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Cableway Braking System Used in the Italian Campaign

by ralphwilmot

Contributed by 
ralphwilmot
People in story: 
Edmund Ralph Wilmot BEM
Location of story: 
Italy
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A4407969
Contributed on: 
09 July 2005

Ted Wilmot BEM - VENICE June 1945

CABLEWAY BRAKING SYSTEM — DESIGNED AND BUILT IN THE FIELD
Recalled and recorded on tape in 1985 by Edmund Ralph Wilmot BEM S.A.E.C.

With the East African campaign coming to an end, we boarded ship again and sailed for Tubic in Egypt. I requested a transfer to the Engineers and went before the Manpower board. I was an Infantryman and had a lot of questions to answer and the usual stories, about how much it cost to train a man on a Vickers Machine-gun and on Mortars. Anyway I eventually joined an Engineering company and went up through Italy with the 8th Army and a lot of my time was spent driving trucks. Although on one project I built a braking system for one of Monty’s Caravans, more on that story at another time.

There had been trouble with the Italian river crossings, which with winter weather had caused some hold ups. We had tried frogmen in the water and Jerry had his own frogmen, which lead to fighting under the water. Bailey bridges were out. As soon as you started another Bailey, they turned everything they had on it. Eventually it came about that somewhere or other Kenny Wray, a very fine Officer in charge of the Engineers had seen the remains of a cableway, used by the Germans to pull a Howitzer to the top of a high mountain point.

So encouraged by Kenny Wray, we turned to this idea of the Aerial cable-way, with orders to start work in our mobile works to evolve an effective cable-way system. It had to be simple, quick and easy to erect. The theory eventually boiled down to the idea of a gravity run cableway, with a high mast on our riverbank. On the enemy bank of the river would be a shorter mast, so that the load would be carried down hill. These masts had to be made up from smaller sections, which could be erected or taken down very easily. They were to be supported by guy ropes, which were attached to the masts by a very clever design. Hammers and mallets were bound with hessian, to try and silence the noise made when the spikes were hammered in. The main purpose of the cable-way was to carry Jeeps, 6-pound anti-tank guns and ammunition across the river. It eventually finished up bringing back the wounded.

We designed and built a carriage-way, consisting of a three quarter inch diameter running rope and a half-inch winding rope. We soon had problems with the design, in that when you came to pick up a gun or Jeep. The brake system would not hold on to this one running rope and it tended to creep. Eventually after playing around with this, they said it’s the best we can do and they decided to test it.

In a clearing amongst the Olive trees at a place called Vasto, they erected these masts and put up the cables. Kenny Wray came out of his little hut, which was his Headquarter overlooking the Adriatic, to see the demonstration. Once the demonstration got going to the stage of trying to pick-up a gun, they started to have difficulties. Another very fine Officer called James McLaughlin. He did something quite extraordinary while this was going on. The gun kept jumping and sliding down the rope a bit at a time as they lifted it. It could not be held stationary during the lifting process. Eventually they managed with great difficulty to raise the gun and its supporting cable entered into the retaining claws, which held it. For some reason James walked out and stood underneath. He looked up just at that moment the dog clamp let-go on the guy ropes and down this lot came. It must have bent his head forward, as this gun had just 8 inches of clearance under the axle and with mud on the ground. You can imagine what it did to him. The men rushed in, took hold of one side of the gun and threw it over, grabbed a piece of corrugated iron, and laid this chap out on it. As he was straightened out, he let out the most shocking scream and that was that. Kenny Wray turned a dirty colour white and said to his driver, “take me back” and with that away he went. Well, we planted James under the Olive trees and then the job just stood.

Everybody was disillusioned with this and it was forgotten more or less. It was about a month after the tragedy. I was having a shave using a little mirror in the fork of an Olive tree, just outside our dugout and I could see the remains of the stores that had been used, including the gun still in the mud in the valley below. I suddenly had an idea and said to my friend and half-section, a chap called Thomas Sidney Thomas. “You know Sid, these boys have been barking up the wrong tree, this can be done all right”. He replied, “Well why do you want to worry about it. It probably would never be developed into anything anyway, its just one of these mad Army ideas. We will have to get Jerry to show us how to do it”. Anyway I decided to follow up this idea of mine and I used to sit in the dugout at night, with my improvised oil lamp. I drew various sketches and eventually made a full sized drawing, which could be read intelligently. I got this chap Thomas, a mechanically minded fellow, who had been working in the Rand Gold mines on the winding side of things, to check out my drawings as I went along. After trying various ideas, I came up with one, the cleverest part of which was an inverted L slot, with a sliding face on the outside cheeks of the carrier, which by means of a brake lever, could be used to lock this. We found that by this means you would be able to lift the load, run it across on gravity and the brake would not come on until the brake lever was pulled, by means of a little light wire rope that had a handle on it and hung down from the brake lever. It progressed well and I eventually evolved a braking system that would clamp onto the top running rope. The actual rope that carried the weight. However there could be a problem with this design, in that it could cut the rope right through with the bite of the brake. Technically speaking the situation was that the load was designed to operate on the brake and therefore the effect on the brake would be proportionate to the load. If this load exceeded a certain point, it could damage the rope though we reckoned that up to 3000 pounds would probably be all right. There was only one way to find this out and that was another test.

It was winter and one of our officers, who had been a great friend of McLaughlin happened to drive in there, saw me and said “how are things going” I said “well so-so but what are we doing about this cable-way, is it shelved”. He replied “O yes, we have given it up, now that it’s killed old James I think that’s enough”. I replied “No I don’t think old James would have looked at it like that, he would have liked to feel that he gave his life for something” He then said “Well, what can we do” I said “I have got a drawing in the dug-out which I have been working on. I thought you might like to look at it”. Well he immediately became enthusiastic and said, “Right lets go and look at it”. We went up to the dug-out, got the light going and he had a look at the drawings, sitting on one of the bunks and he eventually said to me, “where did you get this idea”. I said, “I don’t know really” He replied, “Just explain to me how you propose that this would work” so I did. Now he was a mechanical Engineer in Civy-street and after he had looked at the drawings, “you know I believe this damn thing could work” I said “so do I and there is one way to find out, we’ll have to build one and test it” Anyway he said “can I have this drawing” I replied “yes, I don’t want it” and he took it away. Early the next morning a light truck pulled into the camp with a British Army Soldier at the wheel, and he said that they wanted to see me at Headquarters. I had to spruce myself up a bit, then I jumped in this truck and went with him, when I got there, this fellow was sitting at the end of a hut behind a makeshift desk, he said “sit down sapper” so I sat down, and he said “I’ve been looking at this drawing of yours, It seems to have possibilities, do you think it will work”, well I replied “how long is a piece of string” I don’t know, but I think it might if I make and test it. It would take a little time if you could give me some labour, and there were some good Italian tradesmen who had worked in the local aircraft Company.

So under camouflage nets working at night, pretty well none stop, we built one of these machines, and we were no sooner finished when they did a test, which was very quickly erected in a gap across a river. I never forget how they had very quickly run 9 guns across this river, however one 6 pounder gun ended up in the river, because it was swinging on this hook and they were over doing it. I didn’t take any part in the demonstration, although it was suggested at the outset that I should, but I said no, it isn’t going to be used by chaps that know anything about this device and will probably be at night, because they had involved some system whereby they used a shaded torch to signal from one bank to the other. The short mast which broke down into two pieces, loaded that into an assault boat where you attached two ropes to the back of a boat, and the stores, hold-fasts, hammers and you cross over at night. You erected this thing at night on the opposite bank, that was the plan and that was how it was used. I sat up on the top of this mound and I watched, the next moment I saw this Staff Sergeant coming up the hill towards me, he said, “the Boss wants to see you”. I went down, there were a lot of Royal Engineering Officers asking me questions about various things until I said, well you’ve seen it work gentlemen, there’s no questions that I can answer other than that. Old Wray was delighted with that, he said it was ruddy marvellous, well they worked it so fast that the sheath wheels, without ball bearings had sparks shooting off the wheels as it went across, and altogether they slung over nine guns, a couple of jeeps and was all done in a short time. He was so enthusiastic about this; he said we are going to have to build about fifty of these in the workshops. The plan was that they would issue one set of this equipment to each of the anti tank batteries, and it would be hauled in a disassembled state by a GMC truck that would go along with them. The GMC was ideal for the job because it had its own motorised winch on the front.

Well that was that until one night within site of Masino mountain, we heard tanks coming up the road and the racket went on half the night, and my half-section said to me “tonight’s the night, these boys are going to have a go by the sound of it”. Well old Jerry sent a couple of planes over; we watched them dropping their bombs. The next morning at 6a.m. Alexandra drove into our place and asked to see me, they called me and I went up to give him a salute and we shook hands. He said “look here, that ruddy thing’s marvellous, it turned out wonderful, we are 10 miles on the other side and successfully used 14 of these machines, I think there is only one left working by now, jerry turned everything he’s got on us, to stop us, but we did the job.”

Well subsequently we moved up across the Po, we went up to Lake Chasimino, a wonderful lake about 21 miles across, and we took over what had been an old aircraft works, and floating out on the lake there were the remains of flying boats that had been smashed up and machine gunned by the RAF. I actually found a chaps rotting leg in the bilge of one of them. We used to swim in the lake. Another chap and I were billeting in a little casa, it was very comfortable, and it had a hot water system, which would have been great if it had worked. The Manager had owned it originally. We had a little field motorboat and we used to go around the lake on it. I subsequently found out was a well-known place back in history where Hannibal had a battle.

Notes:
1. SAPA newspaper report in South Africa Quote “Springbok Wins B.E.M. FOR INVENTION. - ROME, Wednesday. - A former Johannesburg salesman, Lance-Corporal E. R. Wilmot, has been awarded the British Empire Medal for inventing a foolproof braking system for the aerial ropeway that is used for slinging guns and supplies across canals and gulches to assault troops at night. - SAPA.”
2. General Alexandra awarded Sapper Ted Wilmot the British Empire Medal.
3. Details of this cableway and braking system is contained in '8th Army Bridging Memorandum No.2 Dated July 1944'

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Message 1 - Re: CABLEWAY USED IN CROSSING THE SANGRO RIVER

Posted on: 10 July 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Mr Wilmot

I am surprised by the following: "There had been so much trouble with the Sangro crossing; it had held us up for over six months. We had tried frogmen in the water and Jerry had his own frogmen, which lead to fighting under the water. Bailey bridges were out. As soon as you started another Bailey, they turned everything they had on it."

Six months before the Sangro crossing there were no allied troops in Italy, indeed they were then still in North Africa. The invasion of Sicily was on 10 July, less than five months before the Sangro crossing. But there was no hold up at the Sangro, it was crossed according to plan, indeed the Germans had decided to hold the north bank with outposts only, lightly entrenched. What became known as the Sangro Battle took place on 24 November 1943 and 5th Corps (78th Div and 8th Indian Div) were over that night.

The Sangro bed was between three and four hundred yards wide, its depth varied between twelve and eighteen inches in summer, but a spate of rain could make it rise to five feet in autumn and winter. Four bridges had spanned the Sangro but these had been destroyed: one near Torino di Sangro, one near Paglietta, and two above the confluence of the Sangro and Aventino. There were four bridges planned for the crossing designated No. 1 to 3 (Bailey, 140 feet), and H (Bailey, 100 feet).

No.1: Equidistant between the 'old' Sangro bridge (about three miles from the sea, and bearing the main road to Fossacesia). This was to carry wheeled vehicles and tracked Bren carriers.

No.2: Just downstream from the 'old' Sangro bridge. This was to carry all types of vehicles, and in emergency, tanks.

H: Half a mile upstream from the 'old' Sangro bridge. H bridge was for tanks.

No.3: Half a mile downstream from Paglietta. For wheeled vehicles and Bren carriers.

Nos 1 and H were completed during the night 21/22 November, but work on No.3 was held up because traffic congestion delayed sending forward bridge-building equipment. Near disaster struck during the night of 22/23 November when a flash flood expanded the Sangro width from 100-150 feet to about a 1,000 leaving the bridges intact but stranded in the middle. Work stopped on the bridges, but between 23 and 26 the Sangro fell and bridges No1 and H were restored and No.3 was completed on 26 November. A floating bridge, designated No.4 (in place of No.2) was finished near Paglietta on 28th November, with the delayed No.2 coming into service on 2 December.

"Early on 27th November 1st/12th Frontier Force Regiment (17th Indian Infantry Brigade) easily took a jumping-off place below Mozzagrongna, and 38th Brigade (78th Division) also crossed the river." quoted from the official history "The Mediterranean and Middle East" volume V - "The Campaign in Italy 3 September 1943 to 31st March 1944" (also the source on bridging the Sangro above). But the 8th Army had crossed the Sangro even before the main thrust. If you consult the book you quote "El Alamein to the River Sangro", by Montgomery, at page 120 you will see "In accordance with my new policy five battalions were established on the north bank of the river by 22 November ...", and further down, "By 24 November I had a firm bridgehead north of the River Sangro about 2000 yards deep on a frontage of 10,000 yards."

You continue "Well subsequently we moved up across the Po", but the Po (it's in the Plain of Lombardy) wasn't reached and crossed until the spring of 1945.

With great respect,

Peter

 

Message 2 - Re: CABLEWAY USED IN CROSSING THE SANGRO RIVER

Posted on: 10 July 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Above you will note that I said that the Sangro was between three and four hundred yards wide, and you may wonder how a 140 foot Bailey bridge could possibly cross it.

I should have explained that the Sangro is indeed about 400 yards wide, gravelly and strewn with boulders, but that it flows in several channels, each about a hundred feet wide and a few inches to eighteen inches deep in summer, rising up to a treacherous four or five feet after heavy rain in autumn and winter.

 

Message 3 - Re: CABLEWAY USED IN CROSSING THE SANGRO RIVER

Posted on: 10 July 2005 by ralphwilmot

It was my father who recalled his war service on tape. I wish he was here to answer your question fully as he surely would have. Though it is known that there was a delay in crossing the Sangro and many were killing in the intial attempts.
I have no reason to doubt what my father went through from East Africa, North Africa, Sicily and Italy.
Though I know he was awarded the British Empire Medal for his inventions.
He also invented the ratchet to prevent the American Tommy Guns jamming up, which is also a well know fact and amoung other things installed the braking system in one of Monty's caravans.

 

Message 4 - Re: CABLEWAY USED IN CROSSING THE SANGRO RIVER

Posted on: 11 July 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Mr Wimot -
there is no doubt with anyone that your father merited his B.E.M. for his services in the Engineering area of the 8th army,however like most of us time wears on our memories and we can be at odds with the facts - now and again !

The only facts I have after all this time is from histories by reputable writers and I do believe that Gen. Montgomery fitted into that space as he recounts relative to the Sangro battle or battles.... "without fine weather I am sunk - I must have fine weather ...if it rains each night I am done:
18th November - very wet night
19th November - Fine day
20th November - very heavy rain starting at 5:oo - Operation "encroach" put back until 23rd November.
The high ground on the North bank of the River had been secured on 19th November.
5th Corps Commander Allfrey given a rocket for not having his FOO over the River.
21st November very bad weather with no air activity, the right flank of 78th Div was thrown back across the Sangro.
23rd November - heavy rain all day
27th November - New Zealand Div crossed over.
28th - beaking out from the bridgehead with 78th Div on right - 10th Indian centre and New Zealand Div on left. 5th brit Div joined the battle.
The whole country becomes a sea of mud and nothing on wheels or tracks can move.
Total casualties in the Sangro Battle were 113 Officers and 1650 Other Ranks - which was light compared to what was achieved.
5th december - all the bridges were washed away !"
That is fairly typical of the fighting which was done in "sunny Italy' from October to April of each year - and of course many men were killed - it was assessed that more than 300 were drowned in the Sangro - and that was just one river !

It was not a war for tanks but rather Infantry and Engineers to overcome many of the natural and unnatural obstacles in our way - all the time !
Your Father did well and was recognised - too many were not !
regards
tom canning

 

Message 5 - Re: CABLEWAY USED IN CROSSING THE SANGRO RIVER

Posted on: 11 July 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Ralph

I have no doubt that your father merited his award. That is not the point I was making. You say "Though it is known that there was a delay in crossing the Sangro and many were [killed in the inntial] attempts."

There was no delay whatsoever in crossing the Sangro, other than that caused by adverse weather. Even so the four Bailey bridges were erected remarkably swiftly. They were indeed swept away on 5th December but by then both banks of the Sangro were in Allied hands. Also the Sangro, usually at a depth of 12 to 18 inches, is too shallow for frogmen to operate; when in full spate after a flash flood this rises to four and five feet, but then it is far too swift for a frogman to enter.

The rivers where there was a military delay and tremendous loss of life were the River Liri and Rapido River, the two main arteries which join to become the Garigliano, at the head and side of the Liri Valley. The German line was strongly entrenched on the west bank of the Rapido, but on the Sangro they had tactically withdrawn to better defensive positions.

Regards,
Peter

 

Message 6 - Re: CABLEWAY USED IN CROSSING THE SANGRO RIVER

Posted on: 11 July 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

I dashed off the above in a hurry, having to go to a meeting. Expanding on it and in more detail, by 4 December the engineers completed two fairly solid structures for maintenance routes, while one of the earlier bridges was in good order, and two were on their last legs. Then on the 4th the flash torrent destroyed most of the work, reducing the bridges to one. But even prior to this, on 1 December Montgomery ordered that the main body of 5th Corps should not pass the line San Vito-Lanciano until the crossing of the Sangro had been made secure against storm and flood. This became his Winter Line, not primarily because of German opposition but because he needed to secure his L of C. But it is important to realise that this was over the Sangro by some 15 miles as the crow flies, and that by 4 January, the 2nd New Zealand Division was as far north on the Adriatic coast as Torre Mucchia some six miles north of San Vito and way beyond the Sangro.

The modern term of 'logistics' was not used in WW2, the term then used was 'maintenance' and 'L of C' (Line of Communication) was the route by which the front line was maintained (i.e., supplied). This was why Montgomery held his Winter Line In fact, discarding fancy names, it was a stalemate) on the Adriatic coast above the Sangro, it was to mark time until he could permanently secure the Sangro crossing as his main L of C for 5th Corps. To give a rough idea of how large was the administration task: on 30th November 1,485 tons of supplies and stores reached 5th Corps' railheads for distribution and 73,900 rounds of ammunition. All this had to go over the bridges on the Sangro. During the hard fighting between 22nd-18th November-5th December 5th and 13th Corps expended about 8,325 tons of ammunition, six times the quantity of petrol used. All these factors led Montgomery to believe that 8th Army's offensive must halt for a while. His superiors agreed with him.

 

Message 7 - Re: CABLEWAY USED IN CROSSING THE SANGRO RIVER

Posted on: 11 July 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Sir,
To follow on Peter's extended explanation - it was about that point that Montgomery stated that he was short of supplies for the activities of four Divisions whereas the USAAF and DAF were being supplied with 100% of their supplies but doing nothing owing to the bad weather - he not only stated this but made formal complaint to the CIGS Gen Alan Brooke, who in turn brought it up at the next joint Chief of Staffs meeting, who asked the US Chief of Air - Gen Hap Arnold to investigate - which he did by the end of January/early February. He called a meeting of all Air Commanders at Foggia and suggested that they go out and BAMB something. At this time the New Zealanders were given the task of Cassino 11 Battle with the 4th Indian Div. alongside.Both commanders - Gen Freyburg and Gen. Tuker( who then went off to Hospital leaving Brig.Gen Dimouline in charge ) were agreed that the Benedictine Monastery of Cassino should be eliminated - it was on 14th/15th february 1944, for the fourth time in it's history !

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