Tactical Uses Of Motorcycles

An American’s observations on motorcycles in war…

By F. Lewis Bartlett

From the May 1941 Issue of Motorcyclist magazine

World War I turned out to be only a harbinger of things to come in the practical use of modern science. In that war transport trucks began to outmode the slow, plodding columns of soldiers, airplanes developed from open-air observation jobs to gun-toting menaces and motorcycles took over most of the duties of cavalry scouting parties, cavalry troops and cavalry couriers. In the present war, these mechanized forces have come into their own in a big way.

At the outbreak of the present war in 1939, I was in Sweden and left immediately for France. My prime motive was to join a combat motorcycle corps but at that time Americans were not being accepted in any capacity by the Allies except in the Medical Corps. My next attempt was to join an ambulance corps as a motorcycle courier, but there, too, I was disappointed as no ambulance corps used motorcycles. However, I had plenty of opportunities both in France and in Finland to observe the practicability and uses of motorcycles in modern mechanized warfare.

Military motorcycling can be regarded as being divided into two main groups: scouting and attack units and courier and convoy units, both equally important in a well coordinated army.

Although the flying services have taken over a good part of scouting duties with aerial observation and photography, local conditions must still be investigated by individuals or small parties. Here, the motorcycle because of its speed and ability to cover any kind of terrain is used to bring up small parties to ferret out centers of local resistance and if none are located to determine on the spot the roads, buildings, etc., best suited for continuation of the troop movements. This type of work is, of course, very dangerous because actually the only way to locate isolated centers of resistance is to give the defenders something to shoot at which is usually the motorcyclist. He is, in any case, “open season” at all times for snipers. Land mines also claim many motorcycle units which come upon them during quick advances before the sappers have had a chance to dispose of them.

The Germans have, of course, made famous the motorcycle attack units who are really, except for occasional tank advances in shock tactics, the first troops to contact the enemy on the ground. A friend of mine told me this story of an often repeated German tactic:

He was in a town in northern France when the Germans started laying down a heavy artillery and aerial bombing barrage. The town had been two-thirds evacuated and all they knew was that the Germans were near. The medical and transport corps, civilians and most of the troops took shelter in cellars or dugouts. Suddenly the whole attack ceased and two minutes later with split second timing a battalion of enemy motorcyclists churned into the town and took it over before the erstwhile defenders could make a sortie from their shelter.

The power of the motorcycle troops is due to the fact that they, to the highest degree, fulfill the fundamental requirements of the combat unit. In the first place they have a speedy mobility and freedom of action and secondly they have a terrific fire-power. The rider carries besides his pistol a complement of grenades, an automatic rifle and a sub-machine gun. If he has a companion in a side-car the armament is more than doubled. Foot soldiers or cavalry could never muster this amount of fire over any length of time and still be able to move.

By F. Lewis Bartlett
Enjoyed this Post? Subscribe to our RSS Feed, or use your favorite social media to recommend us to friends and colleagues!

*Please enter your username

*Please enter your password

*Please enter your comments
Not Registered?Signup Here
(1024 character limit)
  • Motorcyclist Online