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History Section - Engineering



This page displays historical information about military engineering categorised into two general areas:

Works The construction and maintenance of fortifications and military accommodation. From the 19th century Works also included Civil construction, particularly within the colonies of the British Empire.
Field (Combat) The engineering activities conducted by engineers attached to field armies that enable the army:
  • To fight - by the design and construction of fortifications (protective works), the attack and breach of the enemy's defences (siegecraft) and denying the enemy the use of anything that might help him to fight, move, or live.
  • To move - by the construction or maintenance of roads, railways, bridges, docks, canals and, from the 20th century, airfields.
  • To live (survive)- by the construction or maintenance of accommodation, drainage, water supply, and, from the late 19th century, electricity supply.

The word 'Engineer' is derived from the Old French word 'engigneor' meaning one who designs and constructs military engines or works (Oxford English Dictionary).

Links to Corps History, engineering Specialist and Unit Histories pages.

If you are researching a soldier's service history more information can be found on the Researching Service Records page.


Airborne Engineers

Engineers specially trained and equipped to provide field engineer support to airborne formations. Airborne forces were founded during the Second World War (1939-45) to bring whole units into battle by parachute, glider and aircraft, using the enemy’s open flank, the sky.

Significant dates and events
1940 - Second World War - Major JF Rock, Royal Engineers ordered to organise the creation and training of airborne (parachute) troops.
1941 - Second World War - (February) Airborne Sappers demolish the Frazino aqua duct in Italy.
1941 - Second World War - (November) 1 Airborne Division formed, its engineer support was provided by 9 Field and 261 Field Park Company.
1943 - Second World War - 6 Airborne Division created with Sapper Airborne Regiment and an Airborne Postal Unit.
1944 - Second World War - 1 Airborne Division Airborne Sappers deployed as part of Operation Market Garden ('a bridge too far').
1945 - Second World War - 6 Airborne Division Airborne Sappers deployed on Operation Plunder (the Rhine Crossings).
1956 - 9 Independent Parachute Squadron deployed to Suez.
1982 - 9 Independent Parachute Squadron deployed to the Falklands
 
Information Sheets
Brief history of Airborne Sappers
Corps History Part 16 The Corps and the Second World War
Campaign history 6th Airborne Divisional Engineers - D Day 1944
Campaign history Royal Engineers and Operation Market Garden (1944)
9 Independent Parachute Squadron RE - jump 1975
9 Independent Parachute Squadron dropping onto Hankley Common after a tour in Northern Ireland - 1975
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Airfield Construction

Engineers specially trained and equipped to construct airfields for the RAF. It was a task first carried out by the Royal Engineers during the later stages of the First World War (1914-18).
Significant dates and events
1914-19 - Royal Engineers construct airfields on the Western Front.
1939 - Second World War - Airfield Construction companies formed to construct airfields for the RAF supporting the BEF in France.
1940 - Second World War - Royal Engineers conduct repairs to damaged airfields during the battle of Britain.
1940-5 - Second World War - Royal Engineers construct emergency airfields in the Middle East, Malaya and Italy.
1944-5 - Second World War - Royal Engineers construct emergency airfields in Normandy and Burma.
1964-67 - Crown airfield, Thailand built as part of a South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEAO) scheme in the Cold war against the communists.
1966 - Role and responsibilities of the RAF Airfield Construction Branch transferred to the Royal Engineers.
1968 - Beef Island airfield, British Virgin Islands built by 53 Field Squadron (Airfields).
1970's - Airfield squadrons develop the techniques of Rapid Runway Repair (a NATO priority) this development brought about the Airfield Damage Repair (ADR) and the formation of Territorial Army (TA) units to carry out this role. Airfield Construction work in support of the RAF Harrier force.
1982 - Airfield Construction repair Port Stanley Airport after Falklands Campaign.
Information Sheets
Brief history of Airfield Construction
Corps History Part 14 The Corps and the First World War
Corps History Part 16 The Corps and the Second World War
Campaign history Royal Engineers and Operation Overlord (1944-45)
Campaign history Royal Engineers and Operation Market Garden (1944)
Royal Engineers constructing an airfield
Royal Engineers constructing an airfield 1980's
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Amphibious Engineers

The Royal Engineers involvement with amphibious bridging equipment started in 1962 when 23 Field Squadron was re-roled as 23 Amphibious River Crossing Squadron and equipped with a limited number of the French Gillois amphibian.
Significant dates and events
1962 - 23 Field Squadron re-roled as 23 Amphibious River Crossing Squadron.
1960's - M2 bridging and ferry systems developed
1971 - 28 Amphibious Engineer Regiment formed in Hameln, West Germany the only unit to operate the German-made M2 amphibian.
 
Information Sheets
Brief history of Amphibious Engineers
Corps History Part 18 The Corps and British Army of the Rhine (1945-80)
M2 bridging and ferry equipment
M2 bridging and ferry equipment 1980's
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Armoured Engineers

Engineers specially trained and equipped to provide field engineer support to armoured formations. During the Second World War (1939-45) the term 'armoured' was changed to 'assault'.

Significant dates and events
1915 - First World War - Colonel ED Swinton (late Royal Engineers) whilst developing 'Land cruisers' (tracked vehicles) for use in the field re-christened them 'Tanks'.
1916 - First World War - Lieutenant Colonel (later General Sir) H J Elles Royal Engineers was appointed commander of the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps, and a year later it was renamed the Tank Corps - but tanks were not used in an engineering capacity until the Second World War.
1919 - RE Tank developed but was not brought into service.
1942 - Second World War - (August) Dieppe Raid highlighted the need for engineers to have armoured protection whilst assaulting defences.
1942 - Second World War - (October) Armoured personnel carriers issued to Field Squadrons with armoured formations in the Western Desert.
1943 - Second World War - (April) 79 Armoured Division, under command of Maj Gen PCS Hobart, formed to lead D-Day assault, included elements of the Royal Engineers.
1944 - Second World War - 6 June a troop of Armoured Vehicles Royal Engineers (AVREs) of 77 Assault Squadron were the first British troops to liberate an occupied village.
1957 - 32 Assault Engineers Regiment disbanded. Centurion AVRE brought into service.
1980 - 32 Armoured Engineer reformed.
1987 - Willich Chieftain AVRE brought into service.

Save our ARK - FoREM ARK Appeal

Information Sheets
Brief history of Armoured Engineers
Biograph of Major General Sir Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart
Corps History Part 15 The Corps between the wars (1919-1939)
Corps History Part 16 The Corps and the Second World War
Corps History Part 18 The Corps and British Army of the Rhine (1945-80)
Campaign history Royal Engineers and Operation Overlord (1944-45)
Article - Assault Bridging and Equipment
Churchill Onion tank
The Churchill tank "Double Onion" capable of placing demolition charges at heights up to 12ft on a wall. This was one of many designs created by Major General Hobart and his team in preparation for breaching the defences on D-Day.
(Photo: The Tank Museum)
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Civil Works

Construction works and architectural designs carried out by the Royal Engineers for civilian purposes.

Significant dates and events
1820's - Captain (later General Sir) Arthur Cotton builds the great irrigation works on the river Cauvery, India.
1825 - Architecture is added to the subjects taught at the Royal Engineer Establishment (now the Royal School of Military Engineering)
1826-32 - Colonel John By constructs the Rideau Canal, Canada.
1837 - Captain (later Major General Sir) Joshua Jebb designs Pentonville Prison, introducing new concepts such as single cells with good heating, ventilation and sanitation.
1840's - Lieutenant Colonel George Barney designs and uses cast iron to build Victoria Barracks, Sydney, Australia
1847 - St Paul's Cathedral, Calcutta India designed by Captain (later Major General) William Forbes is opened. He was also design the Silver Mint building.
1851 - Lieutenant Colonel William Reid is appointed the Chairman of the executive Committee for the Great Exhibition
1871 - Royal Albert Hall, London designed by Captain Francis Fowke is opened
1873 - The Royal Engineer Institute, Chatham building designed by Lieutenant (later Captain Sir) Montague Ommaney is opened.
1880-82 - Captain Tomas English and Colonel Fredrick Beaumont design a boring machine to use on their Channel Tunnel project. The project was called off in 1882.
1940-43 - Second World War - During the Blitz Royal Engineer units assisted the civil authorities in repairing bomb damage.
1961 - The Crown of Thorns, Coventry Cathedral made by the Royal School of Military Engineering.
1970 - 8 Field Squadron repair the Menai Bridge, North Wales.
Information Sheets
Biography of Colonel John By - builder of the Rideau Canal, Canada
Biography of Captain Francis Fowke - Designer of the Royal Albert Hall
Corps History Part 12 Engineers in a Civic Role (1820-1910)
Royal Albert Hall
The Royal Albert Hall
Designed by Captain Francis Fowke and Colonel Henry Scott of the Royal Engineers, heavily influenced by ancient amphitheatres, the Hall was constructed mainly of brick, with terra cotta block decoration it opened in 1871.
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Commando Engineers

Engineers specially trained and equipped to provide field engineer support to commando formations. Commando forces were founded during the Second World War (1939-45) to conduct amphibious raids against selected targets on the enemy's coastlines.

Significant dates and events
1940 - Second World War - 'Commando' units are the brainchild of Major JC Holland, Royal Engineers.
1942 - Second World War - Sappers involved in the St Nazaire Raid during which Sergeant TF Durrant of the Royal Engineers won a Victoria Cross.
1967 - 59 Field Squadron begins support of 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines.
1971 - 59 Field Squadron designated 59 Independent Commando Squadron, Royal Engineers and permanently affiliated to 3 Commando Bridge, Royal Marines.
1982 - 59 Independent Commando Squadron deployed to the Falklands
Information Sheets
Brief history of Commando Engineers
VC citation of Sergeant TF Durrant VC 28 March 1942
Corps History Part 16 The Corps and the Second World War
Campaign history Royal Engineers and Operation Overlord (1944-45)
Sergeant TF Durrant VC
Sergeant TF Durrant VC
Posthumously awarded the VC for 'great gallantry, skill and devotion to duty when in charge of a Lewis gun in HM Motor Launch 306 during the St Nazaire raid' on 28 March 1942.
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Field (Combat) Engineers

The history of the Field Engineer is the central theme of the main history of the Corps of Royal Engineers. These are the engineers that provide field engineer support to infantry formations.

The units engaged in this type of military engineering include companies of the Royal Sappers and Miners (1812-56) and Royal Engineers companies/squadrons/troops (e.g. bridging, field (combat), airborne, amphibious, armoured (assault), commando, pontoon and Queen's Gurkha)



Significant dates and events
1287 - Edward I constructions a boat bridge across the Menai Straits.
1346 - English Engineers employed at the Battle of Crécy and the following siege of Calais.
1698 - Ordnance Train given permanent status.
1779 - Siege of Gibraltar
1799 - Army Staff Corps formed to provide field engineers under direct Army command.
1809 - Peninsular War - Construction of "Lines of Torres Vedras" to defend Portugal.
1812 - Major Charles Pasley RE sets up the 'Royal Engineer Establishment' to train Royal Engineers and Royal Military Artificers in the skills of field engineering.
1812 - Corps of Royal Military Artificers renamed Royal Sappers and Miners in recognition of its combat role and field training.
1813 - Peninsular War - 'Pasley's Cadets' (trainees from the Royal Engineer Establishment) join the British Army in Portugal and take part in the Siege of San Sebastian. Crossing of the river Adour.
1830's - 'Tin Pontoons' redesigned by Pasley but are replaced by the Blanshard Pontoon in 1836.
1854-6 - Crimean War - Siege of Sebastopol (7 VCs awarded).
1857 - Indian Mutiny - Siege of Delhi (3 VCs awarded).
1862 - Engineer Train (Pontoon Troop, Field Troop and Depot) formed to provide engineer field support (bridging and field equipment).
1867-8 - Abyssinian Expedition - Construction of 60 mile road and 10 mile railway and use of prefabricated water tanks.
1870 - Blood Pontoon replaced the Blanshard Pontoon and remained in service until 1889.
1874 - Ashanti War - Prah river bridge constructed with prefabricated spans built in Chatham, first use of Steam Sapper (steam traction engine) on operations.
1879 - Zulu War - Chard's defence of Rorke's Drift.
1889 - Clauson (Mark II) bipartite pontoon brought into service.
1890 - Captain JC Tyler's RE Tool cart brought into service, (based on the idea of a gun carriage it was two two-wheeled vehicles hooked together).
1899-1902 - Boer War - Construction of Tugela pontoon bridges across the river Tugela for the relief of Ladysmith(1899-1900). Construction of Blockhouses to protect the railways (1901) (2 VCs awarded)
1910's - Inglis bridge brought into service
1914-18 - First World War - Field sapper tasks included: trench work, wiring, water supply, building bunkers and redoubts and bridging. ( VCs awarded)
1918 - First World War - St Quentin Canal crossing (29 Sep 1918)
1939-45 - Second World War - Field sapper tasks included: mine laying, wiring, water supply, building defensive positions, airfield construction and repair, and bridging. ( VCs awarded)
1940 - Second World War - Airborne engineers begin training.
1942 - Second World War - Breaching of the Axis' mine-fields at El Alamein(23 Oct-4 Nov).
1942 - Second World War - Bailey bridge brought into service.
1943 - Second World War - Assault engineers formed.
1944 - Second World War - Construction of 'Plymouth' and 'Amazon' bridges across the river Rapido, Italy (May).
1944 - Second World War - Operation Overlord - D Day landings assault engineers clear beaches. Construction of Mulberry harbours and Causeway. 'Pluto' and 'Dumbo' fuel lines constructed
1944 - Second World War - Construction of 'Grub' bridge across the river Chindwin, Burma (Dec).
1945 - Second World War - Construction of bridge to cross river Rhine, Germany (Mar).
1944 - Second World War - Construction of bridge to cross the river Irrawaddy, Burma (Dec).
Post 1945 Field sapper tasks included: field engineer support to the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) (e.g. obstacle preparation, bridging, and demolitions), Counterinsurgency support (Palestine 1945-48, Malaya 1948-57, Kenya (Mau Mau) 1952-60, Cyprus (EOKA) 1955-59, Borneo 1962-66, Aden 1967-8 and Northern Ireland 1969 onwards) and Military Aid to Civil Community projects all over the world.
1951-53 - Korean War - Construction of defence of The Hook (May 1953).
1957-58 - Christmas Island nuclear tests - Construction of camp - the largest single project undertaken by the Corps in the post war years.
1967 - The Medium Girder Bridge (MGB) brought into service.
1978 - Combat Engineer Tractor (CET) brought into service.
1982 - Falklands Campaign - Mine clearance. Construction of fuel stores, repair to Stanley airport and runway.
1991 - 1st Gulf War
1991-2004 - United Nations (UN) peace keeping in the Balkans
Information Sheets
Establishment of a Field Company - 1877
Development of Assault Bridging and Equipment
Development of Military Bridging
Description of Blood's Pontoon - 1870-89
Campaign history Royal Engineers and Operation Overlord (1944-45)
Campaign history Royal Engineers and Operation Market Garden (1944)
Link to the Sapper VCs page.
Link to the Corps History page.
Seige of San Sebastian 1813
Storming of San Sebastian (1813) by the Royal Scots lead by Lieutenant Harry Jones Royal Engineers. He was badly wounded and take prisoner during this attack.
(Painting: National Trust, Scotland)




Ashanti War - Prah bridge 1874
Ashanti War (1873-4) Prah Bridge
The bridge included prefabricated spans and cribs constructed in Chatham for the occasion.
(Watercolour: Lieutenant Colonel H M Sinclair 1900)




First World War Wiring Party
First World War - Field Engineers Wiring Party
(Watercolour: Sapper W Carr)




Second World War - breaching the mine fields
Sappers breaching the minefields at El Alamein 1942
(Painting: Terence Cuneo)
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Military Works

Construction works and architectural designs carried out by the Royal Engineers for military purposes. Units engaged in this type of military engineering include: Company of Soldiers Artificers (1772-97), Royal Military Artificers (1787-1812), Royal Sappers and Miners (1812-56), Royal Engineers companies (e.g. construction, fortress and tunnelling).

Significant dates and events
1078 - Gundulf designs the White Tower in London.
1290's - Edward I builds castles in Wales.
1537 - Henry VIII orders the building of defences from St Michael's Mount to the Thames and along the Scottish borders.
1683 - Board of Ordnance gives explicit instructions to the Principle Engineer regarding fortifications, survey and record keeping.
1740s - Military roads constructed in the Highlands after the Battle of Culloden (1746)
1772 - Company of Soldier Artificers raised for defence works at Gibraltar.
1787 - Corps of Royal Military Artificers raised for defence works at home and in the expanding British Empire, construction of the Martello towers begins.
1792 - Chief Engineer prepares the Barrack Construction estimates for Parliament and Department of the Barrackmaster-General established.
1799 - Royal Staff Corps formed
1800 - Military canal constructed by Royal Staff Corps
1840-60's - Barracks constructed under supervision of the Royal Engineers in Bristol (1847), Preston (1848), Tower of London (1851), Sheerness (1854), Sheffield (1854), Curragh Camp (1855), Devonport (1856) and Chelsea (1861).
1854-6 - Crimean War - First use of pre-fabricated huts constructed for troops at Balaklava.
1860-90's - Royal Engineers responsible for designing and supervising the construction of sea defences at Portsmouth, Plymouth, Pembroke, Portland, Dover, Thames, Medway, Cork, North East coast and North West coast (Palmerston Forts).
1864 - Herbert Hospital, Woolwich completed.
1870's - Cardwell Reforms (1872) ushers in another period of intensive Barrack building at Aldershot, Portsmouth, Plymouth, London, Woking, Woolwich, Dublin, Belfast, Malta, Gibraltar and Cape of Good Hope.
1880's - Coaling stations abroad (Aden, Ceylon, Hong Kong, Sierra Leone, St Helene, Cape town, Mauritius, Jamaica and St Lucia) are fortified.
1901 - Anglo-Boer War - Major SR Rice invents a octagonal blockhouse followed by a circular one which could be prefabricated.
1916 - First World War -Major Peter Nissen invents the 'Nissen' hut, the semi-circular shaped hut.
1939-40 - Second World War - Defences built on the South Coast against invasion from Nazi Germany.
1939-45 - Second World War - Military accommodation built using 'Nissen', 'Romney', 'Abbey' and 'Tufton' huts.
1959 - Corps' Work Services transferred to the civilian War Department Works Organisation (later renamed Property Services Agency (PSA)) .
1965 - Formation of the Specialist Teams Royal Engineers (STRE) to plan and execute Works projects worldwide.
1970 - Northern Ireland - 62 CRE (Construction) tasked with design of the Long Kesh, internment camp, built by 48 Field Squadron and 51 Field Squadron (Airfields).
1978 - Creation of the Military Works Force with the transfer of the Works Services back to the Corps.
Information Sheets
Corps History Part 8 - Corps amalgamation and Coastal Defence (1855-1905)
Corps History Part 14 The Corps and the First World War
Corps History Part 16 The Corps and the Second World War
Martello Tower Bermuda Martello Tower, Ferry Reach, Bermuda constructed by Royal Sappers and Miners
(Photo: Unknown)





West Cavalry Barracks, Aldershot 1856-59 West Cavalry Barracks (Willems), Aldershot designed by the Royal Engineers and constructed between 1856-59, demolished in 1964 (site now occupied by Tesco's supermarket and private housing)
(Photo: Aldershot Military Museum)
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Queen's Gurkha Engineers

Gurkhas who are trained as engineers to provide field engineer support to Gurkha and other formations.

Significant dates and events
1840's - Gurkhas were part of Captain Broadfoot's ad hoc Sapper force during the Afghan Campaign.
1948 - Gurkha Training Squadron formed at the Engineer Training Centre, Far East located at Kluang, Johore.
1949 - 67 Gurkha Field Squadron formed in Malaya.
1950 - 68 Gurkha Field Squadron formed in Malaya.
1954 - 67 and 68 Gurkha Field Squadrons form 50 Gurkha Engineer Regiment, and become the divisional engineers of 17th Gurkha Division in Malaya.
1955 - 50 Gurkha Engineer Regiment became part of the Brigade of Gurkhas.
1957 - Gurkha Engineers affiliated to the Corps of Royal Engineers.
1960 - Gurkha 70 Park Training Squadron and 69 Gurkha Field Squadron were formed.
1967 - 69 Gurkha Field Squadron was disbanded.
1977 - The Gurkha Engineers were granted the Royal title the Queen's Gurkha Engineers.
1981 - 69 Gurkha Independent Field Squadron was raised again.
Information Sheets
Brief history of Queen's Gurkha Engineers
Gurkha Engineers Temerloh Ferry, Malaya
operated by Gurkha Engineers c1950's
(Photo: Unknown)
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Royal School of Military Engineering (RSME)

First founded in 1812, as the Royal Engineer Establishment, to teach field engineering skills to junior Royal Engineers officers and soldiers of the Royal Corps of Sappers and Miners. It gained a reputation for being an establishment of serious learning, instruction and innovation during the Victorian era.

Significant dates and events
1812 - Major Charles Pasley sets up the Royal Engineer Establishment at Chatham, to teach 'military field works' skills to junior officers of the Corps of Royal Engineers and soldiers of the Corps of Sappers and Miners (subjects taught included: Sapping, Mining and Pontooning).
1826 - Architecture added to subjects taught.
1833 - Surveying added to subjects taught.
1838 - Electricity added to subjects taught.
1850 - Woolwich Depot closed and combined with the Royal Engineer Establishment at Chatham.
1856 - Telegraphy and Photography added to subjects taught.
1863 - Signalling added to subjects taught.
1869 - Title of Royal Engineer Establishment changed to School of Military Engineering (SME) and title of Director changed to Commandant.
1884 - RE Workshops formed from the Fortification School.
1905 - Railway training school established at Longmoor, Hampshire.
1940-48 - School of Military Engineering located in Ripon, Yorkshire for the duration of the Second World War (1939-45).
1962 - School of Military School granted the title Royal and became Royal School of Military School (RSME).
Information Sheets
Corps History Part 6 Royal Engineer Establishment
Link to engineering Specialist page
Steam Sapper outside the SME Steam Sappers outside the School of Military Engineering c1870's
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Tunnelling

Tunnelling has been a feature of military engineering throughout its history. In medieval times tunnellers were used to tunnel under castle walls to undermine them. The first 'Company of Soldier Artificers' formed in Gibraltar in 1772 dug tunnels into the rock of Gibraltar as part of defensive works, but it was not until the First World War (1914-18) that dedicated Tunnelling units were raised and placed on the Corps of Royal Engineers establishment.

Significant dates and events
1346 - Edward III requests that miners from the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire accompany his expedition to France.
1770's - Company of Soldier Artificers tunnel into the rock of Gibraltar to create defences.
1857 - Indian Mutiny - Counter-mining during the siege of Lucknow.
1914 - First World War - Major J Norton Griffiths proposed the formation of eight tunneling companies.
1915 - First World War - Five Royal Engineer Mining Companies raised on the Western Front - recruiting was from among ex-miners.
1916 - First World War - An Inspector of Mines appointed and 25 mining companies existed.
1917 - First World War - Major tunnelling and mining on the Messines Ridge.
1939 - Second World War - Tunnelling Companies were reformed for service with the BEF in France.
1940-45 - Second World War - Tunnelling companies extend the tunnels on Gibraltar.
1968 - Tunnelling Troop in Gibraltar disbanded after 196 years of existence.
Information Sheets
Biography of Sir John Norton Griffiths - who proposed the tunnelling companies
VC citation of Sapper William Hackett VC 27 June 1916
Corps History Part 4 - Engineer Soldiers (1772-1832)
Corps History Part 14 - The Corps and the First World War
Corps History Part 16 The Corps and the Second World War
First World War Tunneller
Royal Engineer officer using a geophone

Author: SC Fenwick, FoREM

Sources:

The History of Corps of of the Royal Engineers - Volumes I-X (Institute of Royal Engineers, Chatham)
Follow the Sapper. Napier G (Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, 2005)
A Short History. The Royal Engineers. Compiled by Maj DP Aston RE (Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, 1993)
The Royal Engineers - (RE 200 brochure, Institute of Royal Engineers, Chatham 1987)

Designated as a museum with an 'outstanding collection' the Royal Engineers Museum is a charity supported by private funds. Reg No: 295173
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Page revised:
Wed 30-Sep-2009
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