The Third Re­ich in pho­tos: War on two wheels



Ger­man sol­diers take to bi­cy­cles and mo­tor­bikes to form mo­bile strike forces

two-wheeled Blitzkrieg

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.


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