1939 – 1944
Apr 1939 – Belgium
The Company deployed to Belgium, along with 4th Division.
The Division was Commanded by Lt. Colonel NA Coxwell-Rogers and was used initially as a Corps Reserve.
May 1939 – Ypres-Commines
In conjunction with 7 Field Company and 225 Field Company, the Field Companies were used as an Infantry Battalion.
The Sapper Battalion was used as an offensive force, their objective was the dry Ypres-Commines Canal, in front of Warneton.
All Companies distinguished themselves in a successful assault, with only around 10% of casualties taken.
This is the ONLY known use of Royal Engineer Units, in such numbers, in the offensive assault.
Major AJ MacDonald assumed Command.
May / June 1940 – Dunkirk
On 26th May, the decision was taken for the BEF to withdraw to the Dunkirk perimeter.
Royal Engineer units were put to work, preparing the bridges over the canals and the causeways over the inundations for demolition and they were also allocated sectors of the front, to prepare for defence and to hold if attacked.
Meanwhile divisional Engineers, with the divisional rearguards, were destroying bridges and acting in an infantry role.
The most notable actions included:
7th, 59th and 225th Field Companies, who successfully defended the Warneton bridge, which also involved fighting an offensive action against their attackers – 26th / 27th May.
The 59th helped 38th Field Company to build a “Lorry Pier” on the beaches of Dunkirk.
Major D Cowie assumed Command.
Major R de V Winkfield assumed Command.
1942 – Kirkudbright
The Company moved to Kirkudbright in Scotland, where it went through intensive training in combined operations and bridging.
The Company then embarked for North Africa with 10 Infantry Brigade of 4 Infantry Division.
North Africa – Hunts Gap, nr. Beja.
The Company had two 40 foot SS Bailey Bridges to build.
The Company then moved Medjez el Bab, to take part in the encirclement of Cap Bon, where 4 Infantry Division captured 51,000 prisoners.
June 1943 – Algeria & Egypt
Major AP de T Daniell assumed Command.
The Company moved to Bougie in Algeria, building Camps.
The Company then moved to Egypt.
Feb 1944 – Naples
The Company moved with 10 Brigade, to relieve 46 Division in Garigliano bridgehead on the American 5th Army front.
Major AJ Pittam assumed Command.
The Company built Mule Tracks and kept open communications.
March 1944 – Cassino
The Company built a road, in preparation for the big attack in May.
April 1944 - Latina
The Company undertook training at Latina, intensive combined operations training and good Amazon Bridge training with 4th Division.
The attack on Cassino was planned for 12th May 1944 and the Code name was “Honker”.
The assault on Cassino was planned as follows:
The Polish Corps were to attack over the mountains on the right and the 4th Division on the left, would cross the river ‘Rapido’ and swing right-handed to link-up with the Polish on route 6, behind Cassino. Meanwhile the Guards Brigade would contain the Garrison from the front.
It was hoped that when the garrison was surrounded, it would surrender.
The 4th Division was to assault the river on a narrow front with two Brigades leading, the third Brigade in reserve ready to go through, swing right and link up with the Poles.
The two Field Companies – 7th on the left commanded by Major Low and 225th on the right commanded by Major Gabbett (both affiliated to the Brigades), were each to build a Class 40 Bailey Bridge and two ferries in their Brigade sectors.
59 Field Company, commanded by Major AP de Daniell, was to build a Class 9 Bailey Bridge as a return route for traffic, between the two Class 40 bridges, more or less in the centre of the Divisional front.
26th April 1944
The CRE tasked the OC of 59 Field Sqn, to conduct a recce on the river line and decide on the exact site and plan.
27th April 1944
The river recce was carried out during the evening, however, the recce was disturbed by 4 x Boche (German soldiers) on the far bank, who were believed to be engineers, as they carried shovels.
The OC decided that a river crossing, to measure the width of water should be postponed, but all other measurements were attained, before the party withdrew.
30th April 1944
A volunteer was called for to swim across the river with a tape measure and Driver McTighe was selected. McTighe stripped, then wearing canvas shoes, black bathing pants and a brown pullover to hide his white skin, he tied the tape measure to his waist. He was just making his way upstream, under the far bank, to reach a point directly opposite, when he heard two loud explosions above his head. Either he had hit a trip wire, or the Boche had heard him and thrown two hand grenades at him. He swam back faster than going out.
The tape measure read 52 feet, which seemed a little short, but no-one wanted to repeat the exercise.
So the design and plan of “Blackwater” bridge began in earnest.
The bridge was to be a 70 foot Single Tress construction, but using an unorthodox method of building, to reduce time exposed to enemy fire. Instead of having to remove the “skeleton nose”, counter-weights would be used, to cut-out any dismantling on the enemy side.
This would require plenty of time for rehearsal, the Company were given 10 days of intensive rehearsals, leaving a confident and happy team.
11th/12th May 1944
A fog had closed in, but at 10pm the Artillery opened up. The Boche did not withdraw as expected, but advanced onto the shingle banks with heavy machine guns.
Using the ferries, British Infantry advanced into the thick fog, many got horribly lost, whilst some boats did manage to cross and take their objectives. Unfortunately, no-one had managed to clear the Boche from the far bank, which made things difficult for the Royal Engineers and this became worse as the night commenced. The CRE called off the attempt and recalled 59 Company.
With all attempts to cross the River Rapido having failed, the CRE decided to make an “all out” Divisional attempt to bridge the river on the following night.
It was decided to use all three Companies in turn, with the intention of getting a bridge across at all costs, capable of carrying Tanks. Called Operation ‘Diadem’.
The site chosen, was the original site for 225th Company – an Amazon bridge. The plan was originally 225th Companies, Major Garbbett was therefore put in charge of the operation.
The Companies would rotate in the order of: 225 Company, 7 Company & 59 Company, then rotate as each tired.
The bridge would be an 80 foot – orthodox – Double Single Class 40 Bailey Bridge.
Major Gabbett set up his Bridge HQ, in some slit trenches, just off the road. He installed his own wireless set direct to CRE and his Company wireless set to vehicle control.
An attempt was made, to land on the far bank and clear the Boche, but this failed.
Due to the high bridging bank, it was immune to small arms, but vulnerable to mortars.
By midnight, the position at the bridge site, was that the “skeleton nose” was complete, plus all stores un-loaded from the lorries and all was ready to commence building the bridge proper.
At this point 59 Company took over control of the bridge. An expected time for completion was 2am, yet this was not realised. Enemy mortaring and shelling became intense and accurate.
Counter Artillery fire started and in a short time, this came over in great strength, with some rounds falling too short, after it was corrected, the enemy shelling was silenced for quite a while.
Meanwhile, Sherman Tanks could be heard coming down the road, ready for the 2am crossing.
Building the bridge continued, with sporadic interference from a “Spandau” on the left.
Sgt Parry of 59 Company decided to go across on the launching nose, laying flat across the leading transom until it grounded. Rapidly throwing himself to the ground and running a few yards into protection. When the “Spandau” opened fire again, he got the direction and made a dash towards the spot, firing two magazines of his “Tommy” gun, the “Spandau” fell silent.
Sgt Parry returned to help put the landing ‘nose’ on the rollers.
The “Spandau” started firing again from the same point, so Sgt Parry with Sapper Halliday went to silence it.
Heading towards the “Spandau”, they came across an Infantry Recce party, the Officer had stood on a “Schu mine” and blown his foot off, Sgt Parry and Sapper Halliday helped the Recce Party back to the bridge head, then returned to deal with the “Spandau”.
Sgt Parry was awarded the Military Medal for his actions.
The bridge required mechanical pushing, but with the D4 blown up by mortars, a Sherman Tank was tasked and completion of the bridge was 5am.
The bridge took 12 hours and the whole of 4 Division resources to complete, from 5.45am to 5.30am.
Human cost was high – 15 Sappers killed, 3 x Officers and 54 other ranks killed.
Shortly afterwards, 4 Division and the Polish surrounded Cassino and took Cassino.
The Germans were in Retreat, up the leg of Italy, pursued by the British Army. In the central sector the Americans had captured Rome and on their right, 4 Division captured Tivoli.
7th June 1944 – Tivoli to Palombara
The CRE gave orders to 59 Company OC – Major Daniell, for a special task in support of 12 Infantry Brigade Group.
The Brigade had followed the retreating enemy, as far as Tivoli aerodrome with hardly any resistance.
The road entered a defile and wound up a twisting valley to the town of Palombara, perched on the top of a hill, at the head of the valley.
This was an important town, as it commanded a large area of the plain below and had, incidentally, been a German Corps Headquarters.
The enemy had blocked the road with three demolitions and laid scattered mines in the road surface.
The brigade column, which was led by tanks and self-propelled guns, was to proceed up the valley towards Palombara at 5am on the 8th June.
The CRE gave 59 Company the task of opening the road for the Brigade column by 5am on the 8th June.
With only two Platoons available – No 1 commanded by Lt. Chubb and No 3 commanded by Lt. Drummond, for No 2 commanded by Lt. Notely was already under command of 12th Brigade and in the Brigade column, ready for tasking later.
The CRE had detailed a D7 Bulldozer and arranged with the Commander of 12 Brigade, to supply a platoon of Royal Fusiliers, as protection.
Speed was essential and the Company moved 20 miles to the Tivoli Aerodrome, a mile or two short of the first demolition, blocking the road.
Lt. Simner, with the CSM and driver, set off with a recce party to find a suitable location for the Company. The driver returned and led the Company in to a Hay field with plenty of shade and a good entrance, about 2 miles short of the first road blockage.
The first demolition was arrived at by 6pm, a demolished bridge over a stream, which was dry and the abutments could be bulldozed down easily.
The second demolition was a partly demolished railway bridge, over the road. The roadway was blocked by large chunks of concrete and debris, this could be cleared by the bulldozer, a compressor and some explosives.
Some Teller Mines had been laid on the road between these two obstacles, the general road surface was Tarmac and the mines had been cunningly laid in potholes, filled in with loose stones.
At 7pm, Lt. Drummond and No 1 Platoon arrived at the first demolition, with a compressor.
Two sections were set the task of clearing the debris and lifting the Teller mines. The other two sections, plus 6 Italian workmen attached to the Company, set about clearing the bridge.
At 8pm,, the Bulldozer arrived and set about pushing down the abutments of the bridge, within an hour it had made a ramp down to the stream and another back up the other side.
Parts of the bridge had been blown inwards and had to be “cut” down with two slabs of guncotton.
The bridge could handle wheeled vehicles, the Tanks could use the tank diversion, cut through by the D7.
Telegraph Poles were used as handrails across the bridge.
The Platoon then moved past the second demolition, to a third demolition.
Drummond met up with the Fusiliers, which consisted of two sections and brought them up with his Platoon.
Drummond then arranged for one of his sections to clear mines between the railway bridge and the next demolished bridge, one section to erect Telegraph handrails under the partly demolished railway bridge, whilst the remaining two sections would move ahead, clearing mines along the road.
These two sections would be covered by the Protection team, with one section a quarter of a mile ahead of the leading mine clearers, leap-frogging ahead of the next section.
The Railway bridge took longer to clear, work was done by hand – clearing rubble from the roadway, this revealed the large concrete blocks, some weighing a couple of tons. These were pulled out of the way by the bulldozer, using a cable. It was then easy for the bulldozer to clear the smaller debris, down to the road surface, by midnight.
By 1am, the bulldozer had made the Tank diversion alongside bridge No 3 and cleared the rubble.
The two sections of Mine Sweepers, with their protection, were nearing the end of the road “TT” junction, having lifted about 100 Teller mines from the road surface.
During this period, heavy demolition could be heard and seen, away to the right, on the partallel road. This meant that the Germans were still carrying out demolition work and we would probably meet them before we reached the “TT” junction.
The OC had set up his HQ in a “Dingo” vehicle and remained at obstacle 1, until cleared and then moved forwards. Driving between obstacles, he was driving with trepidation, although the road had been cleared by his men, he was still the first British vehicle to use the road.
The OC reached Drummond and his mine clearance party, close to the “TT” junction, they were filling in two large craters. These craters were made just 30 mins before they arrived and indeed, when the explosions occurred, the soil thrown up, had landed on the Sappers, working a quarter of a mile further back.
Sapper Curtis and a group of other Sappers, arrived shortly after the OC, with a prisoner.
The OC returned Brigade HQ with the young prisoner, leaving Drummond to to “hold” the “TT” junction.
The prisoner belonged to No 3 Company of 1 Paratrooper Regiment, the Company was only 60 strong and were laying Mines and carrying out demolitions, to impede the British advance.
The prisoner thought that the Sappers, were his own lads returning, as none of the British Sappers were wearing the British Steel helmet.
With this information and close proximity of the Germans to the British Mine Sweeping teams, the remainder of the Royal Fusiliers were sent forward rapidly, to give full protection at the “TT” junction.
When the OC returned to the “TT” junction, Drummond explained that two lorries full of Germans had passed by, the first was so sudden, that no shots were fired, the second had two Bren magazines and Tommy guns emptied at it, causing damage and killing / injuring its occupants, but the lorry did not stop.
The Fusiliers arrived at 4am, their Commander set out his Company into a Vanguard and Mainguard, with sections on the flanks.
As the enemy now knew the British intention, it was imperative to move forwards quickly.
At 5am, a Sapper arrived at the “TT” junction, to confirm the mine Sweeping teams were within half a mile of Palombara, but had come under fire. An Italian civilian had stated that the town was badly damaged and mines had been laid.
At 5.30am, the leading “Honey” tanks arrived at the “TT” junction, with the Brigade just behind them. The tanks then drove straight into the town, with no opposition, the “Spandau” teams had left.
The Brigade Column then passed by, a most impressive sight to behold.
Behind the recce “Honeys”, came LT. FA Meldrum (59 Company) in his “Dingo” acting as RE Recce Officer, with him were two “Honey” tanks of the RE Armoured Brigade.
A Squadron of Sherman tanks, with a Company of Royal Fusiliers riding on them, followed the Recce.
That comprised the Vanguard of the Brigade.
Almost immediately behind them, the Advance Guard with Gunner OP vehicles, a protection troop of self-propelled guns, then Lt. Notley with No 2 Platoon – 59 Company.
All told the Brigade consisted of 183 vehicles, representing a strong force, capable of hitting the enemy “hard”.
When Lt Notley arrived in Palombara, he assumed control of the road, leaving Lt Drummond and his platoon to return to the “TT” junction on foot, walking the twenty miles back. On arriving at the junction, Lt Drummond found his vehicles had arrived, so off his section went, returning to the Company Lines for breakfast and a well deserved rest.
The clearing of this road, was a 91 miles Odelle RE Task. it was finished on time and allowed the Brigade Column to quickly pass through to Palombara.
The Brigadier thanked the Company and in particular the two Platoons who cleared the road.
A Post report found a few critical points of interest:
Most important was the Protection Party, it should have been stronger in the first place. If the German Paratroopers had decided to fight and not just drive past, they could have seriously caused damage to the Mine sweeping teams and the demolition teams, or have seriously impeded the work.
The grass verges alongside the road was not cleared or marked. This was due to the speed and small numbers of Sappers involved. The verges were cleared the next day, after the Brigade had passed through, which was the Main object of the exercise.
After a short rest, 59 Field Company was engaged in mine clearing and further bridge building, but by August, they were in the east coast of Italy, in time to take part in the battle for the Coriano Ridge, plus the crossing of the Marrechio and Ronco rivers.
Not long after this, the Division was taken out of the line and the Company prepared to move out for Palestine.
Major JA Price assumed Command of the Company.
Instead of going to Palestine, the Division went to Greece, during the Civil war.
The Company landed at Phaleron and took part in the clearing of Athen and subsequently, Southern Greece.
Then onto Lamia, where several bridges were built.
The Company spent the Summer at Epirus, where they built a 680 ft Triple/Double Bailey, named Byron Bridge.
Altogether, the Company built 27 Bailey Bridges in Italy, totalling 2,120 feet in length.
BAILEY BRIDGES BUILT BY 59 FIELD COMPANY IN 1944
1 Cassino “Amazon” 12th May 80 D/S Built by Division RE in 12 hrs
2 Cassino “Blackwater” 14th May 80 D/S Late evening in 2.5 hrs
3 Palombara 9th June 70 D/S Daylight, no interference
4 Palombara 9th June 110 S/S Bridge supported centrally
5 San Pancrazio 6th July 60 D/S Built under occasional shellfire
6 San Pancrazio 6th July 40 S/S Built at Dusk in Silence
7 Monte S Savino 7th July 40 S/S Replaced culvert washed out in Storm
8 Monte Altuzzo 9th July 40 S/S Pitch dark in Silence
9 Civitelia 16th July 90 D/S Over Railway in Daylight
10 Civitelia 16th July 70 D/S Built fast, finished Midnight
11 Capponale 18th July 50 D/S Built in Daylight for Tanks
12 Capponale 18th July 30 D/S Built on Road over a collapse
13 Capponale 18th July 20 S/S As above, in enemy view
14 Levane 18th July 60 D/S At night to gain surprise
15 Dudda 30th July 60 D/S Difficult site up hill road
16 Ponte 31st July 60 D/S Difficult site on bend
17 Strada 1st August 20 S/S Over deep gap by night
18 Strada 3rd August 80 D/S Took 6 hrs 02.00hrs to 08.00hrs
19 Sassoferrato 24th August 130 D/D Longest built in 12hrs
20 Pergola 25th August 50 D/S To reach far side for spans
21 Pergola By-pass 26/28th Aug 240 D/S Four separate spans in 3 days
22 Sassoferrato 26th August 70 D/S Down route from town
23 Pergola-Cagh 27th August 90 T/S Narrow Embankment
24 Fossombrone 31st August 80 D/S National Route 3
25 Fossombrone 31st August 80 D/S Built on a bend
26 Coriano 14th Sept 40 S/S Shelling held up build
27 Marecchia 24th Sept 30 S/S Easing Marecchia Ford
Type of Bridge Construction
S/S = Single girder / Single storey D/S = Double girder / Single storey
T/S = Triple girder / Single storey D/D = Double girder / Double storey