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Who Used Military Bicycles the Most in World War II?

WWII

Who Used Military Bicycles the Most in World War II?

Aside from personal transport, cycling also a long and colorful military history that includes service in various armies in Europe.

Anyone who has ever visited Europe—particularly France, Italy, and the Netherlands—knows that the people in those countries love their bicycles. But cycling also has a long and colorful military history that includes combat service in various armies in Europe and the rest of the world.

by Peter Suicu

World War I, which had begun as a mobile and fluid conflict, at first seemed to be ideal for bicycles. Both sides used a large number of bikes to help troops get to the front lines quickly. But as the war bogged down into the hellish nightmare of trench warfare, the two-wheel machines were relegated to rear echelon duty. Cycles were used to some degree by sharpshooters in less static areas, as well as by scouts and dispatch riders.

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Following the war, the European interest in bikes expanded into leisure and sports. In the United States, too, cycling began to catch on, with venues such as New York City’s Madison Square Garden hosting daylong cycling races. With the advent of the radio, cycling faded as America’s premier sport, giving way to baseball, which was easier for announcers to call. Yet across the ocean cycling remained popular, and bicycles remained machines of war as much as machines of sport and peace.

Anyone who has ever visited Europe—particularly France, Italy, and the Netherlands—knows that the people in those countries love their bicycles. But cycling also has a long and colorful military history that includes combat service in various armies in Europe and the rest of the world.

A generation after the trench warfare of World War I, the renewed outbreak of war in Europe and Asia put bicycles back in the field. The German Army, even during its rapid-moving blitzkrieg campaign, still relied on horse-drawn carriages to transport men and equipment, and bicycles too played a part. There is a misconception that the Germans were fully mechanized and motorized during the war. In fact, Adolf Hitler invaded Russia with more horses than even Napoleon. For this reason, the bicycle was used in great numbers by the Germans for reconnaissance.

The Fuel Shortages of World War II

Wartime shortages throughout World War II also resulted in many nations utilizing the bicycle to save on fuel. This was especially true in isolated Great Britain during the Blitz, and followed even after the Yanks arrived in great numbers. The United States, which was also on wartime rationing, used bikes in great numbers, but unfortunately for collectors, few of American bikes survived the war.

“Given the rarity of these bikes today I would say it’s safe to assume that compared to other mass-produced military vehicles, bicycles were actually made in fairly small numbers,” says militaria collector Johan Willaert, who specializes in American Army items from World War II, including bicycles. “A lot of them must have been shipped over to the European and Pacific Theaters, but it seems a lot more were kept and used stateside.”

Aside from personal transport, cycling also a long and colorful military history that includes service in various armies in Europe.

Willaert believes that there are actually more World War II-vintage bikes in European collections than in the United States, because most of these were bought in the States and shipped to Europe by collectors in recent years. “I know of only a handful of real ‘left-behind’ bikes in Europe while it seems they were not that uncommon in postwar surplus sales in the U.S.,” Willaert says. “I think they were used much more at U.S. camps and airfields than in Europe. The U.S. Army was much more mechanized and had no bicycle troops as such.”

Unlike other American gear from World War II, little information survives about the total numbers of bicycles produced. “It is not clear just exactly how many bikes were made for the U.S. Army on official wartime contracts,” says Willaert. “There seem to be no lists left or they haven’t surfaced to this day.”

Folding Bikes Specifically Designed for Warfare

While bikes were never utilized in great numbers by Americans, and in only a limited frontline role by the British military, a wartime enemy of the Allies used cycles in much larger numbers. “It was probably the Japanese who used the bicycle most during WWII,” says Robert van der Plas, coauthor of Bicycle Technology. “The invasion of Malaysia, with thousands of soldiers rolling into Singapore on bicycles, is one of the best-known instances. They used both folding bikes specifically designed for warfare, later rehashed for civilian use, and requisitioned bicycles from other occupied territories.”

The Japanese proved able to adapt and overcome obstacles with their bicycles. Since rubber was in short supply, Japanese soldiers learned to ride on the rims when the tires went flat and couldn’t be repaired.

After World War II, many of the wartime bikes passed to civilian hands as the world recovered from the horrors of war. This was especially true in Europe, where fuel was still hard to come by and where there had been an existing bike culture. “Bicycles have been a part of European history and culture for many, many years,” says Willaert. “For ages the bicycle has been a means of everyday transport for thousands of people, especially in Belgium and the Netherlands. The bicycle was a cheap and easy means of transport for people who couldn’t afford a car for decades.”

 Originally Published April 22, 2014

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