research and development workshop named Station IX at the former Frythe Hotel— and motorbike. The Excelsior Motor Company in Birmingham, England, manufactured the Welbikes.

The SOE designed the collapsible Welbike to fit in 13-inch diameter standard parachute canisters so it could be dropped behind enemy lines with the soldiers. Once on the ground, the Welbike could be taken out of the standard parachute canister and expanded in 10 seconds. The soldier could then make his way to safer grounds.

At top performance, the 98cc Welbike could travel 90 miles at 30 miles per hour on one full tank of gas. It had no suspension or lights, a one-speed transmission, a single cylinder, and a single brake on the rear wheel. The Welbikes weighed about 70 pounds.


SOE and the OSS

During WWII, the United Kingdom was one of America’s closest allies. In fact, the OSS and SOE worked together with other Allied countries during Operation Jedburgh — a clandestine operation which involved parachuting into Nazi-occupied countries to conduct sabotage and guerilla warfare. It is likely that the British shared the Welbikes with the OSS at this time — much like they shared other weapons and developments with Americans, such as the Fairbairn-Sykes OSS Stiletto or the silk escape and evasion maps.


The Welbike at CIA

The CIA Museum is privileged enough to have a Welbike on long-term loan from the collection of historian H. Keith Melton. The Welbike is on display in the Afghan Gallery next to an Uzbek saddle similar to one used by CIA’s paramilitary teams while riding with indigenous forces in Afghanistan to demonstrate unusual means of field-expedient transportation. The juxtaposition of the two objects is a tribute to intelligence officers at war.


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Posted: Jan 07, 2011 12:05 PM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:50 PM