Bicycles and War

by Rob Morgan

According to a footnote in Peter Wilson’s new title, Iron & Blood: A Military History of the German Speaking Peoples since 1500 (I’ll review it when I get the chance):

“The Swiss Army operated a bicycle-mounted infantry unit as late as 2001.”

Interesting and perhaps surprising. Or not?

I remember the first cycle-mounted wargames figures I ever encountered: the two which cropped up in the Airfix WWI French infantry set – lovely figures, rifles slung, mounted on the fabulous Captain Gerard bicycle.

For some reason the British, German and American WWI Airfix sets didn’t provide bicycle power, yet all the Allied and Central Powers armies used them, though the USA did so very sparingly.

The potential of cyclists in wargames is obvious: speed, mobility and no need to feed.

And there are a few intriguing statistics where twentieth century warfare’s concerned.

The Japanese used 50,000 of them during the invasion of China from 1937, for instance. In WWI, the British Army established and trained two complete cycle divisions. As far back as 1914, Imperial German Jager Battalions all had a Cycle Company, and they were most effective during the defeat of the Russian armies at Tannenberg in the opening days of the war.

During WWII the picture was very similar.

The bike opened the war with several armies, Poland, Belgium, Holland, France and Germany – with Germany ending the war by equipping the Volksturm and Volksgrenadier units, again no fuel required. Beyond that, Sweden’s cycle units were only stood down in the late 1980’s. One astonishing military force used the bicycle to equip an entire raiding Commando, that was the Boers in 1900!

There are plenty of models of bikes around now in wargames scales. In 20mmHaT make a WWI Jager cycle unit (will fit into WWII), two WWII German cycle sets (I particularly like Box 8277), as well as Belgians on bikes, and a lovely set of Japanese cyclists.

Orion make a Viet Cong set with loaded transport cycles, which will change eras easily.

I’ll dive into bikes and battles deeper, when I get a chance to read Jim Fitzpatrick’s Bicycles in Wartime (published by Brassey’s).

This entry was posted in Periods - Twentieth century, Wargaming. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Bicycles and War

  1. Martin S. says:

    Unusual, cycle troops – don’t think I’ve ever seen them used on table. Peter Pig has some bicycle troops in their 15mm WW1 range (and maybe other ranges I couldn’t locate), but rare miniatures indeed.

  2. Enrico says:

    Very interesting. From the list of units or regiments equipped with bicycles does not figure Italian’s Bersaglieri. The first company cyclist Bersaglieri was founded in 1898, and in 1924 all Bersaglieri regiments were equipped with it.
    I hope that this information may be useful.

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