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Corps History - Part 16
The Corps and the Second World War (1939-45)





The Beginning and Overview

On 1 September 1939 German troops crossed the Polish border. In response the British, who had a formal treaty with Poland, mobilized their armed services and sent an ultimatum to the German Government. No reply was received so at 11.15 am on 3 September Britain, in conjunction with France declared war on Germany. In a matter of hours afterwards the British Dominions (Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand) also declared war on Germany.

On 10 June 1940 when it was clear that France had fallen the Italians declared war on the Allies. Japan entered the war on the side of Axis forces (Germany and Italy) on 7 December 1941.

During the war the British Army and its engineers were deployed to many theatres:

  • France and Belgium (1939-40)
  • Norway (1940)
  • Middle East (1940-43)
  • Mediterranean (1940-45)
  • North West Africa (1942-43)
  • Sicily and Italy (1943-1945)
  • Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore (1941-42)
  • India and Burma (1940-45)
  • North West Europe (1944-45)
RE Cap badge WW2
Royal Engineers (George VI - 1936-52) cap badge
worn by Second World War Royal Engineers.

The terrain of the country and mode of operations in each theatre dictated the types of challenges the engineers had to surmount. The open and largely featureless spaces of the Western Desert, ideal for mobile armoured warfare, placed the emphasis on the laying and clearing of minefields. In the mountainous terrain of Italy and the jungles of Burma the emphasis was on bridging, made easier by the introduction of the Bailey bridge, and the maintenance of road and rail links. The breaching of the German defences in Normandy (Operation Overlord - 1944) saw the emphasis shift to the use of assault (armoured) engineers, Hobart's Funnies. The need to dispose of unexploded bombs lead to the formation of the Bomb Disposal Service. The introduction of airborne forces brought the need to provide engineering support to them. The support of the RAF saw the engineers constructing and repairing airfields. In the lines of communication areas the engineers were actively engaged in constructing bases, maintaining water and electricity supplies, operating and repairing ports and railways, providing a mapping and postal service, and organising the movement of troops and supplies.

Throughout the war the Corps worked very closely and successfully with the engineers of the Allies, the Dominions and Colonies.

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Strength of the Royal Engineers - 1939-1946

The Corps again expanded as it had done during the First World War (1914-18). Its establishment increased by 37% from 89,301 in September 1939 to 280,632 in May 1945, the time of VE (Victory Europe) day.

Strength of the Royal Engineers 1939-1946
Date
Type
Officers
Other ranks
Total
2 Sep 39Regular Army
1,270
11,755
13,025
TA and SR
2,643
73,633
76,276
Sub totals
3,913
85,388
89,301
1 Jan 41 All
7,891
160,822
168,713
1 Jan 43All
15,584
199,682
215,266
1 Jan 45All
21,313
245,438
266,751
May-Jun 45 All
21,698
258,934
280,632
1 Jan 46All
17,008
209,044
226,052
Source: History of the Corps of Royal Engineers Vol VIII (p. 218)

The 1939-1945 Royal Engineers roll records the names of 10,839 men who were either killed or died on service.

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The Home Front 1939-1943
United Kingdom and Northern Ireland

RE Works in the prelude to war - 1938-1939

In the 18 months before the outbreak of war, Royal Engineer Works staff were engaged in a heavy national defence construction programme and other war related projects, which included the construction of:

  • Anti-aircraft gun sites (complete with ammunition stores, billets, cookhouses etc) widely scattered throughout the country.
  • A vehicle depot at Chilwell, Nottingham.
  • A depot at Barry, Wales.
  • An underground magazine at Corsham, Wiltshire.

After the National Service Act (May 1939) was passed, and the introduction of compulsory training in the Militia began, there was also a requirement to provide extra camps, the provision of which fell upon the shoulders of the Royal Engineers.

The threat of invasion - June-September 1940

There was a real fear of invasion by German forces after the fall of Dunkirk. In preparation the Royal Engineers hastily constructed defences. Much of the construction work, such as erecting concrete pillboxes, digging ditches, creating anti-tank obstacles were contacted to civilian contractors under Royal Engineer supervision.

Dummy Pillbox 1940
An example of a dummy pillbox erected as part of the defence Britain in 1940
(Photo:IWM H4847)`

Royal Engineer units laid mines (350,000 mines in approx. 2,000 minefields) and wire obstacles along the coastline of east and southern Britain. The Royal Canadian Engineers of the 1st Canadian Division assisted in this work.

Royal Engineer Train crews operated 4 artillery trains and 12 armoured trains; the latter were manned by Polish troops and patrolled the southern coastline.

A military postal network was established by the Royal Engineers to provide added security to military communications and to service the regional headquarters and military units.

Royal Engineers and the 'Battle of Britain' - June-September 1940

Part of the German invasion plan (Operation Seel÷we) was to gain air superiority by immobilising the RAF, this they intended to do by destroying the RAF aircraft and airbases.

In May 1940 five Royal Engineer Airfield Construction Companies were dispatched for airfield maintenance duties - they maintained 19 airfields. As the air battle, the Battle of Britain, intensified more companies were raised and by the end of June 1940 no less than 134 airfields had had Royal Engineer maintenance parties assigned to them. The German air campaign against the airfields was called off in mid-September 1940.  
It can be said that it was largely due to the efforts of the Royal Engineer maintenance companies, and their tenacity in keeping the airfields serviceable, that the RAF fighter squadrons were able to keep in the air and so win the 'Battle of Britain'.

Bomb Disposal and the Blitz - September 1940-Summer 1943

Bomb Disposal

After the failure of the German's to gain air superiority, their hopes of invasion receded and they changed their strategy to that of forcing Britain into submission by bombing (the Blitz) its major cities and industrial areas.

The bombing campaign highlighted the need to dispose of unexploded German bombs left in the wake of the raids. Although the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) were responsible for the disposal of artillery ammunition in peace time it was decided that because the Royal Engineers had carried out the task of disposing of unexploded German shells during the First World War (1914-1918) that they should be responsible for the disposal of their unexplored aircraft bombs.

The first Bomb Disposal sections were formed in May 1940. They consisted of one officer and 15 other ranks, divided into two sub-sections: one for 'removal' and the other for 'sterilization'.

Bomb Disposal
Bomb Disposal team digging out a buried unexploded bomb (UXB)

In late summer 1940 as the German bombing campaign intensified the demand for the new units became so great that seven general construction and four quarry companies were converted into Bomb Disposal units. By September 1940 the Royal Engineers had formed 440 Bomb Disposal Sections consisting of over 10,000 men under the command of a Major General.

The dangers and heroism of their work is reflected in the fact that 13 members of the Bomb Disposal Service were awarded the George Cross (3 of them posthumously).

After their formation Bomb Disposal units accompanied all the major expeditionary forces to overseas theatres.

RE Bomb Disposal Casualties - 1940-45
 
Officers
Other ranks
Totals
Killed
55
339
394
Wounded
37
172
109
Totals
92
511
503

 

Aid to civil authorities

During the Blitz Royal Engineer units also assisted the civil authorities in repairing bomb damage.

Box Girder Bridge London 1941
Box Girder Bridge constructed by 691st General Construction Company, Royal Engineers
London 1941

The most notable example was in London (January 1941) when the 691st General Construction Company built a box girder bridge across a crater (18,000 sq. ft. in area) that measured 150 ft long by between 10-30 ft deep. It had been created by a bomb that had crashed through the road into the underground ticket hall of the Bank Tube Station below.

The completed bridge spanned the crater from Queen Victoria Street to Cornhill and once constructed restored the flow of traffic through the junction known as 'The Hub of the Empire'.

Organisation of the Corps - 1940-1945

Engineer-in-Chief and Director Royal Engineers

In October 1941 the post of Engineer-in-Chief (E-in-C) was established at the War Office.

The first holder of the position was Major General (later Lieutenant General Sir) Charles JS King, who held it until 1944. His principal duty was to advise the Chief of the Imperial Staff (CIGS), on all engineering matters. To assist him he had two Deputy Engineers-in-Chief (Brigadiers) and a Director of Works (DFW).

In July 1943 he was given further duties and the title of 'Director Royal Engineers'.

Maj Gen CJS King
Lieutenant General Sir Charles King
Engineer-in-Chief and Director Royal Engineers

Arrangements at Chatham

In 1940, due to the heavy bombing of the South East of England and the Royal Navy's need for accommodation close to its Chatham dockyard, the following Royal Engineer organizations were moved:

  • School of Military Engineering (SME), Institute of Royal Engineers and the RE Band to Ripon, Yorkshire.
  • RE Training Depot to Halifax, Yorkshire.

The Royal Navy occupied their vacated accommodation until 1948 when the original occupiers returned to Chatham.

Training arrangements

To cope with the primary training demands that the expansion of the Corps had created:

  • Ten training battalions were formed.
  • Four Motor Transport (MT) training Depots were formed.
  • Additional training organisations and facilities were also established for personnel assigned to the Specialist units (e.g. Bomb Disposal, Transportation, Survey, and Postal. After 1942 more were added - Airborne engineers, Assault engineers and Movement Control).
   

Other Corps developments and activities at home - 1939-1943

Forestry

Thirty-nine Forestry Companies were raised from Britain and Dominions. Those stationed in Britain were chiefly deployed in the north of England and Scotland to provide timber for the war effort.

Movement Control

A facet of modern warfare has been the mass movement of troops and quantities of supplies. During the First World War (1914-18) elderly and medical unfit officers usually acted as RTOs (Rail Traffic Officers) whose job it was to organised and manage troops movements at railway stations and sea ports. In 1938 Movement Control Group Royal Engineers (Supplementary Reserve) was formed. Its members were drawn from the Army's General List and they did two weeks training at No1 Railway Training Centre, Royal Engineers, Longmoor. By September 1939 two more groups were added, but the organisation, which was deployed with the BEF, proved to be ineffective.

On 1 November 1942 the Movement Control Section, Royal Engineers was formed and all its members were capbadged as Royal Engineers. They were generally selected on the basis of their knowledge of railway systems and shipping services. Royal Engineer Movement Controllers were thereafter deployed to all theatres of war and were among the few British troops to serve in the Soviet Union (now Russia). Their task was to manage the movement of troops and supplies.

Postal

After homes in Reading and Bournemouth, the Home Postal Centre, Royal Engineers, the main postal sorting depot for the British Army and training centre for the Royal Engineers (Postal Section) was finally established at Nottingham in May 1941 where it remained until 1947.

ATS woman sorting airmail letters at the Home Postal Centre, Royal Engineers
ATS woman sorting airmail letters at the Home Postal Centre, Royal Engineers - May 1943
(Photo: IWM )
The Home Postal Centre requisitioned, for operational and billeting purposes, a hundred and forty of Nottingham's buildings. The city was ideally situated being located almost in the centre of Britain well connected by rail links to all parts of the country.

In 1940 women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) began to be trained as postal clerks and sorters and by the end of the war made up 49% (1,484) of the total staffing (3,111) of Home Postal Centre.

Mail was distributed to the overseas theatres by sea (from Liverpool and Glasgow) and air (from Poole and airfields in the Midlands). In 1944 473.8 million items of mail was dispatched from the Home Postal Centre.

Survey
  • In 1936 as the threat of war seemed likely, the Treasury approved the preparation of a series of maps of various scales to cover likely theatres of operations in NW France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Maps were produced and stock-piled.
  • In 1941 nine Survey companies served in the Home command.
  • During 1942-43 six general survey companies were raised and trained in air-photo mapping techniques.
 
Transportation

In 1940 as the ports on the south and east of the country being closest to the Continent were in danger of attack it was decided that two new ports for ocean-going ships be built on the west coast of Scotland at Faslane and Cairn Ryan.

Royal Engineers Port construction companies built them, whilst the Railway construction companies laid 50 miles of track in the docks and connected them to the main lines.

In June 1943 work began on improving and developing the Inland Water Transport (IWT) repair depot at Marchwood, Southampton.

HMS Iron Duke at Faslane - 1948
Faslane, now a Naval base, was built and operated by the Royal Engineers Transportation Services (1940-46)
(Photo: Maritime Books)
RE Transportation Ports in Scotland
Location
Construction period
No of Berths
Throughput up to 1945
Faslane Dec 1940- Jul 1942
6
645,000 tons
Cairn Ryan Dec 1940- 1943
5
284,000 tons
   
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British Expeditionary Force (BEF) - 1939-40
France and Belgium

Tactical Overview - The first contingents of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), under command of Field Marshal Lord Gort (1886-1946) landed secretly at the ports of Cherbourg, Brest, Nantes and St Nazaire on 10 September 1939. They assembled at Le Mans, before being deployed to the Lille area to protect the northern flank of the French Maginot Line. There they remained until on 10 May 1940 when the Germans launched their invasion of the Netherlands Belgium and then France (Operation Sichelschnitt), and the BEF was ordered north to the Dyle Line. By 19 May the Germans had reached Amiens and thereby severed the BEF's lines of communication. On 26 May the British Government ordered the evacuation of the BEF by sea from Dunkirk. The evacuation was completed by 2 June 1940. Meanwhile, British forces in the Le Mans area fought on whilst at the same time were also steadily evacuated, a task that was completed by 18 June 1940. Unfortunately the 51st Division, which fought the rearguard screening action were left to their fate and many of its personnel, including its engineers, were captured and spent the rest of the war in German prisoner of war (POW) camps.

The period from September 1939 to May 1940 is often referred to as the 'Phoney War'.

 

Corps' activities during 'Phoney War' - September 1939 - May 1940

The BEF Engineer-in-Chief was Major General RP Pakenham-Walsh.

Divisional Engineers

  • They were engaged in strengthening the defences in the Lille area, which included the constructing of concrete pillboxes and building a network of anti-tank obstacles.
  • A new formation, 'X' Force, was created from the field companies of the Territorial Army divisions to mass-produce the pillboxes.
  • Tunnelling Companies constructed dugouts for principal headquarters. The GHQ dugout was located 70ft under the old Citadel at Doullens. By May 1940 it had 70 chambers with forced ventilation and anti-gas protection.
  • Areas for minefields were selected but no mines were actually laid.

Works

  • Established bases in Cherbourg, Brest, Nantes, St Nazaire, and Le Mans.
  • A Medical base was constructed at Dieppe by 104th, 106th, 110th, 212th, 218th 290th, 291st Army Troops Companies.
  • No 1 Engineer Stores Base Depot was set up at Rennes.
  • Extra Artisan Works Companies were formed to assist with the construction work.
  • A Camouflage factory was set up at Rouen.

Airfields

  • The construction of aerodromes (airfields) became a new responsibility for the BEF Engineers.
  • New companies were formed in late 1939 for this task and by May 1940 there were nearly 60 companies.
  • Royal Engineer Quarry companies were reformed to provide hardcore for the runways.

Survey

The 13th, 14th 19th, 514th Field Survey Companies were deployed and began work revising the existing maps.
Airfield construction in France 1940
691 (Mowlem) General Construction Company, Royal Engineers constructing military airfields in France 1940
(Photo: IWM F4888)

Transport

  • Port Operating units conducted the unloading of equipment and stores at the ports: Nantes, St Nazaire and Marseilles, Brest, Cherbourg, Caen, and St Malo, Le Havre, Rouen and Boulogne
  • Railway units (8th, 29th (Survey), 150th, 151st, 152nd) laid 141 miles of track with 665 turnouts and operated the trains on the mainline between St Malo and Rennes.
  • Inland Water Transport barges were sent to France to assist in the bulk movement of petrol.

Postal

The British Army Base Post Office (BAPO) was established in Cherbourg, mail was exchanged with Southampton. Postal units were deployed with their respective formations and set up Army Post Offices in their support.

Corps' activities during the 'Blitzkrieg' - May 1940

The speed and ferocity of the German's advance (the Blitzkrieg) took the Allies by surprise and they were soon forced into retreat. During the retreat the Divisional Engineers were engaged in 'an orgy of regulated destruction'. The British Army official history records that:
"The Royal Engineers had a busy time and the effectiveness of their demolition of bridges and river crossings as each line was evacuated helped considerably to delay the enemy advance."
The demolition of a bridge in Louvain, France 1940
The demolition of a bridge in Louvain, France 1940

The Corps at Dunkirk - May/June 1940

On 26 May the decision was taken for the BEF to withdraw to the Dunkirk perimeter. Royal Engineer units were put to work preparing the bridges over the canals and the causeways over the inundations for demolition, and they were also allocated sectors of the front to prepare for defence and to hold if attacked.

Meanwhile divisional engineers with the Divisional rearguards were destroying bridges and acting in an infantry role. The most notable actions included:

  • 23rd, 238th, 248th Field Companies (1st Division) - who successfully held the sector at Escaut for 36 hours until they were relieved (20-21 May).
  • 7th, 59th and 225th Field Companies (4th Division) - who successfully defended the Warneton bridge which also involved fighting an offensive action against their attackers (26-27 May).
  • 11th, 208th, 210th Field Companies (44th Division) - who held for 30 hours of the position on Mont des Cats until the rest of the division had successfully been withdrawn within the Dunkirk perimeter (28-29 May).
 

Within the Dunkirk perimeter Royal Engineer units continued their demolition work of bridges, equipment and stores. Works and Survey units took on a 'field company' role.

During the evacuation the boats of the Field Park Companies were used to ferry men out to the rescue ships. 38th Field Company (5th Division) built a 'lorry' pier, as did the divisional engineers of 1st Division.

Victors inspect 'Lorry' Pier
The victors inspect a British 'lorry' pier constructed by the
Royal Engineers on the Dunkirk beaches - June 1940
(Photo: IWM HU1860)
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North-West Expeditionary Force (NWEF)
Norway 1940

Tactical overview - On 9 April 1940 the Germans occupied Denmark and began their invasion of Norway, a neutral state. Norway called upon Britain and France for assistance. It was decided that two forces should be sent. One to recapture Trondheim and the other Narvik. Both expeditions were ill fated from the start. The force sent to Trondheim meet with strong resistance and failed to recapture the port. The Narvik force, after stiff fighting, managed to get into the town, but almost immediately afterwards was recalled because their success unfortunately coincided with the disaster at Dunkirk. Both forces were evacuated back to Britain by the end of the first week of June 1940.

The Royal Engineer units involved in these expeditions were:

  • Trondheim force - 55th Field Company.
  • Narvik force - 229th, 230th, 239th Field Companies and 231st Field Park Company. Members of the 230th Field Company were among the first British troops to enter Narvik on the night of 27-28 May 1940.
  • Works staff, and Airfield construction, Transportation and Postal units provided support for both forces.
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Special Forces - 1940

The series of military disasters in the late spring of 1940 forced Britain to re-examine how they might strike back at Nazi Germany, who were now the masters of Continental Europe. It was obvious that Britain was not strong enough to mount a conventional attack and fell upon the idea of taking the fight back to the Germans through a series of raids using irregular tactics. Such operations required specially trained troops and gave rise to the development of the following types of special forces:

  • Airborne forces - formed to bring whole units into battle by parachute, glider and aircraft, using the enemy's open flank, the sky.
  • Commando forces - formed to conduct amphibious raids against selected targets on the enemy's coastlines.

Royal Engineer officers played important parts in the development of both of these types of special forces.

Airborne Forces

On 24 June 1940, Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) JF Rook, Royal Engineers was ordered to take charge of the organization of airborne troops and to collaborate with the RAF in their training. By October 1940 he had established the General Landing Establishment (later known as the No 1 Parachute Training School), a parachute training centre, at Ringway airport, Manchester.

By October 1942 another training establishment was set up in Netheravon, Wiltshire.

Paratroop drop 1942
Paratroops on a training drop over Netheravon. The aircraft is a Whitley - 2 October 1942
(Photo: IWM)

In November 1941 the 1st Airborne Division was formed, its divisional engineers were:

  • 9th Airborne Field and 261st Airborne Field Park Companies (less a bridging section).

More airborne engineer units followed:

  • 1st Parachute Squadron (1942) - as part of 1st Airborne Division.
  • 2nd Parachute Squadron formed from the Holding Company, Kent Fortress, Royal Engineers. (1942).
  • 3rd Parachute Squadron formed from 280th Field Company (1943) - as part of 6th Airborne Division.
  • 4th Parachute Squadron formed from volunteers from the Corps (1943) - as part of 1st Airborne Division.
  • 591st (Antrim) Parachute Squadron, 249th Airborne Field Company and 286th Airborne Field Park Company all formed from existing units (1943) - as part of 6th Airborne Division.
  • 6th Airborne Division Postal Unit formed from volunteers from the Royal Engineers (Postal Section) (1943) - as part of 6th Airborne Division.
Horsa glider
Paratroopers dismounting (24 June 1943) from a Airspeed Horsa, which became the standard assault glider. The 9th Airborne Field Company, Royal Engineers was deployed in this type of aircraft during the invasion of Sicily (10 July 1943).
(Photo: IWM)

In 1942 the Glider Pilot Regiment (a fore runner of today's Army Air Corps) was formed. Lieutenant Colonel JF Rock, Royal Engineers was appointed its Commanding Officer, but unfortunately the following year he was tragically killed in a glider accident.

Commando Forces

The concept of a 'commando' force as an integral part of the British Army was the brainchild of Major J C Holland, Royal Engineers, working in the GS(R) branch of the War Office in 1940.

The commando units were drawn from volunteers, some from the Royal Engineers, who were formed into what were known as 'Independent Companies'. Their training in guerrilla tactics was carried out in Scotland.

WW2 - Sapper VCs
1 Feb 1941 - 2Lt PS Bhagat (Indian Eng)
28 Mar 1942 - Sgt TF Durrant (RE Cdo)
22 Mar 1945 - Lt C Raymond (RE)
As the war progressed they specialised in combined amphibious operations. The lessons learnt from their experiences provided the knowledge required for the Allies to eventually mount a successful sea-borne invasion (Operation Overlord) against the Germans in 1944 at Normandy.
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The European Raids - 1940-44
France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Italy

In the period from 1940 to Operation Overlord (6 June 1944) members of the Royal Engineers, usually trained members of the special forces, accompanied teams tasked with carrying out raids against objectives in enemy hands, or in danger of falling into enemy hands. The Royal Engineers who accompanied these raids were usually demolition experts.
  • Belgium, France and the Netherlands (May-June 1940) - to destroy the oil installations and other facilities at the ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Boulogne, Brest, Calais, Dunkirk and Le Havre. It has been estimated that over 400 million gallons of oil were destroyed. - accompanied by Kent Fortress, Royal Engineers, a unit specially trained for these tasks.

  • Apulian Aqueduct, southern Italy (February 1941) - to destroy an aqueduct carrying water to Taranto and so to disrupt the water supply. - accompanied by airborne trained Royal Engineers.
  • Spitzbergen Islands, North Atlantic (July 1941) - to destroy the port facilities - accompanied by 3rd (Kent) Corps Troops, Royal Engineers and 3rd Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers.

  • Bruneval, on the coast of northern France (28 February 1942) - to capture German radar equipment. The mission was to dismantle the radar and bring it back to Britain for examination and then to destroy the remains to give the Germans the impression that the mission was to destroy the radar rather than steal it - accompanied by airborne trained Royal Engineers from the newly formed 1st Airborne Division.

  • St Nazaire northwest France (27/8 March 1942) - an attack on the 'Forme Eluse' lock at the entrance of the St Nazaire harbour. No Royal Engineer units took part, but Sergeant TF Durrant, Royal Engineers; a trained commando was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross for his bravery during the raid.
Bruneval radar station
Bruneval Radar Station (radar in bottom left of the picture). This was a very successful mission. Lt CD Vernon, Royal Engineers commanded the engineer element of the raiding party. The equipment that they dismantled and brought back to England proved to be less technologically advanced than the British radar equipment.
(Photo: IWM D12870)
  • Dieppe, northern France (20 August 1942) - No Royal Engineer units took part because it was a Canadian operation and therefore the raiders were accompanied by their own Royal Canadian Engineers. However, the experience of the engineers on the raid taught valuable lessons about the need for protection whilst assaulting prepared defences, which eventually led to the formation of the Assault Engineers, whose training, tactics and equipment ensured success on the Normandy beaches during Operation Overlord (June 1944).
  • Vermork, Norway (Operation 'Freshman', 19 November 1942) - to destroy the hydroelectric power station at Vermork, in Telemark, where heavy water was produced for German atomic research. Two gliders and an aircraft engaged in the raid crashed in southern Norway. All those aboard, Royal Engineers of the 1st Airborne Division and members of the Commonwealth air forces, were either killed in the crash or died later, at the hands of their German captors. The heavy water plant was eventually destroyed by a party of six Norwegians dropped by parachute in 1943. - accompanied by 9th Airborne Field and 261st Airborne Field Park Company, Royal Engineers.
Heavy water cells
One of the heavy water cells from the plant at Vermork, Norway that had been the target of Operation Freshman (19 Nov 1942). Now in the RE Museum
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Middle East Force (MEF) 1940-43
Egypt, Sudan, Abyssinia, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya

Background

When General Sir Archibald Wavell (1883-1950) became Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Command in August 1939 his command responsibilities, centred on Cairo in Egypt, covered the security of Egypt, Palestine, Transjordania, Cyprus, Aden, Sudan, and British East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and British Somalialand).

The immediate threat to the command was from the Italians based in Libya (to the west) and in the Horn of Africa (to the south). The threat became a reality when the Italians declare war on Britain on 10 June 1940.

The Middle East forces were engaged in various campaigns:

  • Western Desert (December 1940- May 1943)
  • Abyssinia (June 1940)
  • Iraq (March-June 1941)
  • Syria (June-July 1941)
  • Greece and Crete (1940-41)
  • Persia (now Iran) and 'Aid to Russia' (1941-45)

On 5 July 1941 General Sir Claude Auchinleck (1884-1981) took over command of the Middle East. He was himself superseded by General Harold Alexander (1891-1969) in August 1942. In the same month General Montgomery (1887-1976) was appointed commander of the 8th Army, which was formed from the original Western Desert Force.

Western Desert operations 1940-1943

Tactical overview - On the 13 September 1940 Italian forces from Cyrenaica (now Libya) crossed the Egyptian frontier and advanced 70 miles to Sidi Barrani where they halted to await reinforcements before they resumed their planned advance on Cairo and so began the series of campaigns that marked the three year Western Desert war. For both sides the campaigns were a succession of advances and retreats across open desert and along the coast road. From the British view these were punctuated by initial victory over the Italians, then a reversal of fortunes brought by the arrival of the German General Rommel (1891-1944) and the Afrika Korps (March 1941), which continued until the tables finally were turned at El Alamein (October 1942) when Montgemory's 8th Army seriously defeated Rommel's forces. After the victory and hard fighting the Axis (German and Italian) forces were finally expelled from North Africa in May 1943.

Western Desert - Divisional engineers activities

Throughout the Western Desert campaigns the divisional engineers were engaged in their usual role of providing bridging, constructing defences and removing obstacles, but the peculiar conditions of the desert meant that a lot of their energies and resources were taken up providing a water supply, deception (camouflage), airfields, and mines defences and clearance.

Water

One of the primary tasks of the engineers throughout the Western Desert campaigns, fought in very arid conditions, was to provide a water supply. This entailed locating water on selected routes, boring for water, cleansing water, installing water pumps, water storage facilities and laying water pipes. During the periods of retreat the engineers were responsible for denying water to the enemy, this involved dismantling or destroying water facilities and pouring 'bone oil' into water wells.

 

Deception (camouflage)

The vast open spaces of the desert made it difficult to conceal forces and their activities, to over come this difficult the engineers were employed in creating appropriate deceptions. Notable examples were:

  • At the very beginning of the campaign (December 1940) the Italian forces that had invaded Egypt out numbered the British. The only way the British could vanquish the Italians was to take them by surprise. To this effect the 2nd, 12th and 54th Field Companies produced 80 dummy tanks, which were placed in the rear areas to distract the Italian air force and to allow the main British force to advance unnoticed. The ruse worked and the British defeated the Italian at the battle of Sidi Barrani (11 December 1940).
Dummy lorry 1942
El Alamein 1942 - Vast quantities of stores were stock-piled in preparation for the battle and were hidden under crude covers made to look like vehicles. The Royal Engineers were responsible for constructing such deceptions.
(Photo: Tank Museum)
  
Dummy Pipeline
El Alamein 1942 - A dummy pumping station with a dummy soldier looking as if he is operating it. This was part of Operation Bertram, the deception plan for the battle implemented by units of the Royal Engineers.
(Photo: Tank Museum)
  • During the build up to the final battle of El Alamein (October 1942) the deception plan required the engineers to build and place dummy lorries on the sites where the tanks and guns would be finally placed. The deception went further with dummy pipelines being laid leading to dummy pumping stations and reservoirs, this work was also conducted in such away that it lead the Axis intelligence to believe that it would be completed long after the actual planned date of the start of the battle (23 October 1942).
Tank camouflage made to look like a lorry 1942
El Alamein 1942 - Lorry camouflage (split in half) for a tank constructed in Royal Engineers workshops.
(Photo: TNA WO201/2841)

Airfield construction

The growth in the strength of the RAF in the theatre made the production of airfields of extremely important. During the early campaigns (1940-41) engineer field units of formations were able to provide advanced landing grounds for aircraft acting in close co-operation with the army, where the requirement was to select a level area with a hard surface and clear it of stones.

In June 1941 a Chief Engineer Works (Airfields) was appointed to the staff of the Engineer-in-Chief, Middle East to take charge of all airfield construction and maintenance. Special construction units were allocated to each theatre and a better supply of stores became available (e.g. Sommerfeld track and Army track, and by mid 1942 Pierced Steel Plank (PSP) and Pre-bituminized Surface (PBS)), which were used to construct the surface of the runways.

 

Mines

Before 1941 mines played only a peripheral role on the battlefield, but in the Western Desert massed armoured formations and largely featureless terrain combined to create ideal conditions for the use of mines in a defensive role. Across the coastal strip there were few features that could be used for defence so mines, along with barbed wire, offered the only economic means of defence.

Royal Engineers disarmining  German S-mines - 1942
Royal Engineers of 51st (Highland) Division disarming German S-mines.

In the first campaign the advancing British troops met considerable numbers of mines in the Italian defensive positions. These were detected and located by the observation of disturbed soil and probing with bayonets. After the Afrika Korps arrived (March 1941) and with them the reversal of British arms in the Western Desert, the British began to use mines to cover their withdrawals. Their mine stocks were extremely low so the Royal Engineers used recovered Italian and German mines, as well as, mines built in hastily established factories in Egypt.

The experiences of both laying and clearing mines during the early stages of the campaign taught the engineers valuable lessons. Early in 1942 a Royal Engineers School of Mine Warfare (Major P Moore, Royal Engineers), was established near El Alamein. Its objectives were:

  1. To find out the best way to breach or make gaps in minefields.
  2. To evolve and teach standard drills for clearing mines and recording the laying of minefields.
  3. To try out ideas, devices and expedients which might be proposed.
Sappers training at the School of Mining 1942
Sappers learning mine detecting and clearance methods at the Royal Engineers School of Mine Warfare, Middle East 1942
(Photo: IWM)

The drills taught at the School proved their worth. In preparation for the battle of El Alamein (October 1942) the engineers used the drills to lay minefields and during the opening phases of the battle (Operation Lightfoot) they used them to successfully clear routes through the Axis minefields, the 'Devil's garden', of about 500,000 mines laid in two major fields running north-south across the whole front with a total depth of about 5 miles, to allow infantry and armour formations to move forward and engage the enemy.

 
Scorpion Tank with frail
Scorpion flail tank - 1942
(Photo: Tank Museum)

Early in the campaign (1940-41) the engineers of the South African forces (Lieutenant Colonel M Coleman SAEC and a civilian engineer ASJ Du Toit ) experimented with flailing devices attached to the front of vehicles (known as 'Scorpion') as a method of mine clearance. The machines were used with some success during the battle of El Alamein and led to the idea being generally adopted by other British forces and was later incorporated in the designs and functions of the Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE) developed for the Assault (armoured) engineers for use in the North West Europe and Italian campaigns (1944-45).

The first British electronic mine detector was designed by Lieutenant JS Kozacki, a Polish signals officer who escaped to Britain in 1940, and came into service in early 1942. The equipment weighted just under 30lb and could be operated by one man. The Mark 4c version remained in service until 1995.
German mines encountered in the Western Desert 1941-43

German Anti-tank Mines

Topfmine - round plastic mine
Panzerstabmine - cone metal mine with tilt rod
Riegelmine - bar mine
Tellermine - round metal mine with tilt rod
German Anti-personnel Mines

Stockmine- mounted on a stake triggered by trip wire
Schrapnellmine (S-mines) - can shaped triggered by trip wire or push device.
Schutzenmine - wooden anti-personnel pressure mine
Glasmine - round glass mine.

Siege of Tobruk - June-December 1941

Tobruk docks 1941
Royal Engineers Transportation units unload vessels in Tobruk docks
(Photo: IWM E8433)

In September 1941 the 9th Australian Division, which had held out against Rommel's army for over six months, was relieved by sea by the 70th British Division commanded by engineer Major General R Scobie.

The 2nd, 12th and 54th Field and 219th Field Park Companies plus Transportation and Postal units accompanied the Division. A Polish Field company was also attached. Their work involved strengthening the defences, constructing an underground hangar for the RAF and developing methods of dealing with mines, including the German Tellermine.

Battle of El Alamein - 23 October - 4 November 1942

The battle of El Almein, fought between the British 8th Army (Montgomery) and the Axis forces under Rommel just west of Cairo, resulted in victory for the Allies and was one of the decisive turning points of the war because it marked the beginning of the Allies successful march to final victory. The British, Dominion and Colonial engineers played an important role in that victory. The official Corps history lists the engineering contribution as being:

  • The thorough preparation of the defences and their completion with tracks, water and other administrative necessities helped to provide the firm springboard from which the attack was launched.

  • The efficient and patient clearing of gaps through the huge minefields amidst the stresses and strains of the battle, enabled the armoured forces to break through the enemy defences and to rout his forces in the field.

  • The destruction of disabled enemy tanks and guns prevented their salvage and repair for further use against the Allied troops.

All these tasks, and many more, each comprising a number of small operations often carried out by quite small parties of engineers, constituted an important share in the effort of the 8th Army in winning this decisive battle.

Sappers breaching the Minefields at El Alamein - 1942
Sappers breaching the Minefields at El Alamein - 1942
This Cuneo painting hangs in the HQ Officers Mess at Chatham
(Painting: Cuneo)
8th Army engineer units at the battle of El Alamein - 23 October - 4 November 1942
Corps
Division
Engineers
Corps
Division
Engineers
X
1st Armd
1st, 7th Field Squadrons
1st Field Park Squadron
XXX
51st
274th, 275th, 276th Field Companies
239th Field Park Company
10th Armd
2nd, 3rd Field Squadrons
141st Field Park Squadron
9th Australian
2/3rd, 2/7th, 2/13th Field Companies 24th Field Park Company RAE
Corps Troops
571st, 572nd, 573rd Field Companies
570th Field Park Company
2nd New Zealand
6th, 7th, 8th Field Companies
5th Field Park Company RNZE
XIII
7th Armd
4th, 21st Field Squadrons
143rd Field Park Squadron
1st South African
1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th Field Companies 19th Field Park Company SAEC
44th
209th, 210th Field Companies
211th Field Park Company
11th Field Company (detached to 7th Armd Div)
4th Indian
2nd, 4th, 12th Field Companies Sappers and Miners
11th Field Park Company Sappers and Miners
50th
233rd Field Company
235th Field Park Company
2nd, 5th Free French Field Companies
Corps Troops
11th, 13th Field Companies SAEC
22nd Field Park Company SAEC
Corps Troops
577th, 578th Field Companies
576th Field Park Company
~
8th Armd
6th, 9th Field Squadrons
143rd Field Park Squadron
Army Troops 295th Army Field Company
566th, 588th Army Troops Companies
517th Field Survey Company
13th Field Survey Depot
4th, 5th Mobile Landing Ground Construction Parties,
Det 114th Mechanical Equipment Workshop and Park Company
5th Boring Section
1st Camouflage Company
21st Mechanical Equipment Operating Company RNZE
25th, 27th, 31st Road Construction Companies SAEC
22nd Workshop and Park Company SAEC
36th Water Supply Company SAEC
85th Camouflage Company SAEC
95th Bomb Disposal Company SAEC
46th Survey Company SAEC
9th Field Company Sappers and Miners IE
Other Royal Engineer units also present in a support role but not listed above include: Works, Transportation, Movement Control and Postal.
Source: History of the Corps of Royal Engineers Vol VIII (pp. 393-395)

After the victory the 8th Army pursued the Axis forces back through Libya and onto Tunisia where in conjunction with Anglo-American forces, sweeping east from Algeria, they finally defeated them on 11 May 1943.

Abyssinia - 1940-41

The Italians forcibly annexed Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1936, and when they declared war in June 1940 they invaded British Somalialand in August. During autumn 1940 the British built up forces in Sudan and Kenya in preparation for the eviction of the Italians from their territories in the Horn of Africa.

In September the 5th Indian Division was sent to Sudan, the Division was accompanied by:

  • 2nd, 20th, 21st Field Companies (Bombay) Sappers and Miners.
  • 44th Field Park Company (Bombay) Sappers and Miners.
  • 6th, 8th Army Troop Companies (Bombay) Sappers and Miners.
  • 16th Workshops and Park Company (Bombay) Sappers and Miners.
2nd Lieutenant Premindra Singh Bhagat VC
2nd Lieutenant Premindra Singh Bhagat VC
Indian Engineers

The field engineers' initial tasks were: to develop water supplies, improve roads, fords and ferry crossings over the Atbara and other rivers. At the same time the Army Troop and Workshop engineers improved the defences (including constructing concrete pill boxes, laying mines and preparing airfields to be cratered). They also constructed bases and improved the railways and roads.

In February 1941 during the British force's advance into Eritrea, 2nd Lieutenant (later Lieutenant General) Premindra Singh Bhagat, 21st Field Company, Indian Engineers was awarded a Victoria Cross for the coolness he displayed over a 96 hour period in leading the Column and clearing mine fields. It was the first Victoria Cross to be won by a member of the Indian Army in the Second World War.

In January 1941 the 12th African Division pushed north from Kenya and was accompanied by East African, West African and South African engineer units.

Greece - October 1940-April 1941

On 15 October 1940 the Italians based in Albania launched an attack on northern Greece. Their forces are repelled by the Greeks but on 5 April 1941 the Germans began an invasion of Greece. In anticipation of German involvement the Greek government requested assistance from the British in March 1941. A force consisting of the 6th, 7th Australian Divisions, 2nd NZ Division and two brigades (1st Armoured and Polish) were sent to maintain a defensive line northeast of Mount Olympus and hence northward to the frontier with Yugoslavia.

The Dominion forces had their own engineers, but the Royal Engineers who accompanied this force were:

  • 3rd (Cheshire) Field Squadron
  • Section of 292nd Field Company
  • Works, Survey, Transportation and Postal units.

The engineers were set to work improving the roads and setting demolitions. During the withdrawal from northern Greece they demolished bridges and created other obstacles. The King of Greece agreed to the evacuation of the British forces on 19 April 1941. A force of 43,000 was evacuated from Peloponnesus - 16,000 to Egypt and 27,000 to Crete.

 

Crete - April-June 1941

42nd Field Company was already on Crete before the evacuees, among whom were most of the Royal Engineers units, arrived from Greece. The engineers arrived without their equipment and were therefore chiefly used as infantry during the fight against the German airborne invasion of the island on 19-22 May 1941.

After stiff fighting it was decided to evacuate the British forces to Egypt. Those not evacuated, which included members of the Royal Engineers, were taken prisoner by Germans.

Iraq - March-June 1941

Iraq, formerly known as Mesopotamia, became a self-governing state under a League of Nations mandate in 1932. After a period of political instability Rashid Ali, who was pro-Axis, came to power in 1941. The Iraqi Kirkuk oilfields, that were linked to the Mediterranean by an over ground oil pipe line provided much need oil for the Allied war effort so Britain saw it necessary to land a force (10 Indian Division) at Basra to protect their interests. Brief actions were fought at Habbaniya and Falluja.

The engineers involved were:

  • 2nd (Cheshire) Field Squadron ('Habforce' dispatched from Palestine)
  • 10 Field Company, Sappers and Miners (10 Indian Division).

The engineers were engaged in road building to assist the movement of 'Habforce' and during the attack at Falluja they built a bridge across the Euphrates, as well as, operating a ferry.

By June 1941 the British had reasserted their influence in Iraq and planned to protect their interests more effectively. This decision was made more pertinent when Germany invaded the USSR (now Russia) on 22 June 1941. The Royal Engineers were given the task of executing and supervising a series of large works projects to secure the RAF stations at Habbaniya and Shaiba, the Kirkuk oilfields, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company's installations in south-west Iran, as well as, the development of ports and communication infrastructure in both Iran and Iraq.  

Iran and 'Aid to Russia' - August 1941

In the summer 1941 the British and Soviets (USSR) requested that the Iranian Government expell the Axis nationals from the their capital, Teheran. Their request fell on deaf ears so in August 1941 a joint Soviet and British force (8th Indian Division) occupied the country.

The engineers involved were:

  • 7th, 66th, 69th Field Companies, Sappers and Miners.
  • 47th Field Park, Sappers and Miners.

Aid to Russia - was the provision of food and war supplies to the Soviets by the British and Americans. The supplies were transshipped from Iraq through to Iran's northern borders with USSR using road and rail links. The responsibility for operating the trains, and where necessary constructing rail track and roads, fell to the Royal Engineers and Indian Engineers Transportation units until the American army took over the tasks in April 1943.

 

Syria - June-July 1941

Syria, a French mandated country, was of strategy importance to Britain because of the oil pipe line that ran through the country from Iraq to the Mediterranean, therefore when France fall and the Syrian Government voiced pro-Vichy sentiments; there was a requirement for regime change. A joint British and Free-French force invaded the country and after some stiff resistance the Syrians sued for peace, giving the Allies the regime changed they required to secure their supplies of oil.

The engineers engaged in this short campaign were:

  • 6th Australian Division - Two Field Companies, Royal Australian Engineers plus 2nd, 12th, and 54th Field Companies, Royal Engineers
  • 'Habforce' - 2nd (Cheshire) Field Squadron
  • Elements of 10th Indian Division - 9th Field Company and 31st Field Squadron Sappers and Miners.

Turkey 1942-43

In the winter of 1939 a treaty between Turkey and Britain was agreed. It required Britain to go to Turkey's assistance if Germany invaded Thrace, however the agreement was nullified when Italy declared war on Britain. Nevertheless two Royal Engineers construction groups, working in civilian clothing, were deployed to Turkey in 1942. They built 220 miles of Class 70 roads and 30 airfields.

Middle East Command - Other Corps activities 1940-43

Works

  • The Needham committee (October 1939) recommended that a Middle East Base be established in Egypt for a force of 15 divisions with corps and GHQ troops - a total strength of 296,694 service personnel.
  • A RASC (MT) Depot and RAOC Depot (240,000 sq ft) were constructed in the Tel-el-Kebir area.
  • Other depots and troop accommodation were constructed along the Suez Canal, in Sudan, Syria and Palestine.
  • The Tura Caves were enlarged to accommodate Ordinance and Signal stores, and a Survey map printing plant.
  • An extensive road development programme was executed.

Transportation

  • Ports and Docks - Port construction companies redeveloped port facilities at Port Said, Suez, Aqaba and on the Sweet Water Canal. Operating companies carried out stevedoring work in these and other ports.
  • Railways - An extensive rail development programme was executed by the Royal Engineers who also took charghe of some the operations of the trains.
  • Inland Water Transport - Organised the transportation of stores on the Nile and in the Delta. They built several small craft including the 'Z' craft. The 'Z' craft was later used in other theatres.
Z Craft
Z craft at Port Said 1940's. The Z craft was designed and built by the Royal Engineers Inland Water Transport section.
(Photo: Unknown)

Survey

  • During the first campaign in the Western Desert against the Italians Italian maps were captured and passed back to Cairo, which enabled Survey to produce up-to date maps for the advancing forces.
  • A map printing plant was set up in Tura Caves, Egypt.

Postal

  • Base Army Post Office was established in Cairo to serve all formations in the Middle East Command.
  • In early 1941 an airmail service was introduced using the 'airgraph' and later the 'air letter form'. Airmails were routed across the southern Sahara region from Takoradi, West Africa to Khartoum, Sudan then north to Cairo. Thus considerably reducing the transit time between the UK and the Middle East and thereby assisting in maintaining the morale of both the troops and their families at home.
 
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Mediterranean Bases 1939-1945
Gibraltar and Malta

Gibraltar - 1939-45

Gibraltar, the 'Rock', first became a British possession in 1704. Its location on a peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean sea allows it to monitor and control the sea traffic through the Strait of Gibraltar, the passage of water that connects the Atlantic ocean to the Mediterranean sea and for that reason it was of paramount strategic importance to Britain - protecting as it does the western entrance of the sea route through the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal and beyond.

In 1939 there were just two Royal Engineer units (1st and 32nd Fortress Companies) on the Rock. As war approached they were put to work improving the defences , but after the fall of France and when the Italians declared war on Britain it was clear that the Rock had to be made impregnable, such a plan proposed tunnelling into the Rock to provide shelter, stores and accommodation for a large garrison and a naval dock yard.

To construct the tunnels the following engineer units were dispatched to Gibraltar over the period 1940-42:

  • 170th, 172nd, 178th, 179th and 180th Tunnelling Companies.
  • 1st (det) and 3rd Tunnelling Companies, Royal Canadian Engineers.
  • 711th Artisan Works Company.
  • 575th Army Troops Company.
  • a General Construction Company.
Gibraltar 1943
An aerial view of Gibraltar 1943
(Photo: Unknown)

These units constructed an underground hospital, extensive storage and accommodation areas all complete with a water supply system and underground power stations that had a capacity to generate 1,200 kilowatts. By the end of the war they had excavated 1,087,905 cubic yards of rock (the equivalent of burrowing a 10 ft diameter tunnel from London to Liverpool - approx 200 miles).

In 1942, as Gibraltar had become an important stopover for air traffic flying between Britain and Egypt, more engineer units (855th Quarrying Company, 807th Road Construction Company and an Excavator Company) arrived to extend the airfield.

During the period 1940-43 the Rock was used as a base to provide air cover for the British Mediterranean Fleet and to support Malta.

Malta 1939-45

Malta, an island located 75 miles south of Sicily, had been a British possession since 1814. The island acted as the Headquarters of the British Mediterranean Fleet, but when Italy entered the war the Fleet was moved to Gibraltar. Nevertheless, Malta remained an important base for both the Royal Navy and RAF. They used the island as a base from which to cover the passage of conveys to Egypt, as well as, to launch attacks against the Axis lines of communication. It was because of these reasons that the island, for over a period of a year (1941-2), was subjected to intensive bombing by the Axis air forces and was to all intents and purposes placed in a state of siege.

The Governor at the time of the siege was an engineer officer, Lieutenant General Sir William Dobbie (1869-1964), who "inspired the Maltese in a way that few more spectacular men could have done".

The engineer units on the island during the siege were:

  • Works staff
  • 16th and 24th Fortress Companies.
  • Two Bomb Disposal platoons (under the command of Lieutenant A Talbot GC).
  • 173rd Tunnel Company (from August 1941).

On 16 April 1942 the island was awarded the George Cross in recognition of the gallantry that the inhabitants and garrison had exhibited during the siege.

General Sir William Dobbie (1869-1964)
Lieutenant General Sir William Dobbie
Governor of Malta
1940-42
The siege was finally lifted in May 1943 after the Axis forces had been defeated in North Africa. There then began the task of repairing the bomb damage, which largely fell upon the shoulders of the Royal Engineers and civilian contractors.
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British North Africa Force (BNAF) 1942-43
Algeria and Tunisia

In December 1941 the Americans entered the war, six months later in July 1942 a joint Anglo-American operation (Operation Torch) to land forces in North West Africa was agreed and planned. The overall command of the operation was given to the American Lieutenant General Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969).

The invasion force sailed directly from England and landed, largely unopposed, near Algiers on 8 November 1942.

The engineers involved in the invasion were:

  • 564th , 751st Field Companies, det 5th Field Squadron (V Corps)
  • 237th , 256th, Field Companies, 281st Field Park Company, 5th Mechanical Equipment Section (78th Division)
  • 228th, 256th Field Companies, 22nd Mechanical Equipment Section (36th Infantry Brigade)
  • 'A' and 'C' Troops 1st Parachute Squadron (1st Airborne Division).
  • Works, Survey, Transportation, Movement Control and Postal units.
 

Amongst the first objectives of the invasion was the capture of the Maison Blanche and Blida airfields, both were achieved with ease. Afterwards the 14th Airfield Construction Group was tasked with developing them both for the use of the RAF and American Air Force.

Operation Torch marked several 'firsts' for the Allied armies and their engineers:

  • Airborne operations - For the first time British Airborne troops were deployed in advance of the regular troops to hold and secure strategic objectives (until this point in the war their deployments had been confined to commando style raids). Members of 1st Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers were engaged as follows:
    • 'C' Troop was engaged in the operation to capture Bone airfield (11 November 1942).
    • 'A' Troop accompanied the operation to secure Souk el Arba. Their mission was to rally the French to the Allied cause (16 November 1942).

  • Bailey bridging equipment - Engineers units had for the first time the Bailey bridge as part of their equipment.
    • 237th Field Company were the first unit to construct a Bailey bridge in contact with the enemy. This occurred on 25 November 1942 when they constructed a 100 ft Bailey bridge over the river Medjerda at Madjez el Bab, Tunsia.
Donald Bailey and his bridge

Sir Donald Bailey, inventor of the Bailey bridge The Bailey Bridge was designed by Mr (later Sir) Donald Bailey (1901-85), Chief Designer at the Experimental Bridging Establishment, Christchurch in 1941 and replaced the Inglis Bridge as the Royal Engineers' main bridging equipment.

The design had much in common with Martel's box girder, being built up of a number of easily handled panels pinned together, which could be added together both horizontally for extra length, and in stories or parallel trusses for extra strength.

Each panel was 10ft in length and could be carried by 6 men. A constructed bridge was capable of bearing loads of up to 70 tons. It could also be made into a heavy floating bridge without the use of trestles and lent itself to mass production.

By April 1943 the Axis forces were trapped in Tunsia between the 8th Army in the west and the Anglo-American forces in the east. On 11 May 1943 the Axis forces in North Africa finally surrendered to the Allies.

The lessons learnt during the invasion phase of the operation were soon used to inform an invasion plan of Sicily and than Italy.

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Central Mediterranean Force (CMF) - 1943-45
Sicily and Italy

Sicily - July - August 1943

Tactical Overview - Operation Husky, the Allied codename for the Anglo-American invasion of Sicily, was mounted to capture Sicily. The operation was under the supreme command of the American Lieutenant General Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969). His deputy was the British Lieutenant General Harold Alexander (1891-1969), who commanded the 15th Army Group comprising of the American 7th Army (Patton) and the British 8th Army (Montgomery).

On the night of 9/10 July 1943 the British 1st Airborne Division's gliderborne forces (with 9th Airborne Field Company, Royal Engineers) began the invasion with the capture of the Ponte Grande bridge south of Syracuse and on the morning of 10 July 1943 the ground troops of the British 8th Army landed on the beaches between Cassabile and Castellazo.

The plan required the Divisional engineers to:

  • Deal with beach obstacles and minefields below and above high water mark.
  • Preparation of tracks up and exits off the breaches.
  • Airfield repair or construction.
  • Facilitate the advance inland.

The engineers involved in the invasion were:

  • 9th Airborne Field Squadron (1st Airborne Division)
  • 38th, 245th, 252nd, Field and 254th Field Park Companies (5th Division).
  • 233rd, 505th Field and 295th Field Companies (50th Division).
  • 274th, 275th, 276th Field and 239th Field Companies (51st Division).
  • Royal Canadian Engineers of the 1st Canadian Division.
  • Works, Survey, Transportation, Movement Control and Postal units.
Invasion of Sicily  - 10 July 1943
Engineer work parties on the Sicilian beaches, where very few obstacles were encountered. In the background other troops can be seen unloading stores from the landing crafts - 1943
(Photo: Robert Hunt Library)
Sicily was conquered in 38 days during which time the engineers constructed 38 Bailey and 20 Small Box Girder (SBG) bridges, in addition to a number of causeways, minor bridges and roads repairs. The airfield construction groups prepared 16 fair weather airfields. The Railway units operated the railway at Syracuse and established a railhead in support of the advancing troops. The Port units took over the repair and operation of the ports of Syracuse, Augusta, Catania, Messina and Milazzo.

Italy - September 1943-May 1945

Tactical overview - After Sicily was secured it was possible for the Allies to use it was a springboard to invade Italy. The Anglo-American force, 15th Army Group, under General Harold Alexander (1981-1969) consisting of the American 5th Army (Clark) and the British 8th Army (Montgomery) began their invasion on 9 September 1943. The invasion plan was for a three-prong attack at the selected points of Salerno, Reggio and Taranto. The latter two were carried out by the 8th Army and were met with little or no opposition. The American's at Salerno met with stiff opposition but did eventually manage to secure a beachhead.

After the Salerno beachhead had been secured the American 5th Army advanced up the west side of Italy while the British 8th Army advanced up the east. Each army had to batter its way north through a series of defence lines each well prepared by the Germans - Viktor Line, Gustav Line, Caesar Line, and Gothic Line. Progress was slow hampered by the mountainous terrain, with its sheer faces, steep gullies and false crests coupled with deep valleys of marshes and broad rivers. The engineers were used extensively to overcome these obstacles.

Italian Campaign 1943-45
key dates

Italians accept armistice - 1 Sep 43
8th Army lands at Reggio - 3 Sep 43
Salerno (Operation Avalanche) - 9 Sep 43
Naples captured - 1 Oct 43
Anzio (Operation Shingle) - 22 Jan- 23 May 44
Rapido crossings (Operation Diadem) - May 44
Monte Cassino captured - 18 May 44
Rome captured - 5 Jun 44
Florence captured - 4 Aug 44
Battle of Gothic Line - 12-24 Sep 44
Ravenna captured - 5 Dec 44
Bolonga captured - 21 Apr 45
Verona nd Genoa captured - 26 Apr 45
Mussolini murdered - 29 Apr 45
Germans in Italy surrender - 2 May 45

Italy - Initial landings - September 1943

Salerno (Operation Avalanche) - Although this was essentially an American operation, British troops were involved and their engineers were:

  • 4th, 21st Field and 143rd Field Park Squadron (7th Armoured Division)
  • 4th, 220th, 221st Field and 563rd Field Park Companies (56th Division)
  • Det 15th Airfield Construction Group
  • Transportation, Movement Control and Postal units.

No obstacles were not encountered on the beaches, but the engineers were soon engaged in the construction of culverts to give access to dumps off roads, the preparation of defences, the construction of airstrips. Their bulldozers were used to extract seven ditched tanks and to keep the traffic moving off the beaches. Within the beachhead area the Transportation units repaired and then operated the port of Salerno.

 

Reggio - The landing was met with little resistance so after securing the bridgehead the engineers of 5th Division and 1st Canadian Division were engaged in the construction of landing craft ramps, 'Z' craft berths, a train ferry terminal, whilst the 932nd Port Construction and Repair company pumped out the dry dock. During the advance up the toe of Italy, the engineers built a total of 24 Bailey bridges.

 

Taranto - There was no opposition mounted against 1st Airborne Division's landing at Taranto. A sapper of 261st Airborne Field Park Company drove a train deep into enemy territory and released 300 prisoners of war. 9th Airborne Field Company operated the port until the arrival of a Port Construction and Repair Company.

 

Italy - The slog northwards - October 1943- May 1945

Throughout the Italian campaign the British, Dominion and Indian engineers were engaged in maintaining, building and repairing roads, constructing bridge and ferry crossing over fast flowing rivers, clearing mines and other obstacles, restoring electricity and water supplies, building troop accommodation, repairing and operating ports and railways, constructing and repairing airfields, mapping, bomb disposal, controlling troop and store movements, and maintaining the mail services.

Bridging

British, Dominion and Indian engineers constructed or re-constructed 3,618 bridges during the period 1943-45 this was due to the terrain over which the armies advanced and the destruction of bridges by the retreating German army.

By 1944, in the front lines, engineer assault equipment was being used to assist in the construction of bridges. Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) companies were also attached to the engineers to carry bridging equipment.
Italian Campaign Bridging Statistics
Type
No
Bailey bridges
2,832
Bailey pontoon bridges
19
Permanent bridges (steel and trestle)
204
Permanent bridges (brick and masonry)
73
Railway bridges reconstructed
490
Total
3,618
Bridges were often given a name, below are some of the most famous of the campaign:
  • 'Sangro' Bridge
    • Construction dates: 4-14 December 1943
    • Details: 1,126ft long Class 30 bridge, which spanned the river Sangro. It was the longest Bailey bridge built during the whole campaign.
    • Constructed by: 561st, 586th, 587th Field Companies, Det 1st Canadian Drilling Company and Det 138th Mechanical Equipment Company.
  • 'Plymouth' Bridge
    • Construction dates: 11/12 May 1944 (Operation Diadem)
    • Details: A single-double Bailey 100 ft long that was carried forward on two Sherman tanks. It was supported in the front tank by rollers so that when this tank reached the bridging gap the rear tank could launch the bridge. It was the first Bailey assault bridge to be built in the field and spanned 70ft gap over the Rapido river.
    • Constructed by: 4th Division engineers
  • 'Amazon' Bridge
    • Construction dates: 12/13 May 1944 (Operation Diadem)
    • Details: 80 ft Class 30 Bailey bridge built over Rapido river under constant fire. The bridge was built as part of the Allies break-out of the Gustav Line. Work started at 5.45pm (12 May) and completed at 5.30am (13 May). The human cost was high; 15 sappers were killed and 57 (including 3 officers) wounded.
    • Constructed by: 7th, 59th, 225th Field Companies (4th Division)
Amazon Bridge - May 1944
Amazon Bridge over the Rapido - May 1944
(Painting: Cuneo)
  • 'Houdini' type
    • Construction dates: various dates during the later stages of the campaign.
    • Details: It consisted of a steel cable taken across a river, through a couple of snatch blocks, and back to a tackle on the near bank. Decking of timber was snaked-lashed to the cables. This bridge was designed to enable it to be collapsed during the day and resurrected at night to allow troops to move over it unobserved under the cover of darkness.
    • Developed by: 10th Field Company, IE (10th Indian Division)
  • 'Springbok' Bridge
    • Construction dates: 25 April - 4 May 1945
    • Details: The South African engineers repaired the former main road bridge over the Po river at Pontelagoscuro using specially designed and modified Bailey equipment.
    • Constructed by: South African Corps Troops SAEC

Mine clearance

Mines were used extensively by the Germans and were cleared by the engineers. On 24 February 1944, Subedar Subramanyan, 11th Field Park Company, Indian Engineers was in charge of a party of sappers clearing mines near Mignano, Italy. He was awarded a posthumous George Cross for preventing the deaths of his party by flinging his body on a Schumine that had been triggered by his Lance-naik. It was the first such award to be given to a member of the Indian Army.

Anzio (Operation Shingle) - 22 January - 23 May 44

Operation Shingle was the Anglo-American amphibious assault on Anzio, a port located on west coast of Italy about 32 miles south of Rome. It was aimed at cutting the communication lines of the German 19th Army and force their withdrawal from the Gustav Line.

In preparation for the assault at Anizo engineer units were put to work on the island of Corsica to create a series of deceptions ( dummy dumps, landing craft etc.) to fool the Germans into thinking that the invasion target was France and not Anzio.

1st Division and their engineers were involved in the initial assault. The deception obviously worked for the leading assault troops encountered few minefields, no wire, pillboxes or other obstacles, but because of the clay soil beyond the beaches the engineers were kept busy laying matting, corduroy and rock to make the area passable.

On 24 January 1944 the enemy resistance stiffened and the engineers had to take on an infantry role in the front line of the beachhead. 23rd Field Company, Royal Engineers became surrounded and took 80 causalities.

The 1st Division was replaced by the 56th Division and later the 56th Division by the 5th Division.

Tracks

The provision for tracks for the forward troops in the mountains fell largely to the Indian Engineers of the 4th and 10th Indian Divisions. A notable example of theses was 'Jacob's ladder', a track constructed by the field units of 4th Indian Division and of X Corps Troops, rising 1,150ft at an average gradient of 1 in 10.  

Italy - Other Corps activities

Survey

The 8th Army Survey Directorate arrived in Italy in September 1943. The units under its control were: 13th, 517th Field Survey Companies; 7th General Survey Company and 20th (Army) Field Survey Depot. Other units joined and left as the campaign progressed.

Due to the rapid advance in September 1943, the 13th Survey Company moved 10 times and printed on its mobile equipment over 1 million maps (1/50,000 sheets).

Polish survey units were placed under command of the 8th Army Survey Directorate in Spring 1944.

Works

Works units had a wide variety of responsibilities such as airfield construction, establishing and constructing bases, stores and accommodation, maintaining electrical power stations and water supplies, constructing oil pipelines and fuel storage areas and organising and managing local production.
  • Airfield construction - During the campaign 184 airfields were constructed of which 82 were 'All-weather' fields and 102 were 'Fair' weather fields. At first little Pierced Steel Plank (PSP) was available and it was necessary to pave the runways with concrete, asphalt, or brick. The majority of the 'All-weather fields were constructed by 14th Airfield Construction Group, Royal Engineers.
  • Accommodation
    • Transit camps were built at Rome, Taranto, Naples and Bari. The most important was Lammie Camp at Naples, which could accommodate 5,000 personnel.
    • Prisoner of war Camps were built near Naples and Taranto.
    • Depots and workshops for the RAOC, RASC and REME were constructed at Naples and Bari.
 
  • Forestry - 14th New Zealand Forestry Company controlled timber production in the pine forests of Calabria. In spring 1944, 9,000 tons of timber was being cut and sawn monthly and by the summer had figure had risen to 15,000 tons.
 
  • Roads - In conjunction with the American engineers, British, Dominion and Indian engineers repaired and maintained roads for the armies.
   

Transportation

The Royal Engineers Transportation Services and the other Dominion and Indian engineers were heavy engaged in repairing and then operating both railways and ports.

  • Rail - Many obstacles were encountered in restoring the rail such as torn-up track and the destruction of at least 75% of the railway tunnels and bridges. Once the damage had been repaired the engineers took on the responsibility of operating the trains in the forward areas while the Italian State Railways, under military supervision, operated those in the rear areas. Re-construction responsibilities for British railway troops included:
    • 1943-44 - Ciaserta- Foggia line, Foggia-Potenza line, the east coast line north of Foggia, Rome-Naples line
    • 1944-45 - Leghorn-Bologna line, Rome-Arezzo line, Ancona-Arezzo line, and Rimini-Bologna line
 
  • Ports - Generally the ports captured had suffered little damage and what damage there was was soon repaired by the Port Construction and Repair Groups. They also made them useful for military purposes; that is capable of handling a daily discharge rate of at least 15,000 tons. Such modifications included:
    • Taranto - construction of a lighter quay and the completion of a partly constructed quay.
    • Brindisi - construction of 2 lighter quays and rail layouts.
    • Bari - construction of a 'Z' craft quay, 3 lighter quays, completion of alongside berth, layinmg of 3,500ft of submarine fuel line to feed a naval oiling hulk, re-erection of a bulk grain handling plant and the installation of a new lighting system.
    • Ancona - The RE Port Repair Ship Progress was used to clear small craft sunk in the harbour.
 

Postal

  • A Base Army Post Office was first established at Bari but was later moved to Naples.
  • Mails were distributed within the 8th Army operational areas by truck but were also augmented by rail and air, which were developed to provide an internal mail service to troops as they moved north. Surface mails entered and exited via Naples, Bari, and Taranto. Airmails were also routed by Naples.
  • Field Post Offices (FPOs) were established on the beachheads during the landings at Salerno and Anzio. On two occasions mails leaving the Anizo beaches onboard LST were lost to enemy action.
 
   
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Assault Engineers - 1943

By Spring 1943 the experiences of the engineers in North Africa (1940-43) and at Dieppe (August 1942) showed that engineers in the forefront of assaults on prepared defences were very exposed and such exposure serious lessened their chances of success. Better methods and armoured protection were required.

Major General  Sir Percy Hobart
Major General Sir Percy Hobart, Commander 79th Armoured Division and initiator of the 'Hobart's Funnies'

In April 1943 the 79th Armoured Division was formed in England under command of an engineer Major General (later Sir) Percy Hobart. His division was charged with the co-ordination and development of armoured assault equipment and techniques in preparation of a planned invasion of North West Europe (Operation Overlord).

The development of special engineering equipment led to the creation of the Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE). They were based on the chassis of Churchill and Sherman tanks and were specially adapted to execute a variety of engineering tasks such as; mine clearance, demolition, mat laying, flame throwing, and bridging. These machines were known as "Hobart's Funnies" and were successfully used during the campaigns in North West Europe and Italy.

The 1st Assault Brigade, Royal Engineers was formed in October 1943 as part of 79th Armoured Division:

  • Brigade Headquarters - 149th Assault Park Squadron.
  • 5th Assault Regiment - 26th, 77th, 79th, 80th Assault Squadrons (formed from the conversion of 5th Chemical Warfare Group).
  • 6th Assault Regiment - 81st, 82nd, 87th, 284th Assault Squadrons (formed from the conversion of 6th Chemical Warfare Group).
  • 42nd Assault Regiment - 16th, 222nd, 557th, 617th Assault Squadrons (formed from the divisional engineers of 42th Division).
Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers
Churchill Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE), the principle engineer assault vehicle mounted with a 'petard' (the 'Flying Dustbin') spigot mortar.
A double ARK (Armoured Ramp Carrier)
A double ARK (Armoured Ramp Carrier) crossing on the Senio river in support of the 8th Indian Division - Italy 1945

Units of the Brigade were attached to, or operated in support of, other formations deployed on Operation Overlord and the subsequent operations in North West Europe which eventually led to the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945.

The high causalities suffered by the engineers in Italy and the success of the assault units in Normandy (Operation Overlord - June 1944), led to the formation in autumn 1944 of the 1st Armoured Regiment in Italy. The regiment was formed from a combination of Royal Armoured Corps and Royal Engineers units equipped with AVREs.

   
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British Liberation Army (BLA) - 1944-45
North West Europe

Operation Overlord - June 1944

see Campaign History Operation Overlord and the Royal Engineers

Still under development

   
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Far East 1941-1942

Tactical overview - The Japanese army overran the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931 and so began an extended period of military occupation of large areas of China. In autumn 1941 America, Britain and the Netherlands instituted a trade embargo on Japan, this forced them into a position of either abandoning their occupation of China or to seize the necessary raw materials to sustain it. They chose the latter course.

On 7 December 1941 they entered the war on the side of the Axis forces with a surprise attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This was swiftly followed by attacks on British and Dutch possessions in the Far East. French Indo-China declared itself pro-Vichy.

Hong Kong - 8-25 December 1941

The Japanese 23rd Army attacked the New Territories on 8 December 1941 and took Hong Kong island on 25 December 1941.

The engineers units, which were made up of European, Chinese and Indian personnel, were responsible for constructing defences and preparing demolitions.The units involved were:

  • 22nd and 40th Fortress Companies, Royal Engineers.
  • Engineer Field Company, Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps.
  • Hong Kong Engineer Corps.

As the battle progressed and the situation became more desperate their role reverted to an infantry one. Those who survived were held prisoner until their release in 1945.

Chinese members of the Royal Engineers - 1941
Chinese members of the Fortress Companies - 1941
(Photo: IWM KF138)

Malaya and Singapore - 7 December 1941 - 15 February 1942

Tactical overview - Shortly after midnight on 7 December 1941, the Japanese 25th Army invaded Malaya. They made a diversionary landing at Kora Bharu that was accompanied by the main landings at Singora and Patani on the northeast coast. Simultaneously the Japanese Air Force struck the forward Malayan airfields. On the 10 December their air force sunk the Royal Navy capital vessels; Prince of Wales and Repulse, freeing the way for the Japanese navy to control the sea. The Japanese army advanced down the Malayan peninsula to Singapore by infiltrating through the jungle to out flank the British, Dominion and Indian forces, who in the meantime retreated until they arrived on Singapore island. The British, Dominion and Indian forces finally surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942.

In December 1941 the engineers of the field force in Malaya were:

  • Singapore - 30th, 34th, 35th, 41st Fortress Companies, Royal Engineers
  • Penang - 36th Fortress Companies, Royal Engineers
  • Northern Area (Jitra area) - III Indian Corps
    • 45th , 46th Army Troops Companies, Indian Engineers
    • 19th, 22nd Field and 42nd Field Park Companies, Indian Engineers (9th Indian Division)
    • 3rd, 17th, 23rd Field and 43rd Field Park Companies, Indian Engineers (11th Indian Division)
    • 15th Field Company, Indian Engineers (12th Indian Brigade)
  • Johore and Malacca Area - 8th Australian Division
    • 2/10, 2/15 Field and 2/5 Field Park Companies, Royal Australian Engineers
    • 3rd, 17th, 23rd Field and 43rd Field Park Companies, Indian Engineers (11th Indian Division)

On 13 January 1942 the 18th British Division began to arrive in Singapore. Their engineers were:

  • 287th, 560th, 588th Field and 251st Field Park Companies, Royal Engineers.
  • 18th Division Postal Unit, Royal Engineers.
Japanese repair the Johore causeway 1942
Japanese engineers repairing the Johore causeway, destroyed by 15th Field Company, Indian Engineers on 31 January 1942
(Photo: Robert Hunt Library)

In Autumn 1941 in preparation for the coming hostilities in Malaya engineers were engaged in improving defences and preparing airfields for cratering. Stores were in such short supply that at some airfields instead of the proper obstacles large pieces of furniture was strewn about the runways to prevent enemy aircraft from landing on them.

During the whole retreat through Malaya the various engineer units destroyed over 600 bridges. The 43rd Field Company, Indian Engineers destroyed the road and railway bridges over the Krian river at Nehang Tehal (two of the largest bridges in Malaya).

On 31 January 1942 in the defence of Singapore the 15th Field Company, Indian Engineers blow a 70ft gap in the causeway linking Singapore to Johore. During the period prior to the final Japanese assault the engineer units were busy improving the defences and repairing damage to essential services caused by enemy bombing. Just before the final surrender they were engaged in destroying stores and equipment. After the capitulation of Singapore those of the garrison who were left were taken in captivity where they suffered great privations and degradations until their release in 1945.
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India and Burma - 1941-45

Still under development

   
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Monty's tribute

After the war Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (1887-1976) paid the following tribute to the Corps of Royal Engineers:

The Sappers really need no tribute from me; their reward lies in the glory of their achievement. The more science intervenes in warfare, the more will be the need for engineers in the field armies; in the late war there were never enough Sappers at any time. Their special tasks involved the upkeep and repair of communications; road, bridges, railways, canals, mine sweeping. The Sappers rose to great heights in World War Two and their contribution to victory was beyond all calculations.
Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (1887-1976)
Field Marshal Viscount
Montgomery of Alamein
(1887-1976)



Author: SC Fenwick, FoREM

Sources:
History of the Corps of Royal Engineers Vols VIII, IX, (Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, 1958)
A Short History. The Royal Engineers. Compiled by Maj DP Aston RE (Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, 1993)
Follow the Sapper. Napier G (Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, 2005)
The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army Ed: Chandler D, Beckett I (OUP, Oxford, 1994)
A Short History of the British Army Sheppard EW (Constable, London, 1950)
The History of Landmines Croll M (Leo Copper, Barnsley, 1998)

Links to further reading:

Campaign History - Royal Engineers and Operation Overlord
Biographies - Major General Sir Percy Hobart
Engineering History - Airborne Sappers
Engineering History - Armoured Engineers
Specialist History - Bomb Disposal
Specialist History - WW2 Army Postal Services

Royal Engineers Museum main site


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