Allied motorcycles in wartime

On November 11, we older motorcyclists remember those we knew who served in the armed forces in past wars. Especially those who were motorcyclists during their service time.

The dispatch riders of World War I mostly floundered through the Flanders mud on motorcycles much like the civilian ones that many of them had ridden for pleasure or to work before August, 1914. But instead of the war being “over by Christmas” as many thought, it was to be 50 months of carnage. If you were not shot by a sniper, or blown up by a mortar or artillery shell you didn’t hear coming because of the noise of your bike’s engine, you came home – to a different world.

At Verdun in north-east France, the longest battle of the First World War,  February-December 1916.

In that First World War, motorcycles were mostly a mechanical device replacing the horse. Dispatch riders acted simply as motorized postmen, carrying written messages from one army unit to another. Surely, by the Second World War, the much quicker radio had replaced the need for ponderous written communication?

However, the British Empire and Commonwealth forces, including Canadian troops, used more than 450,000 motorcycles during World War II, for many varied uses. Their riders’ simple delivery of messages turned out to be much more secure than coded transmissions by radio, as the German military were to find out when the British ULTRA and COLOSSUS computers were able to decode the ENIGMA messages.

Delivering dispatches

There is the Canadian rider, Arnold Burtch on his Snortin’ Norton, checking his pocket watch beside a ruined clock in the ruins of a Rhineland city on April 3, 1945.

No doubt it was taken in one of those inspired “human interest” moments that all photographers look for. The ruined German clock, which will never keep time again, lies amid the smashed bricks and mortar of Adolph Hitler’s Thousand Year Third Reich.

Arnold Burtch checks his watch in Emmerich, north-west Germany, April 3, 1945.

What can be said about this 74-year-old picture of the rider and motorcycle? The Norton is the 490cc side-valve 13 hp standard Army model, of which 82,000 were made during the war. It has caked mud right up to the tank, a battered front mudguard, modified headlight shroud, and a bent rear brake pedal, all suggesting a number of sideslips and tumbles.

The Norton was a 20-year-old design even in 1945, its only virtues being light weight and simplicity. The identification markings on the front mudguard have been painted out of the picture by the Army censor, still worried that the enemy might gain some harmful intelligence if they were ever to see Burtch and his Norton pictured in his Canadian home-town newspaper.

Burtch himself is soaked to the knees with wet mud; his army boots glisten, not with parade-square polish, but with cold, muddy water. In order to fight off the cold he is wearing a sweater under his battledress jacket, and over the jacket is a dispatch rider’s heavy coat with large collar. Over the top of the two coats is a set of tank crew coveralls.

It must have been no fun at all riding a motorcycle in that early spring of 1945. His dispatch rider’s satchel is on his left hip, a pistol in a holster on the right. He has removed his heavy gloves in order to retrieve his pocket watch from a chest pocket to “check the time” for the military photographer. By the ring on the finger of his left hand it seems likely that he was a married man.

The war effort may have advertised for men, but it needed women to ride motorcycles, too.

Essential guides 

During the nightly London “Blitzes” and rocket attacks earlier in the war, National Fire Service motorcyclists, many of them women, led fire trucks and ambulances through the blacked-out streets to the emergency scenes. Women’s Auxiliary Corps riders directed military convoys moving at night, while the military police provided convoy escort work. In one famous case, a rare Canadian Army Harley-Davidson ELC (Knucklehead with sidecar, one of only 44 made) was fitted with a modified sidecar and used to deliver the pay for a division of Canadian troops.

RAF and RCAF motorcyclists performed a variety of airfield logistic service jobs. When the Tactical Air Force Groups moved to the continent after D-Day to provide tactical ground support with their rocket-firing Spitfire and Typhoon planes, a motorcycle pickup and delivery service for gun camera film and prints was established.

The Beachmasters and Provost Corps men on the beaches of D-Day used special lightweight James 125cc motorcycles to guide the landing troops to their objectives. On the same day, the gliders landing inland from the D-Day beaches carried Royal Enfield “Flying Flea” lightweight motorcycles for use in scouting and communication. Later they would be reinforced in these jobs by the bigger Nortons, BSAs, Ariels, and Matchless singles that were coming ashore from ships at the beach landings.

The Royal Enfield Flying Flea was intentionally light for easy transportation.

As the war drew towards its hoped-for close in the early spring of 1945, the European war turned to a more fluid and fast-moving form. The Canadian Army had fought its way across the Rhine and bridged it in the last week of March; they captured the German city of Emmerich on the Dutch border, where Burtch checked his pocket watch.

A month later, the Canadian military, frustrated at the stalling of surrender by the surrounded German occupiers of  Holland, decided to send humanitarian aid convoys of food and medical supplies into Amsterdam under white truce flags. Dispatch riders led the columns, also carrying white flags.

The relief of Holland is still celebrated each year by the Dutch. Every May, the Dutch decorate the graves of the 7,500 Canadian soldiers who died in the liberation of The Netherlands.

Canadian aid heads to Amsterdam, May 1945.

6 thoughts on “Allied motorcycles in wartime”

  1. That Snortin Norton story sends chills down my back.
    I knew a guy who was a dispatch rider, who lived to tell the tale, and rode beside his nephew who owned a post WW11, army surplus, Snortin Norton.

  2. Back in the late 70s. My parents knew a ww2 vet. He told a story of when he was in boot camp. A dispatch rider from the front was to demonstrate how ride over obstacles, one being a wire stretched across the path.
    Sure enough, he didn’t lowside down enough and witb a loud twang his head flew off. You never saw so many guys vomit all at once.

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