Bridge over troubled waters

The Bailey Bridge Memorial, Barrack Road, Christchurch

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the first operational use of the Bailey Bridge, the remarkable bridging system described by General Eisenhower as one of the three most important pieces of equipment, along with radar and the heavy bomber, in the liberation of Europe during World War 2.

The portable, pre-fabricated bridge was developed in Christchurch at the Experimental Bridging Establishment in Barrack Road in 1941 and the driving force behind its design, Donald Bailey, was knighted for his efforts five years later.

Famously he first scribbled the design for the flat truss bridge on the back of an envelope, later recalling: “I had the bare bones of the idea at the beginning of the war and, after (the fall of) France, the plans were at once put in hand. On February 14, 1941, a letter came from London ordering a full trial of a completed bridge by May.

“Production drawings had to be made, steel rolled, jigs for manufacture thought out and fabricated. By May 1, this tremendous task was completed.”

A prototype bridge still spans Mother Siller’s Channel at Stanpit Marshes, but the first actual test of a Bailey Bridge was on May 1, 1941 when engineers took a mere 36 minutes to construct a 70-foot bridge over the Stour that would support the weight of a lorry crossing.

Bailey Bridge at Little Canford. Photo by Mike Flaherty

The first bridge to be used in action was built by 237 Field Company Royal Engineers on the night of November 26, 1942 over the Medjerda River in Tunisia. As the war progressed the Bailey Bridge was instrumental in helping troops, weapons and supplies across countless obstacles during campaigns in North Africa and Europe – by the end of WW2 more than 200 miles of Bailey Bridge had been used, the biggest of which the ‘Tyne’ and ‘Tees’ were laid across the Rhine at Rees just before the end of the war, each spanning 5,000 feet.

Before the invention of the Bailey Bridge military bridges tended to be cumbersome pontoons that were slow to assemble, heavy and unable to carry the weight of a Matilda tank, let along the heavier Churchill.

Bailey’s bridge was incredibly strong and made by pinning a series of 10-foot by five-foot panels connected by beams to support a roadway of up to 12 feet wide with a walkway on the outside. Panels could be bolted in pairs or triplets to increase the strength, or on top of each other and all the parts would fit inside a standard three-ton Army lorry making them easy to transport.

Construction was straightforward in the field, as was manufacture at home, and as few as six men could put up a Bailey Bridge by fixing it on one side and pushing the bridge out on rollers.

Ironically, before the war Bailey had worried about his job particularly in the early 1930s when defence cuts left the EBE with himself, an officer, a draughtsman and 14 men in the workshop – a Treasury memo of the time was titled ‘Is Mr Bailey really necessary?’

After the war the EBE was amalgamated with the Experimental Tunneling Establishment and the Experimental Demolition Establishment to create the Military Engineering Experimental Establishment, which came under Bailey’s directorship in 1957. Following a move to Shrivenham to become Dean of the Royal Military College, Bailey returned to live in Christchurch until his death in 1985.

• First published in Christchurch Times.

Triple decker Bailey Bridge

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