Army takes lead to protect motorcycle DR's in 1941

Discussion in 'General' started by CommanderChuff, May 11, 2015.

  1. CommanderChuff

    CommanderChuff Senior Member

    This appears on the BBC news magazine website today.

    When TE Lawrence - immortalised as Lawrence of Arabia - died 80 years ago he could not have known that the accident which took his life, and the surgeon who tried to save him, would eventually help to save thousands of others. It was pouring with rain on the morning of Sunday 19 May 1935 when TE Lawrence died. There was no mention in his obituaries that Lawrence had been without a crash helmet. In 1935 riders were typically bare-headed. Lawrence's death was to help change that - eventually. One of the medics who attended Lawrence was a young doctor called Hugh Cairns, one of Britain's very first neurosurgeons. His post-mortem examination established that Lawrence had suffered "severe lacerations and damage to the brain" when his unprotected head struck the ground. Had he survived, brain damage would probably have left him blind and unable to speak. The loss of Lawrence was not forgotten by Cairns.

    It was more than six years after Lawrence's death though before Cairns was ready with his first research. In October 1941, and by now consulting neurosurgeon to the Army, he published his initial results in the British Medical Journal. The article was entitled "Head Injuries in Motor-cyclists - the importance of the crash helmet". It revealed that in the 21 months before the start of WW2, 1,884 bikers had been killed on British roads. Of the cases Cairns studied, two-thirds suffered head injuries. Things got even worse with the start of the blackouts prompted by air raids, despite petrol rationing reducing traffic. In the 21-month period from September 1939, 2,279 bikers died, or roughly 110 a month - an increase of 21%. His biggest problem, he conceded, was finding enough riders who did wear helmets voluntarily to show it made a difference. Cairns could only gather evidence from seven riders wearing helmets who were involved in accidents. All survived. "In all of them the head injury was mild, though in four there had been considerable damage to the crash helmet," he wrote.

    The Army, at that point losing two motorcycle riders a week in accidents, was convinced. In November 1941 it ordered all despatch riders to wear helmets. Cairns had won his first victory. Cairns was far from finished on the subject. Now he could start to compare despatch riders, in helmets, with civilian riders, still generally bare-headed.

    By 1943 Cairns was able to show, in another BMJ paper, that a good helmet could reduce skull fractures in bikers who suffered head injuries by 75%. Three years later, Cairns was appeal to go further. His 1946 study in the BMJ showed that total motorcycle deaths had fallen from a monthly peak of nearly 200 just before the Army introduced helmets to around 50 towards the end of the war - even with civilians still not wearing them.

    Chris C likes this.
  2. Rich Payne

    Rich Payne Rivet Counter Patron 1940 Obsessive

    The army was in fact concerned about head injuries to motorcyclists earlier than 1941 and had purchased purpose-made helmets as early as 1940, after it became clear that the issue steel helmet (the 'Brodie' shape) presented a danger in the event of an accident. The Auto Cycle Union had insisted on their use for competition much earlier (they were compulsory for the TT races from 1914) the information was out there but probably combined with the idea that they weren't truly necessary at ordinary road speeds.


    Ironically, the type of helmet referred to above (a variation of the pudding basin) which "reduced head injuries by 75%" was considered insufficient by the late 1950s and may no longer be sold for road use.
  3. timuk

    timuk Well-Known Member

    Attached to the War Diary for 35 Regt LAA for Jan 42 just before the Fall of Singapore is an Operational Order regarding the movement of Batteries in Malaya. In the Administrative section amongst the orders regarding rations and ammunition etc is:
    7. Motor Cyclists will NOT wear crash helmets.
    What would be the reason for this seemingly odd order? Is it to help recognition in the event the area was infiltrated/overrun by the Japanese?
  4. idler

    idler GeneralList

    I take it there was no order telling them what to wear?
    On the assumption that the contemporary crash helmets weren't steel (I don't know when the steel riders' helmets came in, off the top of my head), it seems most likely that the intention was for them to wear steel helmets, as opposed to wearing nothing.
    timuk likes this.
  5. 8RB

    8RB Well-Known Member

    You are right. The steel crash helmet was only introduced in 1942.

    Attached Files:

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  6. Rich Payne

    Rich Payne Rivet Counter Patron 1940 Obsessive

    The early 'pulp' crash helmets were not too bad at reducing impact loads but gave no ballistic protection whatsoever. The use of manganese steel in the later helmets, as per the standard tin hat put this right and meant that motorcyclists no longer had to remove crash helmets and use standard steel helmets when in action.

    The Mk2 helmet with its sprung chinstrap is not particularly comfortable on a motorcycle and the risk of neck injuries from the prominent rim is considerable.
    timuk likes this.
  7. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran


    Thanks for starting this interesting thread.

    If my memory serves me well, during my service Don R's always wore crash helmets when on the road but rarely if they were just riding around a barracks area.

    I hurried to find the only snap I have mounted on a motor byke and as you can see, no helmet !

    Ron 1945-058 1945 Troop Don R, Monfalcone Barracks (BBC).JPG
  8. idler

    idler GeneralList

    Am I right in thinking that the incentive to wear a helmet was the loss of pension if you brained yourself whilst not wearing one?
  9. Rich Payne

    Rich Payne Rivet Counter Patron 1940 Obsessive

    Pension ? There certainly wasn't one for 'Duration of Emergency' enlistments.
  10. idler

    idler GeneralList

    Well, 'payments if wounded/disabled' - can't remember the precise term.
  11. timuk

    timuk Well-Known Member

    Thanks for that everyone.
    The original instruction was exactly as in my previous post. It said nothing about what was to be worn. I rather think the Op Order made more sense when it was written in that Motor Cyclists had probably taken to wearing a more comfortable crash helmet rather than their steel helmet so it was obvious what they should have been wearing.
  12. CommanderChuff

    CommanderChuff Senior Member


    Thanks for the replies.

    It appears that it wan'st only the Army DR's who were dying, the list of poilce offices on motorcycles who are recorded to have been killed on duty (on patrol bikes) is very depressing. I rode several motorcycle makes from the age of 16 to 55 with many accidents and only 2 serious ones but with no injury. Lucky boy!

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