Rhine to Elbe 1944-5
from Low & Everett’s history of the Regiment

On 21st March all 8 Corps Troops Engineers units moved to their concentration area where they were to await orders to move forward to assembly areas for the River Rhine assault. This area was in the Siegfried line, near Weeze, and their first task on arrival was to bury a large number of cattle killed in the recent fighting and now putrefying. Here they checked over all their bridging equipment and divided units up into echelons, limited in the first instance to 8 vehicles per company. They also received their final CRE's briefing on a model.

On the night of 23/24 March the O.C. l00th Coy set off to the River Rhine in the CRE's Jeep passing at high speed through blazing towns and villages. The town of Xanten was in flames and buildings were falling everywhere under enemy shell-fire. At the river bank the bridge site near Wardt lay below the level of the flood bank, and both officers with a sapper (Spr Raquet) were able to reconnoitre and decide the exact centre line for the Class 9 F.B.E. bridge with enemy fire passing well over their heads. The plan was for l00th Coy to construct the bridge itself while l0lst Coy cleared mines and laid the "Somerfeld" approaches on both banks. 224th Coy were responsible for pre-casting all anchors from a raft attached to a balloon cable across the river while l0lst Coy operated 'anti-debris' motor boat patrols. The speed of the current, estimated at 4 m.p.h., was in fact nearer 7 m.p.h. owing to obstructions. All units reached their assembly areas intact, the only casualty being a signaller who had a leg blown off by an enemy mortar bomb. By first light the Buffaloes and storm boats, supported by Class 50/60 and Close Assault Rafts of other R.E. units were well established but on the immediate site of the bridge 15th Scottish Division had failed to overcome enemy resistance on the far bank. It was not until nearly mid-day, by which time the airborne corps had secured the enemy gun areas, that bridging could begin. However the 1,320 foot FBE, started at 1200 hours on 24th March, was open and in use by 2300 hours the same day. Except for a U.S. 9th Army "Treadway" bridge near Wesel it was the first of the many bridges built by 21 Army Group across the River Rhine during the assault.

The new techniques had proved eminently successful. In particular the drill for the pre-casting of anchors had proved its worth in spite of the very fast current. It is of interest to note that when floating all-weather Bailey bridges came to be built later on the Royal Navy was called in to deal with the casting of anchors.

The bridge was named " Draghunt Bridge" by the CRE.

100th Coy remained on the site in charge of bridge maintenance. Very necessary because FBE is delicate in use as it depends for its Class 9 limit on all vehicles keeping 80 ft. apart - i.e. two rafts apart. At each end of the bridge was a large notice: "WARNING: KEEP 80 FT. SPACINGS OR BRIDGE WILL SINK"

Sappers were spaced out the whole length of the bridge but, in spite of all precautions, some vehicles closed up in the dark and at 0200 hours the bridge was broken in several places. The cause of the trouble was believed to be a Light Anti-Aircraft Battery which had to deploy immediately on reaching the far bank and which, by doing so, held up other vehicles following behind. At that time the bridge had been open for only four hours and some 200 vehicles had passed over it.

All 8 Corps Troops R.E. units were immediately alerted. It was just getting light and across the river could be seen groups of rafts, some broadside on to the current, all bearing vehicles whose drivers were anxiously scanning the shore. The rafts were first winched inshore by bulldozers, and after their vehicles had been unloaded they were again assembled in the bridge. However twelve hours were lost. It was 1500 hours on 25th March before the bridge was once more open to traffic.

The assault crossing of the Rhine was a task of which 8 Corps Troops Engineers and the R.M.R.E. may be justly proud. Once work could start the bridge-building went exactly according to plan, the only hitch being an under-estimate in the final gap to be closed. The units involved in the move up from the concentration area and in the bridging worked without sleep for over 48 hours, and the re-assembly of the broken bridge produced many acts of individual heroism. Very close liaison was maintained with the Canadian Bridge Company R.C.A.S.C. (old friends from the Maas bridging) who drove their cumbersome FBE lorries right down to the river's edge. The night of the actual bridging was filled with incidents, - "Buffaloes" and on one occasion a Class 50 Assault Raft getting out of control upstream of the bridge and threatening to destroy it while under construction.

Immediately after the operation, the Sapper Chaplain (Padre Levison) set about collecting volunteers to bury the many German dead whose bodies lay thick on the far bank. Padre Levison was indefatigable. It was he who found Lt. Bill William's body, killed in a German ambush when on a reconnaissance soon after the Rhine crossing. It took a brave man to accompany Padre Levison in his car, not so much because of his firm faith in the Almighty when touring forward areas, but more particularly because he drove his car at breakneck speed under all conditions of road and weather. It was he who was later to take a party of officers and O.R's to see for themselves the charnel-lines that was called Belsen.

The advance northwards thereafter continued with renewed momentum. 8 Corps Troops R.E. were employed mainly in removing road blocks and debris in devastated towns, in mine-clearance and in bridging numerous canals. On 27th March, IOOth Coy moved to clear road approaches in Wesel and on 29th March they built a high-level Bailey bridge for the U.S. 9th Army. On 31st March they built yet another at Ramsdorf. By 1st April 101st and 224th Coys were bridging the River Ems and the Dortmund - Ems Canal while 100th Coy were pushing forward, opening and maintaining routes on the line Borken - Velen - Coesfeld - Holtwick - Altenberge - Greven - Saerbeck - Lotte. Minor actions, well in rear of the leading troops, were taking place continuously as small pockets of Germans (including aged" Volksturm " and young cadets) fought to the last round. At this stage 508th Field Park Coy were stretched to their uttermost limits. The advance from the Rhine to the Elbe was carried out at great speed, and many hundreds of bridges were built. At one time bridge building was only one of the many Sapper tasks. 508th Coy had no less than five engineer dumps in operation at different points along the axis of advance. Eventually 8 Corps field coys had to give up five first-line 3-ton lorries apiece to assist with the carriage of engineer stores, and on many occasions field companies had to send back search parties to previous bridge sites in order to salvage items of launching gear, rollers, etc. which were by then in critically short supply.

On 6th April 101st Coy discovered an underground oil storage plant at Harlinghausen, partly demolished; but although the power house and generators were fully prepared for demolition the changes had not been fired. 101st Coy not only removed all charges but with the help of the local German engineer restored the electricty supply to the neighbourhood. 101st Coy continued forward to the River Weser at Minden, reconnoitring demolished bridges and road blocks. They evolved an economical technique in having road blocks removed by local Burgomeisters.
Meanwhile on 5th April 100th and 224th Coys came under command of 6th Airborne and 11th Armoured Divisions respectively for the assault crossings of the River Weser at Petershagen and Stoltzenau.

O.C. 100th Coy with Lieutenant Maitland as his Recce Officer found the Corps axis forward from the unit area at Lotte choked with tanks and vehicles and therefore decided to take an alternative route to Petershagen, via Osnabruck. In the near outskirts of Osnabruck they found some Marine commandos in possession of a bridge and were told that there were no friendly troops forward of that point on the route. There could be no turning back at this stage and so the two officers continued through Osnabruck, removing road blocks with the help of their drivers, and they were able to inform the CRE 6th Airborne Division (Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Hamilton) on their arrival at Petershagen that the road could be considered clear of enemy! At that time fighting was going on in Petershagen and the proposed bridge site could be reconnoitred only from the upper windows of a nearby house.

Next morning 100th Coy reached its assembly area near Petershagen via the Corps axis having been held up at two points en route by skirmishes with small pockets of enemy who had not yet been "mopped up." By that time the O.C. and Lieutenant Maitland were measuring the gap by means of signal cable. As the recce boat reached the far bank some fifteen German soldiers stood up in a trench and raised their hands in surrender, and Lieutenant Maitland went on to search a nearby house the cellar of which he cleared with a hand-grenade only to find it occupied by two elderly German women who fortunately escaped without serious injury.

Early that morning the O.C. Company had been assured by Brigade Headquarters that the far bank would be cleared of enemy by first light, and he had therefore ordered work to start as soon as the company arrived at its assembly area. However it was not long before 1 Platoon (Lt. Tickell) came under heavy small-arms fire on the far bank and had to be withdrawn. 3 Platoon immediately went into action and Sgt " Spiro" Santwris (temporarily acting as platoon commander) was subsequently awarded the Military Medal for gallantry on this and other occasions.


This was a Class 40 Bailey, 326 feet long, and including periods when work was held up by enemy action, and also very considerable work to make separate approaches for tanks and wheeled vehicles; it took 21 hours to construct on 6th - 7th April. The 11th Armoured Division bridging operation at Stoltzenau failed - the Sappers there were heavily shot up and their partly-built Bailey destroyed. The O.C. 224th Coy, Major Henry Donnelly M.C., found himself at one time the sole occupant of a floating bay which was under direct fire from a German 88 mm gun but one of his Sappers very gallantly threw him a breastline and brought the bay in to the shore safely. Consequently 100th Coy's bridge at Petershagen was, for the purposes of the assault crossing, the ONLY heavy bridge over the River Weser - hence its name. In the three days and nights after its construction it was crossed by 6th Airborne Division, 11th Armoured Division, 15th (Scottish) Division, 6th (Guards) Tank Brigade, and an Assault Engineer Troop (with loads well over Class 40!) as well as by Corps and Army troops. It was at this bridge that the Company saw the new Comet tanks for the first time. 11th Armoured Division had recently been equipped with these tanks and considerable difficulty was experienced in guiding them across standard Bailey spans at night owing to their greatly increased track width when compared with the Sherman and Churchill tank. On this bridge trouble was experienced at one (and only one) connecting post which kept breaking and had to be replaced in bridge from time to time.

North of Celle, between Eschede and Weyhausen, 15th Scottish Division ran into trouble at a long causeway where both verges had been mined with 1,000 kg parachute mines shaped like torpedoes. 100th and 101st Coys were detailed to take over from 15th Scottish Divisional engineers the task of clearing this stretch of road while the division continued its advance along a temporary local diversion. The O.C. 100th Coy and his Recce Officer (Lieutenant Maitland) arrived at the site to find a crater, fully 40 feet wide, blocking the roadway. Evidently one of the mines had been set off by a convoy of lorries, because there were vehicles blown clear of the roadway on either side. One vehicle was actually lodged in a large tree to one side of the roadway with the dead driver and part of its load of Bailey panels still resting in the wreckage. While carrying out their reconnaissance these two officers were lucky to escape injury when another of the mines detonated as an infantry carrier was passing the spot. It proved impossible to defuse the mines and they had to be detonated in situ and the craters filled in by bulldozers and tipping lorries.

On another occasion 100th Coy was ordered to repair a large road crater, 40 feet across, and the Chief Engineer 8 Corps (Brigadier H. C. C. Sugden) ordered a Canadian method of repair to be tried out. This consisted of filling the crater in the first instance with logs, spaced widely apart in alternate layers, each layer being laid at right angles to the one beneath. This method was found to reduce very appreciably the time and quantity of spoil required to repair the crater.

The Chief Engineer was often seen in forward areas accompanied by his dog, a Dandy Dinmont type of animal, which he had rescued early in the campaign. The C R.E. also took his dog with him at all times, but his was a handsome setter; and it was said to understand the French language only and was reputed to be a first-rate gun-dog. Neither dog proved to be battleworthy however and long-distance runners had to be detailed to retrieve them whenever visits took place in forward areas. The same behaviour unfortunately applied also to the mine-clearance dogs of the Corps Dog Platoon. Not unnaturally they reacted badly to battle noises and to other distractions such as bad smells and inclement weather. In rear areas they proved their worth, showing an uncanny sense in detecting mines longsince buried. Unfortunately they would also detect all other buried objects with the same unerring precision.

By 20th April 100th Coy was approaching the River Elbe and as usual they were allotted a concentration area by the Corps H.Q. Staff, but they found their map square already occupied by a R.A. unit who refused to move. A quick reconnaissance disclosed an airfield nearby with numerous empty Luftwaffe barracks, each fitted out with every luxury - beds, blankets, steam cookers and pin-up girls portraits on every wall, and the Company moved in and took possession without delay. It was here that the O.C. (Major Burrowes) handed over the Company to his 2 IC (Captain Charlesworth) on his promotion to C.R.E. of a G.H.Q. R.E. formation.