Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bicycle Infantry

Bicycle infantry are infantry soldiers who maneuver on (or, usually more correctly, between) battlefields using bicycles. 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 to determine the possible role of bicycles and cycling within military establishments because bicycles can carry more equipment and travel longer than walking soldiers. To some extent, bicyclists took over the functions of dragoons (mounted infantry), especially as messengers and scouts, substituting for horses in warfare. Bicycle units or detachments were formed at the end of the 19th century by all European armies and the US armed forces.

The United Kingdom employed bicycle troops in militia or territorial units, but not in regular units. In France, several experimental units were created. 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. Lt. Moss and his troops carried out extensive bicycle journeys covering between 500 and 1,000 miles. 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 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, a Dutch 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 J├Ąger (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 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. 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.

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 unit out. The 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.