The White Helmets display team 1927-2017: A spectacular history
After some 90 years of daring motorcycle stunts and spectacular achievements, the Royal Signals Motorcycle Display Team was sadly disbanded in September 2017. After one final wheelie, the team members hung up their white helmets, packed their Triumph machines away and said goodbye.
Formed in 1927 by despatch riders from the Royal Corps of Signals, the White Helmets display team was famous throughout the world for its daring, never-before-seen motorcycle acrobatics. Every year, the team would tour the world demonstrating a range of death-defying stunts while wearing their traditional military uniforms and white open-faced helmets.
The team consisted of about 30 professional soldiers whose aim was to demonstrate the values of courage, professionalism and teamwork of the military. The displays were not only a successful recruiting tool – they inspired whole generations of motorcycle riders and created history as Britain’s first motorcycle stunt team.
The story of the White Helmets
The origins of the White Helmets came from World War One, when a need for fast and reliable communications required the introduction of motorcycle despatch riders. These riders were the period’s equivalent of the cavalry’s messengers – they would carry documents, maps and other essential messages between the frontline, headquarters and other military stations.
As the war went on, technology advanced and revolutionary new electronic communications between the frontline and headquarters required a number of highly trained specialists to operate. However, electronic communications were still in their infancy, and motorcycle despatch riders were still required to deliver secure, reliable messages. As such, the army decided to group all of these communications specialists together into a corps of their own and the Corps of Signals was founded in 1920 by none other than the Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill.
Of course, many despatch riders were young men in their 20s who, during their spare time, loved to play around on their bikes. No doubt there were countless challenges between riders to prove who had the best prowess on a motorcycle. The winning combination of military physique and training produced a number of riders who could achieve unique and spectacular acrobatics on their bikes.
Someone took notice of the riders’ new-found skills and, in 1921, saw the opportunity to put on an informal stunt show in Maresfield Park in Sussex. It was a great opportunity for despatch riders to demonstrate to the public the skills and courage of the army with a range of never-before-seen stunts. After more such shows, the corps realised the PR potential of these displays and so the Royal Signals display team was formed in 1927. Its first display took place in 1928.
The corps’ early shows would combine both motorcycles and equestrian riders, with the displays involving bikes and horses jumping together. However, as fewer horses were used in the military, the team was eventually reduced to consist of just motorcyclists.
Some of the White Helmet’s famous, remarkable stunts have included jumping through fire, fast crossovers, juggling while riding backwards and a human pyramid balanced on top of motorcycles.
Every year, the White Helmets would tour the UK. In its 90 years, the team has performed across the world and entered popular culture, with numerous references and appearances in TV and film. They even featured in a television advert for Texaco in the 1980s and performed at the BMF Show.
One of the only times they team stopped performing was during World War Two. However, other despatch riders took on the challenge instead, entertaining the crowds in their localities.
Out of date
After 90 years, the function of the Royal Corps of Signals has of course changed significantly. The corps no longer has the need for motorcycle despatch riders – replaced decades ago by reliable communications technology. Instead, its work is primarily focused on the latest technology and electronic warfare. Someone high-up thought that the White Helmets’ displays didn’t represent the marketing image of today’s signallers, so the world-famous team was finally disbanded. The White Helmets’ final performance took place in September 2017 at the display team’s hometown, Blandford Forum in Dorset.
It’s a wonder just how many people the White Helmets inspired to take up motorcycling – and how many they encouraged to join the army too. Undoubtedly, though, the display team’s legacy will live on in history and its achievements will never be forgotten.
Did you know?
Only a select few people have had the privilege of being a member of the White Helmets – and many of them didn’t even ride motorcycles before they were selected to perform.
The selection process consisted of a short training course over a couple of weeks. For those soldiers who had no riding experience at all, their first day of selection for the White Helmets was also their first day on a bike. However, by the second week, all of the riders would be performing basic stunts – such as riding with two people on a bike and jumping through fire.
If accepted into the White Helmets, the new recruits then faced a further three months of rigorous training. They would first practise on soft grass, before progressing to much less-forgiving tarmac. Absolute perfection was of course expected before any rider could take part in displays. Eventually, after proving their skill, the riders were able to graduate to the team’s classic Triumph Tigers.
Being first and foremost professional soldiers, each rider’s wages were paid by the Ministry of Defence. However, all other costs – including the motorcycles, repairs and uniforms – were funded by sponsors and the fees events would pay to host displays.
Best of British
Traditionally, the White Helmets have ridden British Triumph motorcycles, the origins of which stem from the history of despatch riders. When motorcyclists were first hired by the army, despatch riders would use their own motorcycles. However, the military soon realised the challenge of maintaining bikes of such varying qualities that it chose to supply despatch riders with specific machines. The Triumph Model H was one of the approved favourites. In the decades that followed, the White Helmets decided to stick with Triumph bikes, upgrading to newer models every few years.
When Triumph’s Meriden factory closed its doors in 1983, Devon-based motorcycle builder L F Harris was licensed to produce a limited number of 750cc Bonnevilles and Tigers under the Triumph name for five years. In 1983, L F Harris became a sponsor of the White Helmets and, from then until the team’s end, its machines were used for the displays.
The White Helmets?
Although known as the White Helmets, the Royal Signals Motorcycle Display Team didn’t even wear helmets until the late 1930s. Instead, they either donned a standard military hat or wore no protection at all. Furthermore, in opposition to their uniforms, they would even wear fancy dress costumes during shows!
The daredevil stunts coupled with crazy costumes inspired a range of names from the general public, including the Blue Devils, Red Devils and Mad Signals (owing to a braking mishap during a rehearsal in 1933). It wasn’t until 1963 that they took up the name White Helmets.