A Hero on Two Wheels: The Bicycle in Malta G.C.

Being an island, Malta had to import almost all the supplies it needed. Convoys were packed to the brim with flour, canned meat, fish, bombs, ammunitions, guns, vehicles and bicycles. Petrol was a precious resource, so much so that use of private vehicles was rationed and later forbidden unless impressed for the war effort; transporting supplies or loaned to the Government or any of the Services. ‘Cycle to save petrol’ was the order of the day and thousands of locals would scramble to obtain a ‘push-bike’ if they didn’t have one. It was a vital tool to visit their family, go to work, travel to bars and music halls. In short, it was a critical mode of transport which allowed people a semblance of their normal pre-war routines. 

The British military imported thousands of bicycles with its vital convoys. One of their most common uses in Malta was to equip mobile companies, which many regiments (such as the Irish Fusiliers and Dorsetshire regiment) had already formed by 1941. The aim was to have hundreds of fully equipped men ready to relocate as quickly and silently as possible to occupy strategic positions or counter attack zones occupied by enemy parachutists. Therefore, the Bicycle found itself a crucial instrument of the fluid strategy needed to defend an island against a parachutist attack.

Servicemen on bicycles in an airfield in Malta
Serviceman resting on his bicycle in one of Malta's airfields while looking at a crashed fighter. One can clearly note the strip of white paint on the rear mudguard for added visibility, especially during black-out conditions

Later on other regiments, such as the Hampshires and the Durhams would also form mobile companies. Bicycles were also used extensively on airfields, for messenger duties, police rounds, Air Raid Precaution duties, government departments, district medical officers, and military coastal and countryside patrols. The bicycle is also documented to have been used to carry all sorts of things, from rations to ammunition.

Several manufacturers supplied bicycles to the British forces, and many civilian bicycles were requisitioned from all around the country. Hercules, Raleigh, Philips, and BSA all made bicycles which eventually ended up in Malta. Types also varied and ‘Racers’ have also been documented as part of bicycles distributed by the Maltese Government. However, all were very strictly distributed and rationed. In some instances, retailers refused to sell them opting to rent them instead. Scarcity also applied to the spare parts needed to maintain them. Already in August 1941 one sees evidence of unserviceable bicycles being re-utilised as spares for their working parts. Government employees and civilians alike required a specific voucher to apply for anything from covers to spare tubing, which became increasingly expensive and unobtainable. These stocks and spare parts vouchers were issued by the Collector of Customs and the Royal Army Ordnance Corps respectively (RAOC), at least until 1942. More so, civilian petitions to obtain preference for any spare military bicycles or spare parts. In September of 1942, the engineers within the RAOC would even resort to fashioning wooden pedals to replace rubber ones, among many other parts they manufactured locally to keep bicycles running (a responsibility taken over by REME in late 1942). Malta also produced its own bicycle modifications and bicycle related equipment. Most notably, Chief Officer Mechanical Engineer war diaries document the manufacturing of a bicycle trailer to carry a Vickers MG.

A REME bicycle workshop in Malta during WWII, courtesy of The REME Museum


The battalion or battalions, if they come, must be British, not Indian. […] Transport could be extemporised here pending arrival of own vehicles. But they should bring bicycles with them if possible.”- Lieutenant General Dobbie to the War Office on the 5th of February 1941. 

The scarcity of bicycles would remain a recurrent issue throughout the war.There were suggestions to license and register civilian Bicycles when thefts reached high proportions as early as 1940 and in late 1942, but the impact of such measures were deemed minimal and never introduced. Military bicycles were registered with each battalion they were issued to, but it is still difficult to track survivors. More so, it was very common for bicycles to be stolen, by enlisted men and civilians alike. One finds ample police reports for bicycles stolen from servicemen and civilians. Such was the case that local insurance agencies such as Albert Victor Mallia’s agency for Northern Assurance offered bicycle insurance against theft throughout the siege. More so, the penalty for bicycle thefts was severe at times, one individual getting 4 years of hard labour for stealing 7 bicycles.In November 1942, a nation-wide picketing system was organised to check for the illegal transportation of potatoes by farmers. However, this was also an opportune moment to check for stolen bicycles by checking if they had a ‘secret mark’.

A voucher redeemed at an RAOC depot for bicycle covers and tubes in 1942. National Archives of Malta, LGO 4623.

It is known that a large number of bicycles have been lost by the Military Authorities and are presumably in the hands of civilians”. Military bicycles have a “special mark” which makes them identifiable as such” – National Archives of Malta, CSG 01 4306 1941.

One can understand such high rates of theft by keeping in mind the sheer lack of transport available to the public in Malta. There are ample requests for bicycles to be issued to government employees and dockyard workers to be able to attend to their duties and travel to work, especially during 1942 as Malta starved of everything and buses could not operate efficiently. The majority of these requests could not be satisfied. Even enlisted men from varying corps and regiments such as the Royal Army Services Corps and Royal Malta Artillery struggled to get hold of a bicycle. The bicycle which so many of us see as a sport equipment or a leisurely device nowadays became completely invaluable in the circumstances of war. 

By Nikolai Debono, on behalf of Battlefront Malta.
Sources and Notes

National Archives of Malta:

Bicycles being shipped “in crates”: CSG 01 4454 1942.

Bicycle distribution: CSG 01 2148 1942, CSG 01 5166 1942, CSG 01 3883 1942, CSG 01 3063 1942, CSG 01 3021 1942.

Bicycle picketing system: CSG 01 4306 1941.

Bicycle spare parts distribution: See CSG 01 1136 1942, Bicycles and parts exports from Britain were reduced to “about 30% of the normal quota” in February of 1942. More so. The Secretary of State of the Colonies required Malta to provide estimates for minimum bicycles and parts required “excluding tyres”.  

Bicycle thefts: CSG 01 3565 1942, CSG 01 4587 1942, see also ‘Malta War Occurrences’ (2022) by Jeffrey Sammut, pp, 609-611.

Requests for bicycles: CSG 01 4709 1942, CSG 01 4044 1942, CSG 01 4492 1942, CSG 01 3259 1943, CSG 01 3021 1942, CSG 01 1896 1942(1), CSG 01 2131 1942.

Reutilisation of old bicycles for parts: CSG 01 3134 1941.

Spare parts ‘voucher’: CSG 4582 1940, CSG 01 4263 1942.

Suggestions to license bicycles: LGO 226/2, CSG 01 4306 1941.

Draft for official account of RAOC service in Malta, held by the REME Museum, UK. In this document it is mentioned that, despite the vital utility of bicycles, a lot of time was wasted on duties that could have otherwise been fulfilled much more efficiently with motor-vehicles, p. 135.