Bailey Bridge

Launching a Bailey bridge; painting by Ludwig Mactarian
photo courtesy U.S. Corps of Engineers Office of History

During the months preceding World War II, new tanks were developed that weighed up to 35 tons, such as the M3 Grant and M4 Sherman tanks. This heavy equipment posed problems for an engineer force that had just replaced its Civil War–era 7 1/2-ton pontoon bridges with 10- and 20-ton-capacity bridges. Sir Donald Bailey, of Britain's Royal Engineers, designed the Bailey bridge in 1940 to meet this new requirement. Production began in July 1941, and by December 1941, the Bailey bridge was being delivered to engineer units in Britain. The 1941-45 production figures were staggering; a total of over 490,000 tons of Bailey bridge was manufactured, representing 200 miles (320 kilometers) of fixed bridges and 40 miles (64 kilometers) of floating bridges. Both American and British generals have sung its praises as one of the key factors in the Allied victory. Indeed, Britain's Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery wrote, in 1947,

"Bailey bridging made an immense contribution towards ending World War II. As far as my own operations were concerned, with the Eighth Army in Italy and with the 21 Army Group in Northwest Europe, I could never have maintained the speed and tempo of forward movement without large supplies of Bailey bridging."
Likewise, General Dwight D. Eisenhower considered the Bailey bridge one of the three most important developments of the war, on a par with radar and the heavy bomber.

The following text is from the 150th Engineers Web Site and captures the experiences of American engineers with this famous British bridge:
"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 and thus was not available in quantity until early 1944m when the build-up for the invasion of Europe was at its height.

The bridging equipment was indeed a hodge-podge of parts, but it was designed to be carried by trucks and erected by men with only simple hand tools — ropes, pulleys, jacks, and 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 counterweight 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, and railroad 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. Nevertheless, 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 oversized 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 one 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 breakthrough 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, Reims, and Verdun into the heartland, where the real hassles started.

The experiences of a single engineering battalion [the 488th] 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 of 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 — they were too 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 Line 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 was reached 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."

Someone suggested filing off the ragged edges and try to put more panels above the damaged sections. It worked and the early morning fog lifted to reveal the much welcomed tanks going across, but it was 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 side 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 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was lost to a coffee-can sized shard of Siegfried steel, along with two others, and 20 were evacuated. There would have been more without Mr. Bailey's contribution.

With the reduction of more of the fortifications in the area, the heat 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 keystone.

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 Line.

Fruit and Fall crops lay heavy on the ground in a bordering stream valley. Only an occasional elderly soul 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 were forced to hold after liberating most of the Duchy in September 1944.

In January 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 his shoulder patch as a member of the earlier advancing forces, unreachable for four months.

A tattered facade of a gasthaus on the far-side extension of the bridge told the story. There had been an attempt to capture the bridge months earlier; it was repelled as the bridge was destroyed.

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 Northeast 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 and three floating bridges, all totaling 2,490 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 was crossed with a "triple-single" (three panels abreast on each side). Both were then anchored to nearby trees to provide lateral stability and to prevent them sliding down-slope.

Now, on the West abutment, near Ettelbruck, Luxembourg, 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 were 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 thing into the water.

"Oh Well. You can't win 'em all."

Although the bridge was principally for the numerous short gaps, its versatility stimulated U.S. 1st Army 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, and even high-strength cable was swept away, More than a few men were drowned as the stream beds were being paved with U.S. gear — rifles, backpacks, 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 is featured 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 throughout Europe as well as the U.S., serves as a vital wartime 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, Texas and Yerington, Nevada, 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 for 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 wartime 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 10.

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 brainchild pass on.

Launching a Bailey bridge during Winter 1944-45.
(Photo reproduced courtesy 488th Engineers Light Ponton Company.)

Drawing of a Bailey bridge (click to enlarge).