Bicycle infantry are infantry soldiers who maneuver on (or, more often, between) battlefields using military bicycles. The term dates from the late 19th century, when the "safety bicycle" became popular in Europe, the United States and Australia. Historically, bicycles lessened the need for horses, fuel and vehicle maintenance. Though their use has waned over the years in many armies, they continue to be used in unconventional armies such as militias.
Numerous experiments were carried out in the late 19th century to determine the possible role of bicycles and cycling within military establishments, primarily because they can carry more equipment and travel longer distances than walking soldiers. The development of pneumatic tires coupled with shorter, sturdier frames in the late 19th century led military establishments to investigate their applicability. To some extent, bicyclists took over the functions of dragoons, especially as messengers and scouts, substituting for horses in warfare. Bicycle units or detachments were in existence by at the end of the 19th century in most armies.
The United Kingdom employed bicycle troops in militia or territorial units, but not in regular units. In 1887 the first of a series of cyclist maneuvers involving British volunteer units was held. In France, several experimental units were created, starting in 1886. They developed folding bicycles, that could be collapsed and carried slung across the backs of their riders, from an early date. By 1900 each French line infantry and chasseur battalion had a cyclist detachment, intended for skirmishing, scouting and dispatch carrying. In the years prior to World War I the availability of an extensive network of paved or gravel roads in western Europe made military cyclists appear a feasible alternative to horse mounted troops; on the grounds of economy, simplicity of training, relative silence when on the move and ease of logistical support. The Dutch and Belgian armies, with extensive flat terrain within their national boundaries, maintained battalion sized units of cyclists. The Italian Bersaglieri expanded their established role as fast-moving light infantry through the extensive use of bicycles from the 1890s onwards. Even the Swiss Army found bicycles to be a useful means of mobility in rough terrain where horse cavalry could not be used. The Imperial Russian Gendarmerie used bicycles with outrigger wheels, to mount patrols along the Siberian Railway before and during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.
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 African American infantry regiment with European American officers). Using a variety of cycle models, Lt. Moss and his troops carried out extensive bicycle journeys covering between 800 and 1,900 miles (1287 to 3058 km). 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 at high speed. The "wheelmen" traveled the 1900 Miles to St. Louis MO in 34 days travel time with an average speed of over 6 mph.
The first known use of the bicycle in combat occurred during the Jameson Raid, in which cyclists carried messages. In the Second Boer War, military cyclists were used primarily as scouts and messengers. One unit patrolled railroad lines on specially constructed tandem bicycles that were fixed to the rails. Several raids were conducted by cycle-mounted infantry on both sides; the most famous unit was the Theron se Verkenningskorps (Theron Reconnaissance Corps) or TVK, a Boer unit led by the scout Daniel Theron, whom British commander Lord Roberts described as "the hardest thorn in the flesh of the British advance." Roberts placed a reward of £1,000 on Theron's head—dead or alive—and dispatched 4,000 soldiers to find and eliminate the TVK.
During World War I, cycle-mounted infantry, scouts, messengers and ambulance carriers were extensively used by all combatants. Italy used bicycles with the Bersaglieri (light infantry units) until the end of the war. German Army Jäger (light infantry) battalions each had a bicycle company (Radfahr-Kompanie) at the outbreak of the war, and additional companies were raised during the war bringing the total to 80 companies, a number of which were formed into eight Radfahr-Bataillonen (bicycle battalions). In its aftermath, the German Army conducted a study on the use of the cycle and published its findings in a report entitled Die Radfahrertruppe. The British Army had cyclist companies in its divisions, and later a whole division became The Cyclist Division.
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. Although the Japanese were under orders not to embark for Malaya with bicycles, for fear of slowing up amphibious landings, they knew from intelligence that bicycles were plentiful in Malaya and moved to systematically confiscate bicycles from civilians and retailers as soon as they landed. Using bicycles, the Japanese troops were able to move faster than the withdrawing Allied Forces, often successfully cutting off their retreat. The speed of Japanese advance, usually along plantation roads, native paths and over improvised bridges, also caught Allied Forces defending the main roads and river crossings by surprise, by attacking them from the rear. However there were one or two cases of Australian troops turning the tables on the Japanese by isolating cycle troops from their accompanying motorized forces after blowing up bridges over rivers.
During the Polish Defensive War of 1939, each Polish Infantry Division (nearly all of them, if not all; all standing units and most likely all reserve divisions) was assigned a squadron of mounted scouts, cavalry, as well as a company of bicycle-riding scouts. In spite of late mobilization due to the pressure from France and Great Britain not to mobilize, except for one bicycle scouts' company, all companies received all their equipment before engaging the enemies (Germans, Soviets, Slovaks, Soviet proxies, ethnic Germans, Ukrainian nationalists). The equipment of each company included 196 bicycles, 1 motorcycle with the sidecar as well as some horses pulling 9 supply carts and 3 to 6 anti-tank rifles besides standard infantry equipment such as MG's, rifles, pistols, and hand grenades.
The Finnish Army utilized bicycles extensively during the Continuation War and Lapland War. Bicycles were used as a means of transportation in Jaeger Battalions, divisional Light Detachments and regimental organic Jaeger Companies. Bicycle units spearheaded the advances of 1941 against Soviet Union. Especially successful was the 1st Jaeger Brigade which was reinforced with a tank battalion and an anti-tank battalion, providing rapid movement through limited road network. During winter time these units, like the rest of the infantry, switched to skis.
Within 1942-1944 bicycles were also added to regimental equipment pools. During the Summer 1944 battles against the Soviet Union, bicycles provided quick mobility for reserves and counter-attacks. In Autumn 1944 bicycle troops of the Jaeger Brigade spearheaded the Finnish advance through Lapland against the Germans; tanks had to be left behind due to the German destruction of the Finnish road network.
The hastily assembled German Volksgrenadier divisions had a battalion of bicycle infantry, to have some mobile reserve.
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 term, "bomber bikes" came into use during this period, as US forces dropped bicycles out of planes to reach troops behind enemy lines.
By 1939, 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 1970s, 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 1997.
Although much used in World War I, bicycles were largely superseded by motorized transport in more modern armies. In the past few decades, however, they have 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, about 400 lb (180 kg), loads of supplies at the speed of a pedestrian make it vastly useful for lightly equipped forces. For many years 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. When heavily loaded with supplies such as sacks of rice, these bicycles were seldom rideable, but were pushed by a tender walking alongside. 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 heavy loads over all terrain.
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 unit out.
Finnish defence forces still train all conscripts to use bicycle and skis. The LTTE Tamil Tigers made use of bicycle mobility in the fighting in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan army also has a bicycle unit. They are mainly stationed and deployed in high security zones in the capital city Colombo.
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- Leiser Rolf (sup.) (1991). Hundert Jahre Radfahrer-Truppe (100 Years of Bicycle Troops). Bern, Switzerland: Bundesamt für Mechanisierte u. Leichte Truppen (Federal Office for Mechanized and Light Troops).
- Fitzpatrick, Jim (1998). The Bicycle In Wartime: An Illustrated History. Washington, DC: Brassey's Inc. ISBN 1-57488-157-4.
- Ekström, Gert; Husberg, Ola (2001). Älskade cykel (1st ed.). Bokförlaget Prisma. ISBN 91-518-3906-7.