The Third Reich in photos: War on two wheels
BATTLE-HARDENED SOLDIERS ON BICYCLES AND MOTORCYCLES FORMED THE CORE OF GERMANY’S MOBILE STRIKE FORCE
German soldiers take to bicycles and motorbikes to form mobile strike forces
No other combatant nation employed bicycles and motorcycles on such a large scale as the Third Reich. As part of Germany’s arsenal, motorcycles and bicycles served a variety of functions – couriers, reconnaissance, medical evacuation, for delivering hot meals to the front line, as assault shock troops, and even as tank destroyers. As Germany’s military planned to spread the Nazi domain by fire and steel, numerous bicycle brands and over 300 different makes of motorcycles were already in production, yet only a select few were chosen by the Wehrmacht in its war of conquest. Among those motorcycles were the vaunted BMW and the now lesser-known yet ‘bullet tough’ DKW, NSU and Zündapp, among several others.
pedalling to war
The advantage of bicycles lay in their stealthy, almost silent movement and ability to traverse terrain more easily than larger, heavier vehicles and more quickly than slogging on foot. Bicycle troopers were expected to cover 120 kilometres (75 miles) a day, although the usual distance was 95 kilometres (60 miles). As mobile infantry, they were considered a very successful component during the campaigns in the west. No numbers exist for total production or employment of bicycles by the German military, but estimates suggest 1943-44 production exceeded 1 million, which gives some indication of overall numbers. In the later stages of the war, as the Allies entered Germany, members of the Hitler Youth and Volkssturm were seen entering battle with their bicycles strapped with panzerfausts and other munitions, acting as ersatz tank killers.
Bicycle troops were first formed in 1936, and each infantry regiment was assigned a bicycle company. They could be grouped as a complete battalion, sent out as individual scouts, as reconnaissance patrol units, infiltrated by parachute for behind-enemy-lines operations, or kept as reserve units, to move rapidly in a crisis. Special cycle troops were trained to act in the event of chemical warfare – a fear left over from WWI, when chlorine and mustard gas were used by both sides. The modified bicycle frames accommodated a chemical warfare detection kit, which could identify the type of agent used. The bicycle’s saddle bags carried a gas mask and protective suit and a hood, boots and gloves.
Among German military bicycles, the Herkules was noted for its ‘war-ready’, robust construction, while other suppliers included Puch and Opel, the companies also building motorcycles and tanks respectively. A special compactable bicycle was also made available to be parachuted, for members of the airborne Fallschirmjäger. In the desperate Ardennes Offensive, launched on 16 December 1944, First SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and Second SS Panzer Division Das Reich fielded several bicycle platoons – the downsizing was a means of conserving fuel, which was in critically short supply.
The role of the German bicycle-mounted ‘whisper warrior’ was summed up in a 1939 document entitled ‘The Versatility Of The Cavalry’, penned by a Lieutenant Elert of the 17th Cavalry Regiment. He wrote, “The bicycle patrol works its way towards the enemy over roads and paths no matter how narrow. No sound betrays them. They are completely independent of fuel or fodder. The bicyclist can advance as long as his strength allows.”
Despite the early German optimism surrounding bicycle troops as a result of their success in the western campaigns, the Russian biannual rainy seasons (Rasputitsa) turned the unpaved roads and paths into all-engulfing quagmires that effectively immobilised vehicles, including bicycles. It resulted in thousands of German bicycles being left, abandoned and rusting, across the vastness of the Soviet Union.
“BICYCLE TROOPS WERE EXPECTED TO COVER 120 KILOMETRES (75 MILES) A DAY ”