US Army Engineers build a ‘Bridge in the Sky’

30th Infantry troops moving around the Cape Calavà cliff where the roadbed had been blown out by the Germans.

30th Infantry troops moving around the Cape Calavà cliff where the roadbed had been blown out by the Germans.

The 10th Engineer battalion begin the task of hanging a 'Bridge in the Sky'.

The 10th Engineer battalion begin the task of hanging a ‘Bridge in the Sky’.

There was only space for a limited number of men to work on the bridge at any one time, but the work was completed within 24 hours starting noon 13th August 1943.

There was only space for a limited number of men to work on the bridge at any one time, but the work was completed within 24 hours starting noon 13th August 1943.

On Sicily the push was now on to take the island completely. The U.S. forces under Patton were moving east across the top of the island towards the port of Messina, whilst the British and Canadians, under Montgomery, were moving up to the same objective. The Germans had now moved to a fighting withdrawal, intent upon preserving their forces intact as far as possible.

Their contempt for their Italian allies may well have contributed to the scale of the destruction on the island as they retreated. It was to become an even more familiar story on the Italian mainland:

For journalist Ernie Pyle every aspect of the war was worth describing, it was the personal reaction to events that gives his accounts resonance:

In Sicily, our Army would have been as helpless without the bulldozer as it would have been without the jeep. The bridges in Sicily were blown much more completely than they were in Tunisia. Back there they’d just drop one span with explosives.

But in Sicily they’d blow down the whole damned bridge, from abutment to abutment. They used as high as a thousand pounds of explosives to a bridge, and on one long, seven-span bridge they blew all seven spans. It was really senseless, and the pure waste of the thing outraged our engineers. Knocking down one or two spans would have delayed us just as much as destroying all of them.

The bridges of Sicily were graceful and beautiful old arches of stone or of brick-faced rubble fill, and shattering them so completely was something like chopping down a shade tree or defacing a church. They’ll all have to be rebuilt after the war and it’s going to take a lot more money to replace all those hundreds of spans than was really necessary.

But I suppose the Germans and Italians figured dear old Uncle Sam would pay for it all, anyhow, so they might as well have their fun.

Frequently the Germans, by blowing up a road carved out of the side of a sheer cliff, caused us more trouble than by bridge-blowing. In those instances, it was often impossible to bypass at all, so traffic had to be held up until an emergency bridge could be thrown across the gap.

Once in a while we would come to a bridge that hadn’t been blown. Usually that was because the river bed was so flat, and bypassing so easy, it wasn’t worth wasting explosives. Driving across an occasional whole bridge used to make me feel queer, almost immoral.

There was even one whole bridge the Germans didn’t count on our having. They had it all prepared for blowing and left one man behind to set offthe charge at the last moment. But he never got it done. Our advance patrols spotted him and shot him dead.

The Germans were also more prodigal with mines in Sicily than they had been in Tunisia. Engineers of the Forty-fifth Division found one mine field, covering six acres, containing eight hundred mines. Our losses from mines were fairly heavy, especially among officers. They scouted ahead to survey demolitions, and ran into mines before the detecting parties got there.

The enemy hit two high spots in their demolition and mine-planting. One was when they dropped a fifty-yard strip of cliff-ledge coast road, overhanging the sea—with no possible way of bypassing. The other was when they planted mines along the road that crosses the lava beds in the foothills north of Mount Etna. The metal in the lava threw our mine detectors helter-skelter, and we had a terrible time finding the mines.

Pyle went on to describe the great endeavour that individual engineers put into building the bridge in the sky, see Ernie Pyle: Brave Men

For the complete Ernie Pyle article on the building of the ‘Bridge in the Sky’ see Dog Face Soldiers. Watch a personal account by Chick Bruns. For much more on the Combat engineers in WWII see VI Corps Combat Engineers.

General Truscott is the first to cross the 'Bridge hung in the sky'.

General Truscott is the first to cross the ‘Bridge hung in the sky’.

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