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Between a rock and the Vrbas

By Lt. (N) Kris Phillips
First published in
SFOR Informer#120, August 22, 2001

On a narrow valley road snaking through a river-carved mountain pass about 15 kilometres north of the town of Jajce, engineers from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom Battle Groups worked together to bridge the Vrbas River. A ceremony was held Aug. 15 to officially open the bridge.

Banja Luka - Now complete, the new bridge serves as a key route between several local small towns and a major traffic artery. This project was carried out by British engineers from the 26th Armoured Engineer Squadron based out of Mrkonjic Grad and Dutch engineers from the 13th Netherlands/Bulgarian Engineering Company operating out of Bugojno.
Using a 20-tonne “Liebherr” crane from the Netherlands Battle Group (NLBG), eight pallets, one sea container of bridging materials and one Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineer recovery vehicle, the 12-man team of Dutch and UK engineers made quick work of the project. Taking just over one week to complete, the project began in early August. The bridge was pre-assembled in Ploce, Croatia, and then transported in pallets. On the Vrbas, the engineers prepared the ground, then assembled and placed the bridge into position.
Against a wall
This project was a little unique because of the cliff wall immediately behind the construction site. This type of bridge would normally be completely pieced together, then rolled straight into position across the divide. In this case however, the bridge was built and rolled into position one section at a time, while counterweights were used to hold the structure level.
The engineers also had to make some adjustments when it was discovered the transoms were too wide for the bridge. After some cutting and shortening of the transoms, the problem was quickly resolved, said Sapper Steve Abbott, one of the site engineers. He added that locals were “already using the bridge” even before it was officially opened.
Now in full use, the bridge is helping local communities continue reconstruction.
“People can now get supplies over the river so they can build houses,” said Sapper Chris Makeham.
There is little doubt the engineers fully understand the humanitarian and training value of this project.
“This is brilliant,” said Lt. Dave Bickers, the project co-ordinator and safety officer. “I think this (building bridges) is the best thing we do. What’s nice about this job is that we get to see a product we don’t have to tear down once we’re done building it and we know it will also serve a number of local communities.”
According to Capt. Charlie Battey, the water safety officer and technical advisor at the building site, the 32-metre, 40-tonne “Mabey Johnson Bridge” is one of about 10 different types of bridges these engineers are familiar with building. For most at the site however, this is the first time any of them has had a chance to construct a bridge of this make in this kind of setting.
“For us, the bridging task is the biggest project of our tour,” said Abbott.
With this project behind them, the engineers now look forward to future projects. They will leave Bosnia and Herzegovina with a lasting symbol of their efforts and a feeling of accomplishment.
“It’s a sense of achievement,” said Makeham.
Traffic control and diversion during this project was handled by the Royal Military Police in co-operation with police forces from both sides of the Inter-Entity Boundary Line (IEBL).
During the ceremony held Aug. 15, the bridge was named after Lance Cpl. Chris McLeish, a member of 26th Armoured Engineer Squadron who was killed in a fire at the Mrkonjic Grad Bus Depot in 1996.
(Contributing material from Informer staff)

Related link: Engineering - bridge stories
Nations of SFOR: UK, Netherland