Gap Crossing with Sticks

British-Mark-IV-Female-Tanks-being-loaded-aboard-railway-trucks-at-Plateau-Station-in-preparation-for-the-Battle-of-Cambrai.-IWM

A fascine is simply a bundle of brushwood lashed together to form a lightweight gap crossing. It can also be used to secure the banks of rivers or other construction uses but for the purposes of this post, it is the former. They have been used since the early days of warfare, in the published work, a Treatise on Ancient Armour and Weapons by Francis Grose, published in 1786, he mentions their use a number of times.

Derived from the Roman word Fasci, its greatest advantage is that it can be constructed more or less on the spot, it is a simple device.

WWI

With the introduction of the first tanks in WWI, there was an obvious need to breach gaps, trenches everywhere!

In 1917 the newly formed Tank Corps was started to look for the most effective terrain to test the new vehicles with as little shell holes and mud as possible. Cambrai was selected because of the terrain and after looking at the comparative cost of using artillery fire to destroy the barbed wire along the proposed attack route it was clear that the tank at least presented an economical alternative. GHQ, however, remained sceptical, pointing out that in some places the trenches were up to 18 feet wide, too wide for the tank to cross.

The answer was the ancient technology of the fascine.

Despite the Royal Tank Corp’s enthusiasm GHQ remained sceptical and concentrated on planning the Third Battle of Ypres, a battle where tanks were continually squandered in the unsuitable ground.  By mid-September, it was clear that the Third Battle of Ypres had been a failure and so reluctantly the Tank Corps’s Cambrai plan was approved.

The attack started on the 20th of November using a carefully planned combined arms approach and initial advances were rapid. After the inconclusive results of using tanks at Ypres and by the French at a number of locations, it was thought to be a make or break for the new machines.

Despite being ultimately inconclusive, the Battle of Cambrai showed that the humble fascine could be used to support tanks and tanks were here to stay.

Prior to the battle 400 fascines were constructed, 11 feet in diameter and 10 feet long. Whilst the construction work was the responsibility of the Tank Corps Central Workshop the majority were made by the 51st Chinese Labour Company who were attached to the Workshop. The timber for the fascines came from the Forest of Crecy and special techniques were used to compress them, two tanks driving in opposite directions!

18 tanks were specifically modified to carry the fascine bundles.

Reinforcing the old adage of train hard fight easy, fascine launch drills were relentlessly practised, using a technique devised by none other than Colonel Fuller himself. The tanks worked in sections of three with the lead tank responsible for barbed wire clearance, stopping just short of the obstacle it would veer away to the side and provide covering fire for the two follow on vehicles that would be carrying the fascines. These would be dropped into the gap with the first tank following through. It was an effective drill and its elegant simplicity did much to restore the morale of the tank crews who had suffered in the mud of Ypres.

In a precursor to the great deceptions prior to D Day, a wide variety of counterintelligence and deception activities were used to mask intentions and keep the massive build of forces secret. A little known aspect of the battle was the logistic preparations beforehand. Using a combination of light railways, trucks and of course horses, an enormous amount of material was moved forward with little knowledge of the German forces. The tanks themselves were moved from the Plateau railhead, located close to Central Workshops.

In addition to combat roles, many tanks were converted to carry telegraph wire, grapples and bridging equipment. A total of 476 tanks were to cross the start line and there was no doubt that it was a make or break for the tank. Brigadier General Ellesse was even to lead the tanks into battle, a remarkable act of leadership.

The fascines did their job and armoured warfare was born.

WWII

D-Day was no different to any operation past, present or future.

The need to overcome the formidable field defences on the Atlantic wall was a primary concern, unless they could be neutralised no progress of the beaches could be made. The scale of the challenge was huge, everything from mines to tank traps to barbed wire to concrete pillboxes would face the invading allied forces.

The combat engineering story of D-Day began years earlier, Royal Engineer surveyors started the task of looking at possible landing areas, drawing information from existing maps, photographs and even postcards. Hard facts about the geology, tide, obstacles, load-bearing and topographic information were obtained by covert surveys. The work of the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (COPP) was essential, these were comprised of Royal Navy midget submarines and Royal Engineers surveyors.

The beaches in Normandy were well defended with both passive means such as obstacles and mines but also more active means such as artillery and infantry.

The primary objective by the Royal Engineer Assault Regiments was simply to clear obstacles on the beach and allow exit points to be created. Getting off the beach, although perhaps an obvious statement, was vital to maintain momentum. Both these tasks would have to be carried out whatever the weather, under fire and against the changing tide.

The disastrous Dieppe raid in 1942 had resulted in many lessons learned, most notably the need for an effective armoured combat engineering capability. The North African experience also demonstrated the need for obstacle breaching, especially against anti-tank mines.

The sheer breadth of obstacles, both man-made and natural, that were likely to be encountered led to the need for an equally wide range of specialist vehicles. Pioneering the implementation effort was Major General Sir Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart, commander of the newly formed 79th Armoured Division. The resultant vehicles were widely known as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’  although the task they were to carry out was far from amusing.

Major General Hobart was commissioned into the Royal Engineers, serving with the Bengal Sappers and Miners before transferring to the Royal Tank Corps. He was a forward thinker and in many ways revolutionary (he is often credited with being the originator of the Blitzkrieg concept!)

This outspoken and aggressive manner led to him being retired in 1939 so when the call came to command the 79th Armoured Division he was serving as a Corporal in the Home Guard. An influential Times article by Liddell Hart that was reportedly seen by Churchill saw him quickly returned to service.

It was thought that a normal divisional command would not be the best use of his considerable intellect, the requirement for a specialist force of combat engineering vehicles and specialist armour was exactly the kind of thing that would benefit from his insight.

Hobart was eventually tasked with training this specialist unit, later to become the 79th (experimental) Armoured Division. Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery was Hobart’s brother in law and this ensured that Hobart had sufficient resources. Eisenhower quickly appreciated the value of Hobart’s ‘menagerie’ and ensured that red tape was slashed and top priority is given to him.

Breaking new ground at almost every turn the resultant vehicles, tactics and training were truly revolutionary. Uniquely, the 79th did not deploy as a single unit but were used by any unit that needed them, including the US and Commonwealth forces. Most of the vehicles were converted Churchill or Sherman tanks and although many of the concepts had been used before and Hobart was not an engineer, he undoubtedly perfected the overall concept.

The Churchill was the ideal donor vehicle because it was heavy, with a low centre of gravity, roomy interior and side escape hatches, and was therefore used for the majority of the funnies. The Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE) mounted a 290mm Petard spigot mortar which fired a demolition charge to approximately 80 yards, unfortunately the spigot mortar had to be reloaded from outside the vehicle. This was the basic donor vehicle for many of the variations.

Others included the Carrot and Double Onion demolition charge vehicles,  VEB or Vehicle Emplaced Banagalore torpedo for breaching large barbed wire entanglements, Armoured Ramp Carrier (ARK) using a series of ramps to bridge gaps, assault bridges, the distinctive flail and bobbin ‘carpet layers’.

The slightly modified AVRE was also used to carry fascine bundles, not much had changed in the basic design since those used at Cambrai.

General Eisenhower wrote

Apart from the factor of tactical surprise, the comparatively light casualties which we sustained on all beaches, except OMAHA, were in large measure due to the success of the novel mechanical contrivances which we employed, and to the staggering moral and material effect of the mass of armor landed in the leading waves of the assault. It is doubtful if the assault forces could have firmly established themselves without the assistance of these weapons.

The fascine was part of that group of novel mechanical contrivances.

Later in the war, fascines were used extensively in the campaign in Italy, notably in the crossing of the River Senio by New Zealand forces. In this instance modified Sherman’s joined the Churchill’s and a new type of fascine called a bolster was used, combining the traditional bundle with a steel lattice crib.

The Modern Era

The greatest step forward in fascine development came from the Royal Engineers in the early eighties, instead of using bundles of brushwood the modern polythene pipe system was developed. Although the gaps can be bridged, these bridges are expensive and always in short supply. The area of operations of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) had numerous small gaps (streams, ditches etc) that would hamper the free movement of military vehicles.

The traditional brushwood bundles were approaching the limits of vehicle weight and as main battle tanks started pushing the 60 tonnes plus mark something else was needed. In addition, wooden fascines have a tendency to float which makes them difficult to use in water-filled obstacles.

Plastic water pipes had seen rapid introduction in civil works and they were seen as a promising alternative. After much testing and refinement by the Experimental Bridging Establishment and 32 Armoured Engineer Regiment Royal Engineers, a version of the Centurion AVRE was introduced in conjunction with modified bundles of plastic pipe. The launch technique was to approach the target gap at speed, brake sharply at a marked point and fire the explosive bolts holding the travel hawsers so that the fascine, through inertia, rolled off the AVRE directly into the middle of the gap. When in position the AVRE would then travel over it to level the road surface for other vehicles to cross.

This whole process would take less than 1 minute, essential for an assault crossing possibly under fire.

The new pipe-based system is flexible enough to almost mould itself to the shape of the gap and will not impede water flow.

Pipe fascines continued to be used on the Chieftan AVRE and they saw action on Operation Granby, the liberation of Kuwait.

Today and Tomorrow

The Royal Engineer’s new engineering ‘tank’ is called the Trojan and this continues to use the plastic pipe fascine system, available from Pearson Engineering in a couple of sizes.

The all-encompassing US FCS and UK FRES programmes did look at gap crossing and fascines in particular. Both programmes had a lot in common so the solutions proposed did have some commonality.

QinetiQ have the ‘Compact Gap Crossing’ systems as below

This uses a series of inflatable tubes to fill the gap. The obvious advantages are volume reduction when not deployed and crucially, they can be deployed without resorting the specialist vehicles. QinetiQ worked with RFD Beuafort (now Survivetec) to produce a working prototype that was successfully tested. JW Automarine has also produced similar devices.

The principal advantage of these inflatable fascines is a reduction in bulk, vehicles can carry them in addition to their normal payload.

The status of these projects seem to ‘on hold’, they are ready for funds to appear, the inflatable fascine replacement is nothing new though, as this 1965 clip from British Pathe at MEXE shows.

One thing is certain, the fascine, one of the simplest pieces of military equipment, will continue to see action wherever the British Army goes.

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