This week 4D takes a break from 19th century struggles to comment on this week’s legacy from a more recent conflict. Last Tuesday the BDF, working with roads department engineers, managed to reopen the A1 for light vehicles in what for many appeared to be record time.
This was accomplished by installing a Bailey bridge across the Nywane River, where the permanent bridge had been damaged during the recent torrential rains.
For once, it seemed that social media could barely keep up with the event. No sooner had pictures been posted of the BDF working at the site than others began to surface of the finished product. This in turn was swiftly followed by official communication that the Bailey bridge was already in use; several days earlier than what the previous day’s news reports had anticipated.
In what was a grand example of history triumphantly repeating itself, the BDF had performed very much in the tradition of the Batswana sappers of World War II.
In the Queen’s military English a “sapper”, alternatively “pioneer” or combat engineer, is a soldier who performs a variety of military engineering duties such as breaching, demolitions, bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, field defences as well as building, road and airfield construction and repair.
Between 1943 and 1945, Batswana sappers of the African Pioneer Corps (APC) played a key role in the advance of the American 5th and British 8th Armies up the Italian peninsula by, among other things, installing hundreds of Bailey Bridges across rivers and gorges, where very often the permanent bridges had been destroyed by the retreating Germans.
Notable among these engineering masterpieces was the November 1943 construction by APC 1969 Company of what was then the world’s largest Bailey bridge spanning 343m over the Sangro River. This two-day feat was featured in Life magazine, albeit with our troops being misidentified as South Africans.
Named after its chief architect Donald Coleman Bailey, the Bailey bridge was developed by the British at the beginning of the Second World War as portable, pre-fabricated, but sturdy truss bridge. Those assembled by the APC sappers in Italy were strong enough to support tank columns. Of their military value the British Field Marshal Montgomery observed at the end of the war: “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 North West Europe, I could never have maintained the speed and tempo of forward movement without large supplies of Bailey bridging.”
Elsewhere in the world, Bailey bridges also continue to be extensively used in civil engineering construction projects and to provide temporary crossings for foot and vehicle traffic. In peacetime as
In anticipation of the spring offensive into northern Italy, during the winter months of 1944-45, in the face of bitter cold and often intense German shelling, Batswana units in the 5th Army played a leading role in the construction of a road across the snow-covered Apennines Mountains from Castel del Rio to Castel San Pietro.
The resulting “La Strada di Bechuana” (Batswana Road) still appears on Italian roadmaps as Strada Provinciale (SP) 21.
Of the Batswana sappers’ ability in laying and maintaining railway track, one war correspondent could not resist the line in a dispatch that it was now the Bechuana Pioneers (rather than Mussolini) who “kept the trains of Italy running on time”. Other Batswana, kept the allied Armies moving by manning mobile petrol depots. In a 12-hour period, one 90-man unit was reported to have washed, filled, stacked and loaded 78,000 gallons (about 295262.12litres) of petrol. Another 70-man unit did 57,000, while a 120-man group prided itself on a consistent output of 10,000 gallons an hour.
Still, other Batswana units played prominent combat roles throughout the Italian campaign as “smokers” and 3.7 Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) gunners. The gunners employed their weapons as anti-tank as well as anti-aircraft artillery. At the battle of Salerno the “Fighting Becs” were part of the “gun line” that prevented German armour units from driving the 5th Army off its beachhead, while at Syracuse they were responsible for the shooting down over half of all enemy aircraft.
It is indeed one of the sad ironies of human history in general that notable examples of high productivity have often occurred in wartime. This was certainly true of the Second World War, which constitutes an extreme example of humankind’s productive as well as destructive capacity. Last week’s success at Nywane crossing should challenge us to see what additional lessons may be adapted from past wartime experience for peace time development as well as emergency relief.