Like so many things in life you discover them when you least expect to. In late July my wife and I were on holiday in the New Forest. It is an area we are familiar with and this time we had the company of my wife’s sister. So when it was suggested we visit Christchurch Priory Church we were in the car and on the way from Lymington. I knew about the Priory and the harbour but little else about the Christchurch area.
The Priory dates back to the 7th century and has many interesting features, including the ‘Miraculous Beam’ but one thing caught my eye in the South Nave Isle on one of the pillars. War memorials and Rolls of Honour are always of interest to me be they first or second world war. But a small bronze memorial plaque and an explanation plaque caught my attention.
For those like myself who had no idea who he was I started to read the details and it crossed my mind that many of our veterans would have crossed many rivers on their way through Italy over a ‘Bailey Bridge’. Some of our veterans would have help build them. The ‘Bailey Bridge’ was a portable prefabricated truss bridge developed for use during the second world war.
One of the most important things that a retreating army can do is to make life as difficult as possible for the opposing army. So making railways and roads unusable by the use of bombs and or mines. River crossings for both road and rail were easy to deny the opposition use of, all you had to do was blow them up!
Shallow streams were no real problem as they could relatively easily be forded as a temporary measure, deeper and wide fast flowing rivers were a different problem altogether. Rebuilding or repairing a damaged bridge could take weeks or months and during the war every day counted when the advance stalled. A team of ‘Engineers’ could erect a Bailey Bridge in a few hours and get the fighting men and supplies on the move again. Many were constructed in near total darkness overnight allowing the artillery, tanks and supplies to keep up with and support the infantry.
So where does this story begin. Donald Bailey was a civil engineer in the British War Office and ‘tinkering with model bridges was his hobby’. After he had presented one of his models to his superiors, some of them saw some merit in its design. A Royal Engineers team was assembled at the Military Engineering Experimental Establishment in Christchurch in Dorset during 1941-1942. During the course of its development the bridge was tested in several formats, a ‘Stepped Arch Bridge’, a ‘Suspension Bridge’ and the ’Flat Truss Bridge’. It was this later type that was to become the standard ‘Bailey Bridge’. A prototype was constructed to span Mother Siller’s channel in an area of marshland at the confluence of the Rivers Avon and Stour (it remains there today as an operational bridge).
After successful testing it was first used in 1942 in North Africa. By D-Day 1944 a number of bridges were available and production had been accelerated, the US also licenced the design and rapid manufacture was accelerated for use by the Allied Forces. Donald Bailey was later knighted for his invention which is widely produced and used today.
But it was not without some controversy and problems. The design was found to have infringed the patent on the Calder-Hamilton Bridge. The Bailey Bridge however had several advantages over the Calder-Hamilton Bridge, one of the most important was the ability to change damaged components easily and quickly, which was an essential requirement for a military bridge being used in a combat zone. It could also be quickly strengthened by simple bolting additional sections to an already constructed bridge. Hamilron was later compensated for infringement of his design as was Lieutenant General Sir Giffard Le Quesne Martel for infringement of his design of the box girder bridge.
The bridge design meant that it could be built in small sections (10feet long by 12 feet wide) the next section being bolted to the first and then pushed forward on rollers allowing the bridge to constructed from just one side of the river. The bolted together sections being pushed forward by man power or a bulldozer or tank until it could be secured on the opposite bank.
For longer crossings the bridge could be constructed on piers as in the case of the River Arno bridge in Florence utilizing the piers of the original bridge. Alternatively it could be supported by pontoons or sections of bridge bolted together to make supporting pillars. They were also utilized to form rafts using winches to pull the raft across the river while a more permanent Bailey bridge was being constructed.
British and American forces built over 3,000 Bailey bridges in Scicily and Italy alone which if all bolted together would make a bridge over 55 miles long. The Bailey bridge a real soldiers mecano kit still in use across the world today.
Donald Bailey who was born on 15th September 1915 and was bought up in Rotherham before attending University of Sheffield where he gained an engineering degree in 1923. In the New Year Honours list of 1943 he was awarded The Order of the British Empire, and the 1946 New Year Honours list saw him receive a Knighthood. Sir Donald Bailey OBE was awarded The Order of Orange-Nassau by the Dutch Government in January 1948 for his services during the war. Donald Bailey died on 5th May 1985.