Veterans' Stories

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Saving The Last Bridge

by Jack Thomas 19054285 ex-sapper

It was May 1952, and I arrived at my posting, the 55th Field Squadron of the Royal Engineers; a unit which serviced the 29th Brigade of the first Commonwealth Division in Korea. The unit was located close to the Imjin River in the area being defended by the division near the 38th parallel, roughly the border line between North and South Korea.

The source of the Imjin River is in North Korea, and from there it meanders to the South, crossing the border close to the former 1st Commonwealth Division position. Except for the daily ritual of enemy artillery and mortar barrages, the countryside seemed quite peaceful.

The northern spring weather encourages quick growth from the scrub and the paddy fields, as well as plenty of activity amongst the bird life. Water levels in the river needed to be monitored, so it was necessary to place depth markers at predetermined intervals along the banks. I was assigned to the squadron's land survey section for a few days, to drive a light truck transporting the men and equipment carrying out this work.

Being a relatively new arrival in Korea, I had not experienced what would happen to this tranquil river scene during the monsoon season later in the year. In my ignorance, I remarked to John Hampshire, our surveyor, that he was placing the marker posts far too high above the existing water level. He answered that the water level at monsoon flood time would probably reach the top of the markers. I was convinced that I was having my leg pulled.

Several months later the monsoon season arrived and John's judgment was vindicated. The water level rose about nineteen feet above normal within a few days, well over the top of the markers that the surveyor had set up a few months before.

Two of the bridges in our divisional area were washed away by the force of the water. This left only a high level timber bridge to provide a vital link for supply convoys to the infantry and other units entrenched on the North side of the river. The bridge structure started to shudder with the impact of water and debris against the trestle piers. To stabilize the bridge, large steel wire ropes were attached to the supports near the centre of the span on the upstream side. The other ends of these ropes were secured to Centurion tanks stationed upstream of the bridge on the north and south banks of the river. For one critical night and a day the bridge was held in this way, with the 54 tonne tanks sometimes having to keep their tracks slowly turning on the muddy river banks, to compensate for the forces of nature straining on the bridge structure.

Meanwhile, two other tanks were kept busy further upstream, with their gunners shooting at large pieces of flotsam rushing along in the torrent. Because the river was flowing from enemy territory it was possible that an attempt would be made to float explosives downstream attached to debris to try and destroy the division's last remaining bridge across the river. The gunners tried to minimize this risk by destroying anything large enough to carry such an explosive charge.

The bridge was subsequently saved and quickly re-opened to the supply convoys so that they could reach the division's forward units.

First Published in The Voice, June 2002