RevelateSchwalbeOrtlieb Closeouts

“Geef me min fiets!” Give me my bike! The Bikes of World War II.

by Wesley Cheney

‘Tis a pity that General Patton didnt 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.

Canadian soldiers embark with their bicycles on D Day at Juno Beach. Commonwealth forces relied on bicycles to move supplies from the beachhead to the front lines.

Canadian soldiers embark with their bicycles in a landing craft before the assault on Juno Beach on D-Day. Commonwealth forces relied on bicycles to move supplies from the beachhead to the front lines.

 

British troops wade ashore at Gold Beach on D Day with their bicycles

British troops wade ashore at Gold Beach on D-Day with their bicycles. The surf was much higher than expected, and the landing craft were not able to make it all the way in, necessitating the lifelines strung to the shore.

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.

British airborne infantry load their bikes onto gliders before an assault, possibly during Operation Market Garden.

British airborne infantry load their bikes onto gliders before an assault, possibly during Operation Market Garden.

 

British airborne infantry prepare to deploy. Note that their rifles are covered with protective wraps, and are not combat ready.

British airborne infantry prepare to deploy. Note that their rifles are covered with protective wraps, and are not combat ready.

 

In a still photograph from the Danish film

The recent Danish film “9.April” (April Ninth) tells the story of a Danish bicycle infantry platoon on the morning of the German invasion.

 

A German bicycle infantry troop gets a motorized assist in a training exercise.

A German bicycle infantry troop gets a motorized assist in a training exercise. By towing a squad of cyclists, a truck could conceivably move them twice as fast, and carry their supplies, too.

 

Like all troops, the Germans trained for the past war. Gas masks were not needed the second time around.

Like all troops, the Germans trained for the past war. Gas masks were not needed the second time around.

 

Just another Dick, Tom or Jerry fixing a flat.

Just another Dick, Tom or Jerry fixing a flat.

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 extensively 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.

A Japanese soldier practices a combat cyclocross dismount with a fully loaded bicycle.

A Japanese soldier practices a combat cyclocross dismount with a fully loaded bicycle. Take it up to the next level and try this, ‘Cross hipsters.

 

Japanese bicycle troops advance in Malaya past a burning British strongpoint.

Japanese bicycle troops advance in Malaya past a burning British strongpoint. The sound of a single squeaky chain, a rubbing brake pad, or a wheel rolling on the rims is bad enough. But by the dozens and the hundreds, they sounded to the beleaguered, undermanned British troops like the lightweight Japanese tanks. Time and again, Japanese bicycle infantry advanced past abandoned British defensive points. Broken-down bicycles were an unexpected psychological weapon.

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.

Thanks to stolen, superior British craftsmanship, the Japanese were able to ride Raleighs and BSAs to victory in Malaya.

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.

German troops carried not only their guns and backpacks with them on bicycle, but also their radios Communication is the key to combined arms.

German troops carried not only their guns and backpacks with them on bicycle, but also their radios. Communication is the key to combined arms.

 

“Russian Front: A Cyclist Sharpshooter Department surpasses a column of vehicles of the Wehrmacht, observed by the German military.”

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 Ukranian steppe became a literal quagmire for the German army and its allies.

The Ukranian steppe became a literal quagmire for the German army and its allies in the spring.

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.

His bike can carry light machine gun. Can yours?

His bike can carry light machine gun. Can yours?

 

German paratroopers load their bicycles onto a plane. The German airborne assault on Crete was turned back because of British intelligence forewarning.

German airborne troops load their bicycles onto a plane. The Fallsschmirjeger secured air fields and key infrastructure early in the war. The disastrous airborne assault of Crete, which was defeated by codebreaking intelligence, convinced Hitler that airborne operations were no longer viable.

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.

One German soldier tows an injured comrade in a stolen bicycle trailer on Rabid Tuesday, when the Germans retreated in a panic.

A German soldier tows an injured comrade in a stolen bicycle trailer on Mad Tuesday, when the Germans panicked and fled Holland.

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 their 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.

A Volkssturm militia unit rides to battle with Panzerfaust RPGs mounted to bicycles.

A Volkssturm militia unit rides to battle with Panzerfaust RPGs mounted to bicycles.

 
BOB Trailer x 2

One Response to ““Geef me min fiets!” Give me my bike! The Bikes of World War II.”

  1. Michael says:

    Very good reading, as with the previous parts. Thank you very much for your research in this mostly forgotten role of the bicycle during war times.

Leave a Reply