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The Kingsmill Bridge

By Robert Fischer, LGen (ret’d)

When Hugh Anthony Gault (Tony) Kingsmill graduated from the University of Toronto in 1941, little did he know that two years later he would be landing on the hostile shores of Sicily as a 23-year-old RCEME officer destined to become one of Canada’s war heroes. 

After less than a month in Sicily where the Canadians suffered more than 2300 casualties, almost 600 fatal, the Allies crossed over to the Italian mainland in September 1943. In 1944 Lieutenant Kingsmill was promoted to Captain and placed in command of the 61st Light Aid Detachment (LAD) supporting the Calgary Tank Regiment of the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade.

In May of 1944, the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade was charged with assisting the capture of the Gustav Line which followed the Gari River through Monte Cassino. Breaking through the Gustav Line meant crossing the Gari, something the Allies had tried but failed to do several times.

Tony Kingsmill relates his harrowing landing in Sicily on July 1943.

Crossing the Gari River

The Gari, a swiftly flowing river that ranges between 40 and 80 feet wide and six to eight feet deep, served as a natural tank obstacle. In addition, the riverbanks were open and flat, offering the enemy clear fields of fire.

In the centre of the attacking force was the 8th Indian Division with the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade in support. Two armoured regiments, the Calgary Tanks and the Ontario Regiment were tasked with deploying a “Bailey Bridge” across the Gari.

Bailey Bridges are prefabricated in sections that must be assembled on site. But planners faced two problems: The engineers were short of bridging materials and the Germans held the line only 300 metres from the best location to deploy the bridge.

The Idea

One member of the planning staff, half-jokingly asked, “Why can't we build a Bailey bridge and push it across the damn river?” This remark got Tony Kingsmill thinking: Could they push a completed bridge across the Gari River rather than try to construct it under enemy fire on the riverbank?

Kingsmill returned to his Commanding Officer with an idea. One tank could hold the front end of the Bailey Bridge while another tank pushed it forward. With approval granted, Kingsmill began experimenting.

With the help of a platoon of Royal Sikh Engineers and four tanks and crew from the Calgary Regiment, Kingsmill built a prototype and successfully tested it, first on land, then at a nearby river. Now, with less than a week to go before the planned assault on the Gustav Line, Kingsmill needed to determine where to launch the bridge. After some reconnaissance, a crossing location was selected at a point where the river was 80 feet wide. 

Tony Kingsmill talks about his idea for deploying the Bailey Bridge.

Tony Kingsmill tells how he and Royal Canadian Engineer, Capt Cyril Brown did a night reconnaissance and selected the site for the bridge.


On May 11th, the night of the attack, Engineers moved to prepare a site to assemble the bridge (then called the Plymouth Bridge), roughly a half-kilometre from the launch site. But mines, soft, muddy ground, and heavy fog hampered their progress.

The Calgary Regiment had hoped to have the bridge in place by 0400 hrs, but the bulldozers didn't arrive until 0350 hrs. The carrier tank, meanwhile, got lost in the fog, smoke and darkness and didn't reach the site until 0500 hrs. And the trucks hauling the bridging supplies were also late, arriving at 0530.

Once the vehicles and supplies were finally accounted for, Kingsmill and the bridge engineers from the 8th Indian Division erected the 100-ft long, 30-ton bridge on a 20-foot-long frame constructed of I-beams and rollers mounted to the turretless “carrier” tank. The “pusher” tank was attached to the end of the bridge by a collar that could be blown apart with explosives triggered from inside the tank.

Tony Kingsmill describes the difficulties encountered while trying to prepare the site and deploy the bridge.

Tony Kingsmill describes the final hour as the bridge was deployed.

Deploying the Bridge

"Captain Kingsmill took his place on the ground to the left of this huge ungainly contraption and ordered both tanks to advance. With many a creak and a groan, the whole thing moved slowly forward." — Radio Operator in the carrier tank

The two tanks set off for the river on May 12th around 0600 hrs, with Kingsmill using a radio to guide them through the fog. When the carrier tank sank into the mud, engineers struggled for three hours to free it. They finally reached the riverbank shortly before 0930 hrs, just as the fog began to lift.

But even with a smoke screen deployed, the Germans caught sight of the activity and began firing machine guns and mortars. Kingsmill took cover in the carrier tank with the radio operator and the driver.

They stopped the tank at the river’s edge. Then the pusher tank slowly moved forward, deploying the bridge across the river. As the bridge began to move, Kingsmill ordered the carrier tank forward to keep it from getting bogged down in the soft ground. As planned, it plunged into the river and sank. The driver and Kingsmill escaped and swam back across the river. The radio operator scrambled hand-over-hand underneath the bridge to shore.

The bridge now in position, the crew of the pusher tank blew the explosives to disengage the tank from the bridge and the near end of the bridge fell to the ground with an enormous crash. Finally, at about 1000 hrs Kingsmill radioed his Commanding Officer to report that the Plymouth Bridge was deployed and ready for use.

Crossing the Bridge

With the bridge in place, the Calgary Tank Regiment began crossing the Gari. The Gustav Line, which linked Monte Cassino to the sea, was finally compromised. With that breakthrough, the Allies began to slowly make their way to Rome.

Tony Kingsmill made it to safety that day, but not before a German machine gun shell ricocheted and sent shrapnel into his back. He soon recovered and rejoined his Light Aid Detachment and the Calgary Tanks a month later. Kingsmill commanded 61 LAD until 23 July, 1945 when his unit was formally disbanded in Holland. After a distinguished civilian career and an active retirement, Kingsmill passed away at age 90 on 19 May, 2010.

Military Cross

In 1944 Kingsmill was awarded the Military Cross, his citation stating, “his courage and determination were at all times beyond praise”. Kingsmill's heroism was celebrated in newspaper articles in Canada and the UK. The Military Cross medal was presented to him by the Governor General in Toronto in 1945.


In 2007, Kingsmill returned to Italy to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the Gari River crossing. A bronze plaque was unveiled in honour of the Kingsmill Bridge. A permanent marble monument incorporating the bronze plaque was unveiled in 2012 near the actual site of the Kingsmill crossing.



Image and Video Credits

All images in this story belong to their creators and are used with permission.

Interview Video: The interview with Tony Kingsmill was conducted by Combined Forces in 2007. The interviewer was Dennis Apedaile assisted by Karen Storwick.

Painting: The painting depicting the deployment of the Kingsmill Bridge is Panel 107 of the Mural of Honour. The original mural resides in the atrium of The Military Museums of Calgary, Alberta. It was painted by Alberta artist, Lewis Lavoie.

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