A conversation with Roger Willis: Recovering TT trophies from the Fascists
Roger Willis, seen here at the Karl Gall memorial in Ballaugh,
Isle of Man, is the author of The Nazi TT, available at Amazon
When I was on the Isle of Man recently, besides working on a feature film adaptation of my book Riding Man which is, as they say, ‘in development’, I also worked on another film project that has nothing directly to do with the TT.
My research concerned the escape of the British Army motorcycle racing team from the 1939 International Six Day Trial. That year, the ISDT took place in Austria, under Nazi control, just as WWII was breaking out.
I took the opportunity of being on the Isle of Man to interview Roger Willis, a Manx resident and British motorcycle industry journalist who happens to be an authority on the Nazi’s use of motorsport as a propaganda tool in the 1930s.
Roger and I met at the Karl Gall memorial, which is right across from The Raven pub and just past the famous Ballaugh Bridge, on the TT course. Roger told me that Gall, who had been seriously injured in the 1938 TT, had not wanted to return and race there again in ’39. But the Nazis put a lot of pressure on him to return and race the fearsome, supercharged ‘Kompressor’ 500cc Twin in the Senior race. The Nazis weren’t leaving anything to chance; they also fielded machines for Georg Meier and a Brit, Jock West.
It was an emotional moment when John McGuinness hoisted this 106 year-old piece of silverware, last month
Gall crashed early in practice, at the spot where his memorial is placed. Meier went on to win the Senior race, and famously gave a ‘Heil Hitler’-style salute on the TT podium. I knew all that stuff, having read Roger’s 2009 book, ‘The Nazi TT’.
What I didn’t know is that both the Senior TT and the Junior TT trophies spent the war years behind enemy lines. Not only that, both trophies were effectively lost by war’s end. It wasn’t until after Roger had written The Nazi TT that he learned how the trophies were dug up, and the story has not yet appeared online.
His tale was so compelling that I asked him if I could post it verbatim, and he graciously agreed. Here it is...
The Senior TT trophy, dating all the way back to the first race in 1907, is a cherished icon of TT heritage, along with similar Junior and Lightweight trophies awarded since the 1920s. These three evocative pieces of silverware are now worth a fortune and kept in maximum-security conditions. Victorious competitors get their hands on them only briefly. They get to keep a small replica but never an original. However, in the past, winners were allowed to take the real trophies home, returning them for the following year’s TT. As a result, the Senior and Lightweight trophies once vanished for six long years. Their recovery is a little-known tale of dedicated detective work.
The 1939 TT was held only three months before World War II began. It was held in an extremely controversial atmosphere. Basically, the Germans used it as a paramilitary propaganda exercise, fielding a phalanx of swastika-badged riders in every class, on BMW, NSU and DKW machines. There was also a strong presence from their Italian fascist Axis, Benellis and Moto Guzzis.
Manx press commentators, most notably Isle of Man Weekly Times editor George Brown, were acutely aware of the impending military conflict and took a dim view of German and Italian TT participation. Apart from accusing British riders who had joined these enemy teams of unpatriotic behavior, Brown also expressed the view that allowing the Germans or Italians to carry off TT trophies under such circumstances was not to be countenanced. Understandable, you would assume? I thought so. Nevertheless, that is exactly what happened.
Georg ‘Schorsch’ Meier won the 1939 Senior for BMW and Ted Mellors took the Lightweight for Benelli. After podium presentations notoriously featuring “Heil Hitler” Nazi salutes by the Germans, the Senior trophy was passed to BMW competition manager Sepp Hopf and his boss Christian Trotsch for triumphal transportation to BMW’s HQ at Munich.
Adolf Hitler was most impressed with its display during a victory celebration for Meier he attended in Bavaria later that year. Ted Mellors simply handed the Lightweight trophy to his sponsor Giovanni Benelli, who took it back to the Benelli factory at Pisaro on Italy’s Northern Adriatic coast.
Eleven weeks later, Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. Mussolini joined the Germans by declaring war on Britain in June, 1940. German forces in Italy finally surrendered on April 29, 1945, with an unconditional surrender throughout Europe on May 8. The hunt for those missing TT trophies was initiated almost immediately.
First into action was Australian-born TT ace Arthur Simcock, a leading competitor in the late 1920s and early 1930s, who was serving as a Major with the Royal Army Service Corps in Northern Italy. Acting on his own initiative just a few weeks after the peace declaration, Simcock visited Pisaro to search for the Lightweight trophy. But he found that the Benelli factory was an empty shell. When the Italian army surrendered in 1943, German occupation forces expropriated all of Benelli’s machinery. This had been shipped off to Germany. So had most of Benelli’s skilled engineering staff, including Giovanni himself, as slave workers.
Simcock persevered, and was directed to the nearby Benelli family residence. There, he discovered that Giovanni had buried the trophy in his garden for safe-keeping, under a chicken coop. With a bit of deft spadework, it was recovered almost completely unscathed. Only the wooden base had rotted away,
The Senior trophy was a tougher nut to crack. British pre-war BMW works rider Jock West, who had taken second spot in the 1939 TT behind Meier, started the chase. By then a Wing Commander in the Royal Air Force, West wrote to BMW director Christian Trotsch – who he knew from before the war, when he had been BMW’s sales manager in Britain – concerning its whereabouts. Trotsch’s eventual reply revealed that it had been sent to Vienna, because that city was largely outside of bombing range, and was in the custody of the local BMW distributor.
West passed this information and an address to the Auto-Cycle Union, which commissioned Joe Craig – the head of the Norton race team – to pursue it further. That autumn, Craig took a trip over to the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) HQ in Germany to ask for assistance. He was told that, unfortunately, he would not be permitted to participate in a recovery attempt because the location he had been given was in the Russian sector. So Craig left empty-handed.
Lieutenant-Colonel H Blake of the Royal Tank Regiment, who was the BAOR liaison officer with Soviet forces in Vienna, took command of proceedings. Blake negotiated a combined visit to the BMW agent with his Russian counterpart just before Christmas in 1945. He later reported that the trophy had been handed over “after a little gentle persuasion”. One can imagine that a truck-load of heavily armed and belligerent Soviet troops can be very persuasive!”—Roger Willis
TT winners used to take the trophy home with them, and return
it the next year. The TT organizers learned their lesson after
losing track of this iconic trophy for six long years during WWII.
Nowadays, this permanent trophy spends almost all its time
under tight security; winners leave only with a smaller replica.
Although there were people in Britain who felt that riders from the United Kingdom were ‘traitors’ for riding bikes like BMWs and Benellis, produced by Fascist regimes, Jock West and Ted Mellors were professional racers who’d ride the fastest bikes available to them, politics be damned. West did, however, resent Meier; he found his German teammate – a cop in day-to-day life – to be thick-headed. West really chafed at Meier’s enthusiastic Nazism, and I’m sure he would have loved to beat his teammate in the Senior.
A few months later, Britain was at war with Germany. West served in the Royal Air Force, rising to the rank of Wing Commander. He commanded a large industrial effort to repair and recommission damaged aircraft. For his contributions to the war effort, Jock was awarded the Order of the British Empire. He later went on to run Associated Motor Cycles, then the makers of AJS and Matchless motorcycles. Long after the war, he worked for BMW in the U.K.
Mellors won the 1939 Junior TT on a double overhead cam Benelli that was a remarkably fast bike for its day. Ironically, despite being a TT and multiple Grand Prix winner, and being a licensed pilot, when war broke out the RAF determined that Ted’s eyesight was not good enough. He spent the war working in munitions plants, and serving as a fireman.
Although not as successful as West, Ted was another clever man; he was awarded a patent for a rotary valve system that he invented during the war, when advancing the efficiency of all types of motors was considered a patriotic duty.
Tragically, he died of carbon monoxide poisoning shortly afterwards, while working on his own car.
Roger Willis' book The Nazi TT is available now at Amazon.com