(Bicycle-mounted Japanese troops in the Philippines c. 1941-1942, via Creative Commons)
The Japanese literally pedaled their way to victory in the Battle of Singapore
The military has always recognized the necessity of speed and mobility in waging effective warfare. This need was fulfilled from antiquity until around the First World War by cavalrymen on horseback. When the World Wars arrived, horses were quickly exchanged for more mechanical means of mobile warfare. Tanks, armored personnel carriers and powerful aircraft replaced the role of the horseman. In the brief, frenzied transition period of the outdated horse cavalry into the mechanized military of today, many machines were put to the test. Just as aircraft designs progressed from tri-planes, to bi-planes and finally jets, the military ground forces also developed many iterations of machines to improve upon the mobility of the horse. One of the least remembered replacements of the horse was the bicycle, and few countries used the bicycle better in war than the Japanese.
Japan was not the only country that experimented with the military possibilities of the bicycle. Quite the opposite, the peddle-powered bike was a universal tool deployed by most world powers. The bicycle did not require feed or fuel for it to function and its maintenance was fairly simplistic, making it an affordable and dependable machine in the right circumstances. During WWI, it was used for sending messages and allowing scouts and snipers to move quickly around the battle-lines.
When World War Two arrived, bicycles were still in use for messaging and scouting, but faster and better-armored vehicles had usurped the bike’s place with the active infantry—that is, until the Japanese used bicycles to conquer the pacific.
To set the scene, around the start of WWII, Japan controlled Korea, Manchuria and much of the Chinese coastland. They had further imperial ambitions in southern Asia and the numerous islands of the Pacific. The Japanese military was fueled by foreign oil, which made the United State’s embargo of oil all the more damaging to Japan. For its embargo to end, the United States demanded that Japan release almost all of its conquests in the Pacific and mainland Asia. Understandably, Japan refused. Instead, in December 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Naval base in Pearl Harbor as a screen to cover the Japanese acquisition of oil fields in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia.
The bicycle fit perfectly with Japan’s situation. They needed to conserve fuel—the bike was foot-powered. They were on ships ping-ponging their way through the islands of the Pacific—the bicycle was lightweight and easy to transport across water. Japan even commandeered bikes from the populations they occupied, especially as they invaded the Malay Peninsula on their way to Singapore.
The Battle of Singapore best displayed the advantages of Japan’s bicycle infantry. In February of 1942, the Japanese military, under the command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, established a foothold on the Malay Peninsula. What happened next surprised the British, Australian and Indian troops defending the region—Yamashita’s men attacked by land, through thick jungle, swamps, fields and plantations.
Yamashita’s land route proved unexpectedly successful. The Japanese found a map of British defenses around the town of Jitra. With the map, Yamashita was able to take Jitra with less than 50 casualties and seize the weapons, ammunition, rations and vehicles within the town. The Japanese also were able to take British airfields and sink two of Britain’s most powerful ships in the region (the Repulse and the Prince of Wales). This limited Britain’s military defense to only its infantry, for its air and naval power was crippled and all of the defenses around Singapore faced toward the ocean instead of the jungle.
Thousands and Thousands of Japanese infantrymen grabbed the nearest bicycle and peddled onward toward Singapore. Using their bikes, the Japanese could weave their way through the jungle when they needed to, but they also had access to pristine British-made roadways. The Japanese bicycle infantry quickly pursued the withdrawing British defenders, the bikes allowing them to maneuver behind British lines and attack from unexpected directions.
The bicycles, strangely enough, also acted as an instrument of terror. Bicycle infantry showing up in the most unsuspected of places behind enemy lines was enough cause for terror, but the bikes could cause even more fear. Keeping in mind that the Japanese were peddling their bicycles all day long, on and off road, it is understandable that flat tires were a common problem—actually, those flat tires turned out to be a boon. As Japanese forces pedaled toward an enemy position, the metal rims of busted bicycle tires grinding against stone and asphalt sounded eerily like an approaching tank. Sometimes, by the time the Japanese bicyclists arrived on their broken bikes, the British defenders would have already retreated, spooked by the sound.
General Yamashita rode the wave of surprise and fear all the way to Singapore. When they arrived, the Japanese forces sieged the city even though they had much fewer men than the British defenders, and by February 15th, the city of Singapore was surrendered to Japan.
Bicycles won the Battle of Singapore. They allowed the Japanese to efficiently navigate the Malay Peninsula and attack British positions from the undefended jungles and swamps. Using bicycle tactics like this, the Japanese were able to build a far-flung empire stretching down the Chinese coastline and around southern Asia toward India before the USA, and other Allied Powers, dismantled the Japanese Empire and won the Pacific war in WWII.