The South African Army’s Engineer Corps this weekend started construction of the first of three Bailey bridges in the rural Eastern Cape in what is being hailed as a “first phase of an initiative to hire out military engineers and other skills for use in service-delivery projects, especially among poor communities.”
The first bridge is being built in the Intsika Yethu municipality at Covimvaba and will be followed by another two at Port St Johns and Umzimvubu (Mount Ayliff and Mount Frere), also in the province, Business Day newspaper reports. All three municipalities are in the former Transkei.
Work started on the first bridge at the weekend and the paper says the third bridge will be commissioned “early in the new year.”
The initiative — “for which the military would be reimbursed” — was in support of the Department of Public Works, which has a big infrastructure backlog. A squadron of 32 personnel [sic] is setting up the two Bailey bridges and a suspension bridge. [The number in fact suggests a troop, or one third of a squadron. The soldiers are likely from 35 Engineer Support Regiment at Dunottar, Springs, in the far-east of Gauteng.
The paper says the SA Army has phased out the heavy World War Two era bridges system in favour of the Mabey & Johnson Medium Girder Bridge that is reportedly lighter and faster to set up.
The Army Engineers’ involvement follows an announcement by defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu in July that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) would assist other government departments facing skills shortages.
“The expectation was that by subcontracting its services to other government departments the military would make a profit and augment its overstretched budget,” the paper says.
But Army engineering chief Brig-Gen Spinks Nobanda told Business Day this was not necessarily the main motivation. “We are not looking for profit at this stage.”
In the second phase of the programme, SANDF engineers will conduct further assessments in the Eastern Cape, where deep gullies and swelling rivers remain a hazard. “Several children were reported to have been washed away by this season’s rains,” the paper’s Wilson Johwa writes.
The mayor of Intsika Yethu, David Plata, said the bridges would fulfil a need, but more were needed, together with quality roads. “As a small municipality, we don’t have the expertise to build bridges,” he said.
The SANDF is already helping in infrastructural projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. The military has also approved the formation of a new works division, to be used in repairing and maintaining the SANDF’s own facilities, said to be in a poor state due to diminishing budgets.
The Bailey bridge is a truss bridge manually assembled by connecting panels end to end. A n US Army manual states it “is used in forward areas to replace assault bridging and the MGB. The Bailey bridge system is highly labour intense but also highly versatile. In some cases, the Bailey bridge is the only tactical bridge suitable for long spans and heavy loads because it can be assembled in multiple heights and widths. The bridge system can also be assembled as a railway bridge, thus providing a relatively rapid-repair capability.”1
The Bailey bridge was adopted in early 1941 and used in every theatre of the World War Two. The quintessential Bailey was the “Springbok” bridge, built in seven days by SA Engineers over the River Po at Pontelagasco, Italy, in May 1945, using 1900mt of parts requiring 629 3-ton lorry loads. At 305 metres, it was the longest Bailey bridge constructed during that conflict.