On December 16th, 1944, American doctor Major Clifford Graves went on a short cycle tour in Eastern Belgium. Dr. Graves was a combat surgeon supporting the 106th Division and enjoying a quiet pre-Christmas respite in the war tempo when 25 German divisions broke through the lines, beginning what is known today as the Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive .
With the German tanks only miles away, Major Graves unloaded his medical equipment truck and on-boarded as many casualties from the field hospital as possible. By the time he got this organized and sent the truck west on the narrow road, the German tanks had arrived at the far end of the small village where the field hospital was located.
Dr. Graves didn’t want to be captured. What to do? Well, in the year and a half he’d spent in England before D-Day, he’d purchased a derailleur geared touring bicycle and done a little touring in England, Scotland and Wales. He’d surreptitiously crated the bicycle and included it in the medical equipment when they’d deployed to France the previous June. He hurriedly broke the crate apart and assembled his bicycle. By the time he got the tires pumped, the lead Panzer was just a block away. With a farewell to the GIs in the village who had no transportation, he rode out on the main road right in front of the lead German tank and pedaled away.
It was a horrible, cold, wet, desperate cycle tour that day, Dr. Graves barely staying ahead of the blitzkrieging Panzers. Graves came under German airborne ground attack, being strafed and at one point bombed. He passed through Malmedy and briefed members of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion about what he knew of the situation behind him. These GIs would be captured and murdered by SS troopers the next morning.
Late in the afternoon Major Graves arrived at Spa, where some sketchy semblance of order had been established in the retreat. Reporting to the temporary HQ, he created as much of a sensation as possible under the chaotic conditions when he explained to command that he’d escaped the German advance on a bicycle. As an orderly defense was thrown together, he was given a medical truck and a driver and told to head south to Bastogne, where heavy fighting was reported and resultant casualties anticipated. Command warned Graves at Spa that German soldiers wearing American uniforms had been captured during the day.
He tossed his bike in the back of the deuce-and-a-half and they headed out in the gathering twilight. Well after dark he and his driver thought they were on the main road to Bastogne, but observed the road they were on was getting narrower, not wider. Major Graves decided they had taken a wrong turn and should backtrack on what had become a tiny country lane, and he told his driver to wait while he scouted ahead on his bicycle for a place they could turn the big truck around without getting stuck. Just up the way he found a small crossroads. Returning to the truck he informed his driver and led him to the turn-around. As the driver was executing a multi-point turn, Graves spotted by the light of an inexplicably burning farm house what he assumed must be an American tank column approaching. He rode his bicycle up to the front tank, waving his handkerchief, pointing and shouting that there was a truck blocking the road just up ahead. The tank hatch popped open and the commander shouted something back.
Graves realized the officer was shouting in German.
He quickly analyzed the situation. He guessed they hadn’t shot him or just run him down with the tank because, due to his bold approach on a bicycle, they had misidentified him as one of the German saboteurs. He shouted back to the tank commander the only German that came to mind: ‘Ja! Ja! Ja! Ja! Ja! Ja!’ With a wave, he turned the bike around and sprinted back down the road. He tossed his bike in the truck and told his driver to head back to secure American territory as fast as they could go.
Dr. Graves survived the day without getting captured, and survived the war. In the post-war occupation he did some more touring on the Continent before returning to America and setting up a surgery practice in La Jolla, California. With the enthusiastic support of other like-minded Americans, he founded the International Bicycle Touring Society and toured throughout North America, Europe, Japan, New Zealand and China.
… always bring your bicycle. You’ll almost certainly have more fun than if you don’t bring it, and you never know - it could save your life