The 70th anniversary of D-Day is as good a day as any to take a look at an increasingly common but widely misunderstood classic vehicle of the Second World War: the Harley-Davidson WLA, the main motorcycle used by the U.S. armed forces and also numerous other Allied armies. Hailed by its manufacturer and enthusiasts for being the American motorcycle industry’s main contribution to the war effort, the WLA was seldom seen in the United States for many years but has experienced a renaissance as re-imports from Europe have increased its presence in its home country. At the same time, knowledge of its real wartime story has been almost nonexistent, as there have been few attempts to learn more about its U.S. military role aside from myths and generalizations, and its usage by other Allied armies has been almost completely ignored. This short article will try to fill that gap, by presenting a summary of findings that I will present in an upcoming e-book, whose working title is Liberator: The Harley-Davidson WLA in the Second World War.
The WLA – whose name under Harley-Davidson’s arcane designation system stands for WL series, Army model – was a military version of Harley-Davidson’s Forty-Five, a midsize 45 cubic inch (750cc) motorcycle first introduced in 1929 (the 1929 Model DL is shown above). It was a typical American motorcycle of its era, with a side valve engine, “springer” front suspension without any hydraulic damping, and no rear suspension. It was Harley-Davidson’s budget model, smaller and slower than its “big twin” full size motorcycles with 74 cubic inch side valve engines, and retaining a side valve layout after the introduction of the overhead valve 61 cubic inch “Knucklehead” engine in 1936. It major development during the 1930s was the introduction of a recirculating oiling system in 1937, replacing the total loss system used earlier and significantly improving engine lubrication, cooling, and durability. A further improvement was the introduction in 1939 of aluminum cylinder heads in some models, which further improved cooling. By the outbreak of World War II, the WL was a thoroughly debugged design, with all major reliability issues addressed during a decade of development.
Much like the men who would eventually ride them to war, the WLA was a humble product of the Great Depression. The Forty-Five series was sold during hard economic times mostly as an inexpensive basic transportation and utility vehicle. Its longest-lived model was the Servi-Car, sold from 1932 to 1974, a three wheeled utility vehicle initially marketed as a cheap means for car dealers or repair shops to pick up and deliver cars, with a vehicle that the driver could ride one way and tow behind the car. It became popular in that role, and others calling for a smaller vehicle than a car: delivery vehicle for small items, urban parking meter attendant transport, self-propelled street vendor cart. One surviving photograph shows this future military vehicle in service as a sidewalk ice cream stand.
The WLA emerged after a 1939 request by the Army for a motorcycle better suited for military use than the standard civilian models that it had acquired during the 1920s and 1930s. The WLA prototypes, with increased ground clearance, a skid plate, and an engine with the newly introduced aluminum heads, extra-low 5.0:1 compression ratio, and an air cleaner designed for severely dusty conditions, competed against machines from Indian and the Delco division of General Motors, which entered the motorcycle competition with a copy of a BMW with horizontally opposed engine, enclosed shaft drive, and telescopic front fork with hydraulic damping. The Army recognized the advantages of the superior engine cooling, dirt- and mud-resistant final drive system, and smoother ride of the BMW/Delco design, and it had Harley-Davidson and Indian create experimental models with these features. Harley-Davidson purchased a BMW R71 and copied its major features in the Model XA, while Indian came up with the unique Model 841 with a transverse 90 degree V-twin engine.
The Army cancelled the XA (shown) and 841 projects and adopted the WLA as its standard motorcycle because in 1941 a new vehicle had entered service and taken over most motorcycle roles: the Jeep. The superior utility and off-road mobility of the ¼ ton, 4×4 Jeep made it better for almost every role previously envisioned for motorcycles. As a result, the Army drastically reduced its motorcycle acquisition plans and chose the WLA, which was an old and less than ideal design, but had the important virtues of having proven, reliable mechanicals and a factory already set up to mass produce it. From 1940 to 1945, the U.S. armed forces acquired 23,403 WLAs, making it by far the most numerous U.S. military motorcycle, outnumbering by almost 4 to 1 the fewer than 1,000 Harley-Davidson “big twins” and approximately 5,500 Indians of various models acquired during the war. For comparison, Ford and Willys-Overland produced over 640,000 Jeeps from 1941 to 1945.
The WLA differed greatly from the British motorcycles that equipped the armies of the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other Allied nations. The typical British military motorcycle was a 350cc to 500cc single cylinder machine weighing approximately 400 pounds, far smaller and lighter than the 750cc, 540 pound (empty) WLA. They had better ground clearance and off-road mobility and were faster as well, with four speed foot shift transmissions instead of the WLA’s three speed hand shift. On the other hand, the WLA had greater capacity to carry a fully equipped soldier, his gear, and supplies, and it had superior comfort that allowed the rider to arrive less fatigued and more ready for action.
The WLA also was in sharp contrast to German military motorcycles. The German armed services used motorcycles extensively throughout their force structures, and after buying numerous commercial models during its rapid rearmament during the 1930s, the Wehrmacht had BMW and Zundapp develop purpose-built military machines, capable of carrying three fully equipped soldiers in adverse off-road conditions. The resulting BMW R75 (shown) and Zundapp KS750 were each an engineering tour de force, with systems never before used on a motorcycle: four speed plus reverse transmission with high and low range gearing, giving eight forward and two reverse gears; powered sidecar wheel with a locking differential for low traction situations; and three wheel brakes with hydraulic power assistance, necessary to stop these massive machines that weighed 925 pounds with their sidecars.
Full scale production of both models began in 1941, although Germany already had an equivalent to the Jeep, the Volkswagen-based Kubelwagen, which was easier and cheaper to produce than the R75 and KS750 and far more useful. Germany produced only 18,000 of each motorcycle model and 50,450 Kubelwagens, with investment in multiple motorcycle designs of unsurpassed cost and complexity a factor in the Wehrmacht’s crippling shortage of vehicles.
The WLA had neither the speed and maneuverability of Britain’s motorcycles nor the off road capability of Germany’s, but it was completely adequate for the uses that the U.S. armed forces had for it. The Army’s use of motorcycles dated back to the First World War, when it used several in the expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916 and acquired over 20,000 Harley-Davidsons and Indians for the American Expeditionary Force. The Army issued them to messengers, military police engaged in traffic control, and for general purpose transportation. These uses continued in the 1920s and 1930s. This photograph shows a motorcycle and sidecar combination leading a Coast Artillery unit vehicle convoy through Richmond, Virginia in 1930.
The Army gave serious consideration to using motorcycles on a large scale as reconnaissance vehicles in the mechanized cavalry, and it experimented with the idea and abandoned it in a series of trials in 1940-41. Army field tests reached the unsurprising conclusion that their motorcycles were extremely vulnerable on the battlefield and performed poorly off road, being especially useless in snow. Jeeps and armored cars took the place of motorcycles as scout vehicles by the time that the U.S. entered World War II.
These Army field trials were highly photogenic, and from the war years to today, photographs of these stateside exercises have been the standard images of the WLA during the war. In reality, they were completely unrepresentative of actual use of the WLA by the U.S. military. Instead of flying across battlefields with glamorous Thompson submachine guns in the scabbards attached to their front wheels, WLAs mostly plodded along roads in the rear, with the ordinary M1 Garand rifles or M1 Carbines of infantry and support troops sitting mostly unused in their holders.
Overshadowed by the Jeep and other vehicles in a mechanized war that demanded massive firepower and massive logistical support, the WLA almost disappeared from Army and Marine Corps plans. In 1943, the Army dropped motorcycles from the official organization tables of its mechanized cavalry units, armored divisions, and infantry divisions, and the Marine Corps eliminated them from its divisions as well in 1944. Even most military police units ceased to have them as part of their authorized equipment from 1943 onward. Many units continued to find motorcycles useful and retained them until the end of the war, though, mostly in the roles that dated back to World War I.
Military police were especially significant users of the WLA. Motorcycles were highly useful to military police, who needed their ability to move through traffic jams and had less need to carry heavy loads of weapons and ammunition. Records and photographs indicate that military police units routinely had far more than the number of motorcycles authorized on paper. This photo taken in front of the Colosseum in Rome in 1944 shows a military police company, which was officially authorized six motorcycles in 1942 and was supposed to have replaced them with Jeeps after 1943.
Dispatch riders also continued to use motorcycles in significant numbers, long after their official elimination, for the same reasons as military police. This frequently published photo shows Private Robert Vance, a dispatch rider in the 2nd Armored Division, in July 1944, during the breakout from Normandy at Saint-Lo. Rarely mentioned along with the photograph is that Vance had shortly earlier been caught in an artillery barrage and trapped in a ditch for 45 minutes before he could complete his mission. He was most likely not making a dramatic Marlboro Man-like pose; he was probably genuinely tired and not particularly happy about a cameraman bothering him for a photo.
The sole exceptions in the U.S. armed forces in using more motorcycles as the war progressed were the airborne divisions. With Jeeps and other vehicles impossible to air-drop in large numbers, two wheeled vehicles of various types, delivered by glider, were widely used in airborne units. They first used bicycles, along with a few motorcycles in each division’s military police platoon, then added over 200 Cushman motor scooters and Simplex Servicycle motorized bicycles in 1944, finally adding 12 motorcycles to the division scout platoon in 1945. This photo shows 101st Airborne Division troops disembarking from a glider during a training exercise in England in May 1944, just prior to D-Day.
Some WLAs ended up in more interesting situations than most. Colonel (then Lieutenant Colonel) William O. Darby, founder of the modern U.S. Army Rangers during the Second World War, rode this WLA in Algeria during Operation Torch in November 1942, during his 1st Ranger Battalion’s first action. Another WLA was the ride of a private named James Carroll when he unwittingly became a local and national hero in Belgium, invited annually to return as an honored guest of Belgian royalty and other dignitaries and ordinary people.
The U.S. military’s use of the WLA was only a fraction of its wartime story, though. Harley-Davidson produced a total of 57,565 WLAs during the war, of which 34,162 – almost 60 percent – were exported under Lend-Lease and other military assistance programs. Australia received 4,200 WLAs; the Free French (shown, preparing to embark for Normandy in July 1944), 589; Brazil, 430; and Nationalist China, 1,000. Moreover, Canada received 18,020 of a similar model designated the WLC, with the C standing for Canada, with a foot shift/hand clutch and other modifications requested by the Canadian Army. The U.K. received some WLCs along with over 8,000 Indians, a small part of the over 425,000 military motorcycles that it acquired during the war. South Africa also ordered its own model, a version of the iron cylinder head WL that the WLA had been based on, purchasing 2,350 directly from Harley-Davidson.
The largest user of the WLA by far was the Soviet Union, which received 27,100, more than the U.S. armed services. The Soviet Union received them as part of the vast stream of military equipment and supplies sent by the United States under Lend-Lease, which included 14,203 aircraft, 6,196 tanks, 4,158 other armored vehicles, 43,728 Jeeps, 3,510 amphibious Jeeps, 363,080 trucks, 11,075 railroad cars, 380,000 field telephones, 4 million tons of metals, and 5 million tons of food. These WLAs equipped entire motorcycle battalions in the Red Army, whose tank forces used a motorcycle battalion as the main reconnaissance unit in each tank and mechanized infantry corps. There were at least 50 of these motorcycle battalions, each with approximately 600 men.
Before the war, the Red Army had developed its own military motorcycle, the M72, a direct copy of the BMW R71 that had also been the basis for the Harley-Davidson XA. It was a sidecar equipped machine intended to carry three scouts across the battlefield. The German invasion forced the main motorcycle factory in Moscow to relocate to the Ural Mountains (it became the Ural motorcycle company of today), and wartime M72 production was only 9,799. The WLA with a Soviet-made sidecar and passenger seat took its place as the Red Army’s main motorcycle, supplemented by 5,100 Indians and some British motorcycles, primarily BSAs and Velocettes. The Red Army held the WLA in high regard, finding it highly reliable in harsh wartime conditions, comfortable for three fully equipped soldiers to ride across long distances, and tolerant of the lowest octane, lowest quality gasoline thanks to its low 5.0:1 compression ratio.
The motorcycle battalions evolved by late 1943 into powerful combined arms units, riding mostly American-made vehicles. At first lightly armed with only infantry weapons – submachine guns, rifles, machine guns, and mortars – in November 1943 they reorganized and reequipped following a new format, with a tank company of 10 medium tanks; two motorcycle companies with 74 men and 21 motorcycles each, armed entirely with automatic weapons; a rifle company with 10 armored personnel carriers; an antitank artillery battery; and a mortar platoon. All of the vehicles, other than the medium tanks, were exactly the same vehicles used in the U.S. Army’s mechanized cavalry in 1940-43: the WLA, Jeeps, M3 halftracks and M3A1 scout cars as armored personnel carriers and artillery tow vehicles, and 57mm antitank guns mounted on M3 halftracks, shown in the background of this photo of a motorcycle battalion advancing in Romania in August 1944.
These motorcycle battalions led the Red Army’s armored spearheads in each breakthrough during the major offensives of 1944-45, racing ahead of the main tank units with the mobility, firepower and armor to scout deep behind enemy lines and seize critical objectives. They did it all the way to Berlin, where motorcycle battalions led each arm of the pincer movement that surrounded the city and the drive into the city itself.
After the war ended, the Red Army set aside its WLAs, replacing them with the BMW-based M72 that it had intended to adopt in 1941. Here, in a ceremony commemorating the end of the war, soldiers of a Red Army motorcycle battalion stand apart from the WLAs that had carried them across Europe. Many of these military surplus vehicles ended up in civilian use.
The U.S. military kept small numbers of WLAs after the war, for use by military police. Here, military policemen of the 82nd Airborne Division are patrolling the American occupation sector of Berlin in May 1945, less than a month after the fall of the city to the Red Army.
Most of the WLAs that the U.S. Army acquired and sent to Europe during the war ended up in vast dumps of discarded U.S. military equipment, however, where enormous quantities of often worn out but sometimes new vehicles, aircraft, and other equipment were destroyed in place, instead of being shipped back to the U.S. This photo shows WLAs in one small part of a huge vehicle dump at Mourmelon-le-Grand, France, near Reims, in February 1946. Some WLAs and also discarded Canadian Army WLCs ended up in the rebuilt armies of countries in postwar Europe, Greece being an especially large user. Many were rescued from destruction by civilians in France, Belgium, Holland, and other countries, in desperate need of vehicles after six years of wartime deprivation. These discarded military motorcycles helped to get many people in Europe mobile again after the war.
The large numbers of WLAs saved in Europe led to the unusual situation that the WLA became a Harley-Davidson model probably more common in Europe than in the United States. Some WLAs stayed on stateside duty, and the Army sold many domestically as military surplus even before the war ended (8,100 in 1944). Most went overseas and stayed there, though. Those in the U.S. may have had a lower survival rate as well, being cheap military surplus in a market filled with new civilian vehicles, and liable to be chopped and customized. As a result, restoring and collecting the WLA has been a heavily European hobby. The widely used nickname “Liberator” apparently originated in Belgium among enthusiasts remembering the WLAs used by American forces that liberated them from Nazi occupation, not from a U.S. military name or any other American source.
WLAs are currently arriving in the United States from Russia and other former Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe, where many of the over 27,000 WLAs sent to the Soviet Union under Lend-Lease have remained in civilian use or in storage. This cache of WLAs, each equipped with the rear passenger seat added by the Red Army, was found in Russia in the early 1990s. These former Red Army WLAs are becoming the main source of restored or restoration project bikes in the U.S., most of which end up with U.S. military markings painted on them and reproduction U.S. military parts, including dummy Thompson submachine guns that were practically never used by U.S. military motorcyclists except in prewar field trials.
The WLA is a motorcycle with a definite mystique because of its wartime role. Restored examples are always a popular sight at motorcycle and military equipment shows, and they have appeared in numerous movies, such as Captain America and The Adventures of Tintin in 2011, in both films with rather extraordinary flying capabilities that were not in the original U.S. military specification. The real story of the WLA was far more complicated than generally understood up to now, however, and it was not only an American story, but rather a highly international story involving soldiers from every continent. Now if you see a shiny WLA at a show decked out with U.S. markings and accessories, topped off with a fake Tommy gun, whose owner proudly tells you about how he “restored” it from a machine found in Russia, you will know the real story of the WLA at war and in the peace that followed.