Tactical Uses Of Motorcycles

An American’s observations on motorcycles in war…

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.

An important feature of motorcycle troops is the dependability and defensive resources of the motorcycle itself. Unlike a truck, which is dependent mostly on its painted camouflage of scarce natural hiding places from aerial detection it can be concealed by almost anything by the side of or off of the road. Although it is possible to bomb and strafe a truck from the air it is practically impossible to score against a motorcycle. The third and equally important feature is the fact that they are so easily repaired. If the cyclist himself cannot do the job, a repair truck safely following the advance soon comes up to him and then and there using cradles and drawing on the supply of spare parts, which are easily transportable, they can put the machine back into action. Furthermore, all towns have a shop of some kind suitable for motorcycle repairing immediately after occupation, a facility upon which truck convoys cannot depend.

Although courier and convoy service sound less hardy than combat units, they are just as important to the functioning of an army and are often as hazardous. The main feature of this work is purely communication and the motorcycles are detailed or allocated to various units in the numbers required.

The complement of a convoy or a truck section usually consists of twenty vehicles, one spare, one or two repair trucks, field kitchen and staff car, altogether about twenty-five vehicles. When it is proceeding at a fast clip, they are strung out over three-quarters of a mile or more. The Germans use in the daytime a rather simple and effective system of signalling with a small metal flag from one car back to the other. However, they cannot signal forward or at night so practically all communication is carried on by the accompanying motorcyclist.

There are usually three or four motorcycles detailed to a convoy section. One of these always trails the column so that no trucks will get left behind. In case a truck breaks down, a motorcyclist sends back a repair truck and then notifies the officers in the staff car at the head of the column. Depending on the circumstances, the whole column is either stopped and waits for the crippled truck or else proceeds. Another motorcycle leads the column to locate turns off the road or dangerous road conditions. Without these riders convoy systems would soon get snarled up and lost and could not function efficiently.

Courier riding is probably the most interesting, especially if attached to a regimental or battalion headquarters. Military communication systems have been considerably altered by the use of field radio but not as much as one would imagine. Many movements or actions cannot be put into effect without written orders. Maps and the transparent overlays (they are celluloid sheets which fit over a designated map and have a road or position marked on it which shows its place on the map underneath) naturally, cannot be sent by radio or telephone. Also in the modern warfare of movement the signal corps, although fast and efficient can not keep the pace of fast advancing columns with field telephone lines and in a retreat, orderly or not, telephone and radio communications are the first branches of the service which are hors de combat. So Napoleon’s courier who, when asked if he were wounded, answered, “Nay, Sire, I am dying,” from the back of his horse but would now answer from astride a motorcycle.

Before the German advances on the lowlands, I had bought a motorcycle and tried to join an ambulance unit as a courier. None of the volunteer ambulance corps used them, although the French Red Cross tinkered with the idea but finally gave it up. It was not until the Germans made their advance and reduced northern France to chaos that the various ambulance corps realized their mistake. For the week preceding the Armistice the individual ambulance headquarters did not know where their sections were and the ambulances themselves which had dispersed like a covey of quail were never reorganized until after the peace.

I did not realize how important a motorcycle could be until I left Paris the day the Germans entered. For sixty or a hundred miles the roads were jammed with fleeing pedestrian and military and civilian vehicular traffic of all kinds. On the motorcycle we were able to pass everything on the road and especially the long columns held up by the single-lane bottlenecks of the barricades. The only way to have organized this chaos would have been with motorcycles which could have bucked the traffic as well as lead it. Undoubtedly, because of the lack of motorcycles to patrol and organize that confusion, thousands of soldiers who were caught in it are now prisoners in German camps.

We passed a couple of American ambulances who had no idea where the rest of their section was. Before the route some had been captured because they had been sent to collecting stations which the enemy had recently taken and Headquarters had no way of catching up with them to bring them back. The day before I left Paris, I saw several hundred brand new motorcycles in a garage waiting for the French Army to take delivery, but they were ordered too late and never got their chance. Unfortunately, it was the Germans who rode Hell-bent-for-victory on motorcycles.

The Germans used large two-cylinder motorcycles. The most impressive feature was the use of a drive shaft instead of a chain drive. The front and spare wheels were also fitted out to be used in the back on the drive shaft. They were painted a dull grey and were as sturdy and efficient machines as I ever hope to see. The three months that I was in Occupied France I never saw a German motorcycle in an accident or broken down. The Germans themselves were excellent drivers and were pretty tough looking customers.

I do not know anything about the organization of motorcycle troops and couriers in the American Army but its pattern is probably along the classic German lines. For my part when the show starts I hope that I will be able to do my fighting sitting on a comfortable saddle and with the knowledge that it will be a motorcycle that will carry my gear and not me.