The History of Military Motorcycles
Most of us are familiar with tanks, Hum-vees, and other vehicles used in the military. Big, heavily-armored, and slow, the typical vehicle used in combat operations prioritizes protective armor and firepower over speed and agility. It makes sense; when bullets and explosive frag are flying every direction, the sound of rounds bouncing off a few inches of steel is pretty reassuring.
With that said, the motorcycle seems like a lousy choice for combat; they have no armor, leave the operator totally exposed, and are easily damaged. But historically, the motorcycle has always had some redeeming features that made it ideal for use on the front lines – primarily, speed!
When it came to relaying a critical order, getting ammo to a machine gun, or scouting miles ahead of an advancing unit, the quick and agile motorcycle was irreplaceable on the battlefield. Motorcycling is pretty dangerous by itself, and war is no walk in the park either, so this article recognizes those tough men who have ridden hard through shot and shell to secure victory, and the mean machines that got them there!
The Birth of the Military Motorcycle
US Army troops, with machine gun-mounted motorcycles designed by William Harley himself. c. 1916
The motorcycle first saw duty with the US military in the borderland conflict between US forces under General “Blackjack” Pershing and Mexican revolutionaries led by Pancho Villa. What became known as the "Border War" was a mainly cavalry-based counter-insurgency campaign across wide regions of the Southwest, and motorcycles provided to the Army by Harley-Davidson gave the US an advantage against the horse-mounted Mexican revolutionaries.
While these gas-powered steeds ultimately didn’t help the US bring Villa to justice, they served as an experimental platform for military bikes, introducing innovations such as a machine-gun mounted on a sidecar (see photo.) The Army was pleased with their new Harleys, and would place another delivery a short time later - for a much bigger war.
World War I
US Army Harley-Davidson in WWI - note the similarity to the one used in the Border War (previous photo)
The motorcycle first saw large-scale deployment in WWI. While commonly associated with stagnant, immobile trench warfare, it is often forgotten that motorcycles were actually one of the most prolific tools in the Allied arsenal (the US alone ordered over 80,000: 50,000 Indians, 20,000 Harley-Davidsons, and various others.)
Entire infantry units were mobilized on motorcycles, and they also provided an ideal way to rapidly deploy machine gun crews into position. Medical units used them to evacuate wounded on stretcher-equipped sidecars, and to return medical supplies and ammunition to the front lines. They were also used for reconnaissance and for doing perimeter security patrols (a concept the Army is currently revisiting using motorcycles for again, nearly a hundred years later.)
Unlike in WWII, motorcycles were used in direct combat operations in WWI - over 80,000 of them.
But where motorcycles proved the most valuable was for delivering messages. Because electronic communication at the time was unsecure and prone to being damaged, using “despatch riders” was the most effective way to deliver orders, reports, and maps between units. It was not uncommon for mounted messengers to ride through machine gun and artillery fire, far behind enemy lines, and over or around craters, debris, and dead bodies. For a snippet of what it was like, read this excerpt from “Adventures of a Despatch Rider” by British Army Capt. W.H.L. Watson:
“Then came two and a half miles of winding country lanes. They were covered with grease. Every corner was blind. A particularly sharp turn to the right and the despatch rider rode a couple of hundred yards in front of a battery in action that the Germans were trying to find. A “hairpin" corner round a house followed. This he would take with remarkable skill and alacrity, because at this corner he was always sniped. Into the final straight the despatch rider rode for all he was worth. It was un-pleasant to find new shell-holes just off the road each time you passed, or, as you came into the straight, to hear the shriek of shrapnel between you and the farm.”
Yes my dear Watson; I bet it was indeed pretty unpleasant. And you thought road racing was dangerous – try road racing while being sniped!
World War II
US motorcyle troops showing off their gear for a photo; a must-do activity for every generation of military!
While WWII is often said to be the heyday of the military motorcycle, it actually played a much reduced role compared to the direct combat operations they saw in WWI, primarily due to the predominance of mobile armor in use by the 1940s. Where motorcycles really found their stride in the European theater was again as the transportation choice of messengers, helping to close the wide distances between mobile forward units.
The iconic motorcycle of WWII is, without a doubt, the Harley-Davidson WLA. Over 90,000 were built for the war effort, adapted from the civilian WL platform with a more reliable engine, high, flat fenders to shed mud, luggage racks, and a Thompson SMG scabbard mounted on the forks. The WLA also used other innovations suited to wartime abuse, such as an oil-bath air filter, developed in the 1930s for use on tractors in the dusty plains of the US Midwest, and a waterproof crankcase for fording deep water.
The iconic WLA in action. Taking jumps on a hardtail, in a gas mask...just part of the job.
Usually leading Allied convoys in recovered territory, the WLA earned the nickname "The Liberator."
Reverse engineering captured BMWs resulted in the exceptional Harley-Davidson XA.
But as prolific as the WLA was, the Allies soon discovered how far their Harleys were behind their German counterparts in engineering (as was unfortunately the case with nearly all the Germans’ military equipment.) But it was we Americans that would get the last laugh – like many other ingenious German designs, captured BMW bikes were shipped home, dismantled, and reverse engineered for use in our own hardware.
Like they always say, “if you can’t beat em – copy em, then beat em," so Harley-Davidson incorporated the engine, forks, and shaft drive design exactly from the BMW designs which resulted in the XA, a superior machine to any American motorcycles manufactured at the time.
Astonishingly similar looking to the BMW R71, its sealed shaft drive and telescoping forks were well-suited to condition in the North African theatre, where the Army demanded a bike that could withstand the dust and grit that invaded vehicle components. However by the time of their release, the Jeep had become the quick transport vehicle of choice by the military, and the XA’s were never even deployed.
So what happened to all those awesome Harleys? The story goes that huge numbers of demobilized troops, enamored with the bikes they saw in theater, bought cheap military surplus WLAs after returning home. Of course, all those awkward looking racks, bags, and windshields were no longer necessary and were chopped off the bikes, giving birth to the term “chopper," and the eventual rise of biker culture in the 1950s. And because so many WLAs were shipped to our Soviet allies as a part of the war effort, to this day Russia remains a source of thousands of original WLA parts for American restorations!
A post-war army surplus yard; these bikes found new life as "choppers," and started a cultural movement.
Despite deploying tens of thousands of them in the two world wars, the motorcycle would never again see widespread use in the military. Motorcycles did see limited action in Vietnam, used by Army Cavalry and Marine Recon units to scout territory and lead convoys, and had a similar role in Desert Storm.
Some interesting post-war examples built for military use include the “military Sportser” the XLA, of which only around 400 were built, and the MT500 and MT350, rugged Rotax-engine powered Enduro bikes built by Harley-Davidson for UK forces. In addition, deployed forces have frequently "adapted and overcome," to borrow Marine Corps terminology, by acquiring motorcycles from various foreign manufacturers in theatre.
A whole lotta awesomeness - motorcycle scouts in front of the new Cobra attack helo in Vietnam.
Scouts in a convoy in Operation Desert Storm.
But while the two-wheeled war machine will never again see five-digit production numbers, there has been a resurgence of the motorcycles use in military operations during the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. We have a full feature on them here, but the short version is that the US military has been contracting some seriously badass military motorcycles for use in special operations, such as the near-silent, blacked out electric Zero MMX, the innovative all-wheel drive Christini AWD 450, and the long-range Hayes M1030, that gets 100mpg on diesel and runs on six other types of fuel!
The bottom line? While conventional forces have built their war doctrines around heavy armor and overwhelming firepower, the special operations community, which has risen in prominence in recent years, has proven more eager to adopt unconventional tools like the motorcycle for use in their unique combat missions. The military has undergone many radical changes over the last century, but as the asymmetric nature of modern war has shown us, the quick and agile soldier on two wheels will continue to have a place on the battlefield.
MARSOC Marines using dirtbikes to pursue Taliban in Afghanistan, 2012
Have you had experiences with motorcycles in the military, or do you know anyone who has? We'd love to hear your stories in the comments below!