- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- RAN operations, History - WW1, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- March 1990 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
At 4.30 on the morning of December 20 1915, Sub Lieutenant Charles Hicks and his fifty man detachment of the Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train, stood waiting in the dark on a beach below the heights of Lala Baba at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli.
A few minutes later, General Maude commanding the British forces in the southern sector of Suvla Bay, and his staff appeared. After a few brief words all present filed over the pier that the Bridging Train detachment had built, into a waiting lighter and were whisked away to a waiting transport vessel.
As the lighter pulled away from the pier a glow of flame could be seen to the north as the petrol soaked stores at Suvla Cove were ignited. Thus ended the Royal Australian Navy’s role in the Gallipoli campaign.
It had begun with HMA Submarine AE2 penetrating the Dardanelles to the Sea of Marmara in the early hours of April 25, before the first Australians and New Zealanders stepped ashore at ANZAC Cove, and now it concluded with Hicks and his men being the last Australians to leave the peninsula (the last Australians had left ANZAC Cove at 4.10am on December 20).
The story of the Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train (RANBT) begins in Melbourne in late February, 1915.
The Navy had a large number of Naval Reservists who could not be effectively employed. An offer to the British Government of a 300 man horse drawn naval engineering unit was made and gratefully accepted. Thus the RANBT was born. It was commanded by Lieutenant Commander (later Rear Admiral) Leighton Seymour Bracegirdle, who like many of the men who were to serve in this unit, had only recently returned from New Guinea where they had taken part in the seizure of the German territories there in September, 1914.
The Train was encamped at the Domain, now the site of The Shrine of Remembrance (The Victorian War Memorial), and began its training in horsemanship and bridge construction, no easy task as few of the men could ride and nobody really knew what a Bridging Train actually did.
Men enlisted in the RANBT were given the rank of Able Seaman Driver and wore Light Horse uniforms with anchor badges to denote they were a naval unit.
On June 3, 1915 the Bridging Train embarked in the troopship PORT MACQUARIE bound for England and further training, before being sent to the Western Front to act as an engineering unit for the British forces.
However, the best laid plans often come unstuck when confronted by reality. As the troopship crossed the Indian Ocean the temperature began to rise steadily. On board the ship, the horses were stabled below decks and soon began to suffer from heat exhaustion, within three weeks nearly a quarter of the unit’s 400 horses had died.
The PORT MACQUARIE was ordered to Bombay, the surviving horses were offloaded and the RANBT became a dismounted unit.
Passage to Britain was recommended, but on arrival in Port Said, Egypt, the Bridging Train found its orders had been changed. It was no longer going to Britain but was being diverted to assist at the British landings at Suvla Bay (a few miles north of ANZAC Cove).
Its job there was to construct and maintain piers over which troops would land and wounded would be evacuated. This was a task they were untrained for, but they undertook it willingly and were to prove later that what they lacked in knowledge they made up for in sheer commonsense and a refusal to admit to failure.
On August 7 1915, the RANBT landed at Suvla Bay, and within a few hours had begun their work of pier construction. On August 8, they constructed a 120 yard pier for the evacuation of wounded in twenty minutes, and it was in use five minutes later. All this was done under intense Turkish shell fire.
As each day passed the Bridging Train was given more and more work to do. It took over control of the water supply, was responsible for unloading stores for lighters, the storage and control of engineering stores, the salvaging of grounded vessels, and they even set up a blacksmith’s forge and carpenter’s shop.