May 11th 1945 - Surrey Mirror Newspaper Report

BRIDGING THE RHINE


TADWORTH SAPPER'S DREAM THAT CAME TRUE.

THE ASSAULT "LIKE A BANK HOLIDAY"

Everyone in Tadworth knows Mr. Tom Smith, the elder son of Mr. Fred Smith, of Cross-Roads, who is a staff sergeant in the Royal Engineers somewhere in Germany. They will be interested to know of the part which he took in the greatest of all battles and the biggest of Allied victories - The Battle of The Rhine. In a letter home he gives this vivid picture of the contribution which the Royal Engineers made towards the successful crossing into Germany:-

"On Sunday, March 18th, General Dempsey came and opened the bridge we had just completed after 10 days of heavy work on the River Maas. The formation was paraded on the river bank, and he told us of the importance of this bridge; that it was the longest of its class of Bailey bridges yet constructed, and it was to carry the heavy tanks and armoured vehicles over the Maas preparatory to their crossing the Rhine. He also told us that while we could congratulate ourselves on that record we were destined to have a bridge of far greater importance to construct over the Rhine and he hoped when the time came every man would work to finish it with all possible speed. We left that parade with mixed feelings, proud that we were being called upon to bridge the big river, and realising the possible opposition.

Maas River Bailey Bridge was 4008 feet long. A class 40 Bridge.
4008ft Bailey Pontoon Bridge Class 40 over the River Maas, consisting of:
It was constructed by :
71 Field Coy R.E.
72 Field Coy R.E.
73 Field Coy R.E.
503 Field Coy R.E. [ 591 Para Commanding Officer GF Davidson transferred to this unit in March 1945)
277 Corp Field Park Company R.E.
149 Pioneer Company.



The next two days we saw the big heavy Buffaloes, Cromwells and Shearmans streaming one after the other on their carriers over the bridge.

On the third day we rose early, packed our gear and moved forward, and in a short time had crossed the German frontier. This was a trifle disappointing. What I expected I am not quite sure, but certainly concrete pill boxes, dragons teeth and tank traps, etc.; but instead just green fields and woods each side of a long dusty road, and a military notice on one side to the effect that the country was under Allied Military Law. At one or two points we passed isolated farm houses, with an occasional ploughman in the fields just like any English country scene. The scenery had also changed from the dreary flatness of Holland to gentle undulating country. Then we reached a town which told a very different story; every building seemed to have been smashed to atoms, rubble had been cleared from the streets by bulldozers, the place was full of troops who as usual were making themselves as comfortable as possible in whatever buildings offered some shelter.

THE GREAT DAY

There were quite a number of civilians walking about with somewhat numbed looks, searching through the ruins collecting what they could and carting it away on any kind of wheeled vehicle they could out to use. We passed on, not without some satisfaction after recalling the horrors we had seen amongst the population in Holland, and thinking "Well it's time you had your turn".

In due course we reached our destination, which turned out to be some woods. we pulled up at a small one and soon made ourselves comfortable under canvas, and partly dug in. We stayed there for the next two days and just slept and ate, the weather was absolutely perfect, and for the first time in my life I found myself stripped to the waist and sunbathing for hours on end, on March 22nd or 23rd.

After tea on the 23rd we were paraded, or rather gathered round a map and told that the following morning was to be "The Day". We were shown the spot on the river to which we were to be taken, told that an infantry assault would go in at 2am and that we were to be ready to move off at 5am.
Advance parties of our unit having already gone forward and would commence mine clearance at the first opportunity.

There was nothing more to be told, for it was just another Bailey Bridge to be built, and every man knew his part of the job. We struck camp immediately and loaded everything possible on the lorries by 8pm. so that we could move quickly in the morning.

After this we went back to our holes in the ground with a tot of rum to warm us, and slept in the open, fully dressed under a blanket on a ground sheet. We were lulled off to sleep by the almost monotonous roar of the planes which were still going over in hundreds as they had been doing for the past two days.

At 10pm however our sleep came to an end, for we were awakened by a tremendous crescendo of artillery. From all around us the sky was lit up by the flash of guns of all sizes, and the road became deafening. Even the ground seemed to heave under our ground sheets, and one wondered what it must be like to be at the receiving end. In time however even that noise became a lullaby and we dropped off to sleep to be awakened by a guard soon after 4am. By that time our beds had just become as cosy as could be, but we were soon up and packed, and into our lorries and on the road to join the convoy at the appointed time.

After a journey of about an hour, during which the dawn broke giving the promise of another fine day, we came to the remains of a farm which was to become our HQ, and lay back about three quarters of a mile from an over looking river valley, which was entirely screened from our view by the artificial fog. We were told that the time was not yet ripe for us to go down to the bridging site, which in view of the still heavy machine gun and mortar fire we noted with thankfulness. Then we got busy unloading and erecting our bivvies in the woods and again got dug in. In the meantime cook had got busy and we were soon at breakfast, consisting of hot tea, tinned sausage, bread, margarine and jam. All this time the guns were still keeping up a heavy barrage, and with the machine guns and mortar fire on the opposite bank the noise was terrific.

At about 8.30am we made our way down to the bridging site and felt thankful for the still present blanket of artificial fog. We were told that the infantry were about a mile in on the far bank, although isolated pockets still remained behind them. The banks immediately surrounding the bridge site had been cleared of mines, and the work of unloading bridging material and conveying some to the far bank was going on. We commenced our levelling and set out.

SAW PARATROOPS JUMP

We soon discovered that the enemy had the range of the river bank, and more than once things were unpleasant, but without serious result. Just before 10 am, I had to go back to our HQ at the farm, and reaching the crest of the hill suddenly realised that the artillery barrage had stopped. Then a new sound could be heard and without further warning, flight after flight of Dakotas came in flying low over the trees. By then I had reached a group of my pals, and we stood and watched this amazing spectacle. On went the planes in endless procession, and we saw the paratroops make their jump far beyond the other side of the Rhine, but owing to the artificial fog they were quickly lost to view.

Then came the gliders in pairs, being towed by Dakotas, and high above wheeled the fighters waiting for the Luftwaffe, which was nowhere to be seen. For the next two hours this airborne invasion continued, and everywhere one looked in the sky there were Allied planes by the score going and returning. If ever one felt proud of being in the BLA [British Liberating Army] it was surely that morning. In a little group not far away from us on that hill stood the Second Army Commander with some of his staff, and one wondered what they, who had helped to plan it all, were thinking.

Back on the bridging site the sappers knew what they thought of the airborne boys for almost with the first landings the shell and mortar fire on the river bank ceased, the enemy, no doubt, having something more pressing to think about.

From then on the work on the bridge and approaches was a picnic, and it progressed quickly. The air gradually cleared and the sun shone, so that the numerous boats which had been launched and the swift crossing to and fro of the Ducks (motor lorries with boat bodies and a propeller) taking supplies to the troops seemed almost like a Bank Holiday on the Thames.

We worked until 7.30 that evening and as sufficient bridging supplies were not available we returned to our bivvies for the night. It was only after dark that the Luftwaffe had the courage to send out the occasional single sneak raiders to interfere at all.

THE BRIDGE COMPLETED

We were up again at 4.30am in the morning and on the river at daybreak. Again it was a glorious day. The river was busy with cross traffic, everybody was happy, and several cameramen were around taking shots - it was more than ever like a Bank Holiday. The bridge was now growing fast from each side, and at 2pm exactly, the centre section was connected and we could walk across to the far bank. Quite a bit more had to be done before it was fit to take traffic, moorings anchorages and decking, etc., but everyone worked with a will, and three hours later the O.K. was given - we had completed the first Bailey Bridge across the Rhine.

Many sights had been witnessed during those two days, but nothing will stand out more in my mind that the sight of streams of armoured vehicles, which, as soon as the word had been given, appeared almost from nowhere, and came streaming across the fields, tearing across the bridges and away along the road on the other side in endless procession which carried on all through the night. In due course we returned to our own woods tired, but marvelling at our luck that our dream of many months past had come true."

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Photo © the estate of Thomas Sim McCorkindale [1916-2003] of 503 Field Coy. RE.


71 Field Coy. R.E. built "Digger Bridge" aka Xanten Bridge - the first Bailey Bridge across the Rhine.
It was 1093 feet long, and a Class 40 bridge.
It was across this bridge that the seaborne sections of 591 Para traveled to join up with the paratroopers and gliderborne elements of the squadron.


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