The 1939 ISDE: The Great Escape

10 months ago | Words: Mat Oxley

Since its inception in 1913, the International Six Days Enduro (ISDE) has been widely regarded as the most challenging endurance event on the calendar; a test of man and machine like no other. But spare a thought for the riders who competed in the 1939 event in Austria (then called the “International Six Days Trial”), which coincided with the invasion of Poland and the break out of WWII!
What follows is a fascinating excerpt from an article written by MotorSport Online’s renowned wordsmith, Mat Oxley, who amusingly used the 1939 ISDT to illustrate his point about how the ‘outside world’ can materially affect the results of modern-day motorcycle series…

There’s probably never been a time when global events interrupted the sport more rudely than they did in August 1939, when many of the world’s best riders were contesting the International Six Days Trial in the mountains around Salzburg in Austria, which had already been annexed by the Nazis. On the third day of the event, the Nazis and Russians announced the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which quickly led to the invasion of Poland and the start of the Second World War.
Many of the British ISDT riders and crews were soldiers, who knew they were in danger as soon as the Nazis and Russians made clear their plans to carve up Poland. Sure enough, a telegram from the British embassy in Vienna told them to get out immediately. On the fourth and fifth days of the event, the British army contestants started falling by the wayside and retiring; not altogether, but one by one, so as not to raise German suspicions. But this was only the start of their adventure.

The men were almost a thousand miles from home and they had no way of getting there, except by racing across Europe on whatever vehicles they had, hoping to cross the English Channel before war was declared. Some rode motorcycles, some drove cars, some commandeered sidecars and other vehicles. Much of the trip was through hostile territory, so they kept going, night and day, never knowing when they might be stopped and locked up.
Some years after the war, those who took place in this nerve-jangling pan-European race referred to their trip home as the Great Escape. Germany was declared the winner of the 1939 ISDT, but the FIM annulled the result after the war.

Check out Mat Oxley’s entire MotorSport Online article, and this incredible footage below from that 1939 ISDT, which was found years later on a German film reel.

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