- Swinden, Greg
- History - WW1, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Editor’s note: This article was written in 1987, when Greg Swinden was a Midshipman at the Australian Defence Force Academy. In September 2007 he was a Lieutenant Commander, based in Canberra. In 1990, together with Tom Frame (then Lieutenant Tom Frame, now Bishop Tom Frame, Anglican Bishop to the Defence Force) he expanded on the story of the RAN Bridging Train in a book entitled First In, Last Out: The Navy at Gallipoli (Kangaroo Press, 1990) which covered not only a fuller history of the RANBT, but also the activities of our submarine AE2, which sank in the Sea of Marmara on 30 April 1915, and a brief account of the experiences of the submarine’s crew in captivity in Turkey.
This is a short history of a small and relatively unknown unit of the Royal Australian Navy. The Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train was formed in late February 1915, but the idea for its existence had first been proposed in January of that year.
The Naval Board was anxious to see the officers and men of the RANR suitably used for the war effort and thus they offered the Imperial War Council a Bridging Train, complete with personnel, equipment, vehicles and horses for use in engineering operations with the Royal Naval Division then operating in Flanders.
The Naval Officer selected to command this unit was one Lieutenant (later Lieutenant Commander) Leighton Bracegirdle, who had previously served with the NSW Contingent in China during the Boxer Rebellion, and who had only recently returned from New Guinea where he had served in the ANMEF. His Executive Officer was Lieutenant Thomas (Granny) Bond, who had also served in New Guinea and had been awarded the DSO for his bravery in capturing the German wireless station at Bitapaka in September, 1914.
Recruiting began immediately and an encampment was set up in the Domain in Melbourne. Most of the men came from the RANR throughout the States, but a number of Northern Queenslanders who were experienced horsemen, and some Sappers (such as George Parker) from an RAE Militia Unit also camped in the Domain, were also enlisted.
Horses were procured from the Army Remount Depot at Albert Park and the men of the Bridging Train began to get accustomed to being on horseback. As one member of the Train, AB Driver Carl Schuler later stated, he had never spent more time on a horse than when he was training in Melbourne. The training was carried out in the St Kilda-Fawkner Park area, and at the end of the day, the horses were returned to the Remount Depot.
The training in horsemanship was easier than that of bridging, as nobody really knew anything about it. Vehicles and pontoons had to be constructed (the pontoons being built at Cockatoo Dockyard in Sydney), and these were not ready for use until late May.
Despite this lack of training, the Train was embarked on the transport Lake Macquarie on 3rd June 1915. Dressed in Light Horse uniforms, the only distinguishing features of their Naval background was the fact that all wore Naval rank insignia, and that on their slouch hats, they wore a large stockless anchor.
With the Train went 412 horses. However, the conditions in the tropics caused a number of the horses to die from exhaustion, or over-heating. All the horses were off-loaded in Colombo, and are believed to have been turned over to the Indian Army. On 17th July the Train, minus its horses, arrived in Port Said.
Sent to Gallipoli
Bracegirdle was immediately called to see the Admiral Commanding the Eastern Mediterranean, who told him the Bridging Train was to be diverted to Gallipoli. The Train was first sent to the island of Imbros, where they stayed from 27th July to 6th August. It was here that two changes were announced to the members of the Bridging Train. Firstly, as of 25th July, the Train was no longer under the control of the Admiralty, but had been handed over to the British Army, and attached to the 9th Army Corps, under General Stopford. A bigger surprise for the Train was that now its job was to construct pontoon piers at Suvla Bay, a task for which it had not been prepared.