The Covenanter Bridgelayer

In this video/article we will examine some rare footage of the Covenanter Bridgelayer in action. The footage is available to watch on the BFIs website and originally comes from the Wessex Film and Sound Archive. The 16mm film was filmed at some time in August 1942 but little else is said about locations in the BFI archive entry for the footage.

The Covenanter Bridgelayer being demonstrated (IWM MH 3674)

The tank’s hull number is visible as T.18434 which I think would make it one of the earliest English Electric-built Covenanters. The covenanter was developed in the late 30s as a cheaper cruiser tank. It entered service in 1940, but saw limited active service – instead being largely used in training roles. The bridge element of the vehicle was a Scissors Bridge 30ft, No. 1. – it was deployed and recovered by a clutch and 2 to 1 reduction gear, it was powered directly from the tank’s engine.

Cruiser Mk V Covenanter III (A13 Mk III) (IWM KID 778)

A US report on the Covenanter Bridgelayer explains how it worked:

“The opening of the bridge begins after the launching mechanism has begun to pivot on the rollers of the launching frame. Since the cables are of fixed length, they act to open the bridge as it is pivoted about the rollers.
Having been laid across the obstacle, the bridge is disengaged from the prime-mover [the tank itself]. The bridge is then ready for the passage of other vehicles.
To retrieve the bridge, the prime-mover crosses the bridge to the far side of the obstacle, hooks up to the bridge, pulls it back to the traveling position, and is then ready to proceed to the next obstacle.”

The bridge had a span of 34 feet and vehicles up to 30 tons could cross it. It could be deployed in under 3 minutes and in total the bridge and the system which launched it was 3.5 tons. The vehicle had a two man crew, with a driver and a commander.

Above is a British Pathe newsreel that gives us a closer look at some of the Bridgelayer’s mechanism at work.

The US report also noted that “In one case 1,200 successful launchings and recoveries were made by one vehicle without undue maintenance.” The system was only mounted on a small number of Covenanters. One source suggests 20 Covenanter I and 60 Covenanter IV tanks were converted into Bridgelayers. Far more Valentines were equipped with them and subsequently the Churchill AVRE became the British Army’s primary bridging tank.

A later Valentine Bridgelayer in action in Burma, 1945 (IWM)

No location is given for the footage but the presence of a number of barrage balloons to the rear is intriguing! It may have been filmed at the Royal Engineers Establishment at Christchurch or at another demonstration elsewhere. Scissor Bridges, with similar basic designs remain in service with numerous militaries around the world today.


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Bibliography:

‘Covenanter: Reservist Tank’, Tank Archives, (source)

‘A Home Guard parade and an inspection by the Duke of Kent’, BFI, (source)

Tactical and Technical Trends, No.15, Dec. 1942, Military Intelligence Service, War Department, (source)

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