First Bailey Bridge over the Rhine, 1945
Here we see British engineers building the first Bailey pontoon bridge across the Rhine after the Allied airborne crossing of the river. The men from the Royal Engineers had trained on Yorkshire rivers (Donald Bailey, the inventor of the bridge, came from Yorkshire).
Founded in the 1 st Century AD, the German town of Remagen sits on the Rhine, south of the city of Bonn.
A bridge across the Rhine at Remagen was originally included in the Schlieffen Plan used by Germany at the start of World War One. Its purpose was to carry troops and supplies across the Rhine for a German invasion of France. The bridge was due to be built in 1912, but this did not happen.
During the First World War, several German officers pushed for the bridge to be built so that it could supply forces on the Western Front. Work on the bridge began in 1916 and was completed in 1919, after the end of the war.
The bridge was named after General Erich Ludendorff, one of the highest profile advocates for its construction.
The bridge was built by Russian prisoners captured on the Eastern Front. Despite the cost saving of forced labor, construction cost 2.1 million marks.
The bridge was 398 meters long and consisted of three spans. At the eastern end was a 383-meter tunnel through the steep hill of Erpeler Ley. Stone towers guarded each end of the bridge, large enough to house a battalion of soldiers.
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 60 th 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) 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
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 21 st Army Group was to cross at Vernon and the 30 th 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)
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 43 rd 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 25 th of August 1944 lead elements of the 43 rd Wessex Div including the Middlesex Regiment and 15/19 th 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 5 th 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 4 th Battalion The Somerset Light Infantry and 1 st 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.
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 26 th 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 7 th 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
The two bridges were now in place, called David (Class 9) and Goliath (Class 40)
David and Goliath bridges at Vernon, IWM 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
Montgomery crosses at Vernon
A third bridge was also constructed, another Class 40 Bailey finished on the 29 th
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
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 150 th 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 24 th of March 1945 and completed soon after by 7 th 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. 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)
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
How a bridge helped turn WWII
Winston Churchill once famously remarked that “never was so much owed by so many to so few”. He was, of course, talking about the pilots of the Royal Air Force and their recent triumph in the Battle of Britain, but he could just have easily have been referring to a set of steel beams and cantilevers instead.
At least, that’s according to the testimony of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery who, to put it bluntly, wrote:
“Bailey bridging made an immense contribution towards ending World War II… I could never have maintained the speed and tempo of the forward movement without large supplies of Bailey bridging… Without the Bailey Bridge, we should not have won the war. It was the best thing in that line that we ever had.”
The Bailey Bridge was indeed necessary to supplying the Allied forces with the hefty military hardware they needed to cross the Rhine in Germany, and — during the Battle of Remagen — helped them to capture the Ludendorff bridge. This feat alone probably shortened the War by a couple of months, saving countless lives.
An unexpected hero
But what exactly is a Bailey bridge? And who is Bailey? As is so common with inventions, they are christened by their inventors. In this case, Donald Bailey: an engineer, Yorkshireman, and civil servant.
Bailey invented the Bailey bridge three years before the Second World War broke out in 1936, and scribbled the initial design on the back on an envelope. The appeal was this: it was a prefabricated modular construction, which could be deployed to a war zone, used in a makeshift and haphazard manner, and, once it had served its purpose, be detached and then re-deployed elsewhere. Soldiers could put the bridge together by hand cantilever it at only one end over a gap, and then push the floating area out by rollers.
Bailey’s design was ignored until well into the War, in 1941, when it became apparent that similarly-purposed bridges from the First World War could not support the increasingly heavy combat vehicles of the Allies. Eventually, the War Department contacted Bailey, telling him to prepare for a full-scale trial of the bridge at the Experimental Bridging Establishment at Christchurch in Dorset.
From London to Leningrad
Within less than a month of testing, the Bailey bridge went into production. It was easier to use and deploy than expected, and the British, Australian and Canadian forces quickly set about implementing a new tool that the Axis powers simply did not have. Indeed, it was the Royal Canadian Engineers of the 2nd Canadian Corps who built the largest: the so-called “Blackfriars bridge” over the Rhine, which measured 558 meters in length. What is most impressive about this bridge is that the floating section alone had a Military Load Class 40 rating — which is sturdy enough for 40-ton tanks to safely advance over.
The modular panels used for the construction of the Bailey bridge meant that at the height of its use in the War around 20,000 panels were produced every month. Over the entire conflict, an estimated 700,000 panels were manufactured, shipped, and deployed in the form of modular Bailey bridges. End to end, enough to stretch from London all the way to the to Saint Petersburg (Leningrad) in modern-day Russia.
World War II and beyond: the lasting legacy of the Bailey bridge
It is no hyperbole to describe the Bailey bridge as an engineering marvel. It was light, and soldiers could assemble it within 24-hours. The bridge could support even the heaviest tanks for over a 60-meter span.
Testimony to this fact is that, over the last three-quarters of a century, the original design essentially still lives on and is widely used today, with only a few minor improvements. Examples include the Super Bailey, the Mabey Compact C200, and the Logical Support Bridge. Many of these new descendants are used in civilian as well as war-like circumstances, and only one site supervisor is needed to oversee the installation. Meaning the ‘engineers’ who construct the bridge can almost always consist of whoever is living and working in the area.
In today’s less war-ravaged world (wars and conflict have, despite their prevalence in the news cycle, have been steadily decreasing since World War II) the Bailey bridge is a great triumph for the civil engineering community — who continue to deploy it to establish critical connections and supplies to people all over the world. Examples include: helping children to go to school and helping with the return to normalcy after a natural disaster. In 2005, the British government sent 30 C200s to the Kashmir region in Pakistan for emergency bridging after an earthquake devastated the region.
The most widely-used descendant of the Bailey bridge is the Mabey Compact C200. This C200 model is much more efficient in that it requires less parts to put together — but in principle and function, it is largely still the same as the one the Allies used. The C200 can be manufactured in half the time, and there are much fewer components to put together by hand.
Other bridge types that are commonly used today include the Truss bridge, the Crane Mat bridge, and the Pedestrian bridge. All share largely the same principle and design, even if the functions are slightly similar. As the old adage goes: “It it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything more from a design so eloquent that it helped win key battles in the theater of war and yet, at the same time, could be scribbled on the back of an envelope.
Written by: Ben Fielding
Ben Fielding is a copywriter for RJ Lifts, a lift maintenance, installation and construction company based in Stoke-On-Trent, Staffordshire.
The End of the BridgeAn aerial view of the Ludendorff Bridge after it collapsed on 17 March 1945. Two Treadway pontoon bridges are visible to the north.
A 3.50pm fire from Company A, 14th Tank Battalion, pushed the Germans off the bridge. An under-strength squad of infantry led by Second Lieutenant Timmermann advanced onto the bridge, despite the risk of being blown up with it, to seize it from the Germans.
At this moment, German Corporal Anton Faust braved Allied gunfire to run out of the Erpeler Ley tunnel and light the manual fuse. Only the charge on the southeast pier exploded, and the commercial explosives were not strong enough to bring the bridge down.
Medics wait for casualties after the collapse of the Ludendorff Bridge into the Rhine on 17 March 1945
American troops advanced across the bridge under German fire, removing explosive charges as they went. First across the Rhine was Sergeant Alexander Drabik. He and his men had run down the center of the bridge, yet all reached the far bank uninjured.
The Americans quickly captured both ends of the Erpeler Ley tunnel, and the Germans inside surrendered.
Despite a German counterattack, the American bridgehead across the Rhine held. Over the next ten days,
25,000 US troops together with tanks, trucks, and artillery crossed the Ludendorff Bridge. German attacks failed to destroy it. On 17 March it collapsed due to accumulated damage and the strain of massive use over the previous two weeks. 28 US Army Engineers died in the collapse.
The WWII 300 th Combat Engineers
Building Bridges & Roads
The 300 th Engineers performed a variety of tasks. Building bridges and maintaining roads was their specialty. They were responsible for building bridges that either replaced what German engineers demolished or afforded access to a geographical location that was strategically advantageous to their mission. There were several types of bridges that were built by combat engineers and two main categories: Fixed and Floating bridges. The following is engineering terminology related to bridge building.
The fixed bridges included:
- The Simple Stringer Bridge consisted of two abutments, a single span of stringers and a floor. (For spans between 15 - 25 feet in length) was the most famous and some are still in use today. It was fashioned from a prefabricated set of bridge trestle parts and was a free standing bridge erected piece by piece. Bridges varied for the tonnage that was expected to cross over the bridge. Although the British invented the structure for use in the First World War, it was modified to accommodate the increased tonnage of the new tanks and motorized infantry and artillery vehicles. In the United States, a partnership was created between the U.S. Army Engineers and several steel and component manufacturers who conferred with their British counterparts in order to enhance the manufacturing processes efficiency. The British and U.S. were equally concerned with "simplicity, weight and transportability." Bailey bridges were designed for spans up to 120 feet and able to carry up to 70 tons.
- The Trestle Bent Bridge consisted of two or more stringer spans. The supports between the abutments were trestle bents. consisted of two trusses (assembled by manpower, in lengths up to 72 feet) supporting a one track timber deck.
Floating bridges were as follows:
- The Light Ponton Bridge M1938 was a floating bridge capable of carrying 10-ton traffic in one direction.
- The Heavy Ponton Bridge M1940, although similar to the light ponton, was much heavier and carried a 25 ton load. was designed to carry medium tanks. It had steel treadways for runways, which were emplaced by means of a truck mounted crane. It used special rubber pontons.
For any kind of embankment, approach, or size of a river, there was a compatible bridge that could be deployed.
In addition to building the famous Tucker Bridge, a fixed wooden bridge in Carentan, the 300 th constructed a four-section Treadway Bridge across the Douve river at Pont L'Abbe another at Candoll, France and Menden, Germany and built a 288 foot floating Treadway Bridge across the swift moving Isar river at Moosburg, Germany. This bridge prompted General George S. Patton of the American Third Army to write a letter of commendation to the 300 th Battalion Commander expressing his satisfaction and recognition of their spirit of teamwork.
The 300 th Combat Engineer group maintained roads on the march into Germany. They cleared ice, snow and debris. They removed wrecked enemy tanks, vehicles and mines. Combat Engineers landed in Normandy already equipped with the knowledge and practical experience of laying roads. The 1,500 mile Alcan Highway from British Columbia, Canada to the heart of Alaska was not only an engineering marvel but continues to serve transportation needs. From its construction, the D-8 caterpillar tractor's capability became well respected and engineers learned how to invent new ways of laying roads quickly and in atypical terrain.
Combat engineers were trained how to use a multiplicity of tools: heavy and light. They were trained to use their hands and their creativity to solve urgent problems. Electricians, plumbers and specialists were drafted from civilian life but the majority of road builders were trained in places like Fort Belvoir in Virginia and Camp White, Oregon.
The 300 th constructed roundabouts in Isigny and St. Sever Calvados, France. They maintained roads near Aachen and removed German tanks and wreckage near Reichersdorf, Germany. In January, 1945 they removed ice, snow and debris from roads while guarding bridges they might need to demolish. They even constructed the snow plows they needed to do the job.
The 300 th also maintained directional signs on roads, reopened railroad lines, operated control terminals and supervised reopening of inland waterways. The activities of the 300 th created the need for construction materials on demand and prompted them to establish gravel pits, lumber stock yards, operate twenty saw mills with a daily production of 35,000 board feet in Belgium and guard steel and tar plants in Leiden, Germany. All of these were related to their jobs of building and maintaining roads.
Co. C repairing roads between Fritzdorf and Overich, Germany, 20 March 1945. Photo: Riel Crandall Co. B repairing a road shoulder and constructiing a drainage ditch near Fritzdorf, Germany, 19 March 1945. Photo: Riel Crandall Co. C constructing French drains at a by-pass 2 miles sourtheast of Isigny, France, 16 July 1944. Photo: Riel Crandall Co. B constructing a culvert on a by-pass between Carentan and Isigny, France, 12 July 1944. Note the two children (one standing and one squatting down) right of center of the crossroads. Photo: Riel Crandall
The Ponton with Treadway Bridges
The following is an account of the building of a ponton bridge with treadways placed on top. It was written by Randy Hanes of the 300 th Combat Engineers, Company C "to graphically illustrate, with moderate praise, the type of activity and conditions that engineers had to meet and conquer."
The sign, in big, bold, red letters reads, "Built by Company C, Spirit Company 300 th Engineer Combat Battalion. Equipment furnished by 998 th Treadway Bridge Company."
The ponton bridge at Moosburg, Germany was built for General Patton's Third Army to cross the Isar River. The current was swift and vicious faster than the Roer, the Elbe or the Danube and whatever was caught in its clutches drifted rapidly downstream either to be beached or sunk. The Isar River was an important link to the rapidly advancing front. The press, official photographers and Newsreel cameramen were there to capture the event while three generals (one, two and three-star) looked on as we assembled the two hundred eighty-eight foot floating span. Dozers had started breaching the earthen levee clearing the way for the launching ramp. There was seething activity everywhere. Crews were assembling the rubber floats, inflating them with the huge air compressors and a crane was lifting the steel treadways upon them (the pontons) as each section was floated into position. Guy lines were being secured to the blown wreckage that remained of the original bridge upstream. Infantrymen of the 395 th Regiment, 99 th Division, perilously walked its twisted trestles. Several tanks with their guns pointed beyond the far shore were standing by in an emergency position. Overhead, 155mm shells whizzed toward the forward enemy lines with a loud 'crack' as the noise rolled over the hills reminding us that "a war was going on!" Minute by minute went preciously by as the Blitz methods of modern war began to click.
The 2 nd Squad, 3 rd Platoon, had already connected the first two floats without mishap putting the two, sixty-five pound pins through the linking treadway while pulling another section laboriously into position. As we neared the center of the river, the current won its first battle. A float swept broadside in the current. The ropes snapped from men's hands and down the angry Isar it went. The power boat wheeled sharply about rapidly closing the gap to the float and move it safely to shore. Victory number two for the river came one hour later as we neared the far shore. When the power boat could no longer haul its load against the tireless current, a crane was run onto the bridge in hopes of pulling the sections to the head of the bridge where it could be connected. Suddenly, a float capsized from the pulling action of the crane. The heavy treadway hung vertically on its side and two men fell sprawling into the river. Frantically they swam ashore while the third man still clung to the upper side of the float. All three men were saved. Later, floats were punctured and the power boat fouled on a guy rope almost overturning it. Finally the far shore was reached and the last section pulled into place.
Waiting columns of vehicles began to warm their engines and the Armored Life-Blood of Victory began to flow. Another accomplishment by the engineers and the dangers of the enemy lobbing in mortars near the bridge did not deter these soldiers. There was a job to do and the job came first. Fortunately, the mortars were off target and in war, only the 'hits' count! Our artillery and air coverage spoke with authority, and shortly, silence was the only reply. Another 'battle' fell in favor of the cause for freedom.
Following the completion of the bridge, General Patton wrote a letter to our Battalion Commander, complimenting us on our fine achievement, with special recognition of the fine spirit and high morale that showed during construction of the bridge.
Mr W.F.Lowbridge: Crossing the Rhine 1945
On March 25th 1945, the assault over the Rhine took place at Rees and our Engineering Company was in the front of the assault under a huge barrage of artillery. It was our job to bulldoze the ramps down to the river, drive in the posts to guide the tanks down to where the floating bridges were being assembled and place them into position.
After the assault took place, we were retained in the area to assist in the building of the permanent bridge over the Rhine, which was approximately hundred yards short of a mile in length. This bridge and one further down at Wasel, took the whole of the 2nd Army into Germany, and led to the end of the war in Europe on May 25th.
After the war ended, we then followed the other troops into Germany, ending first in Hamburg and moving later to Hanover. Whilst we were in this area the Concentration Camp at Belsen was released and some members of our company were sent in to assist. I was not. Later we were asked to assist in the rehabilitation of some of the young girls who had been released and found that most of them had come from Yugoslavia, as it was then.
Later they were repatriated back to Yugoslavia, but were not at all happy to go as they felt they would only end up in a Russian Concentration Camp.
We finished our work in Germany removing bombed bridges out of canals. It was at this time that I saw a notice in our Company H.Q. asking for volunteers to train as Clerk of Works in the army to replace the people who had been called up and would later be discharged on demobilisation. I volunteered on my own behalf and aso six of my colleagues. We were accepted and were sent back to Chatham, where we were again tested and accepted, took a one-year course, promoted to Staff Sargeants and started our new career.
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Crossing the Rhine at Remagen
The US Army's surprise capture of the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine River at Remagen, Germany, broke open Germany's defenses in the west.
The Rhine is no ordinary river. About 766 miles in length, with an average width of about 1,300 feet, the generally north-flowing waterway also is exceptionally swift and deep. Since the days of the Roman Empire it has served as central Germany’s traditional defense against invasion from the west. That remained the case in the first months of 1945. Although Hitler’s Reich hovered on the verge of total collapse, with its cities in ruins from Allied bombing raids and Soviet forces crashing in from the east, Germany’s defenses along the Rhine River still held strong. Although American, British and French forces had occupied most of Germany west of the Rhine, they remained unable to cross the river into the Ruhr industrial center. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deemed the river totally unfordable, even at low water and the Germans had either destroyed or were prepared to destroy every significant bridge.
Allied planners recognized that they would most likely have to undertake an amphibious crossing of the Rhine in order to penetrate deeply into German territory. That seemed to necessitate focusing on somewhere north of Bonn, where the river entered relatively open and therefore more tank-friendly terrain. Only slight consideration was given to Remagen, about fifteen miles south of Bonn, where the Ludendorff Bridge remained standing but the terrain at and east of the river was discouragingly rough. Named after General Erich Ludendorff, Germany’s military leader during the latter half of World War I, the railroad bridge had been built—primarily by Russian prisoners of war—from 1916-1919 and had a span of 1,200 feet. Given that high ridges pierced by a railroad tunnel lay east of the bridge, it seemed an unlikely target for the Americans. Still, German engineers had rigged it with explosives, removing them for a time to avoid their detonation during an Allied bombing raid, and then replacing them as the Americans approached. The infantry units guarding the bridge were weak.
At Remagen, the German Fifteenth Army squared off against the American First Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges. On March 3, 1945, Hodges directed his III Corps, with Maj. Gen. John Leonard’s 9th Armored Division acting as spearhead, to drive down the valley leading toward Remagen from the west. German resistance was weak and disorganized. On March 6, remnants of the Fifteenth Army retreated across the bridge as the Germans prepared to set off their explosive charges and demolish it ahead of the Americans. Men and vehicles of Brig. Gen. William Hoge’s Combat Command B approached the bridge, hoping but hardly expecting that they could seize the bridge intact.
Just as the morning fog lifted on March 7, however, Lt. Col. Leonard Engeman, heading a task force of the 9th Armored Division’s 14th Tank Battalion and 27th Armored Infantry Battalion, was stunned to look through his binoculars and see the bridge still intact, with German vehicles still rumbling across it. Engeman dispatched Lt. Karl Timmermann with advance forces, including some new M26 Pershing tanks, to seize the bridge. He ordered: “Go down into the town. Get through it as quickly as possible and reach the bridge. The tanks will lead. The infantry will follow on foot. Their half-tracks will bring up the rear. Let’s make it snappy.” Timmermann, who had been born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1921, obeyed but German resistance in the outskirts of the town made the advance excruciatingly slow. The local German commander had plenty of time to blow the bridge, but still refused in order to let more of his troops escape across it to the east.
Lt. Timmermann’s men approached the bridge at 3:15 p.m. with an increasing sense of urgency. German engineers blew a charge near the west span, damaging it and making it temporarily impassable for tanks. Timmermann nevertheless rushed the bridge with his infantry. The Germans tried to blow the central span, but the charges failed to detonate. Finally another charge blew and the bridge seemed to rise in the air—before settling back down on its original structure. In their haste, the German engineers had placed a detonator improperly—and those Russian prisoners of war had built the bridge too well!
Sergeant Alexander A. Drabik was given credit as the first American to cross the bridge to the east bank of the Rhine. There was hard fighting to follow, however, as the Americans cleared the railroad tunnel—which the Germans might also have blown—and secured the ridge overlooking the crossing. And although the Americans were able to make some quick repairs to the damaged bridge, allowing troops and vehicles to cross, it lasted only ten days longer before collapsing under pressures of traffic and German air attack before collapsing for good on March 17. The unexpected prize at Remagen forced the Allies to shift their strategy for invading central Germany, and more time would pass before they broke out from their new bridgehead. The crossing of the Rhine at Remagen, however, marked a decisive moment heralding the impending collapse of Germany.
Pontoon bridge built by US troops across the Rhine River in Duisdorf, Bonn, Germany in 1945
A "pontoon bridge built by US troops across the Rhine River, crossed by Don Deane's outfit on March 27, 1945. Known as "Jackpot Bridge." Total length 1145 feet. Construction time 16 hours, 45 minutes." Duisdorf, Bonn, Germany. 1945.
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Ernest Hemingway — The Need of a Bailey Bridge: France, August 1944
As Hemingway and his friends were enjoying the good life of the newly liberated Paris, Barton’s 4th Infantry Division was in hot pursuit of the Germans to the north and east of the capital. By August 31st, 1944, Col. Lanham’s 22nd Infantry (the “Double Deuces”) had secured a bridgehead across the Aisne, and three days later had crossed the Oise, and were moving close to the Belgian border.
On September 1st, 194 4 , while Hemingway was drinking with a group of cronies in the Ritz bar, he received a cryptic message, delivered by hand from one of Col. Lanham’s dispatch riders, which read: “We have fought at Landrecies and you were not there.” Hemingway, who often pretended he was an illiterate country bumpkin, knew what Lanham was getting at he also knew the message was an updated version of the taunt by Henry IV to the Duke of Crillon, after the victory at Arques, in the late 14th century. Hemingway, although he knew in his heart of hearts that he’d used up virtually all of his nine lives since the 6th of June. He couldn’t resist this challenge thrown down by Lanham. It was too good to miss.
Hemingway said his goodbyes to Mary, and with Pelkey, and with a young Frenchman by the name of Jean Decan driving, the heavily armed men, again in contravention of the rules governing war correspondents, headed north toward Landrecies, and the Franco-Belgian border.
The territory that Decan and Hemingway crossed was still dangerous, containing pockets of heavily armed German troops. It was a foolhardy mission, Hemingway knew that.
But in the words of the poet Don Marquis:
“ What the hell, what the hell.”
Hemingway and Decan followed the route north from Paris to Compiègne, spending the night in a field where they witnessed five V2 rockets high in the starry sky, heading for England. In the morning they turned east for Vic-sur-Aisne, but were delayed by a succession of punctures.
As Carlos Baker writes in his biography of Hemingway:
“Near the village of Wassigny about ten miles from Guise, Ernest and Jean ran into trouble. Or so he [Hemingway] said. By his account, their presence attracted more than a dozen local volunteers. A reconnaissance group discovered that the short road between Wassigny and the considerable town of Le Cateau was cut off by German armour, making a roundabout detour advisable. The major obstacle was an enemy antitank gun so situated down a side road as to be able to interdict the main route. Anxious to remove it, one of the Wassigny volunteers came up to Hemingway, saying, ‘ Mon capitaine, on ne batter pas?’ No, said Hemingway. American infantry was in the area and would eventually take care of the threat. When the young man spat on the ground in what looked like an insolent manner, Ernest flew into one of his rages. He told the young gallant that if he thought he could knock off a gun like that, it was all his. The attack lasted an awful four minutes, leaving the German gun intact, but killing six of the French and wounding two others. All this occurred, said Ernest, because he had lost his temper.”
When Hemingway and Decan eventually caught up with Lanham’s temporary task force it was too late, with Lanham taking the task force back to the rest of his 22nd Infantry. Greetings were exchanged with Lanham telling Hemingway of his bravery in getting through. Hemingway didn’t mention the deaths at Wassigny.
Then, after a brief meal with Lanham, Hemingway unbelievably, headed back to Paris and the Ritz and Mary, who had decorated Ernest’s room (number 31) with copies of his favourite paintings, including one of an old pair of boots by Van Gogh, which reminded Hemingway of the army boots he was wearing.
On September 7th Hemingway set off once more from Paris to catch up with the fast- moving 4th Division now eighty-five miles inside Belgium.
By late afternoon, after travelling through a countryside that was a curious mix of war and peace — harvests and booby traps — the group made camp at St.-Hubert, with Decan and Pelkey grilling beef from cows that been killed in a nearby field afterwards sleeping in a small hotel that declined to charge them for their rooms, or the wine. After a breakfast of bacon and eggs cooked by Decan, the group moved on.
Later in day they found Lanham and his 22nd in a forest near Bertogne resting before moving on to Mabompré. By late afternoon Lanham’s 22nd, and Hemingway’s motley crew were on the western extremities “…of the Belgian village of Huoffalize, sixty kilometres southeast of Liège.
From the hilltop overlooking the valley they could see the rolling forested country stretching toward the German frontier. Lanham deployed a platoon of tank destroyers in hull defilade…” firing at German armour as it raced across the village bridge and out into the countryside.
That bridge was vital for Lanham to continue his chase.
On September 11th, Lanham, with a smouldering Lucky Strike permanently dangling from the left corner of his mouth, was looking through a splendid pair of captured German Zeiss field-glasses toward the river that formed the German border less than a hundred yards away.
“ What’s the problem, Buck?” asked Hemingway, who was playing a hand of cards with Pelkey.
“ They’ve blown the damned bridge. That was obviously the explosion we heard a minute ago.”
“ Who the hell are “they”, Buck?”
“ The damned SS. We heard yesterday that a few remnants of the 2nd SS Division might have been left behind to the give the regular German army a chance to get home to father.”
“ A joker don’t count, Archie. What can we do, Buck?”
“ Repair the bridge, I guess.”
Lanham then spotted one of his aides and yelled.
“ Get a bunch of engineers up here, and fast.”
“ Yes sir, but they’re way back…”
“ I didn’t ask where they were, captain, just get them up here.”
The Captain roared off in his jeep as Hemingway placed his cards on top of the low wall he and Pelkey were using as a card table.
“ My hand I think, Archie? That’s a hundred dollars you owe me.”
Houffalize was deep in the valley of the River Ourthe, beneath steep grey granite cliffs, which was, in the words of British historian Charles Whiting, “…the centre of a small road network and a bottle-neck. In three months time it was to be the centre of the great link up between the 1st and 3rd US Armies during the Battle of the Bulge and then it would be wrecked completely.”
For Lanham the bridge across the Ourthe, in the middle of the town, was essential for the eastward progress of the 22nd. But that didn’t bother the inhabitants of the town, who — even though many of their houses had been destroyed as the bridge went up — still heaped gifts of cakes, eggs, and bottles of wine, upon Hemingway and the rest of the “liberators.”
“ Say, Ernie, if this were Oak Park, and your dear Mother was being liberated, would she offer cakes and wine?” asked Lanham.
“ I don’t ever remember seeing cakes in the house, sure as hell don’t recall eating any. And as for wine Buck, no chance, the Devil’s liqueur. No, any liberating army outside Ma’s house would be told … to please stay off the grass and to be as quiet as possible so as not to disturb her afternoon nap. But then, who’d want to liberate Oak Park?”
After frying and devouring the eggs, eating the cakes, and drinking the wine, Lanham got the now assembled bunch of 22nd Infantry Engineers (the captain had found them brewing coffee less than three miles down the road) to gather as many villagers as they could to start rebuilding the bridge with anything they could lay their hands on.
“ Wish I could get my hands on a Bailey Bridge, Ernie, but the damned Limeys keep them all to themselves, and the few the US have are in Holland.”
“ To hell with the Limeys, Buck.”
“ Yeh, but I still wish I had one of their damned bridges.”
Donald Bailey (later, Sir Donald) a pretty low grade British civil servant — and something of a Meccano fanatic as a boy — invented his so called Bailey Bridge in 1941, and eventually convinced the British military to take up his idea and like all simple ideas it proved itself to be indispensable.
In essence a Bailey Bridge is a prefabricated metal road bridge that floats on pontoons, with the roadway element made-up of heavy duty timber planks. It can be assembled relatively easily, taking around six hours to span a river the size of the Thames. The first was erected (under heavy enemy fire) in May 1944, at the battle of Monte Casino in Italy. Hundreds were used in the hours, days, and weeks after D-Day, enabling the Allied armies — especially the heavy armour and supply trucks — to maintain their necessary momentum whenever they came across a destroyed bridge. The Americans soon saw the usefulness of the invention and built hundreds under licence for their own use. As Colonel Lanham mentioned, by September of 1944 virtually all of the Bailey Bridges were being used in Holland as the Allied armoured divisions dashed toward Arnhem to relieve the besieged units of the British Airborne. To get an idea of how a Bailey Bridge was constructed, watch Sir Richard Attenborough’s superb 1977 film, A Bridge Too Far, and enjoy Elliott Gould’s wonderful portrayal of an unconventional, Colonel Lanham style, cigar-chewing American officer kicking ass. Of course Lanham had no chance of getting his hands on a Bailey Bridge, having to make do and mend.
Hemingway chose not to help re-build the bridge, but instead sat on a fence watching, drinking, and shouting orders on bridge-building techniques. Many of the town’s inhabitants, who genuinely thought Hemingway was in charge, immediately started referring to him as the General. Hemingway told them he was not a general, only a captain, and after being quizzed as to why he held such a lowly rank replied in deliberately broken French:
“Can’t read nor write is why. Never quite got around to it, but hell that don’t hold anyone back in the good old US Army.”
Ernest Hemingway was, as ever, enjoying himself hugely, and Lanham never told the Houffalizeans who was really in charge why confuse them when they were building such an excellent bridge?
It didn’t take long for the good people of Houffalize to rejoin the two halves of the bridge, and by early evening Lanham’s vehicles were crossing over in numbers — including tanks — to the German side and the inevitable confrontation, and the destruction of Houffalize whose people had been so generous with food and wine.
A little further down river — where the Ourthe becomes the Sure — at the village of Stolzemburg, on the Luxembourg side of the river, which forms the border between Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany, a young American Staff Sergeant, Warner H. Holzinger of the US 5th Armoured Division, took a patrol across the river — the bridge there had also been blown by the retreating Germans — and, avoiding the road, scaled the cliffs on the German side. They were the first allied soldiers to enter Germany in wartime since Napoleon’s invasion 150 years before. When they reached a small plateau fifty feet from the top of the cliffs they came across several empty camouflaged bunkers which were being used as chicken coops by a farmer.
“ Well, if this is the famous West Wall, I don’t think much to it,” Holzinger said to a corporal at his side.
But when his patrol finally reached the cliff top and looked downward toward the heart of Germany they saw hundreds of pillboxes and bunkers of every shape and size. They hit the dirt expecting a barrage of fire, but nothing happened, not a single shot came their way. With night coming on Holzinger didn’t feel like hanging around and ordered his patrol back down the cliff and across the river. He had no desire to see if those other bunkers were empty or not.
When the sergeant’s report reached General Courtney Hodges, Commander of the US 1st Army, the General issued the following statement:
“ At 1805 hrs on 11th September, a patrol led by Sgt Warner H. Holzinger crossed into Germany near the village of Stolzemburg, a few miles north-east of Vianden, Luxembourg.”
As Warner and his patrol celebrated with a few drinks, and Colonel Clarence Park, Patton’s Inspector General, began to assemble and co-ordinate the paperwork for the interrogation of Ernest Hemingway, the novelist went to bed early, after a good dinner, and dreamed of hunting deer in the forests around Lake Michigan, countryside that was not unlike that around Houffalize.
Carlos Baker — Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (Wm. Collins, London, 1969) Bernice Kert — The Hemingway Women (W. W. Norton & Co, New York, 1983) Ernest Hemingway — Islands in the Stream (Wm. Collins, London, 1970) Mary Welsh Hemingway — How it Was (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London,1977, & Alfred A. Knopf, USA,1976) Charles Whiting — Hemingway Goes to War (Charles Sutton, UK, 1999) Hemingway’s Boat — Paul Hendrickson (The Bodley Head, London, 2012) An Historical Guide to Ernest Hemingway — Edited by Linda Wagner-Martin (Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York, 2000) Caroline Moorehead — Martha Gellhorn: A Life ( Chatto & Windus, London, 2003) A. E. Hotchner — Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir ( Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1967) Lillian Ross — Portrait of Hemingway (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1961) Jeffrey Meyers — Hemingway: A Biography (Harper/Collins, London, 1985) John Atkins — Ernest Hemingway: His Work & Personality (Spring Books, London, 1952 & 1961)…
Note: I shall always be indebted to Charles Whiting for the many conversations we had with regard Hemingway Goes to War, and his own experiences during WWII in the same field of operations as Hemingway.
20 Fighting M26 Pershings on the Western Front
By mid-April 1945, a total of 185 new Pershings had arrived in the European Theater. Of these, 110 served with the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 9th, and 11th Armored Divisions by war’s end. There were 310 M26 tanks in theater on May 8, 1945 (VE-Day), of which 200 were actually delivered for frontline service.
American soldiers follow behind an M-26 Pershing during the Korean War. While arriving too late to produce any strategic impact on World War II’s European Theater, M-26 Pershing saw extensive service in the Korean War where it did battle with the Soviet-made T-34.
It is safe to say that due to the difficulties involved in transporting the machines and training their crews, the only Pershings that could have seen sustained action were those 20 experimental models introduced in February 1945. As a result, since the Pershing arrived so late and in such small numbers, it had no major impact on the fighting on the Western Front.
Originally Published December 16, 2016
So the US tanks were never provento be a great Weapon. The Germans were always better engineers. Ha guess we were just a little lucky.
When comparing a single Panther/Tiger vs. a single Sherman at a thousand meters, the German tanks had a decisive advantage. At closer ranges they were vulnerable, and at longer ranges flank shots could easily destroy the German tanks.
The advantages of the Sherman is that there were a lot of them, they were easily maintained, one truck could carry enough fuel to move 17 Shermans 100 miles, and it was easy to transport them across the Atlantic by rail and ship.
In addition to air supremacy, the US had more artillery, more ammo for the artillery, more mobility for the artillery (most German artillery was horse-drawn) and the communications and doctrine to shift artillery assets quickly from one division to another.
When a Sherman with a more powerful 76mm gun was available, two US armored divisions declined them as they were able to handle threats with their current model of Shermans. The fact is, the US (and British) army killed more German tanks than than they lost, and US infantry had a higher casualty rate than did the armored corps. From a strategic viewpoint, the US-equipped army was better than the German-equipped army.
Here’s a good video that discusses the strategic decisions to produce the Sherman: