Bikes at War
Bicycles have been used in combat all the way back to World War 1. French, British, Austrian and German troops all used bicycles for scouting, troop mobility and message delivery. During the Second World War, bikes also saw extensive service. Original footage of the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944 shows British troopers carrying bikes to the landing beaches while advancing under fire.
The RAF, RCAF and the American Army Air Force used bikes to efficiently move around airfields and travel the long distances from billets, to dispersal huts and to aircraft. Many surviving photographs and numerous primary source accounts, document the use of bicycles during the war. On its website, the Tangmere Aviation Museum recalls the story of RNZAF Flight Sergeant Jim Sheddan who tried to use a bike to navigate the Tangmere Airfield while stationed there with No. 486 Squadron in 1943. When Sheddan informed his fellow Kiwis that he intended to draw a bike from the equipment store, he was warned that the bike would soon be stolen and Sheddan would be on an expensive hook for the loss. Sheddan ignored the warning because he had already come up with a scheme to foil potential thieves. After securing the bike and signing for it, Sheddan acquired a supply of paint intended to discourage theft and leave no doubt as to whose bike was parked in front of his billet. Sheddan repainted the bike with a pink frame, red wheels, purple handlebars and blue and white spokes.
Sheddan was sure that no one would take a bike painted in such a manner but within just 24 hours, the bike was gone! Sheddan was never able to figure out who took the bike or how it was taken from the base. He believed that it was likely stripped down and repainted in the standard olive drab to blend in with all of the other bikes on station.
In tribute to role of bicycles in helping the Allied air forces during the Second World War, I’ve posted a few photos from my collection that have never been published along with a great photo of a rack of restored wartime bikes credited to the Tangmere Aviation Museum (www.tangmere-museum.org.uk) in England.
Second World War photo of British aircrew wearing the War Service Blouse, otherwise known as the Battle Dress uniform. The men all wear Ditch whistles affixed to their neck clasps and have shoulder titles and brevet wings. Of particular interest, note the socks drying on the windows behind them.
American aircrew who served in the 392nd Bomb Group, 576th Squadron out of Wendling, UK taken during the war. On the left, is Lt. Dewitt A. Miller from Council Bluffs, Iowa, who served as a B-24 bombardier. He enlisted in May 1941. On his 14th mission, his aircraft, "Million$ Baby," was attacked by German fighters while on a bombing run against Kiel, Germany on January 4, 1944. A severe fire engulfed the aircraft and all crew were ordered to bale out. Four of Miller's fellow crewmen did not survive. Miller parachuted to safety and was captured and spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp. On the right, is Lt. Leo McDonald, a navigator who served with the 392nd Bomb Group. A note on the reverse indicates that this was taken in front of the officers club - likely at Wendling.
In this rare original photo of RAF ground crew on a bicycle leading pilots in a Scramble to thier aircraft at Biggin Hill. The photo was taken during the national air exercises conducted on August 8, 1939. These exercises were intended as a countrywide drill of British air defenses and involved more than 1,300 aircraft. The photo shows the pilots of No. 79 Squadron racing to their Hurricane MkI aircraft. Many of these pilots would soon be engaged in the Battle over France and the Battle of Britain. 544 RAF pilots would not survive the latter fight.
In this original photo dated July 24, 1942, Allied bicycle troops wave as an American B-17 bomber departs its base for a bombing run over Germany. The photo has an interesting history. The original caption indicated that the aircraft was "leaving a secret base in Ireland" to bomb Germany. Army censors corrected the caption and is sent out over the wire service as a plane leaving "an American bombing base in England on a bombing mission."