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Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train

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    Posted: 20 Oct 2010 at 21:07
 
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The Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train

By Greg Swinden

Another proposed RANBT colour patch - not used
Another proposed RANBT colour patch - not used

The most highly decorated Royal Australian Navy (RAN) unit during World War I was the little known Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train (RANBT). No less then 20 awards for bravery or good service were made to this unit for service at Gallipoli and in the Sinai during 1915-17.

The RANBT was formed in Melbourne on 28 February 1915 and was intended to be a horse drawn engineering unit attached to the Royal Naval Division (RND) then serving on the Western Front. The unit was manned by Royal Australian Naval Reservists who could not be employed in seagoing ships of the RAN in the same way that the RND employed Royal Naval Reservists as Naval Infantry. Appointed in command of this extraordinary unit was Lieutenant Commander Leighton Seymour Bracegirdle.

Able Seaman Driver Ben Thompson
Able Seaman Driver Ben Thompson

Bracegirdle was ideally suited to command the RANBT having seen active service with the NSW Naval Brigade during the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900 and also as an officer in an irregular British mounted unit in South Africa in 1901. Moreover, he had also recently returned from German New Guinea where he had served as a staff officer in a combined Navy and Army force known as the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) responsible for the capture of the German colonies in the Pacific in September 1914.

Three hundred Naval Reservists, including men who had recently served in New Guinea, were selected for the RANBT and began training in horsemanship, engineering and pontoon bridging at the Domain in Melbourne. By late May the decision had been made to send the unit to Britain to complete its training and then to join the RND on the Western Front. This plan, like so many others during the war, never eventuated.

On 4 June 1915 the RANBT sailed from Melbourne in the troopship Port MacQuarie bound for the war. While crossing the Indian Ocean several of the RANBT's horse died due to illness and poor living conditions. The unit's orders soon changed and the ship was diverted to Bombay where the surviving horses were unloaded. The RANBT was then sent to Egypt and disembarked at Port Said on 17 July where they were told to stand by for new orders concerning their future. A few days later they embarked in the troopship Itria with orders to proceed to Mudros, on the Greek island of Imbros. Here they prepared to act as an engineering unit to support the British landings at Suvla Bay to the north of ANZAC Cove on the Gallipoli Peninsula. During this time they were to be under British command and control.

RAN Bridging Train Staff
RAN Bridging Train Staff

Early on the morning of 8 August 1915 the Bridging Train landed under fire at Suvla Bay and was directed to build a pontoon pier to enable supplies to be brought ashore. The campaign ashore at Suvla was an ill conceived event and poorly led with the advance soon becoming bogged down and dissolving into trench warfare similar to that at ANZAC Cove and Cape Helles. The RANBT set up their camp at what became known as Kangaroo Beach and became responsible for the wide variety of logistics tasks such as building and maintaining the wharves and piers, unloading stores from lighters, controlling the water supply to the front line troops, stockpiling engineering equipment, and repairing equipment in an open air workshop.

RANBT behind the front line Suvla Bay 1915
RANBT behind the front line Suvla Bay 1915


All of these activities took place under frequent enemy artillery fire and occasional air raids which, during their five months at Suvla Bay, killed two and wounded over 60. Two more men died from disease and many others became sick or were injured while carrying out their duties. Despite the regular arrival of re-inforcements from Australia the unit was always under strength due to illness or wounds. In December 1915 the decision to evacuate the Peninsula was made and troops began to be taken off the beaches at night. All of this work required the wharves to be in constant use and the men of the RANBT were kept busy repairing damage caused by the enemy or wayward boat coxswains.

The bulk of the men of the RANBT were evacuated on the nights of 16 and 17 December 1915 , but a small group of 50 men under Sub Lieutenant Charles William Hicks remained behind at Lala Baba Beach, in the southern part of Suvla Bay, to maintain the wharf over which the British rearguard would leave from. These men were kept busy maintaining the wharf and were not evacuated until 0430 on the morning of 20 December 1915, thus becoming the last Australian's to leave the Gallipoli Peninsula. The last Australian troops had left ANZAC Cove at 0410 the same day.

The RANBT was reconstituted at Imbros in December 1915/January 1916 but 'blotted their copy book' when they mutinied on 13 January when 189 men refused to turn to for work as they had not been paid for over five weeks. Bracegirdle was at this time in an Egyptian hospital with Malaria and the unit was under the command of the brave but taciturn second in command Lieutenant Thomas Arthur Bond, RANR who had won the Distinguished Service Order for bravery in German New Guinea in 1914.

Eventually the situation was resolved by naval authorities and the men were paid. They were then sent to the Suez Canal Zone in February 1916 to operate the various 'swinging' pontoon bridges in use there. These bridges were used to allow men, horses, camels and vehicles to cross the canal and then be 'broken' to allow ships to pass through it. Again the RANBT was placed under British command during this period. The events of 13 January had affected the unit and in April some 88 men were permitted to transfer to the 1st Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and departed the RANBT for service on the Western Front. Reinforcements from Australia continued to arrive in dribs and drabs but the unit never had more then 300 men serving in it at any one time.

RAN Bridging Train with Arab workmen in Suez
RAN Bridging Train with Arab workmen in Suez

Throughout 1916 the RANBT carried out the dull but vital work of maintaining and operating several of the bridges over the Suez Canal. There were infrequent bombing raids by German aircraft and on one occasion an RANBT patrol captured a small number of sick Turkish soldiers who had become lost in the desert. A second request by some men to transfer to the AIF was refused by Bracegirdle who had them attached to a British Army unit for a period of one week to 'experience' front line service. Despite this, several men in the unit frequently complained that they were not being effectively used and that their work could be done by civilian labourers. Men continued to suffer from illnesses and injuries and two Able Seaman died from Enteric Fever during late 1916 while a third drowned in the Canal.

The pace of the fighting in the Sinai in the second half of 1916 quickened and soon the front line troops were pushing the Turkish forces back and the re-supply of food, water and ammunition for these forward units became a problem. A plan was developed to conduct an amphibious assault in late December 1916 and seize the Turkish coastal town of El Arish which could then be used as a forward re-supply base. The RANBT was directed to provide a 50 man detachment to land with the troops and construct a pier over which supplies could be landed from ships.

On 22 December the RANBT detachment landed at El Arish from two lighters and quickly built two piers over which supplies could be landed to the advancing troops. Fortunately the town had been abandoned a few days before by the Turks and no resistance was encountered, but the coastal waters were mined and the men ashore were also still within the range of Turkish Artillery. Due to the good work done at El Arish the RANBT was advised by British authorities that they were to be relieved of their duties on the Suez Canal and were to be attached to the forces advancing into Palestine.

RAN Bridging Train at El Arish Dec 1916
RAN Bridging Train at El Arish Dec 1916

It was then, however, that events took a dramatic turn for the RANBT. The complaints about the non combatant work being done by the men was raised in Federal Parliament and following consultation with the senior Australian officer in the Middle East, General Sir Harry Chauvel, a recommendation was made that the unit be disbanded and its men used as re-inforcements for the AIF. Consequently, Bracegirdle was advised that his unit was to be disbanded and its men either transferred to the AIF or sent home for discharge. On 27 March 1917 the RANBT was officially disbanded.

AB Driver Spry and McKenzie with unknown friend
AB Driver Spry and McKenzie with unknown friend

This, however, was not the end of the RANBT's involvement in operations. On 24 March 1917 British authorities, still in control of the detachment at El Arish, sent them to Gaza in the troopship Proton, where an attack on the city by Sir Archibald Murray's forces was planned to take place on 26-27 March 1917. Unfortunately the attack failed preventing the RANBT from landing and building piers but they were briefly involved in salvaging a British aircraft that suffered engine failure during the attack that ditched near the Proton.

By mid April 1917 the various RANBT detachments had been co-located at Kubri on the Suez Canal where a further 120 men transferred to the AIF. A number of others transferred to other services including the RAN, RN, Royal Flying Corps and the Egyptian Labour Corps. The remaining 194 men elected to return to Australia for discharge and on 29 May 1917 embarked in the troopship Bulla which arrived in Melbourne on 10 July 1917. The bulk of the men were discharged on 22 July but many later re-enlisted in the AIF or the ANMEF for garrison service in New Guinea.

naval bridging train
naval bridging train

Thus ended the service of the RAN Bridging Train. During its brief existence the unit's men had served five months on the Gallipoli Peninsula, taken part in the amphibious assault on El Arish and participated in the abortive First Battle of Gaza. Lieutenant Commander Bracegirdle was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Mentioned in Dispatches on three separate occasions. Sixteen of his men were also Mentioned in Dispatches and several others went onto to distinguish themselves in the AIF and RAN winning a number of bravery awards. Regrettably over 25 of them also lost their lives in action.

After the war most of the men from the RANBT returned to Australia to resume their civilian lives. Some took up soldier settlement farms such as Lieutenant Reginald Buller who founded Bullers Calliope Winery at Rutherglen. Another, Able Seaman Driver James Patrick Dunn entered politics as a member of the Labour Party and served as a Senator for NSW from 1928 until 1935. Lieutenant Commander Bracegirdle remained in the RAN and ended his distinguished career as a Rear Admiral. He served as the Military and Official Secretary to the Governor General of Australia from 1931 to 1947 and on retirement from this post was Knighted. He died in 1970. The Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train

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