How the Red Army fought on Harley-Davidsons in World War 2

The structuring of Soviet motorcycle battallions is outlined previously “here”

On this page we look more closely at the Lend-Lease program which aided the Soviet Union during World War Two, or as the Russians call it “The Great Patriotic War”and how the Red Army was supplied and fought on Harley-Davidsons during the war. The U.S., Britain and Canada sent the USSR a great variety of much-needed equipment during World War II, including motorcycles………………

Archive photo

The famous American motorcycle was not only the most widely used motorbike in the Red Army, but also the favorite of Soviet soldiers. Towards the beginning of the German Wehrmacht’s invasion of the USSR, the situation with motorcycles in the Red Army left much to be desired. There were few “iron horses” in the Soviet troops before the war and the forced evacuation of industrial plants to Siberia considerably complicated their production. Then, the Western allies came to the USSR’s rescue. British ‘Velocettes’ ‘BSAs’ and ‘Matchlesses’ and American ‘Indians’ and ‘Harley-Davidsons’ arrived in the country. The latter made up the lion’s share of all deliveries – more than 21,000 motorcycles were supplied. For comparison, no more than 16,000 M-72s – the main Soviet military motorcycle (based on the German BMW R71) were manufactured in the USSR throughout the period of the global conflict. Thus, the Harley-Davidson became the most widely used motorcycle in the Red Army. And it also became the favorite of Soviet soldiers.

Archive photo

Reliable and powerful

The Harley-Davidson 42WLA that was supplied to the USSR was noted for its reliability, durability, the high quality of its components, its large payload capacity, comfort, powerful engine and tolerance of low-quality gasoline. While it didn’t like off-road conditions too much with no rear suspension rigid rear end, on a surfaced road, it could reach a speed of up to 110 km/h. “The Harley is a good, sturdy machine, with a V-type engine protected by the frame, with chain drive, a leather saddle on springs softens all those bumps,” recalled Arseny Zonov, a member of a motorized mobile unit. The 42WLA came equipped with a luggage rack for transporting radio communication equipment, an ammo box and a special scabbard for the 11.43-mm Thompson submachine gun. The Red Army received almost 138,000 of the guns – the weapon of choice of the gangsters of the Great Depression era – from the Americans. Some of them were fitted with leg shields and front and rear blackout lights, even windshields.

Archive photo

Since the Harley-Davidson’s were supplied to the Soviet Union without a sidecar, on arrival, they were fitted with sidecars from the Soviet M-72. After that, the “iron horse” was kitted out with weapons in the form of the 7.62-mm Degtyaryov machine gun or – albeit rarely – with the PTRS or PTRD anti-tank rifle. The motorcycle could also be equipped with an 82-mm mortar gun. The Red Army soldiers would set it up in its firing position in the blink of an eye, fire it and then load it back on the sidecar and withdraw at top speed from the enemy’s return fire to another location.

Excellent in combat .

Harley-Davidsons were used for the needs of military reconnaissance, signals and HQ services. In addition, the fast and well-armed motorcycles played an active role in combat. Mobile motorcycle units carried out probing reconnaissance operations, seized bridges and river crossings and penetrated deep inside enemy lines, successfully operating at distances of up to several hundred kilometers from the main forces. Depending on the combat tasks they were set, these units could be reinforced with heavy armored vehicles and self-propelled artillery.

Archive photo

Serafim Vasin, a serviceman of the motorcycle regiment of the 6th Guards Tank Army recalls “If the enemy suddenly broke through our army’s defenses somewhere, our regiment was directed there, in order to strengthen the defenses or, if our units broke through the German defenses after lengthy fighting, but lacked the capacity to pursue them, in we would be sent again.” The Soviet Harleys successfully reached Berlin (along with their Soviet M-72 counterparts) and, in the war against Japan the Harleys they gave a splendid account of themselves in the wide open spaces of Manchuria.

The American motorbikes also found an application in the USSR after the war. Apart from anything else, they were employed with great relish by the Moscow police. The U.S., Canada and Britain sent the USSR a great variety of equipment during World War II. Most of all, however, the Red Army was very grateful.

At the beginning of the German Wehrmacht’s (Army) invasion of the USSR, the situation with motor transport in the Soviet army was close to catastrophic. There was a danger that the acute shortage of vehicles for transporting personnel and artillery, as well as food and ammunition, could lead to a sharp decline in the mobility of Soviet troops. It was then that the U.S., Britain and Canada came to the rescue of their ally.

Over the entire remaining period of the war, they sent the USSR about 400,000 trucks, prime movers, repair and recovery vehicles and army utility vehicles, as well as amphibious vehicles. It was then that the U.S., Britain and Canada came to the rescue of their ally.

From 1941 until the very end of the war, Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge and Studebaker trucks, the U.S. Army’s main cargo truck, the GMC ‘CCKW’ (nicknamed ‘Jimmy’), Diamond T prime movers and other vehicles including motorcycles arrived from overseas and entered service in the Red Army.

Red Army soldiers liked the Western vehicles. The trucks were notable for their reliability, the trucks comfortable seated cabins that kept out the draft, even in the cold of winter, for being easy and convenient to drive and for their powerful engines and high cross-country ability. The Western vehicles also had their share of shortcomings.

After the end of the war, the majority of the Western vehicles were returned to the U.S. under the terms of the Lend-Lease agreement. However, a certain proportion of the Dodges and Studebakers and Harley-Davidsons stayed in the USSR. They were in use in the Soviet army until the end of the 1940s and considered part of the country’s national economy until the mid-1960s. But the motorcycles ALWAYS went first!

sources: Steve Wiggins, Boris Egorov, historian Russia Beyond