German WWII Motorcycles

In 1938-39 the German Army were using a number of mainly civilian designed motorcycles taken into service. An example of this type was the NSU 201 ZDB ‘Light Motorcycle’ which was powered by a single cylinder two-stroke engine of 200cc. It produced 7hp and had a four speed, hand changer gearbox running on slim 3.00 x 19 tyres. Along with the lighter bikes were a number of heavier bike-sidecar combinations which steadily took over in production. The NSU 201 ZDB was only produced for about a year and yet NSU were soon to be engaged in producing one of the most unusual motorcycle projects of the 39-45 war –


Kleines Kettenkraftrad Type HK 101, Sd.Kfz.2 – ‘The Kettenkrad’

Originating from German pre-war experimentation the motorcycle hybrid known more commonly as ‘the Kettenkrad’ proved a popular vehicle on all fronts from North Africa to Russia with German Forces. It was a concept that came from the mind of Heinrich Ernst Kniepkamp in June of 1939, and the concept was developed further in trials by the NSU Motorenwerk company culminating in a production model of this small tracked motorcycle. Variants of the Kettenkrad were produced from 1940 throughout the war and continued until 1948. At first viewing, it does look like a motorcycle of sorts, but its purpose was intended to fulfil personnel and ammunition transportation rather than the despatch carrying and recce roles assigned to the heavy bike-sidecar combinations. Its first trials proved it to be a successful line layer, and so early production models (Sd.Kfz.2/1 & Sd.Kfz. 2/2) were fitted with brackets to hold telephone wire wound on drums. It could pull a small two wheeled trailer, and even towed the smaller anti-tank guns, often being used in difficult terrain to re-supply troops with ammunition and rations. Therefore it is probably most closely related to the allied Bren Carrier types in its actual intended field use. The Kettenkrad had excellent off-road ability, a range of 150 miles on one tank, climbing a 1-in-1 sloped terrain, with a wading ability of 18 inches in depth. The rider operated it from a rather exposed position however, and was seated between two fuel tanks! Rider comfort came in the form of a large padded pan saddle, and cushioning rubber pads were fitted to the interior of the bulkhead to protect his knees when traversing rough terrain. He was also able to provide transport for two passengers who sat at the rear of the vehicle on a rearward facing bench seat, their weapons stowed in vertical rifle racking, but close to hand. Officers needing to inspect front line positions would often jump aboard for a bumpy if assured tour of their forward defences.

However, study of the photographs of Kettenkrads also suggest some of the problems encountered in this design when it was utilised in the arduous conditions of modern warfare, and there were plenty. It was un-armoured and unarmed for starters making it and its riders vulnerable to small arms’ fire in frontline positions. The front forks were the weakest part in the vehicle’s construction. On paved roads it did ride well, but the whole assembly was weakened by excessive cross-country use and would fracture, breaking away from the rest of the bodywork. The remedy for this was at first to strengthen the original spoked wheel, with a hardier solid version, and very soon removal of the wheel completely was the instruction given to riders when taking their vehicles cross-country for long periods. The wheel of course was not required for steering, as the track mechanisms worked as they did in tanks, braked left and right by a turn of the handlebars. This instruction even featured in later captured riders’ manuals. At the same time NSU were working on producing a sturdier front fork arrangement and investigating losing the front handlebar arrangement altogether. There was also the question of training riders to operate the Kettenkrad which required most skill cross country. Smaller turns could be made by using the conventional handlebars and the 19 inch diameter front wheel. Simply after applying the turn, a linkage would engage which connected to the front drive sprockets of the tracks. This applied differential braking common to wartime tracked vehicles. With some skill and variation of the turning of the handlebars the rider was thus able to control the turning radius. With one track totally locked up he was able to squeeze out a 12 foot turning circle, but with a high centre of gravity and across uneven terrain this sort of manoeuvre was hair-raising at the very least! On tarmac it was also incredibly loud, clattering along and certainly could not be used in a stealthy environment on the battlefield. The Kettenkrad with crew of three weighed one and a quarter tons, and could travel on tarmac at speeds up to 40mph powered by its Opel 1500cc water cooled engine. The engine had originated from the pre-war Opel Olympia saloon car, but was now mounted centrally in the Sd.Kfz. 2/1 & 2/2. A few of these remarkable machines survived the war into museum captivity and private ownership and they are always guaranteed to provide an interested crowd when fired up at the many restored military vehicle shows which take place around the world!


German forces were also famous for their use of bike sidecar combinations. In 1935 BMW began work on their R12 model. Intended as a touring design for the civilian market it featured for the first time on any bike telescopic front forks with hydraulic damping. The German motorcycle industry had long been prepared for the outbreak of worldwide conflict lead by innovation created in the world of motor sport. BMW, DKW and NSU competed in the 500cc racing class in the late 1930s, and in the smaller 250cc DKW dominated. Underlying these sporting successes was the propaganda pushing the image of Germany as world leader. On the home front in Germany large numbers of smaller motorcycles were being produced and made available to the public and thus in return the nation was gaining a populace experienced at both riding and maintaining these machines. In 1938 further preparations were stepped up with the rationalisation of manufacturing industries. The multiple motorcycle types and variants on offer numbered somewhere in the region of 150 and these were reduced to just 30 types; the array of engines on offer were standardised so that just a few were offered to power these thirty models. Many manufacturers had the type of motorcycle they would produce enforced upon them, but parts production saw the greatest reduction in surplus labour effort and over-complication. Items such as saddles, number plate stamping plants, and electric horns were reduced to a single design type of which chosen companies were allowed to produce. The process was successful, simplifying the stores management, the re-supply of parts quickly, and allowing saved funding to be redirected into the war effort elsewhere.

Like all the participants of the Second World War, the German army’s views towards two-wheeled warfare also covered several trends. Commencing the war with a vast majority of solo machines, from two-stroke torobust flat twins paired with sidecars a change of preference occurred after 1940. A move then leant toward the complex and expensive BMW and Zundapp combinations in the mid-war period but with industry pressed by the Allied bombing campaigns production of these machines was phased out through 1944 and Germany returned to production of 125cc and 350cc machines in the last year of the war, DKW being the sole German manufacturer to continue motorcycle production between 1939-1945. The following images depict the broad range of machines in use with the German Army in WW2.


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