Corps History - Part 16
The Corps and
the Second World War (1939-45)
The Beginning and Overview
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)
- Middle East (1940-43)
- Mediterranean (1940-45)
West Africa (1942-43)
- Sicily and Italy (1943-1945)
- Hong Kong,
Malaya and Singapore (1941-42)
- India and Burma (1940-45)
West Europe (1944-45)
Royal Engineers (George VI - 1936-52)
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.
the war the Corps worked very closely and successfully with the engineers of the
Allies, the Dominions and Colonies.
Strength of the Royal Engineers
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
|2 Sep 39||Regular Army |
|TA and SR|
|1 Jan 41 ||All|
|1 Jan 43||All|
|1 Jan 45||All|
|May-Jun 45 ||All|
|1 Jan 46||All|
Source: History of the
Corps of Royal Engineers Vol VIII (p. 218)
1939-1945 Royal Engineers roll records the names of 10,839 men who were either
killed or died on service.
The Home Front 1939-1943
Kingdom and Northern Ireland
RE Works in the prelude to war - 1938-1939
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:
gun sites (complete with ammunition stores, billets, cookhouses etc) widely scattered
throughout the country.
- A vehicle depot at Chilwell, Nottingham.
depot at Barry, Wales.
- An underground magazine at Corsham, Wiltshire.
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
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.
An example of a dummy pillbox erected as part of the defence
Britain in 1940
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.
Train crews operated 4 artillery trains and 12 armoured trains; the latter were
manned by Polish troops and patrolled the southern coastline.
postal network was established by the Royal Engineers to provide added security
to military communications and to service the regional headquarters and military
Royal Engineers and the 'Battle of Britain' - June-September
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
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 team digging out a buried unexploded
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 -
Aid to civil authorities
During the Blitz Royal Engineer units also assisted the civil authorities in repairing bomb damage.
Box Girder Bridge constructed by 691st General
Construction Company, Royal Engineers
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
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
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'.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
|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
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
- 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.
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.
Faslane, now a Naval base, was built and operated
by the Royal Engineers Transportation Services (1940-46)
(Photo: Maritime Books)
Transportation Ports in Scotland
No of Berths
Throughput up to 1945
||Dec 1940- Jul 1942
||Dec 1940- 1943
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.
- 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
- Areas for minefields were selected but no mines were actually
- 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.
- 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.
The 13th, 14th 19th, 514th Field Survey Companies were deployed and began work
revising the existing maps.
|691 (Mowlem) General Construction Company, Royal Engineers constructing military airfields in France 1940
(Photo: IWM F4888)
- 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.
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
"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
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
- 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.
The victors inspect a British 'lorry' pier constructed by the
Royal Engineers on the Dunkirk beaches - June 1940
(Photo: IWM HU1860)
North-West Expeditionary Force (NWEF)
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.
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.
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,
Paratroops on a training drop over Netheravon.
The aircraft is a Whitley - 2 October 1942
In November 1941 the 1st Airborne Division was formed, its divisional
- 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.
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).
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.
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
- 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)
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.|
The European Raids - 1940-44
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.
France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Italy
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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 (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
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
Middle East Force (MEF) 1940-43
Egypt, Sudan, Abyssinia, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya
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
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.
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.
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).
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
(Photo: Tank Museum)
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).
El Alamein 1942 - Lorry camouflage (split
in half) for a tank constructed in Royal Engineers workshops.
(Photo: TNA WO201/2841)
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.
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 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
- To find out the best way to breach or make gaps in minefields.
- To evolve and teach standard drills for clearing mines and recording the laying of minefields.
- To try out ideas, devices and expedients which might be proposed.
Sappers learning mine detecting and clearance
methods at the Royal Engineers School of Mine Warfare, Middle East
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 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
|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
Glasmine - round glass mine.
Siege of Tobruk - June-December 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
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
This Cuneo painting hangs in the HQ Officers Mess at Chatham
8th Army engineer units at the
battle of El Alamein - 23 October - 4 November 1942
|1st, 7th Field Squadrons
1st Field Park Squadron
|274th, 275th, 276th Field Companies
239th Field Park Company
|2nd, 3rd Field Squadrons
141st Field Park Squadron
|2/3rd, 2/7th, 2/13th Field Companies 24th Field Park
|571st, 572nd, 573rd Field Companies
570th Field Park Company
2nd New Zealand
|6th, 7th, 8th Field Companies
5th Field Park Company RNZE
|4th, 21st Field Squadrons
143rd Field Park Squadron
1st South African
|1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th Field Companies 19th Field Park Company
|209th, 210th Field Companies
211th Field Park Company
11th Field Company (detached to 7th Armd Div)
|2nd, 4th, 12th Field Companies Sappers and Miners
11th Field Park Company Sappers and Miners
|233rd Field Company
235th Field Park Company
2nd, 5th Free French Field Companies
|11th, 13th Field Companies SAEC
22nd Field Park Company SAEC
|577th, 578th Field Companies
576th Field Park Company
|6th, 9th Field Squadrons
143rd Field Park Squadron
||295th Army Field Company
566th, 588th Army
517th Field Survey Company
13th Field Survey
4th, 5th Mobile Landing Ground Construction Parties,
114th Mechanical Equipment Workshop and Park Company
5th Boring Section
1st Camouflage Company
21st Mechanical Equipment
Operating Company RNZE
25th, 27th, 31st Road Construction
22nd Workshop and Park Company SAEC
Water Supply Company SAEC
85th Camouflage Company SAEC
Bomb Disposal Company SAEC
46th Survey Company SAEC
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
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
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
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 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.
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
- 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.
- 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
- 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 at Port Said 1940's. The Z craft was
designed and built by the Royal Engineers Inland Water Transport
- 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
- A map printing plant was set up in Tura Caves, Egypt.
- 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
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.
An aerial view of Gibraltar 1943
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, 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
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.
|Lieutenant General Sir William Dobbie
Governor of Malta
|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.
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
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
- '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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Italian Campaign Bridging Statistics
|Bailey pontoon bridges
|Permanent bridges (steel and trestle)
|Permanent bridges (brick and masonry)
|Railway bridges reconstructed
|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 over the Rapido - May 1944
- '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
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
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
The 1st Division was replaced by the 56th Division and later the
56th Division by the 5th Division.
|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
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
Polish survey units were placed under command of the 8th Army Survey Directorate in Spring 1944.
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.
- 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.
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
- Ancona - The RE Port Repair Ship Progress was used
to clear small craft sunk in the harbour.
- 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.
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, 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).
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) crossing
on the Senio river in support of the 8th Indian Division - Italy
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.
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
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
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 Fortress Companies
(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
- 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 engineers repairing the Johore causeway,
destroyed by 15th Field Company, Indian Engineers on 31
(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.
India and Burma - 1941-45
Still under development
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
Field Marshal Viscount
Montgomery of Alamein
Author: SC Fenwick, FoREM
- 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