On this day in history : 5th May 1985 – The death of engineer Donald Bailey, who invented the Bailey Bridge – without which, according to Field Marshal Montgomery, we would not have won the War….

Bailey with model of section of his bridge – Ministry of Information Photo Division – Public domain

Bailey was born in Rotherham, Yorkshire on the 15th of September 1901…. He attended Rotherham Grammar School and the Leys School, Cambridge, before graduating from Sheffield University in 1923….

As a hobby Bailey liked to construct model bridges…. He submitted a prototype for the Bailey Bridge in 1936 – but his idea was not taken up…. It was as a civil servant, working in the War Office, that he roughly drew the plans on the back of an envelope…. On the 14th of February 1941 the Ministry of Supply asked for a full-size prototype – to be ready by the 1st of May! The design was then tested in Christchurch, Hampshire at the Experimental Bridging Establishment…. Early tests involved the bridge being constructed two feet above ground in a field – several tanks packed with pig iron were then stacked upon it….

Bailey Bridge trials Christchurch – Photo credit J.B.Herbert CC BY-SA 3.0

The success of the bridge was its simplicity….the basic bridge being made up of three main parts…. Its modular components meaning no heavy equipment being needed to construct it…. Previous designs for military bridges required cranes to lift pre-assembled bridges into place…. Bailey Bridge components could easily be carried by a small group of men – a portable pre-fabricated truss bridge, its modular design meaning bridges could be built as long or short and as strong as required…. The design violated the patent of another bridge, the Callender-Hamilton – but the Bailey was deemed as being easier to construct, even if not quite so portable….

The first operational Bailey Bridge during World War 2 was built by 237 Field Company over the Medjerda River, near to Medjez el Bab, Tunisia, on the night of the 26th of November 1942…. The Americans were quick to realise its usefulness, calling it the ‘Portable Panel Bridge’….

The Bailey came into its own when replacing bridges that had been destroyed by retreating German and Italian troops…. By the end of the War the British and Americans had built some 3,000 Bailey Bridges in Italy alone…. One spanned a length of 1,126ft (343m), whilst another in Burma spanned 1,154ft (352m)…. But the longest Bailey ever constructed was over the Rhine at Rees, Germany in 1945 by Royal Canadian engineers…. At 1,814ft (558m) long it was nicknamed the ‘Blackfriars Bridge’….

Allied military traffic crossing Bailey Bridge spanning damaged arch bridge in Italy, 1944 – War Office – Public domain

“Bailey Bridge 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 North West Europe, I could never have maintained the speed and tempo of forward movement without large supplies of Bailey Bridging”.… – Field Marshal Montgomery

In 1943 Donald Bailey was awarded an OBE and in 1946 he received a Knighthood for his bridge design….

Bailey Bridge over the Meurthe River, France CC BY-2.5

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