Gap Crossing with Sticks

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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, it’s greatest advantage is that it an 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 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 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 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 foot 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.

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

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 counter intelligence 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 rail head, located close to Central Workshops.

British Mark IV Female Tanks of ‘C’ Battalion loaded aboard a train at Plateau Station in preparation for the Battle of Cambrai. IWM
British Mark IV Female Tanks of ‘C’ Battalion loaded aboard a train at Plateau Station in preparation for the Battle of Cambrai. IWM

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 make or break for the tank. Brigadier General Ellese 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 off the beaches could be made. The scale of challenge was huge, everything from mines to tank traps to barbed wire to concrete pill boxes 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 were 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 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.

Churchill AVRE with fascine
Churchill AVRE with fascine

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 tonne 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.

Centurion AVRE and Pipe Fascine Trials
Centurion AVRE and Pipe Fascine Trials

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. 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 have also produced similar devices.

QinietiQ Plastic Tank and inflatable fascine
QinietiQ Plastic Tank and inflatable fascine

The principle 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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Gabriele
Gabriele

The Trojan is totally awesome. Titan is quite a bit piece of kit too…

And the Hobart’s Funnies were true battle-winning assets. The Churchill Crocodile was perhaps the most fearsome of all, though.

Jed

Yay – are we on to the big series of army posts now then ?

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones

@ TD – excellent little article; I love the Pathe clip. I love the device for an instant fire-trench!

It is often said that a maritime strategy is the future because 80% or whatever of the worlds population live near the coast. What they forget is these people will increasingly live in large or even Mega Cities. We can see the potential problems we may encounter in Libya. As well as the armoured engineering vehicles to enable access/manoeuvre, will we need other armoured vehicles to act like modern siege engines to protect and support our troops in urban environments?

ArmChairCivvy
ArmChairCivvy

GJ,

Good point “will we need other armoured vehicles to act like modern siege engines to protect and support our troops in urban environments?”
– and so far totally neglected by every one else except the Israelis

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones

@ ACC – The Israelis don’t have much of a choice! – the west appears to avoid thinking about it as much as possible – there was a bit of interest in converting armour to urban conditions a couple of years ago but now the focus is off Iraq and on less developed A-stan interest appears to have waned again. The Russians also have some experience of Urban fighting and produced a range of responses but I don’t know if they are keeping them up.

ArmChairCivvy
ArmChairCivvy

GJ,

Exactly the point – “we” don’t even have the concepts, to modify kit, if and when necessary.

Israelis go to extreme lengths to avoid high casualties – not a single Merkava crew lost that I know of (and now the IFV based on the same design).

The Strykers and Humvees in Iraqi towns/ cities were a sorry sight; and the Russian Motorised Rifle Divisions, with their normal kit, were torn to pieces when they entered Grosny.
– responses : M1s (US) and helicopter gunships – and fuel-air bombs by the Russians (suffocating the defenders, when you can’t blast them out of the rubble/ bunkers)

Gabriele
Gabriele

@ArmChairCivvy

Huh. The Merkava is awesome, but… In 2006 war in Lebanon 10 persons were killed by anti-tank missiles piercing Merkava tanks.
50 tanks were damaged, Two Merkava Mark IVs beyond repair, one by a powerful IED, and another, it is believed, by Russian AT-14 ‘Kornet’ missiles. All but two Merkava Mark IV tanks damaged during the war were repaired and returned to the IDF.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merkava (i know, Wiki is not the best of sources, but i don’t have time at the moment for digging out better info). The Trophy and NAMER are both consequences of the bitter 2006 experience.

In comparison, the only Challenger II lost remains the one unfortunately killed in blue-on-blue fire incident by another Chally (two victims), and in Iraq one was pierced by an RPG-29 which took three toes of the driver’s foot, with another driver losing a leg when his Challenger was damaged by a huge IED underbelly.

Another Challenger survived one Milan AT missile and 14 RPGs, and another shrugged off 70 (!) rpgs fired at it.

So, yes. The Merkava has merits, but the Chally is better still. I still take a Challenger over a Merkava.
And a Challenger with Trophy or another active defence system would be a total dominator.

Chally compares favorably with any competitor, included the M1 Abrams (at least one was killed by enemy fire in the Gulf war, and a total of 23 were lost (temporarily or permanently) to other causes, including at 7 killed by friendly fire and two destroyed after the enemy disabled them and they had to be abandoned), and if in the coming years the upgrade programme with the smoothbore gun and some other improvements can be funded somehow, well… there’s no other tank i’d want over the Chally.

Gabriele
Gabriele

Here is a piece about Abrams performance in Iraq 2003-2005
http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2005-03-29-abrams-tank-a_x.htm

And this is about the Merkava in 2006’s Lebanon conflict.
http://www.globes.co.il/serveen/globes/docview.asp?did=1000127813&fid=942

Red Rat
Red Rat

IDF figures are 50 AFVs damaged by ATGMs or RPGs of which some half of these had their armour penetrated for a total of some 20 odd casualties. These are AFV figures and I have not seen the breakdown for Merkava.

TROPHY and NAMER are a consequence of the 2006 experience, but IDF analysis highlighted their poor tactical skills caused by a lack of training and an emphasis on Internal Security operations as well as confusing doctrine. They ditched ‘Sytemic Operational Design’ and reinstituted a rigorous regime of combined arms manoeuvre training focusing on the basics.

You can have the best kit in the world, but if you are tactically inept you are still going to get a hiding.

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones

Does anybody else think we could do with a HIFV/TPC also known as a Kangaroo? Traditionally these were made from tank chassis but I recently read an idea about converting SPG’s by removing their turrets and adding extra armour. Could we do that to the AS-90’s we plan to retire?

Red Rat
Red Rat

The best book I have found on the 2006 Lebanon War is: ’34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah and the War in Lebanon’. It has a detailed account of the battle of Wadi Salouki.

Red Rat
Red Rat

Kangaroo was an armoured personnel carrier. We have Infantry Fighting Vehicles (Warrior) and Armoured Personnel Carriers (Bulldog) so that gap is covered.
The problem with AFVs of APCs in an urban environment is that you want something that can get down the streets and have a high degree of overhead protection (from plunging fire). AS90 would be too big for the former and would recquire significant up-armouring for the latter.
In Basra the Brits found Bulldog with a Remote Weapon Station (RWS) to be the platform of choice, closely followed by Warrior.

Red Rat
Red Rat

What we do need is something to replace the Centurion Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE). Use of CR2 in the urban requirement is a bit of overkill and sub-optimal due to main armament limitations. What we need is a well protected infantry support tank with an Anti-structure and pin point fire support capability.

Gabriele
Gabriele

A warrior upgrade featuring a remote turret with an High-Elevation mount for the CTA gun and a cluster of Thales LMM missiles, plus obviously the addional protection bits would be the best platform.

I do not agree with the Army assumption that a 2-men turret works better than a remotely operated one.
That was true in 1939 and 1940, but today…?

A single man, sitting deep into the hull, thus better protected, can efficiently commander the turret, which having no men inside has more room for ammo while weighting less.

FRES SV is going to have the 2-man variant of the german Lance turret (which on the new german PUMA IFV is remote). The turret already comes with a side mount for missiles as well (Germany uses it for a couple of Spike AT missiles).

For Warrior, i say we get the Lance unmanned turret, get it modified to have the gun aiming higher to deal with threats from the high floors, and put a cluster of 7 Thales LLM missiles to break holes in the walls and do heavy job.

It would be enough. And there would still be weight for additional ammo and more space into the vehicle, because of what is saved going for a remote turret.
And we also cut one man from each crew = savings in personnel.

Less radical than the Russian’s Terminator vehicle idea, but plenty effective.

ArmChairCivvy
ArmChairCivvy

Hi Gaby,

RE “A warrior upgrade featuring a remote turret with an High-Elevation mount for the CTA gun ”
– that is the essence of urban fighting; there is a version of Leopard with that sort of design and bulldozing blade (unmodified gun, though). No one has ordered it yet

FRES SV is going to have the 2-man variant of the german Lance turret (which on the new german PUMA IFV is remote)
– Puma is not for recce, but in the Scout they have actually made the hatches big enough for those sniffing the air to do so without having to remove the body armour!

Gabriele
Gabriele

Of course Puma is not for recce. And for FRES SV i’m quite fine with the 2-man turret variant.

But on Warrior…?
I believe it is not necessary. A good remotely operated turret might cost less, and even allow to do more.

Lord Jim
Lord Jim

Could we convert some of the Challenger IIs being withdrawn in the AVREs? I am sure the US has some 165mm Demo Guns left over from its M60 Based AEVs which should still be in storage somewhere. IF not why not find an off the shelf turret or RWS?

Jed

Lord Jim – do we need 165mm demo guns when we have breach loading 120mm mortars ?

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones

What about cut down 155mm’s? Might have to reduce the propellant charges but the impact of the HE shell would be considerable as well as a wide range of other shells?

ArmChairCivvy
ArmChairCivvy

When I said that no one’s bought the UrbOps optimised Leo, actually the Germans have bought 50 kits to retrofit onto existing tanks:” LEOPARD 2 PSO has a Type FLW 200 weapon station with integrated day and night sights on the turret, which the crew can operate remotely from a monitor in the protected interior. The weapon station has a horizontal traverse of 360°. Up and down, the FLW 200 can be moved in an arc of almost 90° overall. This allows the crew of the LEOPARD 2 PSO to defend themselves on all sides, and to observe and open fire on upper stores of urban buildings. The weapons station can be armed either with various machine-guns (light, medium, heavy) or with 40 mm automatic grenade launchers. But it can also be loaded with non-lethal ammunition, for example to bring a rebellion under control. The hydraulic rake blade, which can be raised, lowered and swiveled left and right, can also be used for this purpose.

With it, the LEOPARD 2 PSO can clear barricades or other obstacles out of the way.” But this (as per LJ) “165mm Demo Guns left over from its M60 Based AEVs which should still be in storage somewhere” would still be missing
– or should one just have a few of those anti-materiel rockets discussed not long ago fitted to the side of the turret?
– the same kit approach could be used for the “redundant” Chally2s

Jed

TD said: “the calibre and explosive content is not a linear relationship so the 165mm has an explosive content of over 20kg and the 120mm mortar round about 2-3kg”

Very true, a 120mm mortar round of all up mass of 16kg is likely to have 2kg of HE filling – the rest mostly being the mass of the metal case which provides all the shrapnel that generally does the damage.

But surely for wall breaching in an urban scenario, a “direct fire” round that only has to reach to 1.5km max might weigh a little more. Even if it did not it could have a plastic case with up to say 10kg of plastic type HE in a HESH type warhead i.e. it “pancakes” onto the wall before detonating. Should do the trick ?

How about a few thermobaric rounds – bring the whole building down ?? :-)

Gabriele
Gabriele

Under which rules of engagement would the army be allowed to fire, in the middle of a town, a 165 mm demolition charge into a building…????? Anyone has thought about this little problem?

A vehicle for urban warfare would need to have, in my opinion:
-capability to carry infantry under armor (that’s why i propose Warrior)
-Airburst ammunition to clean up a room, to hit enemies under cover and entrenched ones. (that’s why the CTA 40 mm gun)
-Capacity to kill enemy light/medium armor, if not full grown MBTs (LMM would suffice)
-Capability to aim at the high floors of buildings to take snipers down
-very good protection
-Anti-Structure ammunition to blow holes in walls for the infantry to get into buildings and clean them up
-Extensive Thermal sensor fit to “see” through walls and detect enemies in ambush. A Fire-source detector would also be welcome, but more than vehicle mounted it should be an infantry system.

But old-style Churchill AVRE demolition charges…? More often than not you’d not be authorized to make such a big bang.

Red Rat
Red Rat

Under current ROE you might well be allowed to use a 165mm demolition charge into a building. For all use of weapons you need to demonstrate that use is:
reasonable, necessary, proportionate, and discriminate.
If you can demonstrate that using a 165mm demolition charge meets those criteria then you will receive authority.

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