|"What are we going to do with this pile of scrap iron?" was a
common thought when U.S. troops first saw a jumble of steel panels,
braces and pins delivered shortly after arrival in England. Little
did they suspect that this junk heap, reportedly a "Bailey" bridge
was to be of vital help in crossing Europe.
"Who is this Bailey? Is it a person or a company- and how do you put this stuff together- and why?
A single erection manual, nurtured and studied, amidst much grunting and heaving finally produced something that looked like it may have a purpose.
They found that it went together like a man-sized Erector Set and, with practice, simplicity and speed of erection soon became apparent. There was no reason to believe, however, that it would be acclaimed, after the War, by President Eisenhower as one of the three pieces of equipment that most contributed to our victory in Festung Europa.
Donald Bailey was an obscure civil servant in the British War Office. Who, as an engineering, hobby, tinkered with model bridges and their assembly. One day he presented an off-the-wall idea to his chiefs.
The scheme showed some merit so he was encouraged to explore it further. Once accepted, it had to take a low priority on the very busy productions lines thus was not available in quantities until early 1944 when the build up for attack on the mainland was at its height.
The bridging equipment was indeed a hodge-podge of parts but designed to be carried by trucks and erected by man-power with only simple hand tools- rope, pulleys, jacks, hammers. The principal and heaviest component was a steel lattice-work truss of maximum dimension about the height of a man and handleable by four or five. Pin connecting lugs on each corner permitted connection of other such panels for any desired length as well as sidewards or upward for added carrying capacity.
When put together with pins, braces and decking all assembled on well greased rollers, the whole, properly counter-balanced was slid across the gap, again by man-power (Lots of grunting here). With the counter-weight removed, it was jacked down to spread footers, ramps installed and Viola, there was a bridge.
Mister Bailey had done his homework- and the Germans a lot of destruction. Many streams, canals, rail-road over-passes dot Europe and were exploited, by destruction as logical defensive positions, in the Nazi retreat.
Unlike our country Europe is laced with many small deeply incised streams carrying swift flowing water too deep to wade. Their earliest recorded passages were by the Romans of before Christ as they colonized the area. Masters of masonry (from whence the Order of Masons), the builders of these bridges became so highly regarded that participants were granted salvation. It became a work for God and the chief consul of Rome was given the titled of "Pontiff" from pont, or bridge, meaning chief bridge builder- a term still in use.
The Empire expanded as did the need for bridges to keep it intact. A papal or monastic order, "Builders of the Bridges" evolved that was charged with such construction. Several centuries later a remnant of that order, the "Freres du Pont" of France continued that work, some of which remain today.
As logical then as now, with all the labor and time involved, the streams were crossed at the narrowest gap between banks. Bergs and villages grew up around them. When the Romans retreated from their conquests in the Second and Third Centuries, these sites, because of ease of defense and availability of water, became clustered housing complexes. Forts and castles were attracted and they became key points in the localized feudal struggles of the Dark Ages.
These mutually supportive villages, bridges and strong points were of long lasting stone. Most endured until the advent of artillery and controlled explosives, which together with devastating battles starting with Napoleon, resulted in much rubble. As a desirable asset, much of the debris is now obscured in the walls of the stream side villages. Never the less, the bridges were usually rebuilt at the same site to serve local needs. The forts lost their purpose and now show mainly as assorted piles of rubble.
These considerations- closely adjoining houses with serpentine streets at narrow precipitous bridging sites were well taken into account in the bridge design. It was indeed little more than an over-sized Tinker Toy.
As with many new, or more effective pieces of equipment, it could not be quickly countered, though when the Germans started taking out the abutments as well, speed of erection was slowed. Reminds of an obscure skirmish in our Revolutionary war. In western Connecticut an attack was made closing in with newly hooked-on bayonets. By the time the Red Coats reloaded their muzzle loaders the Yanks were on them. Guess they soon mounted knives too.
The first action after the invasion and break-through was to get through the devastation of the Air Corps bombing success. Filling craters, removing well splattered horse remains, rubble and armament debris from the roads was the order of the month. Then it was to join the chase across France, through Chartres, Rheims, Verdun into the heartland, where the real hassles started.
The experiences of a single engineering battalion of approximately 600 men with Mr Bailey's bridge may be typical. In support of General George S. Patton's Third Army, there were many occasions to appreciate its merits during the construction of 41 such bridges totaling 4812 feet (almost a mile!)
Several memorable instances stand out- the most notable of which occurred on one or the efforts to penetrate the Siegfried Line. It was in crossing the Saar River just South of Sarreguimines, France. The selected site was at a destroyed bridge, one built in replacement or a stone structure dropped four years before in the German Blitzkrieg across France. Unlike most, neither the near nor the far shore villages offered protection or their walls at the site- to far distant.
The effort started with infantrymen working their way across the destroyed bridge and clearing the enemy from the nearby village. With small arms fire off the site bridging began.
It went on all night and well into the following day. Each time a work crew started, long range artillery from the Siegfried and close in unlocatable tanks laid it onto them. Repeatedly, they were forced into the protection of the near shore village basements.
The instinct for self-preservation often thwarts logical thought thus it was some hours before the conclusion occurred that there had to be someone near the bridge who could detect the steathly efforts of the work crews, and direct artillery on them.
The regimental commander was requested to round up all the villagers and secure them under guard. This being done in the village church, work then started progressing.
Unfortunately, several or the trusses had been partly severed by artillery during erection. It would barely hold its own weight.
"What to do? No supporting tanks could get across as it is".
Some one suggested filing off the ragged edges and try to put more panels above the damages sections. It worked and the early morning fog lifted to reveal the much welcomed tanks going across but a weird looking bridge with one side higher than the other.
It can be doubted that Donald Bailey ever gave thought to such durability and versatility while working on his design. Anyway, in time, the bridge was balanced with equal panels on the opposite slide to relieve the concern over its holding capacity.
A diversionary, caution, assembly, or a ferry, was started concurrently a mile or so below the bridge. It was never completed and in the episode a fine young major from Massachusetts Institute of Technology was lost to a coffee-can sized shard of Siegfried steel, along with two others and 20 evacuated. There would have been more without Mr Bailey's contribution.
With the reduction of more of the fortifications in the area the neat was off and a much greater capacity bridge was ordered in at nearby Sarreguimines. Two new, and much heavier pieces of mobile equipment were to be accommodated. One was a tank mounted mine clearing flail, the other a 240 mm self-propelled gun, both of 55 ton loading. Adding a maximum number of trusses, but with the aid of heavy lifting equipment got them across.
Now at that bridging site is a nicely greened city park dedicated to a U.S. Army Major of Civil Affairs. It seems that when Patton had to change objectives and direction as a result of the "Bulge" attack, the local people were forced into cellars and caves, the outside of which became "no man's land". The Major was honored some 40 years later for his success in succoring the Sarreguimites.
Later on in the campaign, in the mountainous part of Luxembourg another problem not covered in the books was encountered. A felled bridge- a single high arch of hand-placed stone, known to be a skill practiced by the Romans but, this one more likely built by Barbarrosa, a thousand years after they left, had been dropped into a pile of rubble by a single explosive charge at the key-stone.
The complication- a rock, walled ninety degree turn at the approach which denied space needed for the required counter balancing trusses.- some 90 feet.
The solution: Put decking with a heavy dozer on the thirty feet possible, enough for counter-balance. It worked.
Further evidence of the equipment's adaptability was found at another Luxembourg site fronting the Siegfried.
Fruit and Fall crops lay heavy on the ground in a bordering stream valley. Only an occasional elderly was to be seen furtively seeking a remaining edible. The valley, too had been a hostile no-man's land since the Americans had advanced that far but forced to hold after liberating most of the Duchy-in September, 1944.
In January of 1945, the first sight on approach to what had been a bridge was an elongated hump under the four inch snow cover. The snow brushed off disclosed the body of a U.S. Sergeant of Armor, recognized by shoulder patch as a member of the earlier advancing forces. Four months unreachable.
A tattered facade of a gast-haus on the far side extension of the bridge told the story. There had been an attempt to capture the bridge, it was repelled as the bridge was destroyed-months earlier.
The structure had been of five spans with only partly demolished stubs of the piers remaining. There was no way the Bailey could span the 250 foot gap without intermediate piers.
A little experimenting revealed that the steel panels could be assembled vertically and, when properly braced at about 60 foot intervals, the bridge could be extended to any length. So the tanks got across.
Along this stretch of North East Luxembourg the Germans had reoccupied the concrete forts to protect the haunch of the "Bulge". There were continuous forays -prodding and punching trying to find a weak point and most efforts required a bridge for more effective exploitation. Over a period of a month, this same Battalion of Engineers put in 14 Baileys, three floating bridges all totaling 2490 feet and most by feel in the protective obscurity of night.
One of the first was on a sloping, curved section of road crossing a double tracked rail road with a single intact pier separating it from a one time river bridge.
The first gap was crossed with a "double-double" configuration of panels (two abreast, two high on each siding of the deck). The slightly narrower second with a "triple-single" (three panels abreast on each side). Both were then anchored to nearby trees to provide lateral stability- and to prevent sliding down-slope.
Now, on the West abutment, near Ettelbruck, Lux, named for Etzel the Hun of more than a few wars back, stands a statue of General George Patton pointing East, as the way to go, alongside a Sherman Tank.
Not all efforts were successful but none due to any imperfections of the equipment.
At nearby Diekirch the center span of a three span masonry arch was gone. "Oh, Let's just put the abutments on the intact piers. Maybe it will work"
It didn't. The vibration of the first tank and a lack of horizontal stability dumped the whole into the water.
"Oh Well. You can't win them all."
Although the bridge was principally for the numerous short gaps its versatility stimulated 1st Army, U.S. Engineers to adapt it for long water crossings. One was built across the Rhine with aluminum Pontons for flotation and articulating abutments to accommodate fluctuating water levels.
That winter in Luxembourg, reportedly one of the worst in decades, the snow fed streams were in raging flood, laden with ice which, in combination, presented some formidable complications. Anything put in the water, assault boats for the initial attack, foot bridges, even high strength cable was swept away, More than a few were drowned as the stream beds were being paved with U.S. gear- rifles, back-packs, boats, radios, etc. essential in the crossing attempts.
Now, in season, the banks are laced with numerous "caravans" small towed trailers in lieu of tents, and provide idyllic enjoyment of nature's benefactions to the good people of Luxembourg.
Further, their interest in historical heritage has resulted in a commemorative museum, in Diekirch, of U.S. and German material dredged from the streams and scouted from among the riverside houses and barns. In a donated old brewery, it features several dioramas depicting the difficulties of penetrating the Siegfried Line- and crossing the rivers.
Not far away is a highway department warehouse laden with the Tinker Toy bridging- standing by for emergency use. It, along with similar stock through out Europe, as well as the U.S. serves as a vital war-time materiel legacy of that conflict. Of lesser import they endure as a historical tribute to the inventor.
Noticed recently in such diverse locales as Austin, Tex and Yerington Nevada,(and in 1997 Boston), it is unsurpassed for hastily erected temporary passage of washed-out bridges for logging trails and roads needed for construction purposes.
A notable example of its current expediency was in installation on Interstate Highway 95, the Gateway to New England, a major U.S. artery after a bridge failure in Greenwich, Conn. on June 28, 1983. Within, two weeks traffic was flowing again easing passage the eight months required for permanent replacement. It was much appreciated by the affected local people but strangely enough was never referred to by the designer's name.
It was, and indeed remains a vital legacy of war-time that compares well with the developer of a means of preserving food- by pressure canning. An equally obscure chef for, Napoleon did such a noble and essential deed. (Was it a Messr. Loeffler?)
Now, in a form only slightly differing from the original product, as with the design of with a Mr. Pratt's and a Mr. King's truss in the infancy of railroad construction, it is losing its identity.
Indirectly, however, tribute to Sir Donald's bridge is found among the Luxembourgers. Of all the nations freed by the Allied Forces, it alone has dedicated a national holiday to its liberators- July 10th annually.
Sir Donald Bailey was knighted for his innovative and Successful bridge design in 1946 and lived in relative obscurity until his death on May 5, 1985 in Bournemouth, England. He may soon be further obscured to history when those who so appreciated the merits of his brain-child pass on.