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.
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.
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
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.
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.
success of the Bailey Bridge hinged on its simple design and the fact that it
was easy to carry and quick to construct.
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
years that followed the Bailey Bridge played a crucial role as the events of
the Second World War unfolded.
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.
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.
biggest Bailey Bridge was constructed over the Rhine in Germany and the
longest, measuring over 4,000 feet, was built at Genneps in Holland.
during the early years of the war the importance of Donald's contribution
through his bridge design was clearly understood.
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."
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.
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
military functions of the bridge were also employed in various other theatres
of war including Burma, the Far and Middle East, Korea and Vietnam.
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.
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.
commission added that the invention was of exceptional brilliance and utility
and that Donald had shown great foresight in respect of operational
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.
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.
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.
advantages of his design for civilian use prompted Donald to say: This is a
great source of satisfaction to me."
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
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.
twice, once in 1933 and later in 1985 after his first wife died in 1971, Donald
had one son by his first marriage.
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."
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
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