By Dave Walters
I have been to combat. The rush. The adrenaline. How that connects to the Motorcycle. I understand all of that. It is much more a feeling than a thought. You don’t think you need to ride, to push the envelope, you feel it. Our forefathers did too. They came home from War and they felt it.
To them, it was a little bit different than it is today. Harley surplus after the “Great Wars”, was a far cry different than Harley’s 40k dresser models on the showroom today. Your father, grandfather, uncle etc could pick up a surplus Harley for almost what we pay for a full tank of gas. This isn’t just a direct reflection on inflation, but also the correlation to massive war time production and the use of the motorcycle that we just don’t see in today’s conflicts. If you talk to me for more than five minutes, you learn I am history nerd. With that in mind, I wanted this article to explore some of the history of the Motorcycle in War time service. To not turn this into a novel, I will focus mainly on popular American brand bikes. I will throw in some cool facts about other bikes and how they serviced the war, as well. If you are as interested, I encourage you to read more on the topic. You can fill a bookshelf of information, or drop me a line and I’ll talk to anybody all day long about bikes and their use in the wartime effort.
In the never-ending battle of Harley vs Indian (throw in Japanese bikes, European etc) one of the first cool things you run across is the story of General Black Jack Pershing and Pancho Villa. General Pershing lead a contingent of men south of the boarder to chase Villa and his troops. General Pershing was the first to utilize the motorcycle in a military operation. He thought outfitting his command with Harley Davidsons would give him the edge against Pancho Villa’s men on horseback. He used a J-Series bike powered by a 61 ci F-head engine. As mentioned, General Pershing was the first to outfit the motorcycle for military operations. However, Villa and his men were skilled riders and often used Indian motorcycles in their cross-border raids. Why that story isn’t used in advertising the Harley vs Indian storyline, I have no idea! In the 9-month ordeal, Pershing never captured Villa and was eventually recalled due to the outbreak of WWI.
WWI would bring about extensive use of the motorcycle and include it in a direct combat role. By WWII the motorcycle would see a more “admin” type role in the war, though this did not keep it from combat use. WWI would see over 20,000 Harleys and 50,000 Indians see action for the Allies. This was augmented by over 30,000 Triumph Model H bikes provided by the UK. Most of the Harley’s were outfitted with side cars that could be used to carry ammo, mount machine guns, or even ferry wounded soldiers to field hospitals from the front. The first American to enter Germany after the Armistice in 1918 was Corporal Roy Holtz on a Harley Davidson.
Indian’s first initial decline and fade out is directly linked to WWI. Indian, unlike Harley, ceased production for any civilian model bikes. While Harley would still produce one new model (sometimes two) for dealers. Indian afforded all its resources into war time production and its government contracts. Government contracts do end though, and Indian was ill prepared. WWI had starved its dealers of revenue and resources to stay afloat. Even Indian’s most loyal dealers had to switch to other brands (namely Harley) to stay in business during the war. This of course leads to less of a decline and even some growth in sales for Harley during the war.
When America entered WWII the motorcycle was again pressed into service. Side cars would be less common on Allied motorcycles this time, as would use in direct ground combat service. The rise of advancements with the Tank and Jeep provided better cover and transportation for frontline troops. This by no means slowed down the usefulness of the motorcycle in war. WWII produced one of the most famous “War Bikes” ever. The Harley WLA. A 45 ci Flat head motor with that famous leather holster for a Thompson Sub Machine gun. Over 75,000 WLA’s saw action in WWII. They were used by messengers (dispatch riders), scouts, convoy escorts, and the ones with side cars to haul extra supplies in this new style of mobility warfare.
Even the Soviets received over 30,000 WLA’s (fun fact, many restoration projects still call on old Soviet Union Countries to find original parts). Harley manufactured the WLA with a low compression ratio so that it could run on 74 octane, due to poor refining techniques being used during the war. The WLA used an oil-breathing air cleaner like what was found on tractors at the time. This meant the rider could clean his filter by adding oil. With so many Harley WLA models being put into service you can imagine the surplus this created after the war. Perfect for the men just home from it who couldn’t wait to find some excitement. They were cheap, parts plentiful, and in general terms, easy to fix.
Harley wasn’t the only Allied Country to put the Motorcycle into service. The British Army used over 100,000 Norton single cylinder bikes and thousands of Royal Enfield bikes were used by British Paratroopers. The Paratroopers called their bikes the “Flying Flea”. After landing, they could quickly link up on these 125cc bikes and if needed, they simply carried them over obstacles. Indian was in the fight too. Though not nearly on the scale of their WWI efforts. Roughly 2,000 Indians saw service. Mostly in the Africa theater, where the Indian 841 and 741 (sort of like today’s Scout model) often times proved superior to Harley in handling the harsh conditions of desert riding.
By far the most performance driven bikes of the war were the German BMW R71/75 and Zündapp KS 750 . The BMW motor was a 750 cc 46 ci side valve motor shaft drive. It was basically a tank on two wheels. The frames were arc-welded, allowing them to take a beating American machines couldn’t. Their shaft drive was able to outperform American chain-driven bikes. The Allies so envied this bikes that they would be captured and sent back to the States to be studied and influence design. The Harley XA was born out of this, although by the end of the war only 1,000 were issued to the Army, due to the raise of the multi-use Jeep.
Speaking of the BMW. Famous author Ernest Hemingway once stole a BMW motorcycle with a side car. Loaded it up with guns, ammunition and whiskey (his war was obviously different than mine) and rode it to Saint-Pois, France. He wanted to be the first writer able to cover the fall of Paris from German hands. The Germans, not quite ready to leave the City of Lights, attacked Hemingway’s small vagabond convoy and a small artillery shell sent Hemingway from his motorcycle and into a ditch. The Allied advance slightly north was not far behind and German forces concentrated to their flank, allowing Hemingway to drink another day!
The German’s also tried to kill Joseph Stalin, many times, however once with the commission of a motorcycle. Sort of. Two Russian Defectors were provided with new identities to enter Russia as close confidants of Stalin. The Cargo plane they were riding in crashed and the agents, unhurt, set off by motorcycle. They failed in their attempt when the guard at a road block noticed these two were far too dry for the rainy conditions to have ridden as far as they claimed. They were quickly executed.
If you have never heard of British Wrens, please look them up. They were women of the Royal Navy, who at that time, we’re not allowed to be in the Royal Navy, so the Wrens were formed. Wrens served as dispatch riders and were recruited from well-known competition riders on local race circuits. One Wren, named McGeorge, was awarded the British Empire Medal for Bravery for actions during the Battle of Britain. She was riding dispatch messages between posts in London during a Luftwaffe bombing raid. Her motorcycle was hit by shrapnel and rendered useless. McGeorge decided to run the last mile, with falling bombs, to the command post to finish delivering her dispatches. Once at the command post, she volunteered to take out new orders, jumped on another motorcycle and road off into the night. She lived, because she was alive to accept her award!
These are just some of the exploits of motor companies we are all fairly familiar with. If you ever get time, check out the Harley 3-wheeler produced for war time effort, the TA. Don’t forget about the FG motor that was to be used in Tanks or the XS, Harley’s attempt at a two-wheel drive vehicle killed off by the popularity of the Jeep.