Fighting a War on Bicycles
default, Fighting a War on Bicycles:
A Secret Polish History, Soldiers on bikes parading through Kraków’s Main Square, September 1938, photo: audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC), September 1938. Soldiers on bikes parading through Kraków’s Main Square, photo: audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Although many people have never heard of them, the bicycle units of Poland’s interwar military were involved in some of the most dramatic war episodes of the 20th century. Learning how bicycles made the difference during the Polish-Bolshevik War and World War II may change what you think you know about the phenomenon of cycling.
A grand entrance
The bicycle’s entrance into Poland’s military history was a grand one. Apparently its first use on the battlefield occurred during the Battle of Warsaw in 1920, the decisive episode of the Polish-Bolshevik War. Poland won the battle and eventually the entire conflict, deeply influencing the fate of all Europe. As one of the leaders of the losing Bolshevik side, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, said in 1923:
Battle of Warsaw 1920 - Interview with Director Jerzy Hoffman
There’s no doubt that if we had won on the Vistula, the European continent as a whole would have been set on fire by the revolution.
Almost a century after Poland’s win at the Battle of Warsaw, the country’s biggest bicycle race commemorated the event. The 2016 Tour de Pologne started from Radzymin, a town just outside the capital, where much of the fighting took place. The race’s director Czesław Lang said the following on the occasion:
The battle of 1920 wasn’t won by military units alone, but also by average, often very young people, who sacrificed their lives to protect such values like freedom and independence. Among these people were cyclists, members of the Warsaw Cycling Association, who played an important part in the military actions. With their ability to move swiftly they carried orders, serving as messengers.
A company of cyclists
Unfortunately, not much more is known about the cyclists’ involvement in that memorable battle. Most probably their participation was completely impromptu and wasn’t even documented well enough to be analysed by the military afterward. There doesn’t seem to be any other examples of bikers fighting in the Polish-Bolshevik War either.
One can’t really find any mentions of bike riders serving during the Polish-Bolshevik War. Nevertheless, this conflict made the Polish military realise that the next war is going to be manoeuvre based. Bikers seemed to be perfectly suited for that [...].
This quote from a 2011 article by history aficionado Grzegorz Kurpeta points to the origins of a discussion that started in Poland after the invaders were expelled. The subject of that discussion was how to best bring in bicycle units to the Polish Army and it unfolded, among other places, in the Interwar military press.
My Father’s Bike - Piotr Trzaskalski
From today’s perspective the whole affair seems equally as peculiar as the idea of having cycling-soldiers itself. In such venerable periodicals like Przegląd Kawaleryjski (The Cavalry Revue) or Bellona the Military Monthly, military men would present their ideas on how to put bicycles to use on the battlefield. For example, in 1923 Lt Wacław Berka wrote in Bellona:
One has to realise what is the role and purpose of cyclists. They are a swiftly riding infantry capable of conducting intense fire combat. Therefore their natural purpose is to reinforce and collaborate with cavalry units, because they have the very qualities cavalry lacks.
So it wasn’t until the second half of the 1920s, after much debate, that the Polish military formed its first official bicycle unit. About 120-strong and armed with pistols and rifles, the company was part of a bigger infantry unit, but remained an experiment. Regular bicycle troops only started appearing in the 1930s as additions to cavalry units – by 1937, most cavalry regiments in Poland included a 50-strong platoon of cyclists (armed similarly to the experimental company).
Of course, the biker-soldiers weren’t meant to ‘charge’ on their bikes nor engage the enemy while riding. Bikes, being quiet and swift, were seen by the army as best suited for reconnaissance missions and purposes of communication. Also, troops on bikes had the advantage of being able to keep up with the cavalry’s pace of movement. Any engagement of enemy units was to occur on foot only, never on the bikes.
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Interestingly, and this is often forgotten, just before World War II the use of cavalrymen in Poland had similar rules. They were meant to fight on foot, using horses chiefly as a means of quick transportation. Fighting on horseback was reserved for rare and specific occasions like engagement battles. A place for cyclists was also found in armour and infantry units, where they were to act as scouts.
Stock & barrel
Although in wartime, some bikes were to join through mobilisation, the Polish military did have its own official, dedicated bike, used by many a soldier. Manufactured at the state arms factory in the city of Radom, it was called Typ Wojskowy – Model 35 (Army Type – Model 35). The plant wasn’t originally intended to produce bicycles, but in order to get through the Great Depression, it started making them, for civilian use, using a license from two French companies.
The bikes became highly popular – about a 100,000 of them were ridden in Interwar Poland. Marked with a logo showing a bowman (that’s what ‘łucznik’ stands for in Polish), the bike’s design referenced a 1920s watercolour titled Łucznik by the noted painter and woodcut artist Władysław Skoczylas.
Eventually, the army model was devised and in 1935 it was approved by the military. Below is an extract from the factory’s 1936 product catalogue. Notice how mentions the bike being equipped with a rifle stand produced by the pre-war conglomerate State Armaments Factories, which just happened to be the owner of the Radom factory:
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Approved by the Bureau of Technical Inspection of Armoured Arms as a military type bicycle, Model 35. (…) An exceptionally robust bicycle, fit for use in all types of terrain. FRAME: special, reinforced, 640 mm. long. Height from the ground to the upper edge of the horizontal tube – 780 mm. STATE ARMS MANUFACTURERS HOLDER: for a rifle (for the stock and barrel).
Apart from being reinforced and equipped with a rifle holder, the bike was set apart from civilian models in other ways. For example, it came in a concealing khaki colour and was equipped with a special military rack with leather straps.
Imagine seeing a thing like that in a modern bicycle catalogue – a war bike with a rifle stand. You’d probably pinch yourself to check you’re not dreaming. Yet that was the reality of pre-war Europe.
When World War II broke out, cycle units were, as Kurpeta put it:
A new weapon, but one that already had no place on the battlefield, just like its almost-inseparable companion – cavalry.
Indeed, in the new heavily motorised conflict, both bicycles and horses must have seemed like relics. It seems unsurprising that despite a few exceptions, it’s hard to find information about bike units being used for serious military purposes after WWII.
Nevertheless, the Polish Army wasn’t the only one to have cavalrymen and cyclists within its ranks in 1939. When Germany was invading Poland, many of its soldiers were using bicycles for transportation. At the same time the Italian, French and American armies all included cavalry units.
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The impracticalness of bike units can be seen in an account by the decorated World War II veteran Anatol Trusow. In his 1981 text Wojna na Rowerach w 1939 r. (editor’s translation: Going to War on Bicycles in 1939), Trusow wrote about his time as the leader of an infantry bicycle company fighting against the invading Germans.
The story – like many war stories, a rather sad one – leaves the reader with a strong impression of chaos. Ideas that looked so good in those interwar periodicals weren’t necessarily applicable in real combat:
The company […] was moving ahead on a road leading to the town of Stryków, having Platoon No. 1 as advance troops. In front of the advance troops, we had scouts. After riding for about 1km, we suddenly received heavy MMG fire from the direction of Stryków. The advance group got down, but there were casualties – Reserve Corporal Jan Trzmiel was killed. […] I ordered the company to attack toward the left side of the road. But attempts to raise the company without fire backup gave no result.
It ought to be said that, despite being outdated, the bicycle units did manage to be of help to the Polish military. For example, when you read about the successes of the Podlasie Cavalry Brigade in the early stages of the war, you can find plenty examples of the cyclists’ involvement.
Also, in the famous Battle of Krasnobród, dramatic due to heavy casualties, the cyclists from the 25th Greater Poland Uhlan Regiment (a cavalry unit) proved to be of keen military value by securing an important position. Below is an excerpt from Jan Błasiński’s 1999 book Z Dziejów Kawalerii II Rzeczypospolitej: Losy 25 Pułku Ułanów Wielkopolskich (History of The 2nd Commonwealth Cavalry: The Fate of the 25th Greater Poland Uhlan Regiment). It sheds some light on the role the cyclist-soldiers played in that battle on 23rd September 1939:
The platoon of bikers changed formation into extended line and started for the village of Podklasztor, where the Uhlans had retreated from a moment ago. The village is controlled by the Germans. The platoon is out to expel them. Intense combat commences. 2nd Lt Śrutka is killed. Command is taken over by his deputy, Platoon Leader Misionko. The strong German resistance fades when the artillery starts to fire. Under pressure from the bikers, the Germans retreat.
It’s good that it’s obvious
If asked most Poles about cyclists in the Polish Army, you’d probably see an eyebrow being raised – their story isn’t exactly common knowledge. Some accounts even describe them as ‘forgotten’. It does seem that military bicycle units are more and more a curiosity as time goes by. You don’t have to be a military expert to understand that on today’s highly-technological battlefield, in a world overseen by drones and satellites, a bicycle’s usefulness would be very, very limited.
That being said, you can actually stumble upon whispers that bikes, being quiet and portable, are being used by some modern special forces – but this is hard to verify as such troops are, naturally, quite secretive.
What is certainly observable today though are the enthusiasts recreating the cyclists’ involvement in Poland’s 20th-century military. A few years back, for example, the reconstructed bicycle squadron of the 2nd Light Cavalry Regiment took part in a re-enactment of 1939’s Battle of Łomianki. The aficionados from this unit, about ten of them, rode on bikes they had assembled themselves that resembled the old Model 35 as closely as possible. They even wore uniforms sewed according to 1936 standards.
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Also a couple of years ago, at the International Rally of Vintage Bicycles ‘Retroweriada’ in Poznań, the Greater Poland Military Technology Society presented the real thing: they had an Army Type bicycle produced for the interwar military on show, much to the interest of those attending. Also at the rally, visitors from Germany presented their old interwar bikes, described by the event’s co-ordinator, Witold Rybczyński, as ‘beautiful and admirable’.
It’s definitely a good thing that today we can have such a friendly and nostalgic event attended by bike lovers from both Poland and Germany – a clear sign of the peaceful relations of the two countries. Much like army technology itself, things have moved on.
bicycles in Poland
history of Poland
world war ii
Written by Marek Kępa, Nov 2017