Normally, the first thing to spring to mind when visualizing military vehicles are tanks, jeeps and planes. Not many folk would even consider the motorcycle. Yet, truth be told all nations utilized motorcycles during the Second World War. Indeed, WW2 motorcycles played an important part in conveying messages to the battlefield, doing basic recon work, and even seeing action in light combat. Those bikes equipped with a sidecar had the option of carrying ammo, injured soldiers or even having machine guns fitted if needed. Of the many bikes utilized during war, five stand out due to their dependability, function and availability: The Harley Davidson WLA, Norton WD Big 4, Royal Enfield WD/RE, Kraftrad BMW R75, and Rikuo Type 97.
Harley Davidson WLA
First known as the Harley Davidson XE, for “experimental, the WLA was one of the foremost motorcycles used by Allied forces during WWII. This meant that the WLA was being mass produced for military purposes and sent to countries such as Canada (known as the WLC), Great Britain, and Soviet Russia via the Lend-Lease program. In the end, over 90,000 of these bikes were produced for military duty. After the war, the bikes were sold as army surplus, and were snapped up by civilians and modified for street use. In fact, it’s believed that it was this action that gave birth to the custom bike trend, which is still alive and well today. Powered by an air-cooled 45 V2, 4-stroke 739cc engine along with a 3-speed gear box. The military design incorporated an ammunition box, scabbard made for a Thomson submachine gun, along with leg protectors, optional windshield and reinforced luggage rack. Unlike other military cycles of the era, it did not have a sidecar. Instead, it used saddlebags to carry supplies, as saddlebags kept the bike agile and easy to maneuver. Known as one of the quickest bikes during WWII, it could hit a top speed of 65 mph. This versatile cycle was used for a variety to tasks such as recon, communications and all-around military service.
Norton WD Big 4
The Norton WD (War Department) Big 4 was a bike built to handle military duty. In fact, just one of these bikes could carry 3 fully equipped soldiers. This bit of metal muscle also came with a versatile sidecar, which could be fitted with a Bren gun. The Big 4 actually is known as the first motorcycle to be tested in used for military service in 1907. Designed to get ammo to the troops as well as recon missions, these WW2 motorcycles could handle off-road terrain with no trouble. In fact, this bike had the option of being equipped with a Bren Gun, if necessary. Not only that, but the sidecar could be eliminated so bombs could be carried to their destination. The engine that gave this bike its get up and go, was a 633cc, air-cooled single cylinder engine. The Norton Big 4 performed admirably during wartime until the introduction of the military jeep in 1941.
Royal Enfield WD/RE
The Royal Enfield WD/RE was designed and developed by Ted Pardoe of Royal Enfield for the war effort. Also known as the Flying Flea, this lightweight, 130 pound powerhouse was made to be able to drop onto a designated area via parachute or glider. Employed as a means to deliver messages on the battlefield where no radio presence existed, this 126cc bike is one of the best motorcycles of WW II. Produced from 1939 to 1941, The Royal Enfield WD/RE ran on a 126cc, air-cooled, two stroke engine and could reach a top speed of 45 mph. Add to that, the bike was designed simply so it could be easily repaired, and you have a little bike that was capable of great things, one of those was to go 130 miles on one tank of gas.
Kraftrad BMW R75
Where the Allies had the Harley Davidson WLA, Germany had its Kraftrad BMW R75. Designed and developed by BMW in 1938 and produced for military use in 1941, this powerful iron horse was capable of carrying two soldiers if necessary by way of a BMW 286/1 sidecar. Powered by a BMW OHV gas fueled, 26 horse power 750cc engine, the R75 was able to quickly handle most terrain. The R75 was utilized for recon, messenger duties and light combat. Those used for light combat had their sidecar fitted for a machine gun. These bikes found themselves being used extensively in Kradschutzen units. These were groups of R75 bikes which operated within the Panzer divisions. This bike also found particular favor with the Afrika Corps and Waffen-SS. Fellow Axis partner Italy, also found the R75 valuable for military duty.
Rikuo Type 97
The Type 97 Motorcycle developed by the Rikuo Nainen Company, served the Japanese military during WW II. It’s interesting to note, that when the Japanese looked to designing military bikes, they didn’t look toward their fellow Axis partner, Germany. Instead, they took to the American Harley Davidson bike. As such, the Type 97 design was based on the Harley Davidson Road King blueprint. The Type 97 was a motorcycle, sidecar combination. It ran on a 1200 cc, air-cooled engine. The sidecar didn’t come with weaponry, but weaponry such as the Type 99 machine gun, could be fitted later. Used to convey information and recon missions, this bike began its career in 1933, Mainland China where the Japanese Imperial Army took it in combat missions, and continued to prove themselves well into WW II.
As you can see from this brief article on WW2 motorcycles, they played a more important part in military service than one might have supposed. While the use of these beasts of burden slowly fell by the wayside once the military realized that the jeep could do a much better job, they still found places to be of use. Finally, it would be amiss to not provide an honorable mention to the motorized scooters of WWII, as many veterans and historians have fond memories of these little work horses. This little bits of motor and metal included the Cushman Airborne Motor Scooter and the Vespa TAP 150.