This is the third post of our 6 part series, Bicycles at War.
‘Tis a pity that General Patton didn’t lead a column of bicycles into battle, but Field Marshall Montgomery led an army of foot soldiers and “foot cycles” in Normandy. When the British were bottled up in Normandy with their plentiful bicycles, General Eisenhower appealed to Winston Churchill to persuade Monty [British commanding officer General Montgomery] to get on his bicycle and start moving.
In fact, World War II began on a bicycle. The Japanese rode bicycles in their rout of the British during the Invasion of Malaya and the Battle of Singapore. The German armored Blitzkrieg was supported by regiments of bicyclists. British paratroopers jumped out of aeroplanes clutching their Type G Apparatus folding bicycles in a nighttime mission, and rode them quietly down French country lanes to raid a radar station. German airborne forces used bicycles in the invasions of the Netherlands and Norway. The Resistance in France, and elsewhere, depended upon bicycles to move radios, arms and more. The Finnish Army alternated between skis and bicycles in their successful, asymmetric war with the Red Army. Air crews on all sides relied upon bicycles to move across vast, flat airfields. Seven-time Giro King of the Mountains Gino Bartali, in his racing kit, aided the Italian Resistance by delivering messages under the pretense that he was on training rides. Chinese partisans used bicycles to make hit and run attacks on Japanese convoys. The American 101st Airborne requisitioned civilian cargo trikes to move their airdropped supplies during Operation Market Garden. Civilians everywhere resorted to cycling as gasoline was rationed and public transit was decimated, if not outright destroyed. And in the final days of the war, the youth of Germany were sent against the Red Army, with nothing but one-shot, disposable RPGs strapped to their bicycles.
Consider the logistics of moving one hundred battle-ready soldiers with one hundred backpacks a distance of one hundred kilometers over unpaved roads. By foot, they might make it in two days. If forced to march through the night, they might make it in less than twenty four hours, but they would be in poor fighting shape. If their company was assigned a single truck, it would still take a day or two for the truck to ferry the men in groups of twenty across rutted roads. But give the soldiers one hundred bicycles and they could pedal one hundred kilometers in half a day, with their supplies carried by the truck. Even without a support vehicle, they could still pedal their gear and themselves on bicycles one hundred kilometers in less than twenty four hours.
The Japanese used exactly those tactics in their hugely successful, but largely unsung, invasion of Malaya (modern-day Malaysia) and Singapore. The British colony of Malaya occupied an equatorial peninsula, with the island city of Singapore at its southern tip. The British had extens
ively fortified Singapore and the surrounding straits, expecting a naval attack. Their widely publicized plan was that Singapore would withstand a siege for months while a relief force sailed from Great Britain. Recognizing a losing proposition when they saw it, the Japanese chose to instead attack through the back door.
Japanese troops trained to move lightly and quickly. They practiced riding long distances in large groups prior to the invasion. But when they boarded their transports, they left their bicycles behind. Having done their homework, the Japanese knew that they could find thousands of British bicycles in Malaya. After coming ashore hundreds of kilometers north of Singapore in a largely unopposed landing, the Japanese troops “requisitioned” bicycles from the local Malays.
Japanese troops rode British bikes during their lightning invasion of Malaya. The majority of the bicycles in Malaya would have been colonial British exports. The Japanese would “requisition” bicycles from civilians and ride them until they broke, and often after they’d broken, too.
In Europe, bicycles were key to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, “Unternehmen (Undertaking) Barbarossa.” While the tip of the spear was hardened Krupps steel, the German Blitzkrieg was successful because bicycle-borne troops provided the wood of the shaft behind the armoured and motorised forces spearhead.
Hundreds of thousands of troops pedaled from Prussia to Russia. The German Wehrmacht was aided by the Italian Army on the Ukrainian front, including bicycle troops, during the drive to Stalingrad. Troops on bikes were able to move through rough territory faster, and could outpace a motor column.
The successful German invasions of the Low Countries, Norway and Denmark relied on capturing airfields, and flying infantry in to those airfields. Many of the Wehrmacht arrived with bicycles in their Junkers. Bicycle infantry carried everything from medical kits and radio sets to light machine guns, rifles and submachine guns, on their bikes.
The Dutch in particular have not forgotten the millions of bicycles stolen by the Germans during the war. A common Dutch taunt of Germans after the war was, “Geef me min fiets!” Give me my bike! On “Dolle Dinsdag,” or Rabid Tuesday, German troops panicked when the BBC announced that Allied troops had crossed the Dutch border (they hadn’t, in fact). Soldiers stole bikes from the general populace and rode out of Holland, with whatever they could carry. By the bicycle they came, and by the bicycle they left.
The prewar German postcard showing soldiers wearing gas masks and pushing bikes seems quaint today. In the pictures from the first year of the war, the bike troops are full grown men, in thei
r twenties and thirties. As the war toils on, and they slog with their bikes through Mud Season, the men in the pictures turn gaunt. Their cheeks are sharper and their eyes are hollower. In the Mad Tuesday pictures, it is the walking wounded hauling their invalid comrades in hand carts.
As the war came to a close, the bicycle came to the forefront again, this time in the hands of the People’s Storm (Volkssturm) carrying Tank Fists (Panzerfuste). Teenage boys rode bicycles to battle with a pair of Panzerfausts bolted onto the front fork. They were supposed to keep the Red Army, the American army and the Commonwealth forces at bay from every direction, and were told to make every village a fortress. Some did, and paid the price.