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The ultimate purpose of an army is to fight but it is not often realised that the actual fighting is only a small part of its activity. Before a soldier can fire a gun at the enemy he has to be transported to the battlefield and his ammunition brought up. He has to be fed and clothed and the tank he drives must be supplied with fuel. Spare parts are needed for repairs. Defences and encampments have to be built, roads constructed and repaired, shell holes filled and bridges thrown across rivers. At any one time, only a small proportion of an army is actually firing at the enemy. It has to be supported by an elaborate infrastructure. The German, the Russian, the Japanese and Italian armies all had their Labour battallions and their transport and logistics arms. In the British army these services were provided by the various army corps, the Royal Engineers, the Royal Army Service Corps, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, the Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (R.E.M.E) the Royal Engineers and the Royal Pioneer Corps. (Most of these Corps have now been amalgamated into the Royal Logistics Corps and their Pioneer units are called Pioneer Regiments)

The forerunner of the Pioneer Corps was the Labour Corps, formed during the 1914-1918 war. It was originally composed of down-graded fighting men but later men were drafted into it directly from civilian life if they suffered from some slight physical disability. Often they worked under heavy fire and at critical times fought as infantry. The Corps was disbanded when the war ended.

When WWII broke, out Labour companies were formed composed of Reservists who had been recalled to the Colours. They were given various designations – Docks Labour Company, Railway Labour Company etc and were soon incorporated into a new ‘Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps‘. Later they were renamed the “Royal Pioneer Corps”. From the start, the regular regiments and formations looked on the new Corps with the same disdain that they had cast on the Labour Companies of WWI. The addition of “Royal” to their title did nothing to mitigate this. In his War History of the Royal Pioneer Corps, Major Rhodes-Wood comments

‘The units to which Labour Companies had been allotted looked upon them as “private armies” designed to serve them only in a menial capacity. The Reservists detailed for labour duties, whilst largely resenting the divorce from their parent units, went overseas filled with enthusiasm, but it was not long before the continuous seven-days-a-week work, lack of welfare, poor clothing issue and the feeling that other units regarded them as inferior reduced their morale badly and it is safe to say that when on 17th October, 1939, the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps was created no formation of the Army started its existence in less auspicious circumstances and suffering such severe handicaps.’. (1)

Gradually the Reservists who had originally been drafted into the Corps were returned to their own units and replaced by new recruits.

The first reception centre in Britain was set up in October 1939 at Folkestone under appalling conditions..

‘Conditions at the centre have been described by a member of its Permanent Staff “The weather for the two weeks immediately before the centre was opened on the race course at Folkestone had been very bad and the whole area was a sea of particularly glutinous mud. There were no huts. Men were quartered in stables, race-course buildings and in tents. The place, if not in a state of chaos, was highly disorganized. Food was bad, badly cooked and insufficient; accommodation was most primitive and there was a maximum of discomfort. Equipment was very limited and only about one in five could be armed with a rifle before being sent overseas, and most of the rifles were in extremely poor condition and might have seen service in the Crimea. It was no uncommon thing for a hundred men or more to be brought up to the orderly room each morning for some breach of discipline or regulations. Documents were prepared and then mislaid, lost or filed.’(2)

Throughout the later part of 1939 and early 1940 the Pioneers worked on the docks of the French coast, constructing railway sidings, ammunition and storage depots and hutted camps.

The Corps was formed in such haste that conditions were chaotic. Companies were shipped overseas without cooking equipment or essential stores.

A typical example was that of 104 Company which was formed at St. Nazaire from a detail of 400 men sent from England. No N.C.O. accompanied the draft which arrived in the care of a conducting officer who left immediately on handing it over. The men had no dry rations and no documents. The first thing the Company Commander (Major E.C. Flinn) who received them had to do was to buy three 25-gallon boilers before a meal could be prepared. The following day Major Flinn, (who had no other officers to assist him) had to borrow some N.C.O.s from a neighbouring infantry unit to set up his Headquarters and put the men to work constructing a cookhouse and a camp (3)

There was also a shortage of medical supplies and facilities. An example of how Pioneer units had to improvise was 64 Company who were handling heavy engineering stores and suffering many minor accidents.

‘Having been informed by the R.A.M.C. that medical supplies were not available for Pioneers the Company Commander, Major B.L.Sutcliffe, got together what he could and recorded in his War Diary, “First Aid Room opened to-day with one table, one form, one tumbler, six tablets of No.9 and one three inch bandage. One of the officers also contributed a Boot’s first aid tin, and the medical orderly provided his own thermometer.” During the next few weeks this first aid room had to meet the needs of nearly six hundred men, those of 64 and 33 Companies.’ (4)

Clothing was also inadequate. The men had only one issue of uniform. After working in the holds of ships, constructing roads in the mud and rain, handling ammunition and lubricants and working in tunnels their uniforms were in tatters and full of stains and there was no replacement.

Two privates strolling through the streets of Arras were blissfully unaware of the part they were to play in the improvement of the Corps scale of clothing equipment. The Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, riding by, espied these slovenly soldiers . Their group commander received a rocket.

This Pioneer Commander was a rare officer who was not overawed by higher authority, even by the Commander-in-Chief. He sent a tongue in cheek reply through official channels that he entirely agreed that it was a disgrace to the army that his men should be reduced to such a condition but that unless denims for working in dirty conditions or spare uniforms were provided he had only two alternatives; either to order his men to stay in bed while their one uniform was washed or confine them to camp for the duration of the war!

Although the Group Commander was given a friendly warning of the wisdom of his reply he stood by it. With surprising rapidity authority was received from the Q.M.G.’s office for a speedy issue of one suit of denims or a second suit of uniform in lieu of!(5)

The shortages of clothing, equipment and medical facilities were compounded by the shortage of rifles already mentioned. In November 1939 the general shortage of rifles was so acute that new divisions forming in Britain lacked them altogether. It was decided to take them from Pioneer units in the B.E.F. They were ordered to surrender seventy-five per cent of their rifles, whether in base or forward areas. (6)

By early May 1940, just before the German offensive, there were 101 Pioneer companies in the B.E.F.

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1. The War History of the Royal Pioneer Corps 1939-1945, Major E.H. Rhodes-wood, Gale & Polden, Aldershot, 1960 (Hereafter referred to as WHRCP) p.8
2.ibid p.10
3.ibid p.11
4.ibid p.19
5.ibid p.28
6.ibid p.12