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Top 5 Motorcycles of the Second World War

23 January 2023

Motorcycles in conflict arguably played their most decisive role during the Second World War – here’s five that proved both popular ‘over there’ and on the home front.

Prior to WW2, bikes – both engine and man-powered – helped soldiers in several ways. Whether delivering messages via dispatch riders or aiding with crucial reconnaissance, the speed and manoeuvrability of two-wheeled transport could hardly be overstated. In the fight against fascism however, the motorcycle rarely gets the mention it deserves.

Top 5 Motorcycles of the Second World War

KRAFTRAD BMW R75

You’ve probably seen this tough German bike – and its often-filthy rider – in stock footage, slogging their way through the mud of the Eastern Front. That’s because the Wehrmacht deployed the R75 to support panzer and mechanised infantry divisions in Russia from 1941.

Prior to this, development of the R75 had begun in 1938 and after initially using the old R71’s engine, an all-new 26hp, 750cc flat-twin engine was fitted instead – this is the engine that would go on to power many a post-war BMW.

Fewer than 20,000 R75s saw action as it was supposed to be replaced by the technically superior Zündapp KS 750, however the RAF and 8th Air Force had something to say about that… The R75 factory was heavily damaged by allied bombing in 1944, shutting it down for the rest of the war.

To deal with the tough conditions of its intended African and Russian theatres of war, the R75 was equipped with a sidecar, its rear wheels driven via a shaft, with a locking differential and transfer case sending drive to the sidecar’s front wheel. That allowed these tough four-wheel drive machines to get through even the trickiest of shell-churned ground.

BMW R75 - Second World War Motorcycles

Image by Biker Biker of BMW R75 in a museum

NORTON 633 WD ‘Big 4’

By the late-1930s this British brute of a bike was actually a little long in the tooth. The 16H version of Norton’s ‘Big 4’ was released in 1921 and the bike upon which that was based can trace its roots way back to 1907. That initial progenitor Norton was the first bike officially designed for military use, which meant that even thirty years after its frame was first welded, the Big 4 was still ideally suited for armed exploits.

The 633cc (hence the name) air-cooled single cylinder engine in this Norton punched well above its displacement, allowing it to carry three well-equipped troops – when attached to a sidecar, of course – with ease. There was even the provision for a Bren gun – giving the Big 4 the means to fling hot lead fury if needed.

Deployed by the British Army and Air Force – as well as commonwealth forces – the big Norton saw combat in all allied theatres during its exemplary wartime service.

Norton Big 4 - Second World War Motorcycles

Norton Big 4 in the National Motorcycle Museum

HARLEY-DAVIDSON WLA

One of the closest bikes in our list to its civilian cousin, the WLA Harley is also one of the most loved and iconic wartime motorcycles of all. It was so good in fact that even America’s enemy Japan copied it with its 1937-built Type 97. Why was it so good even a sworn enemy copied it? Well, because this big Harley looked fantastic and went like a doodlebug – 65mph flat-out made it one of the fastest military bikes of the war.

The ubiquitous appeal of this pivotal bike was also down to America’s extensive Lend-Lease program. The industrial might of the USA, plus its geographical distance from the conflict, meant it could churn out vehicles at a rate the Axis powers could only dream of. A total of 90,000 WLAs were made by the end of 1945, with many sent to America’s allies including; Canada, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Post-war, huge numbers of WLAs were sold off as army surplus, many snapped up by nostalgic servicemen.

Harley Davidson WLA - Second World War Motorcycles

Harley Davidsone WLA in a museum in Riga, Latvia

ROYAL ENFIELD WD/RE ‘FLYING FLEA’

From one of the more powerful bikes of the war to one of the weediest – though no less vital to allied efforts. Paratroopers were a new force, deployed by multiple nations during WW2. Balancing surprise with mobility, British paras needed a bike to keep up with them – one that could be shoved out of a moving aircraft, dangling from a big nylon sheet. Making a motorcycle small, light and robust enough for these duties was certainly a challenge, but it was one Royal Enfield embraced.

Its WD/RE, affectionately known as the ‘Flying Flea’, weighed just 59kg, so despite having a pretty asthmatic 126cc engine, it could still do 45mph. Royal Enfield also manufactured the carry crate that kept the bike safe while falling to earth or sat in a glider. The great irony of the Flying Flea was that it was actually a German design DKW had been forced to licence to Royal Enfield in 1938 as the Nazi government tried to force the firm out of business due to its Jewish directors.

Royal Enfield Flying Flea

Royal Enfield Flying Flea 1942 – Image by Thruxton

MOTO GUZZI TRAILCE

No motorcycle roundup from any era would be compete without an entry from Italy. Mussolini’s Axis power was just beginning its march towards mechanisation by the late 1930s but nonetheless fielded some innovative and interesting machines. Not least among them was the Moto Guzzi Trialce of 1941.

The name might just giveaway this machine’s most unusual characteristic, its two back wheels – that’s right, this bike’s actually a trike. The Trialce was one of three versions of the Moto Guzzi Alce – the model introduced at the outbreak of war in 1939 – the other two were the monoposto (single-place) and biposto (two-place) versions.

The military Trialce – also known as the motocarrello – utilised the front forks, suspension and engine from the Alce, but with a bespoke rear. The back axle was suspended by leaf springs and usually saw a backward facing machine gun mounted to a pick-up bed. Good job really, as with just 13.2hp, there wasn’t much chance of getting away.

Moto Guzzi 500 TriAlce

Moto Guzzi 500 TriAlce – Photographed at the War & Peace show by Alf van Beem

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