Saturday, April 2, 2016

Those Damned Engineers!

The Crossing of the Berezina (Source)
Antoine Gaudry set his hammer down just for a moment. He was shivering uncontrollably now, he stared at the simple tool, one of the tools that Général Eblé, who had disobeyed the Emperor himself, had managed to save. This simple hammer which had come all the way from France, traveled deep into Russia, and now lay on this rough hewn bridge over the Berezina River. So far from La Patrie.

The snapping of musket fire, the thump of cannon, and the screams of men in battle came from the far bank. The enemy was close, the bridge was nearly finished. Soon the remnants of La Grande Armee could cross over and continue the bitter retreat. Perhaps this river would slow the pursuit long enough to get away. To get back to France.


Combat engineers. I associate them with bridges, both building them and destroying them, with mine fields, with field fortifications, and with building roads across impassable terrain. They help move their own army forward or they can set up obstacles to hinder an enemy army's advance. They are an essential part of any army.

When what was left of Napoléon's army reached the Berezina River near Borisov (modern day Barysaw in Belarus) the troops were exhausted, many of them were no longer with the colors but were straggling along with the masses of camp followers, sutlers, and other hangers on. Some men were still with their units, fighting a desperate battle to hold off the Russian pursuit. Which fortunately was not all that energetic. At the river though, the Emperor felt that perhaps all was lost. All of the bridging equipment, the pontoons, the mobile forges, the wagons loaded with tools had been abandoned, destroyed to allow the army to move faster.

But Général Eblé had managed to bring along a few wagons with the necessary equipment to perhaps build a primitive bridge out of whatever materials were at hand. Like all good engineers Général Eblé knew how to improvise. The nearby town of Borisov was virtually dismantled, timber was had from the nearby woods. He and his men plunged into the bitter cold river and dodging ice flows, began to build a bridge.

Many died of exposure, on that day and in the days to come. But in that bitter cold winter, on the retreat from Moscow in November of 1812, the engineers did their duty and saved enough of the army to rebuild another.

Général Jean Baptiste Eblé
December 21, 1758 - December 31, 1812

Général Eblé died from exposure on the last day of December 1812 in Prussia, far from France, far from home.

The title of this post is from words alleged to have been spoken by a German officer during the Battle of the Bulge, the German offensive in the Ardennes in the bitter winter of December 1944.

Combat engineer setting charges on a tree. (Source)

SS-Standartenführer Joachim Peiper was leading the spearhead of the entire Sixth Panzerarmee on the northern shoulder of the battle area. His was an armor heavy task force charged with punching a hole through the American lines and driving on to the Meuse River.

As anyone who has ever traveled there can tell you, this area is forested and hilly, cut by many streams and small rivers. It's not a place of wide straight highways but meandering country roads going around hills and crossing over many bridges. To get to the Meuse, Peiper, his tanks and halftracks had to seize those bridges, not just for their own use but for the following units of his own division and the rest of the Sixth Panzerarmee.

It almost seemed that at each and every choke point on the way, the American engineers had dropped trees to block the road, which had to be laboriously cleared. All too often a bridge over a stream had been dropped, causing the maps to come out and detours to be found. Then there would be a muffled bang and a tank or halftrack would slew to a halt as a track blown off by an American mine clattered to the road.

The engineers paid the price. The weather was cold and wet, the engineers saw many of their comrades in the infantry and the armored units falling back towards the west. Leaving them to block the roads, lay mines, blow up bridges. All too often the Germans were on them before they could get away.

The explosives would go off, trees would fall, bridges would be dropped into rivers, but engineers were dying as well. Some of them engaging the enemy with small arms as they covered their fellows who were setting the charges. Much like at the Berezina, engineers had to wade into freezing cold water to do their job. But they got the job done.

At one bend in the road, as the panzers came into view of yet another river, Peiper was ecstatic, finally an intact bridge, perhaps now the advance would accelerate. As he hurried his men forward, there was a low thump, then a boom as yet another bridge bounced up, then collapsed into another small winding river through the Belgian forest.

Slamming his fist in frustration on the hood of his command halftrack, perhaps Peiper really did scream out, "Diese verdammten Ingenieure!"

All I can say is, "Thank God, for those damned engineers."



  1. 814th Engineer Company (Float Bridge), Pioneer Kaserene, Hanau 1964-1966. Always felt lucky not to be humping a mortar in the Infantry or shells in the Artillery. That said, a meaner and nastier group of individuals would be hard to find than a Combat Engineer Company.

    1. I had you in mind when the idea popped into my head to write about the Engineers. The post started one way, then I remembered the story about the crossing of the Berezina.

      Tough folks those Engineers!

    2. Breezed through Basic Training. Not so much AIT. The PT was nothing much but the rest was hard physical work. Remember the hardest was a Bailey panel bridge. Our float bridge in Germany required cranes as the system using hand assembly wouldn't carry heavier loads. More than once we moved the Atomic Cannon across the Main River. Life in a specialty company was much easier than a line CE Battalion. We supplied the equipment, they supplied the muscle.

    3. You would have been the guy at the Berezina who had managed to bring some tools along.

      You can always find muscle, having the right equipment is paramount!

  2. When my National Guard field artillery unit was deactivated, we were all folded into a Combat Engineer unit, 242 Engineer Battalion. Suddenly, the Engineer unit was flush . . . but with a whole lotta people who needed to qualify in their new MOS. Me . . . I was now an Engineer Supply Sergeant and while the paperwork was, essentially, the same, I had to learn of a whole new world of equipment. Sorry to say that I never made it to an Annual Training with the new unit . . . had my heart attack, then spent the rest of my tour on limited duty.

    1. Heh, "We Work Weekends." I like that. (Great photos too.)

  3. "Those damned engineers" has almost the same meaning aboard ship.
    Though it is most likely spoken by the officer in command.

    1. Yup. Heard the words myself, right after we secured fresh water... while the skipper was in his shower.
      But, he was happy we kept the screws turning and lights burning (well, most of the time).

    2. I figured it had something to do with fresh water.

      Screws turning and lights burning would seem to be a priority.

  4. When I hear engineer I always think of Wendell Fertig.

    Great post.

    1. Now that's old school. Colorado School of Mines old school that is.


  5. I tried most adroitly to work with Prime Beef and Red Horse but all to no avail. They shed work like a duck sheds water. I'm not sure what they did but it was probably only around Taegu and Seoul. Whoever did the Harvest Falcon stuff was damned good. They came and went and left civilization in their wake...but that was Egypt and the middle east.
    I remember the CBs with some fondness. Those guys are always ready to shift something or build something or make some forgotten fragment of the old military industrial complex work again. I never once called them up and heard them ask for a funding site or code. They came, they saw, they did all.

    1. Ah yes, Air Force civil engineering.

      'Nuff said.


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