Rotherham District Civic Society
Protecting and preserving all that is best in the heritage of Rotherham
Sir Donald Bailey blue plaque
January the 24th, 2016
The Society will be dedicating its' eighth blue plaque to Sir Donald Bailey on 24th February at TRC.

"VICTORY FOR the Allied forces in the Second World War has been attributed to many crucial factors but the spotlight is rarely thrown on the vital role a modest Rotherham man played in the Allied offensive thanks to his scribbled drawing on the  back of an envelope.

 In fact, it has been said that without the contribution of Sir Donald Coleman Bailey, OBE, who was born in Albany Street in 1901, the  outcome of the war could have been very different. 

The son of a commercial cashier, Donald was the inventor of the Bailey Bridge, the 'instant bridge' which was hailed as a 'Royal Engineer's dream' and which proved to be so successful during the Second World War that it prompted Field Marshal Montgomery to pay a glowing tribute. "Without the Bailey Bridge we should not have won the war," he said. Educated at Rotherham Grammar School and Sheffield University, Donald joined the War Office 1928 as a civil engineering designer at the Experimental Bridging Establishment. One of this department's main tasks was to develop and improve designs for transportable bridges for the increasingly mechanised army and eight years after taking up the post Donald conceived the idea for his mobile military bridge while travelling in a car.

But his brilliant invention which he sketched on the back of an envelope almost never saw the light of day because at first nobody showed any interest in his design. Instead all attention was focussed on a tubular girder bridge designed by Charles Inglis.

Undeterred, Donald continued with the detailed design of his own idea in his spare time, confident that the Inglis design would fail. Donald's own design involved the use of steel panels instead of girders which were easier to handle and quicker to erect.

And his belief in his own judgment and ability paid off in 1941 when the Inglis design failed under test and Donald was instructed to build a new all-purpose bridge.

His private design work meant that his plans were already well advanced and the first prototype bridge was ready only three months after he was given the task, with production bridges reaching the Army by the end of 1941.

The success of the Bailey Bridge hinged on its simple design and the fact that it was easy to carry and quick to construct.

Each unit could be lifted by six men and fitted to a standard three ton lorry. The steel panels were built up from small components enabling work to be sub-contracted to a large number of small engineering firms without disrupting heavy engineering production.

During the years that followed the Bailey Bridge played a crucial role as the events of the Second World War unfolded.

Bailey Bridges were used in the Normandy landings and when the German armies retreated, blowing up bridges as they went, it was the Bailey Bridge that enabled Allied forces to keep up the pursuit with all sizes of tanks.

More than 2,000 Bailey Bridges were built during the advance into Europe between 1944 and 1945 and 600 firms became involved in making components, including three from Rotherham Park Gate Iron and Steel Co Ltd, Messrs Robert Jenkins and Co Ltd and Messrs Allott Bros and Leigh.

The biggest Bailey Bridge was constructed over the Rhine in Germany and the longest, measuring over 4,000 feet, was built at Genneps in Holland.

And even during the early years of the war the importance of Donald's contribution through his bridge design was clearly understood.

"The loss of his services would be a disaster," said one Army official, while another commented: "He exerted a benign influence on the modern scientist/soldier."

And the praise continued to pour in. An article in the Advertiser dated June 9, 1945, read: "Therehas been no greater feat of engineering skill than that of the Rotherham boy of whom the country is so proud.

"This grand piece of engineering work has saved so many thousands of lives and has comparatively speaking made river crossing for troops and armaments child's play."

The military functions of the bridge were also employed in various other theatres of war including Burma, the Far and Middle East, Korea and Vietnam.

In 1948 Donald's invention was recognised by the Royal Commission On Awards To Inventors when it awarded him 12,000 for his work on the bridge.

The commission found that although the invention of the bridge lay within Donald's duties he had no specific directions to design it initially and that he was in fact discouraged until the tubular bridge had failed.

The commission added that the invention was of exceptional brilliance and utility and that Donald had shown great foresight in respect of operational requirements.

But the advantages of the Bailey Bridge did not end once the war was over. Both secondhand and new bridge panels found a ready civilian market and many Bailey Bridges remain in use around the world today, from the frozen wastelands of Northern Canada to the torrid jungles of Indonesia.

In 1968 during floods in the west of England Bailey Bridges were used to replace damaged bridges and in 1970 the Republic of Panama placed an order for 80 bridges worth 2.5 million.

Donald's design for a floating Bailey Bridge, or pontoon, was also developed, and the longest, which at just under two kilometres is one of the longest pontoon bridges in the world, can be found in Guyana.

The advantages of his design for civilian use prompted Donald to say: This is a great source of satisfaction to me."

Donald received the QBE in 1944 and he was knighted in 1946. His successful career saw him promoted to senior principal scientific officer and he became assistant director and then director of the Military Engineering Experimental Establishment.

In 1952 he became deputy chief scientific officer at the Ministry of Supply and he was appointed Dean of the Royal Military College of Science in 1962.

Married twice, once in 1933 and later in 1985 after his first wife died in 1971, Donald had one son by his first marriage.

In 1966 Donald retired to Bournemouth and he died on May 5, 1985, just one day before the 40th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War in Europe. His widow, Mildred, said after his death: "It Is a tragedy that he could not live long enough to commemorate the occasion."

But Donald left behind him a legacy which will be forever etched in the history of the world The memories of Rotherham's famous son linger on today at Thomas Rotherham College where his name is included on the honours board and in Rotherham town centre in the shape of the Bailey Suite which was named in his honour.

But the most graphic memorial to Sir Donald Coleman Bailey, OBE, lies tucked away just off Eldon Road in Eastwood.

As you walk along a path towards the River Don you come across Rotherham's only Bailey Bridge. The simple wood and steel structure does not look very impressive, or particularly safe, but without this simple invention, dreamed up by a quiet and unassuming Rotherham man who used to build model bridges out of wood and string as a boy, "We should not have won the war."

Rotherham Advertiser 11th October1991