UK Military Bridging – World War II (Africa and Northwest Europe)

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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.

Africa

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

View along a river and a bomb-damaged bridge repaired with a section of bailey bridge. Medjez-el-Bab © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 3100)
View along a river and a bomb-damaged bridge repaired with a section of bailey bridge. Medjez-el-Bab © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 3100)
Bailey Bridge crossing the River Medjerda, Medjez el Bab, Tunis, 1942. The first Bailey bridge to be built in contact with the enemy was the 100ft bridge built across the River Medjerda at Medjez el Bab, Tunis in late November 1942 by 237 Field Company of 78 Division. Flickr: Redhouse
Bailey Bridge crossing the River Medjerda, Medjez el Bab, Tunis, 1942. The first Bailey bridge to be built in contact with the enemy was the 100ft bridge built across the River Medjerda at Medjez el Bab, Tunis in late November 1942 by 237 Field Company of 78 Division. Flickr: Redhouse

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.

Normandy

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.

Cromwell tanks moving across ‘York’ bridge, a Bailey bridge over the Caen canal and the Orne river, during Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18 July 1944. © IWM (B 7656)
Cromwell tanks moving across ‘York’ bridge, a Bailey bridge over the Caen canal and the Orne river, during Operation ‘Goodwood’, 18 July 1944. © IWM (B 7656)
A Sherman tank crosses ‘Winston Bridge’, a Bailey bridge built over the River Orne for the ‘Goodwood’ offensive, 24 July 1944 © IWM (B 7969
A Sherman tank crosses ‘Winston Bridge’, a Bailey bridge built over the River Orne for the ‘Goodwood’ offensive, 24 July 1944 © IWM (B 7969)
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Sir Bernard Montgomery crossing the River Orne over the Winston Bridge, 22 July 1944.© IWM (B 7873
Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Sir Bernard Montgomery crossing the River Orne over the Winston Bridge, 22 July 1944.© IWM (B 7873

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

The Pursuit to the Seine
The Pursuit to the Seine

 

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.

Vernon Rail Bridge (Image Credit: Visit Vernon)
Vernon Rail Bridge (Image Credit: Visit Vernon)

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.

Infantry cross the River Seine across the wrecked road bridge at Vernon, 27 August 1944. © IWM (BU 199)Crossing the Seine and the advance to the Siegfried Line 24 August – December 1944: British troops crossing a temporary bridge over the River Seine at Vernon as General Montgomery’s 21st Army Group launched a drive which in a week covered 200 miles to reach the Scheldt River in Belgium.
Infantry cross the River Seine across the wrecked road bridge at Vernon, 27 August 1944. © IWM (BU 199)Crossing the Seine and the advance to the Siegfried Line 24 August – December 1944: British troops crossing a temporary bridge over the River Seine at Vernon as General Montgomery’s 21st Army Group launched a drive which in a week covered 200 miles to reach the Scheldt River in Belgium.

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.

Bulding an FBE at Vernon
Bulding an FBE at Vernon

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.

A bulldozer is ferried across the River Seine at Vernon, 27 August 1944. © IWM (BU 196)Building Goliath IWM
Building The Class 40 Bailey Pontoon Bridge called Goliath at Vernon, 1944. IWM
Building The Class 40 Bailey Pontoon Bridge called Goliath at Vernon, 1944. IWM

The two bridges were now in place, called David (Class 9) and Goliath (Class 40)

David and Goliath bridges at Vernon, IWM
David and Goliath bridges at Vernon, IWM
An ambulance and infantry crossing the River Seine on a Bailey bridge at Vernon,
An ambulance and infantry crossing the River Seine on a Bailey bridge at Vernon,

Traffic wasn’t only 1 way and there were one or two famous visitors!

German Prisoners at Vernon
German Prisoners at Vernon

 

 

Montgomery crosses at Vernon
Montgomery crosses at Vernon

A third bridge was also constructed, another Class 40 Bailey finished on the 29th

This third bridge was over 230m long and named Saul.

A couple of video clips of bridging operations around Vernon in 1944, click here and here

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.

Current bridge at Vernon
Current bridge at Vernon

 

 

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.

D plus 1 – the last stages of the building of the first bridges across the Rhine.
D plus 1 – the last stages of the building of the first bridges across the Rhine.
Naval landing craft on the Rhine
Naval landing craft on the Rhine with, in the background, the first completed bridge in the British sector, below Xanten. This Royal Navy “molcab”- mobile landing craft advanced base – is playing an important part in the army’s crossing of the Rhine. © IWM (A 27816)
The first Bailey bridge over the Rhine nears completion, 24 – 25 March 1945.© IWM (BU 2542)
The first Bailey bridge over the Rhine nears completion, 24 – 25 March 1945.© IWM (BU 2542)

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

Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), Winston Churchill, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery and Lieutenant-General William Simpson walk across a Bailey bridge over the Rhine on 26 March 1945. IWM
Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), Winston Churchill, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery and Lieutenant-General William Simpson walk across a Bailey bridge over the Rhine on 26 March 1945. IWM

 

 

 

 

 

 

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES

Introduction

Definitions and General Terms

Early Days

WWI

WWII – Far East Theatre

WWII – Africa and Northwest Europe

WWII – Italy

Post War

Iraq and Afghanistan

Equipment – Military Load Classification

Equipment – Floating Bridges

Equipment – Assault Bridging

Equipment – Construction Bridging

Equipment – Pre WWII

Equipment – The Bailey Bridge

Equipment – The Medium Girder Bridge

Equipment – Air Portable Bridges

Equipment – BR90 and REBS

Equipment – Trackway

Look Back and Look Forward

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Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones

Another awesome post TD! Keep them coming…

Alex
Alex

an RAF Wild Kite barrage balloon winch that would be used to haul rafts over the river

Crazy? not us. British! (Mind you I first read that as “an RAF barrage balloon…that”)

Mike W

TD

A brilliant post, TD. A phenomenal amount of research has gone into this and I enjoyed reading it immensely.

What I am about to ask now may be slightly off thread because you appear to have dealt mainly with Bailey bridges, lines of communication and heavy logistic bridges, that kind of thing. It might also be a rather selfish kind of question because I am rather more interested in close support bridging of the kind carried on tanks, etc.

Have you done any research (and that seems a cheeky question after the huge amount of research you have done!) on vehicles such as Carrier and Pusher Bridging tanks, the Box Girder Bridge, the Scissors Bridge and the ARK? I am particularly interested in the types of bridges used, for instance, by the 79th Amoured Division in North West Europe and Italy.

If you are too busy and you almost certainly are, just a list of the types you think were used by the British would do. I am particularly interested in whether any scissors tanks had been developed by that time. I think I saw one based on the Covenanter in the Tank Museum but I think it might have been only used for training.

@Alex

Yeh, I read it that way too at first, Alex. Conjures up a wonderful mental picture!

Chris.B

I don#t think I’ll ever get bored of reading about British ingenuity.

Mike W

TD

Just had a read of the link. Superb stuff! Don’t know why I mised it first time round.

I look forward with great anticipation to the second part of the series.

@Chris.B.

Agree about British ingenuity. The ARK ramp/bridge is a case in point.

RW
RW

TD

I’d be interested to know how these bridging techniques will fare against either precision munitions or at the least an rpg or two combat engineering of the future, expect you will cover it in due course.. waiting keenly also hope you give some views of inflatable structures and maybe even how airships might move bridge sections ??

ArmChairCivvy
ArmChairCivvy

Not sure if I’m asking the same as RW but combat engineering, coping with today’s environment, is interesting, and surely coming up in the equipment part (if that will not be purely history)
– interesting to note that the Russian army (much reduced) still maintains combat engineering formations, purely for bridging, at the regimental level of strength (dedicated formations)

paul g

here you go watch from the 4.00 min mark

realises british engineering years ahead of it’s time being shown off to the world (wipes small tear from corner of eye)

ArmChairCivvy
ArmChairCivvy

RE “We are mothballing our M3 ferries so… No more wide river crossings for us”
– this was exactly what made me write the comment
– Russian Rgmnts have “pontoon” in the name, so I take it they specialise in these wider crossings (and there are organic, smaller units embedded to see to more normal tasks)

When you mothball something, an end date is normally not part of the news. In the M3 case 2015 was specifically mentioned
– next Defence Review
– to decide whether to keep or scrap?

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