The History of Motorcycles: PART I Motorcycles and the War: a two-wheeled legacy of service

As you spend time this summer driving throughout the beautiful backroads and winding highways in and around Dufferin and Wellington counties, it’s not long before you’ll see a motorcycle rider enjoying the day as well; the sun and wind in their face as they lean through the curves. My husband and I spend many a summer weekend just this way, twisting the throttle on our Harley-Davidson (affectionately known as “Mickey”), enjoying the open road, and experiencing the sights, smells, and sounds in a very different way than can be found sitting inside the car.

These days, riding around on two wheels is often done simply for pure pleasure, or even as a daily commute. However, there have been times when motorcycles served a more serious purpose; working on the front lines of the battlefield, providing support and service for the men and women engaged in conflict and battles around the world.

The Canadian Forces used motorcycles to a great degree during World War One and World War Two, as well as other global missions. By the end of World War One, Canadians had put several thousand Indian, Harley-Davidson, Norton, and Vickers machines to use, with Triumph being the primary bike in use. These motorcycles served as a means for linesmen to repair telegraph wires, as well as scouting purposes, officer transport, delivering medical supplies, or even evacuating the wounded. But by and large, their primary use was delivering dispatch messages and orders from headquarters to distant units in England, and to the forces fighting on the front lines. It was a dangerous and demanding job, but the maneuverable motorcycles were often able to get to locations previously impassable on four wheels. Dispatch Riders, as they were called, often became so adept at their task, that they could often adjust their riding speed to match the intervals between shell bursts.

The Dispatch Rider would make sure he had all the necessary supplies with him before heading out. His motorcycle would often be equipped with two saddlebags to carry equipment and paperwork, a one man pup-tent on the back, two or three gallons of gas in a jerry can, a short shovel for trench digging, some utensils, and a small frying pan.

These Dispatch Riders also had to develop their motorcycle mechanic skills, as these hard-used machines were often prone to breakdowns. It was not uncommon for inventive riders, when coming across an unguarded officer’s motorcycle, to “help themselves” to parts needed for repairs. According to Corporal Bert Bennes in the book The Winged Wheel Patch; “Motorcycles wouldn’t last two months. So once when we came across two officers motorcycles parked outside a pub, we made good use of them. A rear wheel went to one rider, handlebars, front wheel, and the gearbox to others. We’d file the numbers off, throw our bashed-up pieces into the canal and have new parts. That’s the way we kept the motorcycles running.”

In WWII, the value and adaptability of the motorcycle became even more apparent. The allies shipped and used more than 700,000 motorcycles, with every regiment now assigned a motorcycle detachment. Their use had now expanded to include signal intelligence, reconnaissance work, and the military police. Some riding troops were even charged with chasing down crashed enemy aircraft to capture any crew who may have survived.

Although the non-armoured motorcycle left its rider relatively unprotected, the fact that it was quick and nimble meant this machine was more noted for its agility, and was praised for its ability to quickly relay critical messages and scouting ahead for advancing units. So valued were they that the Canadian forces even had a number of motorcycles waterproofed and fitted with snorkels for use in the Dieppe raid.

Motorcycles were now put to work as escorts for troop convoys, however it was the motorcycle’s ability to deliver equipment in a small, lightweight, but powerful package that was of particular importance to the WWII airborne and paratroop units, whose ability to get equipment and gear up to the enemy lines had previously been very limited.

In addition to the Triumph, Harley-Davidson, and Norton machines, WWII also saw BSA’s and Matchless motorcycles now put into use by Canadian troops. Riding upright through mud and trenches at high speed, using the gas tank as a seat, and seeming to actually revel in the danger brought by motorcycling through enemy territory, earned the Canadian riders their very own nickname; “Crazy Canucks”. It was Nazi propagandist Lord Haw Haw who said “The Canadians themselves weren’t a worry, just give them a bottle of whiskey and a motorcycle and they’ll kill themselves.”

However, it remained the role of the fearless Dispatch Rider that was always considered the most dangerous. Riding at night, navigating unmarked roads with the headlight off (to minimize sniper risk), often while dodging strafing and/or shelling, all in an effort to deliver messages and information that the enemy would be eager to get their hands on. These efforts did not come without their toll however, both on the men and the machines. Former Dispatch Rider Darrell White recalled during a Memory Project interview, “I smashed up nine machines while stationed in Italy alone!”

After WWII, motorcycle use in battle rapidly declined due to the changing conditions of modern warfare. Advanced communication technology rendered motorcycles obsolete in terms of message delivery, however Allied forces continued to use small, and quick, lightweight off-road style motorcycles in reconnaissance missions, particularly in desert environments. Special Forces have been known to utilize high-tech Zero XXM electric motorcycles, as their non-reflective black paint and silent, stealth motors make them ideal for getting in and out undetected while gathering intelligence.

I have always felt I owe a deep debt of gratitude to all of our vets, and to those who gave the greatest sacrifice. But rather than wait to acknowledge that debt on one day in November, I’ll now think of those brave Dispatch Riders and other combat motorcyclists each time I enjoy the freedom and pure joy I get from riding on our Harley over a winding back road on a beautiful sunny day.

Written by: Kelli M. Maddocks

Author: LivingSpaces

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