In an article on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2014, about the primary American military motorcycle of the Second World War–the Harley-Davidson WLA–I mentioned that the photographs and information were from a book I was writing about that well known but often misunderstood vehicle. I now can announce that the book is finally completed and available for purchase, titled Liberator: The Harley-Davidson WLA in the Second World War. For the benefit of anyone interested in the subject, I will provide some information to help those persons determine whether the book’s approach and content are what they are looking for.
The book is first and foremost about how the U.S. armed forces and other Allied armies used the WLA. It is not a detailed history of the development or production of the WLA or of Harley-Davidson during the era. It also is not a glossy picture book, being a self-published paperback in black and white with photo resolution far below what a coffee table book from a major publisher can offer. What it offers is a description of how the WLA came to be, tracing its development from Harley-Davidson commercial models of the 1930s; a brief history of U.S. military use of motorcycles between the world wars; and a detailed description of the use of the WLA in each major type of U.S. Army and Marine Corps unit, from armored and infantry divisions to military police units.
This treatment reveals how American soldiers and Marines actually used these machines at the battlefronts. It includes several profiles of individual soldiers who achieved noteworthy feats on motorcycles, including one of the soldiers in the photograph above, who originally enlisted in the horse cavalry, participated in prewar experimental exercises with motorcycles as scout vehicles, survived the entire campaign from Normandy to Germany in 1944-45, and became a military police motorcyclist in Germany after the war.
Far from being glamorous or colorful, the role of military motorcycles and their riders was complicated and often highly unpleasant, just like everything in war.
Airborne divisions used bicycles, Cushman scooters (shown), and Servicycle motorized bicycles in addition to motorcycles, and the book covers the little-known use of these small but valuable two-wheeled vehicles. Band of Brothers did not dare to show any Screaming Eagles on scooters, but this book does.
Red Army use of the WLA and other American military motorcycles has been practically nonexistent in the English language, and Liberator tells the dramatic story for the first time. The Soviet Union was the largest user of the WLA, receiving 27,100 of them as well as several thousand Indians under Lend-Lease, and they equipped Motorcycle Battalions that were the main reconnaissance units for the Red Army’s tank forces. Red Army scouts in the Motorcycle Battalions, such as these smiling men on their newly issued WLAs, rode them deep behind German lines ahead of the Red Army’s advancing tanks in offensives all the way to Berlin.
The WLA and its Indian competitors went to numerous other Allied armies under Lend-Lease or direct contracts, and the motorcycles provided to each country are described. These countries included Canada (which received its own distinct Harley-Davidson model, the WLC), the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Polish forces in exile (under both British and Soviet command), France (Third Republic and Free French forces), Brazil, and the Republic of China. Our friend in New Zealand, Kiwibryce, will appreciate this photograph of a New Zealand military policeman with an Indian 741B in New Caledonia.
In some instances, the book mentions interesting appearances by American military motorcycles about which little is currently known and that time would not allow looking into further. For example, it is known that the Imperial Iranian Gendarmerie received a quantity of the Indian 741B in 1944 (shown above, in a stunt riding demonstration), but how many and what happened to them is unknown.
The book also briefly describes the postwar fate of these motorcycles, including their use as civilian transport in Europe before eventually becoming collector’s items. This photograph shows Dutch civilians examining surplus ex-Canadian Army WLCs and British motorcycles. The widely used nickname “Liberator” originated in Belgium, where the WLA has been widely used and collected since immediately after the war.
Allied soldiers riding the WLA and other American motorcycles went to some remarkable places and did some remarkable things during the war, and Liberator attempts to convey as much of the story as possible. (This photograph taken in China near the China-Burma border shows the deputy commander of a supply convoy on the Ledo Road, part of the supply lifeline that supported the Republic of China in its war against Imperial Japan.) Its 92 8.5×11 pages of text and photographs and 60 pages of tables of organization and equipment tell the story as well as I can at this point. I hope that you will appreciate it as-is, and in an ideal world, several years from now I will be able to re-issue it with newly discovered information.