UK Military Bridging – World War II (Africa and Northwest Europe)
UK military bridging enjoyed several finest hours during WWII and it would be impossible to describe every single operation. Instead, I am going to look at a significant operation in the three theatres of North West Europe, Italy and the Far East.
The first Bailey Bridge to be constructed in any operational theatre was at Medjez-el-Bab over the River Medjerda in Tunisia. Retreating German forces had damaged the Roman bridge and the Bailey overspan was completed by 237 Field Company RE
North West Europe
Before commencing operations in support of Overlord one bridging operation in the UK is worth mentioning.
In 1941 the Luftwaffe rather inconveniently dropped a large bomb on the roof of Bank tube station, completely collapsing the roof and creating a huge crater. Within 2 hours work commenced on the site and within a couple of weeks was cleared and ready for a temporary bridge. Although Wikipedia states the temporary bridge was a Bailey it was a 2 span Large Box Girder Mark II, completed in less than 5 days and built in such a way that allowed the station to be rebuilt underneath it.
I am going to cover the role of assault bridging in more detail in a later post but its impact should not be underestimated. Once the beachhead had been established and the breakout commenced bridging operations began in short order.
The first Bailey Bridge to be built in France was aptly named London Bridge I. Completed 2 days after D Day by 17 Field Company RE it was a pontoon Bailey over the Caen Canal, about 700m away from the famous Pegasus Bridge.
British Pathe have a clip of London Bridge here
Many others soon followed over the River Orne and Caen Canal in the build-up to Operation Goodwood, many built under constant enemy fire.
One of these was called York Bridge I, a 115m Class 40 Bailey Pontoon across the Caen Canal at Ouistreham and then continuing over the River Orne, the continuation being of course called York II
A good account of the drive on Caen was produced by the Veterans Agency for the 60th anniversary, click here to read
Christopher Long has an excellent website on the surviving Bailey Bridges in Normandy and other historical restoration projects, click here to have a read of this fascinating site.
The Royal Canadian Engineers constructed two Class 40 Bailey bridges over the River Orne to the South of Caen and these were called Winston and Churchill.
Railway bridging units were also to see a great deal of action as the relentless logistic buildup and breakout created an insatiable demand for material.
Crossing the Seine (Operation Neptune)
Once the situation around Caen had stabilised and the tremendous battles in that area bought to a conclusion the allies were ready to advance on the Seine.
The map below shows the planned advance
Maintaining the speed of advance was critical and to support this, a number of specially trained and equipped bridging columns were formed, it being obvious that intact bridges would be in rather short supply.
The British 21st Army Group was to cross at Vernon and the 30th Corps Armoured Divisions push onwards towards the Somme, Brussels and Antwerp.
Vernon had two bridges, one rail and one road and as part of the overall D Day strategy they, and many others, were to be destroyed to isolate Normandy and delay and counter offensive. There was a problem, no one actually knew how many bombs would be enough to deny a bridge but allow it to be repaired or used later, it’s a fine line between dropping a span and completely obliterating it.
The railway bridge was successfully dropped by an awesome display of precision bombing carried out by six US P-47’s with minimal damage to surrounding areas and loss of civilian life.
The same method was not used for the road bridge, 2 sorties of 73 and 26 B26 bombers dropped nearly 200 tonnes of bombs, resulting in significant loss of civilian life.
The 43rd Wessex Infantry Division had for a couple of years prior been practising assault rover crossings as was the obvious choice to spearhead the crossing. On the 25th of August 1944 lead elements of the 43rd Wessex Div including the Middlesex Regiment and 15/19th Hussars arrived at Vernon and despite being invited to liberation banquets proceeded to quietly establish their positions overlooking the crossing point, ably assisted by the French Resistance.
Targets were located with the assistance of the town inhabitants, remarkably, the German defenders on the far bank suspected nothing.
The crossing was not to be as easy.
On the afternoon the far bank erupted with fire from the British forces and a thick smokescreen established. The 5th Battalion the Wilshire Regiment were first across in assault boats but only one boat survived as and the battle raged into the night a small bridgehead was established. There is a tale that a solitary RE officer stripped down to duffle coat and socks to pilot the small assault boat that transferred small numbers of soldiers across, a DUKW was also used to transfer personnel. The assault boats were also manned by detachments of 583 Field Company RE.
The 4th Battalion The Somerset Light Infantry and 1st Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment also took part in assault crossing at other locations. During the night, the destroyed bridge was used to cross a small number of personnel, in single file.
It was planned to complete two bridges, a Class 9 FBE and a Class 40 Pontoon Bailey.
During the night some of the pontoons were put in place but despite heroic efforts to complete the Class 9 Bridge during the following day, enemy fire prevented it. However, as the fighting on the far bank progressed it did allow the first bridge to be completed by early evening.
By the morning of the 26th there were three battalions firmly established on the far banks in the suburb of Vernonnet and a Class 9 FBE bridge established but it was imperative that the Class 40 bridge was constructed as soon as possible to allow the heavy armour to cross.
During the following day construction of the Class 40 Bailey was carried out by 7th Army Troops RE, with the Class 9 and Bailey Rafts doing brisk business.
The two bridges were now in place, called David (Class 9) and Goliath (Class 40)
Traffic wasn’t only 1 way and there were one or two famous visitors!
A third bridge was also constructed, another Class 40 Bailey finished on the 29th
This third bridge was over 230m long and named Saul.
From the Giverny.orgwebsite
British lost 600 men in 4 days, Germans 1600 men. 12 Resistance fighters were killed, adding to the 107 civilian dead during the last four months. The city had to be rebuilt, what would not be done before 1949. But this victory was crucial. It made it possible for the allied troops to go on with their march upon the East. Montgomery crossed the Seine in Vernon on September 1st, 1944. A street of Vernon is named after him, it is one of the numerous testimonies of gratefulness from the inhabitants of the city for their Liberators. Military corners in the cemeteries as well as many memorial stones in Vernon and its surroundings still recall to those who offered their lives to liberate our region.
The Worcestershire Regiment website has an excellent and detailed 14 part account of the crossing at Vernon, click here to read.
In 1945, a new Callender Hamilton bridge was built and in 1954, the current bridge was completed.
The Worcestershire Regiment website details a reunion that took place in 1992, well worth a read, click here
There are often other Royal Engineer supported events at Vernon, celebrating and remembering the crossing.
The Vernon memorial reads
ON THE 25TH AUGUST 1944, THE 43RD (WESSEX) DIVISION LIBERATED VERNON AND CROSSED THE RIVER SEINE UNDER THE FIRE OF THE GERMAN UNITS DUG IN ON THE PROMINENT HILLS OF THE EASTERN BANK. THE INFANTRY SUPPORTED BY 4 ARMOURED REGIMENTS FOUGHT DURING 3 DAYS TO REPULSE THE ENEMY. THE CROSSING WAS ACHIEVED BY THE USE OF 3 FLOATING BRIDGES BUILT BY THE ROYAL ENGINEERS. FROM THIS INITIAL BRIDGEHEAD THE 30TH CORPS LED THE ADVANCE TOWARDS BELGIUM. THE BRITISH TROOPS SUFFERED 550 CASUALTIES IN THIS OPERATION.
The Rhine (Operation Plunder)
Once over the Seine the objectives were to destroy German forces, secure deep water harbour facilities and deny the Germans access to launch sites for their V rockets. British and Canadian forces were ranged to the North with US forces to the South.
There was much hard fighting to be done in the approach and many instances of significant bridging operations, especially across canals in Holland and the River Maas.
Once the approaches had been secured crossing the Rhine was the next obstacle before Germany proper. The meticulous planning that had been going on since 1942 had envisaged no bridges being left intact by the Germans but the speed of advance had allowed some to be preserved but even with this relative good fortune there was still a considerable bridging effort needed to improve lines of communication in front of the Rhine. An experimental unit was also established at Nijmegan to trial specialist equipment that was going to be used, including an RAF Wild Kite barrage balloon winch that would be used to haul rafts over the rover. XXX (30) Corps had also established a formidable bridging force comprising eight Divisional Engineers, four Armoured Divisional Engineers, two Assault Engineer Regiments, four Corps Engineers, two Army Engineers, eight GHQ Troops Engineers, two Bridge Companies RASC, a Tipper Platoon RASC, General Transport Platoon RASC, nine Pioneer Companies, four Mechanical Equipment Platoons RE and finally a Royal Navy attachment that were in charge of the heavy tugs.
Crossing the Rhine was always going to be a significant challenge and it is beyond the scope of this piece to look at every single crossing and the airborne (Operation Varsity) and river assault phase so I will just look at a few examples.
Before moving on it should be noted that the first tactical bridge across the Rhine was completed by the US Army 150th Engineer Construction Battalion in late March 1945 using a Class 40 M2 Treadway bridge, the M2 Treadway used inflatable pontoons and was an excellent design with very short construction times
Baileys of many kinds, ferries and Buffalo vehicles were part of the elaborate plan.
The first Bailey over the Rhine however, was a British effort.
Once the assault crossing had completed the first Bailey bridge over the Rhine was at Xanten, a 300m Class 40 Bailey Pontoon started on the morning of the 24th of March 1945 and completed soon after by 7th Army Troops RE.
This was called the Digger Bridge but some disputes still seem to persist.
Digger was closely followed by 9 others, at Wardt, Rees, Honnepel and Emmerich called Draghunt, Sussex, Lambeth, Waterloo, London, Blackfriars, Westminster, Sparrow and Maclean (Canadian).
There is some dispute over ‘firsts’, Digger or Draghunt (Wardt) but Draghunt was a Folding Boat Equipment (FBE) Bridge not a Bailey although it is credited with being the first British tactical bridge over the Rhine. Sussex Bridge, a Class 12 Bailey pontoon also at Xanten was started at the same time as Digger (within 30 minutes) but was twice as long although and in two spans joined by a causeway.
Different sources vary but I suppose it doesn’t really matter which was first, they were all completed in short order against great odds.
Beyond the Rhine there was of course yet more bridges to complete and a good account can he found here with a voluminous amount of information on the Airborne element of the crossings at the Pegasus Archive
I will close this post with a rather iconic image
OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES