UK Military Bridging – World War II (Italy)
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 theaters of North West Europe, Italy and the Far East.
The Italian campaign, although on a smaller scale to North West Europe is interesting because it was longer and for simple reasons of geography meant spans were generally longer. Because British and Commonwealth forces operated on the left flank, rivers were closer to the sea and therefore usually wider than those encountered in North West Europe. The retreating German forces also did an excellent job of destroying bridge infrastructure as they went, not just dropping spans but also destroying piers and approaches.
Between 1943 and 1945 the combined British/Commonwealth and US 15th Army Group completed 2,832 fixed span Bailey bridges of some 45 miles long, 120 floating Bailey or Treadway bridges, 490 railway viaducts and an incredible 430 permanent bridges.
Picking a few examples from that list is clearly difficult but the first operational Bailey Pontoon build in any theatre was completed on over the River Volturno at Capua in October 1943 by 56 Division and elements of 46 Division RE.
The longest bridge completed during the Italian campaign was the 343m (1,126ft) high level Class 30 Bailey Bridge over the River Sangro.
Twelve hundred feet across and spanning the Sango River in Italy (crossed in November 1943), was the largest Bailey bridge in the world at the time.
The 69th Field Company Bengal Sappers carried out an incredible feat of military bridging over the River Moro, the Impossible Bridge (as it was called) was built by crossing over to the enemy side and building the bridge in reverse direction, to overcome a lack of construction space on the home bank. The word ‘impossible’ stems from the opinion of Canadian engineers; the Indians of course saw this as a challenge and resorted to manhandling all the parts of the bridge over the river. Bengal Sapper pride retained, signage with appropriate wording completed!
Another bridge snippet worth recording before wading into detail is the ASAMFU Bridge at San Andrea over the River Santerno.
This was a difficult location, both spans and piers were destroyed and there was very limited space for. It was therefore decided to build the 480 feet Bailey bridge from both sides and meet in the middle.
Apparently, when the two halves met in the middle it was realised that the male ends of the bridge led from both banks and a hastily modified link was fabricated to correct the parts. The origins of the word are apparently, A Systematic And Military Fuck Up!!
Towards the end of 1943 it became clear to the Allies that breaching the German defensive Gustav line was not going to be easy if at all possible, the strength of the defences, a bitter winter and unfavourable terrain precipitated a plan to conduct an amphibious assault at Anzio that would link up with a swift advance by the Fifth Army between the sea and the Liri Valley. At the same time, the Eighth Army would advance through the Liri Valley parallel to Highway 6/ Much has been written about the Anzio landings but it is a matter of history that things did not go according to plan.
A number of battles along the Gustav Line, especially at Monte Cassino failed to achieve a breakout.
The high ground around the Liri Valley is dominated by Monastery Hill an which stood the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino overlooking the junction of the Liri and Rapido rivers. Whilst the Rapido is a relatively small river as the name suggests, the current is very strong and storms could result in significant depth changes. Monte Cassino was a bottleneck and was unavoidable.
With the arrival of Spring and time to prepare, this was to prove the decisive battle.
The plan for Operation Diadem was that U.S. II Corps on the left would attack up the coast along the line of Route 7 towards Rome. The French Corps to their right would attack from the bridgehead across the Garigliano originally created by X Corps in the first battle in January into the Aurunci Mountains which formed a barrier between the coastal plain and the Liri Valley. British XIII Corps in the centre right of the front would attack along the Liri valley whilst on the right 2nd Polish Corps (3rd and 5th Division) commanded by Lt. Gen. Władysław Anders, which had relieved 78th Division in the mountains behind Cassino on April 24, would attempt the task which had defeated 4th Indian Division in February, isolate the monastery and push round behind it into the Liri valley to link with XIII Corps’ thrust and pinch out the Cassino position. It was hoped that being a much larger force than their 4th Indian Division predecessors they would be able to saturate the German defences which would as a result be unable to give supporting fire to each other’s positions. Improved weather, ground conditions and supply would also be important factors. Once again, the pinching manoeuvre by the Polish and British Corps were key to the overall success. Canadian I Corps would be held in reserve ready to exploit the expected breakthrough. Once the German Tenth Army had been defeated, U.S. VI Corps would break out of the Anzio beachhead to cut off the retreating Germans in the Alban Hills.
The MoD have also published a good general account of the battles around Monte Cassino, click here
A number of crossings had been made over the rivers during the first, second and third battles but it was during the fourth battle (Operation Diadem) that one of the most famous crossings took place, the Amazon Bridge.
Three field company’s RE were assigned to the bridging effort, 7th, 225th and the 59th would build two Class 40 Bailey Bridges (Amazon and Congo), two Bailey ferries and a single Class 9 Bailey (Blackwater) as a return route between the two Class 40’s.
One of the bridges was to be called Blackwater, the Class 9 Bailey and on the 27th of April a recce was completed by a small team of engineers, the river area was not entirely secure and the recce party encountered a force of German engineers although no action was taken, discretion was needed. Because of the presence of enemy forces it was decided to carry out a second recce to confirm the span and examine the far bank. A volunteer was called for and eventually Driver McTighe chosen because he was the best swimmer in the Company. On the evening of the 30th moon weather conditions were suitable and the second recce started. Despite loud explosions being heard in the area (it was never determined whether these were grenades or trip wires) Driver McTighe bravely completed the measuring exercise and came back with a figure of 52 feet. A subsequent flight by the attached Tactical Reconnaissance flight resulted in a measurement of 55 feet.
A complex bridging plan was subsequently formulated for the 12th of May 1944 with H Hour set for 10pm.
The operation started with a huge artillery barrage from 900 guns.
From Lt Col Daniell RE’s account;
Meanwhile the old Boche, cunning fellow that he always was, did not retreat under the barrage, but instead came forward to line the shingle bank of the river with machine guns. It was, originally, a still night with natural mist hanging over the river. But to add to the general confusion, the Boche thickened up this natural mist with smoke till it was an impenetrable fog some hundred yards or more wide.
The fog and smoke made for an extremely difficult assault.
Again, from Lt Col Daniell;
Half an hour after “W” hour, I set up my Bridge H.Q. at the top of the approach track and at the same time the old bulldozer trundled down the track. This seemed to enrage the Boche, who directed all his available fire in the direction of the sound. This brought the bulldozer to a standstill, wounding one driver, but not until he had got almost to the bank. Thereafter, every time he started up, a hail of bullets arrived. Next the Sappers arrived with the first of the lorries. But nothing could be done in that awful fog with bullets whizzing overhead. We simply must get some chaps across to deal with those “Spandaus”
By dawn, nothing had been achieved and the order was given to withdraw.
It was then decided to concentrate all resources on a single site, the 225th Field Company site called Amazon. The initial operation would be carried out by the 225th with 7th and 59th relieving each other in turn. The bridge itself was a conventional 80 foot Double Single Bailey.
Under constant fire the bridge build commenced at 1700 hours on the 12thThe Germans fired illuminating rounds behind the build site in order to silhouette the sappers and make them vulnerable to sniper fire but this stopped by an extremely accurate counter battery attack by the Royal Artillery. On the far bank a small group from 8 Field Squadron commenced mine clearing operations.
At 0300 Hours the bridge was pushed out.
It is worth pausing at this stage to consider the actions of Sergeant Arthur Parry of 59 Field Company RE, a perfect illustration of the simple fact that sappers are soldiers first and combat engineers second, from Lt Col Daniell (again)
For some time, one particular “Spandau” on the left had been causing almost continuous interference and quite a few casualties. So Sergeant Parry of 59 Field Company decided to go across on the launching nose and deal with this man. He lay full length on the leading transom until it grounded, and at once ran a few yards along the bank, throwing himself on the ground to take cover. When the “Spandau” opened fire, he got the direction and made a dash toward the spot, firing two magazines of his Tommy gun. The “Spandau” did not fire again. Sergeant Parry returned to organize getting the launching nose onto rollers. When the job of lifting the nose onto rollers was done and the bridge moved forward again, more “Spandau” bursts appeared to be coming from directly inland. Again Sergeant Parry, but this time with Sapper Halliday, decided to go after this “Spandau.” They were going straight toward the direction of the “Spandau” when they heard cries to the right. On going to investigate they found two wounded men, an officer with his foot blown off by a “Schu” mine and a badly wounded sergeant. Sergeant.10 Parry took the officer back to the bridge on his back, while Sapper Halliday and Sapper Coombs carried back the sergeant. They were the 8th Field Squadron Recce party. Sergeant Parry and Sapper Halliday then returned to shoot up the “Spandau,” which they must have succeeded in doing, as the fire ceased. Sergeant Parry was awarded the Military Medal.
NAILS or what?
The bridge was completed by 0400 Hours, every available man and a small Caterpillar D4 bulldozer were needed to push it into position but with only 20 feet left to go the bulldozer seized up, having had its radiator and sump peppered by shrapnel. The first tanks due to go across had arrived some time earlier so one of these was pressed into service to remove the bulldozer and provide mechanical power to complete the build. Despite not being able to construct a proper bank seat and thus not strictly a Class 40, Amazon was open for traffic soon after and by 0500 Hours a squadron of the 17/21 Lancers was across.
A message from Lt General Kirkman, Commander 13th Corps read thus;
Now that Cassino has fallen to your division, I would like to let you know how well I consider they have done. The assault across the Rapido was undoubtedly a most formidable undertaking, as the river, so aptly named, is swift and deep and the defences were well prepared and strong. The overrunning of the enemy’s positions was a magnificent effort, the work of’ your Sappers on the second night was first class, and the building of’ the bridge which allowed you to pass over your tanks was a turning point in the battle. Each subsequent advance which you were asked to do has been quickly and successfully carried out. What has been achieved will long be remembered as a credit to the 4th Division.
15 sappers were killed and 57 (including 3 officers) wounded.
Click here to see a model of the Amazon Bridge
To finish this post, a fitting tribute from Field Marshall Alexander;
Here would appear to be an opportunity to pay a tribute to a distinguished British invention. Whatever the valour of the righting troops, without the ‘Bailey’ to bridge the rivers and ravines of Italy, the campaign would have been abortive from the outset.
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