An American Motorcyclist Relates his Escape from Paris

By F. Lewis Bartlett

From the April 1941 Issue of Motorcyclist magazine

I had been driving an ambulance in Finland from January until the war ended in March. After spending two weeks evacuating refugees from the area ceded to Russia, I returned to Paris early in April. I intended to join another ambulance corps, but after the Finnish experience I had no desire to sit behind the Maginot Line, as my friends had been doing, carrying dental cases during the “phoney” war. So I waited around a few weeks for things to break.

One afternoon I was sitting in a café when a Frenchman, who was a casual acquaintance, asked me if I would like to buy a motorcycle. As it happened, I had fifty dollars smouldering in my pocket, so I told him that I would like to see it, proving the fact that in Paris if you want to sell something, consult your nearest American.

The motorcycle was in a nearby garage and turned out to be a little single-cylinder of 250 cc. with a replica of an Indian’s head over the front fender and the name Dollar. These seemed like good omens, and after a cursory examination which did not bring to light any discouraging details I parted with my money and putted off.

The Dollar had an English motor and a French frame which was very sturdy for its size. Americans are apt to have a rather derogatory opinion of such small foreign jobs like this, but one must remember that they are engineered and designed primarily for fuel economy and efficiency, secondly, for sturdiness and lastly for speed and superfluous comfort. The saddle, for instance, would be an eyesore on an American bicycle and the top speed of 45 or 50 m.p.h. would offer considerable sales resistance, but, on the other hand, this Dollar usually averaged with a load consisting of myself, a passenger, a puppy, seven extra gallons of gas and oil plus a thirty-pound knapsack sixty-five miles on a gallon and when tuned up and on good roads did about eighty miles. When gas costs $1.25 a gallon and is only obtainable in small amounts, such mileage is of considerable importance.

To get back to Paris, I had a motorcycle and no ambulance job when the war broke out. I tried to join the French Red Cross as a liaison motorcyclist for an ambulance section but they could not see the point until they had ambulances spread out all over northern France and no communications. As I speak Norwegian and French, I tried to get to Norway but could not get a berth , and when the Germans really started for Paris two units wanted a driver, but in the confusion they did not know where their trucks were. So I putted around Paris, inspected the bomb damage after the bombing of June 3rd and waited.

Since the middle of May, Paris had been a relay station for the Lowland refugees. They had poured in and had been shunted on their way by bus and train. But about June 4th the scene changed perceptibly. Now French peasants from the north were creaking and winding through the city in their huge four-team wagons. Children, old people and squawking fowl were piled on top of the hay and underneath were footsore and dejected hounds leashed to the axle, following the uneven course of the great wagon over the cobblestones. After a day or two watching the peasants (always respected for their cautious sagacity in such matters), the Parisians started to panic.

From the 5th of June, first quietly, then more precipitously, and finally desperately, the French took leave of their city. This flame was fanned by the lack of information. The allied military communiqués were so ambiguous that one could not tell if the French army was making a strategic retreat in order to deal a death blow or were marching southward for their health.

By F. Lewis Bartlett
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