In May 1917 General Northey began transferring S.A.M.C.C. men to become officers and NCOs in The Kings African Rifles. Captain McMillan, who had taken over as Commanding Officer of the S.A.M.C.C., protested vigorously but was told that it was “necessary to win the war.”  The General visited the S.A.M.C.C. soon after and praised the men and officers for the work they were doing but said that he would continue to draw men to be used in other units. This was a back handed compliment to the qualities of resilience, resourcefulness and leadership shown by the men of the S.A.M.C.C.

In spite of all the hardships the B.S.A.s performed successfully and Birmingham Small Arms received letters from East African veterans “glowing with praise and enthusiasm for the service and reliability of B.S.A. Motor Bicycles.” The September 16th 1916 copy of The Motor Cycle reported that, “It is a remarkable testimony that the machines with which the South African despatch riders are equipped have stood up so well under conditions exactly the opposite for which they were designed.” The writer went on to say that, “We are all mounted on 4½ h.p. B.S.A.’s and a stronger machine and more powerful engine would be hard to find.” Riders did say that they could have had a few more inches clearance as many of the machines lost their footboards. Over half of the carriers broke at some stage because of the massive loads they carried.  

In 1918 Birmingham Small Arms published With the flag through German East Africa: a few experiences described by motor cyclist despatch riders, special reference being made to the wonderful achievements of the B.S.A. motor bicycles in the East African campaign. This was a 32 page advertising pamphlet containing letters and testimonials from B.S.A. motorcyclists who had served in East Africa. The forward was written by Lieutenant Commander W. Whittall who commanded No.1 Squadron, Royal Naval Armoured Car Division in East Africa. He wrote that he thought that the country that the B.S.A.s operated in “was utterly impossible for motor-cycles at any time,” but that was before the riders managed to get through successfully. He went on to say that if a message was sent by any other means it might or might not get through but, “If you sent it by motor-cyclist you knew it would get there.”  Commander Whittall finished with the stirring message that “there is no medium of locomotion that can beat that wonderful product of engineering genius, the British motor-cycle which, like its rider, can literally go anywhere and do almost anything.”

 Cover of  'With the Flag Through German East Africa'

B.S.A.s were not the only motorcycles used in German East Africa. The Royal Flying Corps had P & Ms, including some with side chairs, although they were never used any great distance from their home depots and did not have to endure the harsh conditions in the bush that the B.S.A.s encountered. The Light Armoured Brigade had a number of Douglas motorcycles for despatch work in support of their armoured cars. These had the front guards removed and the back guard cut off at the centre of the carrier to allow the motorcycles to move more easily in the mud during the rains and in the sand during the dry season. When P & M or Douglas riders met riders on B.S.A.s they were supposed to have cast “envious glances” at the B.S.A.s!

One of the few humorous incidents of this campaign was related by General von Lettow-Vorbeck, the only German General never defeated in the war. Although his autobiography only mentioned “an English motor-cyclist” the rider was, without any doubt, a member of the S.A.M.C.C. riding a B.S.A. On the 13th November, 1918 the hapless dispatch rider was taking a message about the Armistice to a Kings African Rifles battalion on his motor cycle. He couldn’t find the unit and rode right past the British lines and on into German hands. The Germans read the message he was carrying and this is how they learned that the war in Europe was finally over. His captors were most surprised that he had managed to get through at all as they had laid mines all along the road.

Do any of the 400 B.S.A.s used in East Africa still exist? There are no known surviving records listing frame or engine numbers of the machines used in the campaign. All the Birmingham Small Arms records relating to this time were destroyed during the November 1940 air raid on Armoury Road which killed 53 B.S.A. workers. Very little has been published about the S.A.M.C.C. and their exploits in German East Africa except for the B.S.A publication and articles in The Motor Cycle. There are some records in South Africa, but as researcher Gordon Bickley said, “the WW1 Records are indexed in a completely random fashion and nothing is where one hopes it will be listed!!  It takes literally HOURS to work one's way through the Index's!!”  There may be a dusty file box containing a list of frame and engine numbers lying untouched. It is not known how many of the machines returned to South Africa with the Corps or how many were left behind in East or Central Africa. It is entirely possible that ex S.A.M.C.C. B.S.A.s do exist that can be provenanced back to when first found in Burundi, Rwanda, Tanganyika or as war surplus in South Africa.

Captain F. J. Ashley of the S.A.M.C.C., in With the flag through German East Africa, has the last word when he wrote that, “if ever I wish to think of a combination of grit and reliability I need only think of a S.A. (Motor) Cyclist on a B.S.A. with fifty miles of G(erman) East Africa in front of him.”

*Note: Documents and dispatches of the time referred to the men of the South African Motor Cyclist Corps as ‘cyclists.’


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