Bridging the Rhine for 12th Corps - March 1945

Discussion in 'NW Europe' started by alberk, Sep 2, 2020.

  1. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    This thread will concentrate on the role the Royal Engineers played during the Rhine crossing in the 12th Corps sector in March and April 1945. The fight for a bridgehead east of the Rhine by 15th Scottish Div during „Operation Plunder“ will not be discussed in detail. Still, 15th Scottish Division`s assault marks the beginning of the RE operations in this area. That is why some context might be helpful: In the 12th Corps sector H-hour for „Operation Torchlight“, the assault across the Rhine, was 2 AM on March 24th, 1945. After an eight hour long artillery barrage 44 Bde of 15th Scottish Infantry Div crossed from the Xanten-Beek and Wardt area. In a first wave three companies each of 6 Royal Scots Fusiliers and 8 Royal Scots were taken across the Rhine in 60 Buffalos while a barrage moved forward to shield their crossing. 8 KOSB followed at 3.30 AM in stormboats, at 6 AM it was 7 Seaforths' turn to cross in stormboats. The first target of these crossings was to secure the village of Bislich on the east bank of the river. 01_BU.JPG
    Reinforcements of 15th Scottish Division going ashore at Bislich, on the east bank of the river. (IWM BU 2154)

    Further downstream, in the Vynen/Marienbaum area west of the river, two battalions of 227 Bde also used 60 Buffalos for their cross-river assault. 10 HLI and 2 ASH formed this first wave at 2 AM while 2 Gordon Highlanders followed in stormboats at 6 AM that morning. Their target was to secure several groups of farms and the roads leading from the banks of the Rhine to the villages of Haffen and Mehr and then further east. This part of „Operation Torchlight“ encountered the stiffest resistance as the attacking units encountered troops of German 7 Para Div.

    At 4.45 AM the DD tanks of 44 RTR started their river crossing. Further infantry reinforcements were taken across the river later on March 24th: 9 Cameronians and 2 Glasgow Highlanders went across in stormboats in the afternoon.
    02_BU 2148.jpg
    These DDs of 44 RTR made it to the east bank (IWM BU 2148)

    Now, let`s look at the RE operations. Below are the plans and arrangements for RE activities in the 44 Bde sector at Xanten/Bislich:
    (Source of plans and the documents below: RE Museum/Gilllingham)

    Next, the second sector where 15th Scottish Division troops made their crossing - plans and arrangements for RE activities in the 227 Bde sector at Vynen/Haffen (below):

    The first task for the RE units was to establish a link to the east bank of the river by launching and operating „close support rafts“ which would ferry vehicles across the Rhine.

    This is what the 12th Corps RE report has to say about the first phase in the „left“ (downstream) brigade sector, i.e. 227 Bde at Vynen/Haffen (below):
    05_report raft 46 Bde.jpg

    Below you will find the report for the right hand sector (44 Bde) further upstream at Xanten/Bislich:
    06_report rafts 44 Bde.jpg

    07_IWM BU2085-raft.jpg
    Top: A „Class 9 Close Support Raft“ in the 44 Bde sector takes off from the west bank. (IWM BU 2085)

    08_IWM BU 2092 Feldwick.jpg
    Arriving in the 44 Bde sector at Bislich – these rafts were supposed to carry vehicles up to 9 tons. They were operated by 584 (Suffolk) Field Coy.
    (IWM BU 2092)

    The next task for the sappers was to construct a light bridge – the FBE 9 (Folding Boat Equipment) could also carry vehicles up to 9 tons. This first bridge in the 12th Corps sector was built near Vynen on the West bank of the Rhine and lead into the area where 227 Bde was fighting its way inland. The bridge was started at H+11, that is at 1 PM on March 24th, and was finished after ten hours. It was named „Draghunt Bridge“, some reports refer to it as „Twist Bridge“.
    09_IWM BU2632.jpg
    On March 26th, Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited the bridging site and „Draghunt Bridge“ - he made a tour of 21st Army`s Rhine front between March 23rd and 26th 1945. The name „Draghunt“ can clearly be made out in the background. (IWM BU 2632)

    Below the report on building "Draghunt Bridge" and its fate:
    10_IMG_1680 FBE.jpg

    The second bridge was also built in the sector of 227 Bde. This one, a Class 12 Bailey pontoon bridge led from the Marienbaum area (west of the Rhine) across the river towards a large farm complex on the east bank of the Rhine. The farm was called „Gut Huebsch“ (Huebsch Estate) and the owners made a living by cultivating apples in a large plantation. „Gut Huebsch“ no longer exists – the Rhine is still running in its old course but on both banks the scenery underwent many changes because of surface mining for gravel - this became more and more lucrative after the war. Thus, large lakes and river bays were created and later refilled. The scenery today looks still typical for the German lower Rhine region – dykes along the river, a flat landscape, meadows lined with trees. But this is deceptive – many landmarks and buildings that existed in the 1940s are now gone.
    12_BU 2456_Sussex.jpg
    The Class 12 Bailey bridge under construction.

    This thread will soon be continued by taking a closer look at the other bridges across the Rhine built in the 12th Corps sector in 1945.

    Attached Files:

    Last edited: Sep 3, 2020
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  2. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    13_BU 2457_Sussex.jpg
    Another view of the Class 12 Bailey bridge.

    14_BU 2459_Sussex Gut Hübsch.jpg
    On the far bank to the right the farm buildings of "Gut Huebsch" can be made out - one of the few landmarks on this stretch of the Rhine.

    The Class 12 Bailey bridge was named „Sussex Bridge“ as it was built by sappers from Sussex – according to my information by XII Corps Troops Royal Engineers / 262 and 265 Field Companies. Unfortunately, this bridge building effort was beset with various problems, as the following report states:
    15_IMG_1696-report Sussex.jpg
    16_IMG_1702 report Sussex.jpg
    The sappers' work was not fully rewarded: "The bridge was never used to capacity."
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  3. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    Upstream from „Sussex Bridge“ sappers had previously finished „Draghunt Bridge“. Meanwhile - a little upstream from "Draghunt Bridge" - four heavy Class 50/60 rafts were launched by 42 Assault Regiment RE. These rafts were capable of ferrying tanks across the river.

    Class 50 raft total.png
    A Class 50/60 raft crossing the Rhine on March 25th. Can enyone enlighten me about the signalling device on the left?

    The unit had brought its equiment to the river by H+12 ½ (14.30 hrs on March 24th) and three of their rafts were ready for operations by H+19, i.e. at 21.00 hrs on March 24th. These ferries were pulled across the river by cables with the help of winches mounted on tracked vehicles. The winches were originally designed for the use with barrage balloons – photographs show that this was practiced in the 30 Corps sector and so it may be assumed that in the 12 Corps sector the same technique was used.

    The following is from the RE report of 12th Corps for "Operation Plunder":
    Report class 50 raft.jpg
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2020
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  4. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    An important bridge for 12th Corps was built in the sector where 44 Bde had crossed the Rhine. It was a class 40 Bailey pontoon bridge that led from Xanten-Beek to the village of Bislich on the east bank.
    LCVs (Landing Craft Vehicle) manned by Royal Navy personnel supported the effort of the sappers of 7 Army Troops Engineers. Construction started at H+7 ½, i.e. at 9.30 AM on March 24th. (IWM A27841)

    19_Digger BU 2483.jpg
    It took 31 hours to get the floating bridge ready for traffic – it was opened at at 16.30 hrs on March 25th and named „Digger Bridge“. (IWM BU 2483)

    Sailors who supported the sappers - an interesting find in the archives of the Australian War Memorial.

    17_IMG_1682 report Digger.jpg
    18_IMG_1683 report Digger.jpg
    Another photo taken by an Australian officer - from the archives of the Australian War Memorial. A view from the west bank of the river.

    22_BU 2392.jpg
    Another view from the west bank. For a few days after the Rhine crossing the Class 40 "Digger Bridge" became a vital link between the west and east banks of the river, enabling 12th Corps to bring across heavy vehicles for the advance of its troops into the Reich. Some of these and the following photos may be quite well-known but the intention here is to place them in the proper context. "Digger Bridge" was a much photographed construction - many troops (and war phographers) crossed it as they made their way deeper into Germany. (IWM BU 2392)
  5. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    In the late morning of March 26th Prime Minister Winston Churchill crossed „Digger Bridge“ while visiting Montgomery and his troops on the Rhine front. Please note the wear on the planking of the bridge – at this time it had been in use for less than 20 hours.
    IWM BU 2381.jpg
    IWM BU 2381 23_Digger_BU 2423.jpg
    A view from the east bank. The inlet at the bottom used to be called „Bislich Harbour“. After silting up over the decades it has disappeared altogether, the area is now covered with vegetation. In the „harbour“ and on the river DUKWs can be seen shuttling between the banks.
    24_Digger_BU 2424.jpg
    Another view from the east bank to the „friendly“ western side of the river.
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  6. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    Below: This picture shows – located to the left of the bridge - the village of Bislich on the far bank with the stump of the Catholic church`s tower (left) and the tiny spire of the small protestant church building (just left of centre). The spire of the Catholic church building was taken down by Allied artillery aiming at German FAOs.
    „Digger Bridge“ was the only British bridge in this sector that led to a proper village – and was thus relativley well connected to decent roads.

    25_Digger_BU 2638-beschn.jpg
    On many photographs this bridge is easily identifyable as „Digger Bridge“. To the right of the bridge - on the east bank - there is a two-storey whitish building surrounded by tall trees that is visible in many photos. Originally an inn close to the centuries old ferrying point it later housed a pub. The building stood elevated on the dyke and was called „Haus Sonnentag“ in the 1940s.
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  7. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    Some of the 12th Corps engineer units` activities previously described in this thread were filmed. As it is unedited material the footage retains a higher degree of authenticity. The filming very likely took place on March 25th. I have annotated the footage below.

    Time Code 0:00 – 1:30
    Construction of "Digger Bridge" at Xanten/Bislich

    Time Code C 1:34 - 2:42
    Class 9 Close Support Raft operating in the 44 Bde area at Bislich

    Time Code 2:45 - 3:00
    work on „Digger Bridge“ at the Xanten/Bislich site

    Time Code 03:54
    operating Class 50/60 Raft, armoured columns waiting. This rafting site is located between 44 Bde and 227 Bde sectors

    Time Code 05:13
    view of almost finished „Draghunt Bridge“ (FBE 9), note smoke on the far bank where the fighting for 227 Bde continues (TC 5:59)

    Time Code 6:23
    Traffic rolling on „Draghunt Bridge“

    non-related footage
  8. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    Some years ago a made a discovery that revived my interest in the Bailey bridges built in the 12th Corps sector in 1945.
    Fundstück am Fährhaus.jpg
    I suppose that not too many hikers would have seen anything interesting it this rusting piece of steel. In the background you can see the white house close to the site of „Digger Bridge. I mentioned the building above - it is the former „Haus Sonnentag“ on top of the dyke at Bislich.

    Fundstück Bailey.jpg
    Clearly a Bailey panel. Members of the Bislich Volunteers' Fire Brigade then recovered the object from the bank of the river - it is now on display in the village museum.

    Not only „Digger Bridge“ was built in Bislich by British sappers – I will deal with two more bridges later in a contuation of this thread. Anyway, after doing research on those bridges I wandered around the area some more and this ist what I found on the west bank of the Rhine near Xanten, opposite from Bislich.
    Zauntor Xanten.jpg
    Again - nothing spectacular to most passers-by...
    Träger Zaun.jpg
    ... but clearly another piece of Bailey equipment.
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  9. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    After „Digger Bridge“ was completed a second bridge across the Rhine was built at Xanten/Bislich. The village Bislich on the east bank had some relatively decent roads leading east - thus it became a traffic hub for 12th Corps reinforcements. This second bridge was called „Sparrow Bridge“, honoring Sapper Sparrow who had been killed while working on the first bridge in this location. The new construction was an „all-weather Bailey pontoon bridge“ that would be able to cope with rising water levels that usually occur in the springtime. This picture shows that the second crossing was constructed right next to the existing class 40 tactical bridge:
    03_Digger and Sparrow.jpg
    This is a view from the west to the east. „Sparrow Bridge“ is situated to the right in this picture, „Digger Bridge“ to the left. Visible between them is the bay on the east bank which was typical for Bislich. Also the distinctive white house on top of the dyke can be seen (to the right).

    On the the east bank this elevated approach had to be built - it lead from the pontoon bridge to the dyke i.e. to the dyke-level. "Digger Bridge" with traffic in the background.

    Another view of the elevated approach on the east bank.

    Here are some details from the book "Bridging Normandy to Berlin", published by BAOR (British Army of the Rhine) in the summer of 1945:
    Sparrow report.jpg

    This is a view from the west bank - in the background the village of Bislich can be discerned with the ruins of the Catholic church building and - to the right of these - the small spire of the Protestant church building.

    Another excerpt from the book mentioned above:
    Sparrow report 2.jpg
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2020
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  10. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    Sparrow approach west.jpg
    On the west bank a low-level span of Bailey bridge leads across apparently unsuitable terrain to the river.

    Sparrow approach east.jpg
    After a few weeks the sappers built a concrete road on the east bank for vehicles exiting the bridge in the direction of Bislich.

    This is a photo I discovered recently in the archives of the Australian War Memorial. It shows „Sparrow Bridge“ in the background. This is on the east bank of the Rhine - beyond the bay the elevated approach to the dyke is visible.
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  11. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    The bridge was named „Sparrow Bridge“ to commemorate Sapper Cyril Victor Sparrow of 584 Army Field Coy. He was 26 years old when he was killed on March 25th, 1945.
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  12. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    To complete the story of "Sparrow Bridge" here is an article titled "Seven Bridges" by Col. L.R.E. Fayle about bridges built by 15 (Kent) G.H.Q. Troops Engrs in 1944 and 1945. It was published in "The Royal Engineers Journal", Vol. LXII, Dec. 1948, p. 267- 288. Colonel Fayle was - to my knowledge - CRE for the crossing sector of 44 Bde. This is what he writes about the preparation for the construction:



    An illustration from Fayle's article:

    Finally, some statistics:

    For the full article you may go here:
  13. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    I would like to continue this thread by presenting another fine example of WW2 British engineering.
    Dempsey Panorama berabeitet Kopie.jpg
    This is a semi-permanent bridge in the 12 Corps sector that crossed the Rhine between Xanten and the village of Bislich. It was called „Dempsey Bridge“ - because exactly here, at Bislich, General Dempsey had crossed the river a few hours after the initial assault.
    ABB_070 Kopie.JPG
    Dempsey on the east bank of the river at Bislich - the white house in the background gives away the exact spot. (IWM BU 2570)

    „Dempsey Bridge“ is the least known of the major British bridges built across the Rhine in 1945. The semi-permanent bridges were to replace the floating bridges in order to allow shipping on the Rhine after the war had ended. That foresight is quite amazing because it’s construction started soon after the Rhine crossing. On March 29th and 30th the first 200 tons of material were unloaded. The dumps for material were situated behind the dyke to shield them from rising water levels which were expected for the spring.
    The construction site on the east bank.

    Plan Dempsey Brücke.jpg
    A map from the report found in the Royal Engineers Museum at Gillingham. In red ink it shows the exact location of the bridge. On the west bank, at Xanten, 1000 metres of concrete road had to be built as an approach to the new bridge. It is still there - today it is named Kronemann-Straße and part of the Xanten road net. (below)

    The design of "Dempsey Bridge" was quite special - it was built as a Bailey Timber Pile (BTP) type. All in all 58 piers were constructed - on both banks and in the river bed.
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2020
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  14. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    Dempsey Pfeiler NEU Kopie.jpg
    "Dempsey Bridge" was an impressive example of Bailey bridging. On the east bank - in the flood channel of the river - the piles were not made of timber. The ground between the dyke an the river bank was deemed unstable and so the piers were concreted.
    Dempsey_Pile Driver.jpg
    These images show the immense effort of the British sappers in the construction of "Dempsey Bridge" at Xanten/Bislich. They come from the book "Bridging Normandy to Berlin", published by the British Army of the Rhine in the summer of 1945.
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  15. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    About 280 sappers worked to construct this bridge - this number included sappers of a Dutch engineer company. Additionally, 65 Italians - Ex-POW freed from German camps - were recruited.

    After publishing an article about this bridge in Germany I was approached by a German veteran who told me that he and a handful of other German POW also were recruited to work on this bridge. I have no further proof for that - but this is a photo he sent me:
    Germans Dempsey.jpg
    10 to 12 hour shifts were worked, until April 16th search lights provided illumination for night shifts. Heavy rainfalls in the first half of April made the job more difficult for the sappers. LCP manned by Navy personnel patrolled the river to save men who fell into the river. For those interested, here are some details from a report found in the RE Museum at Gillingham:

    Report 2_kl.JPG
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  16. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    Dempsey Durchlass_bearb.jpg
    Finishing the bridge over the navigable span of "Dempsey Bridge". Construction work ended on May 27th. As a trial a Churchill tank drove over the new bridge which had - excluding the concrete approach road - an overall length of 1260 metres. On May 28th the sappers celebrated the opening - with lots of wine, schnaps an beer as a local lady recorded in her diary.

    The bridge had a navigation channel with a span of 32 metres and sufficient clearing for the barges of that era, thus it allowed shipping on the Rhine. When steaming in the downstream direction the barges had to turn around before approaching the bridge and had to pass it astern. One of those manouevres eventually spelled doom for „Dempsey Bridge“. In February 1946 a cargo barge tried to pass the bridge in the aforesaid manner, hit one of the piers next to the navigation channel and was then turned sideways by the strong current. It crashed into a number of wooden piers in the river. When tug boats tried to pull the barge clear of the bridge, a rope broke and the the stricken vessel crashed into the bridge once more. 150 metres of the bridge collapsed, the ship sank, one of its crew died and was never recovered. The damage to the bridge was so severe that repairs were not considered an option. Bislich had never before been connected with the west bank by a bridge and with the collapse of "Dempsey Bridge" things went back to normal...

    Back in business! Happy days are here again for the the Bislich ferryman…
    Last edited: Sep 19, 2020
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  17. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    Sappers slamming wooden piles in to the river-bed of the Rhine to build a military bridge - what the British did in 1945 at Bislich was outstanding but not unprecedented. Exactly 1900 years before it was another army on campaign and coming from the west that wanted to cross the Rhine deeper into Germany. And they too crossed the Rhine via a wooden bridge. In 55 BC Julius Caesar ordered his legionaries to build a bridge - he describes their technique in great detail in his work „De bello gallico“. The following sketches are based on that description:
    Piles Roman.jpg
    Pile driving Roman style. What this image gets wrong: The soldiers would not have worn protective armor while toiling on a construction site.

    Caesars Brücke.jpg
    All in all 50 piers were built to bride the Rhine in a location where it was - according to Caesar - 400 meters wide.

    We have no information where exactly the Romans built their bridge - it was much further upstream, that much is undebatable. We know that the British sappers in 1945 needed 59 days to build „Dempsey Bridge“. The Romans only needed 10 days to build theirs - this is the boast of Julius Caesar who celebrates his own accomplishments - and those of his armies - in „De bello gallico“. How trustworthy are his his words? Hard to tell - the legionaries had to build the wooden bridge from scratch, felling trees in the surrounding woods. Caesar did not have a "Donaldus Baelius" who equipped his armies with a prefabricated and easy to assemble parts. But the legendary Roman commander probably put to work a quite a number of men. How many worked, how many secured the construction site this close to enemy? His expedition to the territory east of the Rhine did not last very long - Caesar writes that he had his troops take down the impressive bridge after only 18 days. Quite extravagant! And probably a claim befitting the image of an all powerful leader.
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  18. stolpi

    stolpi Well-Known Member

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  19. alberk

    alberk Well-Known Member

    Thanks, stolpi!

    The bridging site for "Digger"-, "Sparrow"- and "Dempsey-" bridges can be seen between TC 11:40 and 13:15
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  20. ted angus

    ted angus Senior Member

    this has been an outstanding thread thank you ALBERK and Stolpi; the aerial views really took me back to nearly 8 great years in Germany ; TED.

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