The history of Bicycle
Bicycle infantry are infantry soldiers who maneuver
on the battlefield using bicycles. The term dates from the late 19th century,
when the "safety bicycle" became popular in Europe, the United States and
Numerous experiments were carried out to determine
the possible role of bicycles within the military establishments. Bicycle units
were formed in the United Kingdom primarily in militia or "territorial" units,
but not in regular units. In France, several experimental units were created,
mostly employing a series of folding bicycles designed by a French officer.
In the United States, the most extensive
experimentation on bicycle units was carried out by a 1st Lieutenant Moss, of
the 25th United States Infantry (Colored) (an all-African American infantry
regiment with white officers). Using a variety of cycle models, Lt. Moss and his
troops carried out epic bicycle journeys covering between 500 and 1,000 miles
(800 to 1600 km) at a time. Late in the 19th century, the United States Army
tested the bicycle's suitability for cross-country troop transport. "Buffalo
soldiers" stationed in Montana rode bicycles across roadless landscapes for
hundreds of miles with impressive speed.
Dutch bicycle infantry during the Battle of the
NetherlandsThe first known use of the bicycle in combat occurred during the
so-called "Jameson Raid", which preceded the Second Boer War (1899–1901), where
cyclists carried messages. In the war, military cyclists were used primarily as
scouts and messengers; however, several raids were conducted by cycle-mounted
infantry on both sides. A unit patrolled railroad lines on specially constructed
two-man cycles that were fixed to the rails.
|World War I and World War II
During World War I, cycle-mounted infantry, scouts,
messengers and ambulance carriers were extensively used by all combatants. In
the aftermath of the war, the German Army conducted a study on the use of the
cycle and published its findings in a report entitled "Die Radfahrertruppe".
Meanwhile, in Italy, the "Bersaglieri" (light infantry units) employed bicycles
until the end of World War I.
In its 1937 invasion of China, Japan employed some 50,000 bicycle troops. Early
in World War II their southern campaign through Malaya en route to capturing
Singapore in 1941 was largely dependent on bicycle-riding soldiers. In both
efforts bicycles allowed quiet and flexible transport of thousands of troops who
were then able to surprise and confuse the defenders. Bicycles also made few
demands on the Japanese war machine, needing neither trucks, nor ships to
transport them, nor precious petroleum. Allied use of the bicycle in World War
II was limited, but included supplying folding bicycles to paratroopers and to
messengers behind friendly lines. The successful British raid on a German radar
installation at Ste. Bruneval, France in 1942 was conducted by airborne
Cycle-commandos with the aid of such folding bikes.
|Although seeing heavy use in
World War I, bicycles were largely superseded by motorized transport in more
modern armies, but have recently taken on a new life as a "weapon of the people"
in guerrilla conflicts and unconventional warfare, where the cycle's ability to
carry large (c. 400 lb or 180 kg) loads of supplies at the speed of a walking
man make it vastly useful for lightly-equipped forces. For extended periods of
time, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army used bicycles to ferry supplies
down the "Ho Chi Minh Trail", avoiding the repeated attacks of United States and
Allied bombing raids. Heavily loaded with supplies, these bicycles were seldom
rideable. Instead a tender would walk alongside, pushing the bike like a
wheelbarrow. With especially bulky cargo, tenders sometimes attached bamboo
poles to the bike for tiller-like steering (this method can still be seen
practiced in China today). Vietnamese "cargo bikes" were rebuilt in jungle
workshops with reinforced frames to carry the heavy loads in all terrain.
|Bicycles continue in military
use today, primarily as an easy alternative for transport on long flightlines.
The use of the cycle as an infantry transport tool continued into the 21st
century with the Swiss Army's Bicycle Regiment, which maintained drills for
infantry movement and attack until 2001, when the decision was made to phase the
There are some reports of the use of mountain bicycles by U.S. Special Forces as
a scouting vehicle in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and in subsequent battles
against the Taliban. The only country to recently maintain a regiment of bicycle
troops was Switzerland who disbanded the last unit in 2003.
By the beginning of WWII, the
Swedish army operated six bicycle infantry regiments. They were equipped with
domestically produced Swedish military bicycles. Most common was the m/42, an
upright, one-speed roadster produced by several large Swedish bicycle
manufacturers. These regiments were decommissioned between 1948 and 1952, and
the bicycles remained for general use in the Army, or transferred to the Home
Guard. Beginning in the 1970's, the Army began to sell these as military
surplus. They became very popular as cheap and low-maintenance transportation,
especially among students. Responding to its popularity and limited supply, an
unrelated company, Kronan, began to produce a modernized version of the m/42 in