|1st Devonshire Engineer Volunteers|
Devonshire Fortress Royal Engineers
116 (Devon & Cornwall) Engineer Regiment
The 1st Devonshire Engineer Volunteer Corps, later the Devonshire Fortress Royal Engineers, was a volunteer unit of Britain's Royal Engineers whose history dated back to 1862. The unit helped to defend the vital naval base of Plymouth, and supplied detachments for service in the field in both World Wars. During the North African campaign in World War II, the unit's sappers distinguished themselves in bridging the Nile and clearing minefields during and after El Alamein. Their successors served on the postwar Territorial Army until 1969.
Origins[edit | edit source]
The enthusiasm for the Volunteer movement following an invasion scare in 1859 led to the creation of many Rifle, Artillery and Engineer Volunteer units composed of part-time soldiers eager to supplement the Regular British Army in time of need. One such unit was the 1st Devonshire Engineer Volunteer Corps (EVC) formed at Torquay, with the first officers' commissions dated 28 January 1862.
The 1st Devonshire EVC was attached for administrative purposes to the 1st (Exeter and South Devon) Devonshire Rifle Volunteer Corps from April 1863 until August 1869, when it joined the 1st Administrative Battalion of Gloucestershire EVCs. With the reorganisation of the Volunteer Force in 1880, the Gloucestershire Admin Bn was consolidated as the 1st Gloucestershire EVC, with the 1st Devon providing E Company at Torquay and F Company at Exeter. The EVC titles were abandoned in 1888, when the units became 'Engineer Volunteers, Royal Engineers', proclaiming their affiliation to the Regular RE, and then simply 'Royal Engineers (Volunteers)' in 1896.
In August 1889 the Devon and Somerset companies were removed from the Gloucestershire battalion and constituted as a separate 1st Devonshire and Somersetshire RE (V), with its HQ at the Priory, Colleton Crescent, Exeter.
Territorial Force[edit | edit source]
When the Volunteers were subsumed into the new Territorial Force (TF) in 1908, the Devon and Somerset Engineers were split to form the Devonshire Fortress Royal Engineer at Plymouth and the divisional engineer companies for the Wessex Division, which were based in Somerset (except for part of the signal company, which remained at Exeter).
- HQ at Mutley Barracks, Plymouth
- No 1 Works Company at the Drill Hall, Rock Road, Torquay
- Nos 2 & 3 Works Companies at Exeter
- Nos 4 & 5 Electric Lights Companies at Plymouth
World War I[edit | edit source]
Mobilisation[edit | edit source]
On the outbreak of war in August 1914, the fortress engineers moved to their war stations in the coastal defences, the Devonshire Fortress Engineers coming under the command of South Western Coast Defences HQ at Devonport, Plymouth. Shortly afterwards, the men of the TF were invited to volunteer for Overseas Service and WO instructions were issued to form those men who had only signed up for Home Service into reserve or 2nd Line units. The titles of these 2nd Line units were the same as the original, but distinguished by a '2/' prefix. They absorbed most of the recruits that flooded in, and in many cases themselves went on active service later.
This resulted in a number of new companies being raised within the Devonshire Fortress Engineers. When the TF companies of the RE received numbers in February 1917, they were assigned as follows:
- 567th (Devon) Army Troops Company – formerly 1/1st Devon (Works) Company
- 568th (Devon) Army Troops Company – formerly 1/2nd Devon (Works) Company
- 569th (Devon) Army Troops Company – formerly 1/3rd Devon (Works) Company
- 570th (Devon) Army Troops Company – formerly 2/1st Devon (Works) Company
- 571st (Devon) Works Company – probably 2/2nd Devon (Works) Company
- 572nd (Devon) Works Company – formerly 2/3rd Devon (Works) Company
- 614th (Devon) Fortress Company – 'formerly 1/4th Devon (Electric Lights) Company
Sinai and Palestine[edit | edit source]
Details of the service of the Devon companies are sketchy. At the end of August 1917, 571st Company officially changed its designation from 'Works' to 'Army Troops' and most of the company embarked at Southampton on 29 September (the wagons and horses followed a month later). 570th and 571st Companies disembarked at Alexandria in October, where 569th Company was already engaged on various duties around the ports and camps. At this stage of the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) was about to launch the Battle of Beersheba and begin its advance to capture Jerusalem. The three companies served on the vital lines of communications in Egypt and Palestine supporting the EEF for the rest of the war.
Interwar[edit | edit source]
The Devonshire Fortress Engineers was reformed in the renamed Territorial Army (TA) in 1920, now consisting of one works and two electric light companies at Mutley Barracks, Plymouth. It formed part of the Coast Defence forces in 43rd (Wessex) Divisional Area. Later it amalgamated with the Cornwall Fortress Engineers at Falmouth, which became No 4 Company in the Devonshire and Cornwall (Fortress) Engineers (D&C (F) RE). The Plymouth Junior Technical School Cadet Corps was attached to the unit.
World War II[edit | edit source]
Mobilisation[edit | edit source]
By the time war broke out in September 1939, No 4 Company at Falmouth had been redefined as an Anti-Aircraft (AA) searchlight unit, and soon became an independent unit (482nd (Devon & Cornwall) Searchlight Company) under the command of 55th Anti-Aircraft Brigade. The remainder of the D&C (F) RE mobilised in the Plymouth and Falmouth Defences of Southern Command.
- 570th Corps Field Park Company
- 571st Army Field Company
- 572nd Army Field Company
- 573rd Army Field Company
Bridging the Nile[edit | edit source]
On 20 July 1942, when Rommel was driving towards Egypt, General Headquarters (GHQ) ordered the construction of two bridges across the Nile to allow Eighth Army's armour to manoeuvre to the south if the Cairo defences were attacked. The task was assigned to X CTRE under Lt-Col E.N. Bickford. The sites chosen were at Helwan and Wasta, where the widths to be bridged were 2688 feet (820 m) and 2760 feet (840 m) respectively, and the difference between high and low water was about 22 feet (7 m). Pontoons were unavailable, so local feluccas were used to make a bridge of boats. 572nd Field Company took on the bridge at Helwan with the assistance of a Seychelles Pioneer Company, while 571st Field Company with a Mauritius Pioneer Company built the Wasta bridge. 570th Field Park Company was responsible for stores and welding. In the event, Rommel's final drive was halted at the Battle of Alam Halfa, the Cairo defences were not required, and the bridges were dismantled in November.
Clearing minefields[edit | edit source]
On 23 October the Eighth Army under Lt-Gen Sir Bernard Montgomery counter-attacked at the Second Battle of El Alamein. For the first phase, the aptly-named Operation Lightfoot, the key was to breach the extensive German minefields during the night to allow the armour formations to pass through and exploit the success of the initial bombardment and infantry assault. For this work the sappers were trained to use the recently arrived Polish mine detector (Mine detector Mark I). X Corps organised a Minefield Task Force for each of its armoured divisions: 571st Field Company was attached to 10th Armoured Division, and both 572nd and 573rd Fd Cos were with 1st Armoured Division, while 570th Fd Park Co remained with X Corps HQ.
The task of clearing lanes through the minefields went according to plan, though delayed by the scale of the minefields and the presence of pockets of enemy resistance that had not been cleared out by the attacking infantry. The southern corridor was under enemy artillery and small-arms fire, and when a truck was set on fire the illumination meant that the sappers were exposed to even more accurate fire. However, the gap was cleared by 06.30 on 24 October, and 10th Armoured passed through. Progress was slower in the northern corridor and 51st (Highland) Division had to put in a fresh attack with massed artillery support at 15.00, after which the sappers were able to clear the way for 1st Armoured to deploy during the second night. The regimental history attributes the relatively light casualties among the mine clearance parties, despite the firefights going on around them, 'to the excellence of the mine-lifting drill and the accuracy with which it was carried out'. By 4 November the German and Italian troops were in full retreat across the desert.
Advance to Tripoli[edit | edit source]
X CTRE followed Eighth Army's six-month advance across North Africa, repairing roads behind the advancing troops. Between Bouerat and Misourata, the unit dealt with 68 separate demolitions and craters, one involving the construction of a bridge with five 30-foot (10 m) spans. So many casualties were suffered from S-mines hidden among the demolitions that bulldozers were frequently called in. Captain Desmond Fitzgerald, a Regular RE officer attached to the TA Devonians of 571st Fd Co for two months from 1 January, recalled that his duties mainly involved clearing mines and booby-traps from captured landing strips before they could be used by the Royal Air Force. The company was attached to 1st Armoured Division at this time.
When the damaged port of Tripoli was captured in late January 1943, Montgomery said that his 'main preoccupation was to get the harbour uncorked and ships inside, so as to get a good daily tonnage landed' and reduce reliance on the long coast road from Tobruk. 571st Army Fd Co was one of the units sent to clear debris and repair the approach roads to the quays, and then begin repairing the Spanish Mole. Despite winter storms, a shallow entrance into the harbour was ready for small craft to enter and unload by 30 January. The next task was to remove Fascist Party emblems and pictures of Benito Mussolini, and erect a special podium in the town square for a victory parade attended by Winston Churchill on 4 February. Fitzgerald recalls that the troops referred to this construction as the 'oxometer' – a device for measuring bullshit.
Italy and North West Europe[edit | edit source]
X CTRE next took part in the Italian campaign of 1943–5, including the crossing of the Garigliano in January 1944. The four Devon companies left X CTRE in early 1945 when they were sent to join 21st Army Group fighting in North West Europe. Here they were redesignated 19th GHQ TRE. The units were demobilised some time after September 1945.
Postwar[edit | edit source]
When the TA was reconstituted in 1947, the four Devon companies (now termed squadrons, but unusually still retaining the numbers they had borne on and off since 1917) were reformed, comprising 116 Army Engineer Regiment:
- 570 Field Park Squadron
- 571 Field Squadron
- 572 Field Squadron
- 573 Field Squadron
The regiment had its HQ at Plymouth and derived its seniority from the 1st Devonshire EVC of 1862. It formed part of 26 Engineer Group.
116 Regiment was disbanded in 1950 and its number transferred from the TA to the Supplementary Reserve (later the Army Emergency Reserve). A new 116 (Devon and Cornwall) Engineer Regiment was formed in the TA in 1961, comprising a reformed 571 Field Squadron with 409 (Cornwall) Independent Field Squadron, the latter formed in 1956 by conversion of 409th (Cornwall) Coast Regiment, Royal Artillery. When the TA was converted into the TAVR in 1967, 571 Sqn was reconstituted as B (Devon Fortress Engineers) Squadron in the Devonshire Territorials (Royal Devon Yeomanry/1st Rifle Volunteers). However, the squadron was short-lived, because the TAVR units were reduced to cadre in 1969 and the Devon Fortress Engineers lineage was discontinued.
Honorary Colonels[edit | edit source]
The following officers served as Honorary Colonel of the unit:
- Field Marshal Sir John Simmons, RE, appointed 14 July 1888.
- General Sir Richard Harrison, RE, appointed 20 January 1909.
Notes[edit | edit source]
- Beckett, Appendix IX.
- Westlake, pp. 7–8.
- Westlake, p. 3.
- Monthly Army List.
- Exeter at The Drill Hall Project.
- Priory Drill Hall at Historic England.
- Watson, pp. 42–3.
- London Gazette, 14 October 1910
- Rinaldi, World War I.
- Plymouth at The Drill Hall Project.
- Torquay at The Drill Hall Project.
- Becke, Pt 2b, p. 6.
- Discussion of RE TF units at Great War Forum.
- RE Museum list of WWI unit war diaries.
- 569th, 570th & 571st (Devon) AT Companies War Diaries, 1917–19, The National Archives (TNA), Kew file WO 95/4730.
- Monthly Army List, January 1923.
- Titles and designations, 1927.
- Monthly Army List May 1939.
- Rinaldi, World War II.
- Southern Command 3 September 1939 at Patriot Files.
- Pakenham-Walsh, p. 364.
- Pakenham-Walsh, pp. 385–95.
- Joslen, pp. 567–9.
- Pakenham-Walsh, pp. 406–8.
- Fitzgerald, pp. 126–8.
- Montgomery, p. 156.
- 80–177 TA Rgts RE at British Army 1945 on.
- 337–575 TA Sqns RE at British Army 1945 on.
- Litchfield, p. 34.
- The Devonshire Territorials at Regiments.org.
References[edit | edit source]
- Maj A.F. Becke,History of the Great War: Order of Battle of Divisions, Part 2b: The 2nd-Line Territorial Force Divisions (57th–69th), with the Home-Service Divisions (71st–73rd) and 74th and 75th Divisions, London: HM Stationery Office, 1937/Uckfield: Naval & Military Press, 2007, ISBN 1-847347-39-8.
- Desmond FitzGerald, Many Parts: The Life and Travels of a Soldier, Engineer and Arbitrator in Africa and Beyond, London: I.B. Tauris, 2006, ISBN 978-1-84511306-3.
- Lt-Col H.F. Joslen, Orders of Battle, United Kingdom and Colonial Formations and Units in the Second World War, 1939–1945, London: HM Stationery Office, 1960/Uckfield: Naval & Military Press, 2003, ISBN 1-843424-74-6.
- Norman E.H. Litchfield, The Territorial Artillery 1908–1988 (Their Lineage, Uniforms and Badges), Nottingham: Sherwood Press, 1992, ISBN 0-9508205-2-0.
- The Memoirs of Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, London: Collins, 1958.
- Maj-Gen R.P. Pakenham-Walsh, History of the Royal Engineers, Vol VIII, 1938–1948, Chatham: Institution of Royal Engineers, 1958.
- Titles and Designations of Formations and Units of the Territorial Army, London: War Office, 7 November 1927.
- Col Sir Charles M. Watson, History of the Corps of Royal Engineers, Vol III, Chatham: Institution of Royal Engineers, reprint 1954.
- R.A. Westlake, Royal Engineers (Volunteers) 1859–1908, Wembley: R.A. Westlake, 1983, ISBN 0-9508530-0-3.
External sources[edit | edit source]
- British Army units from 1945 on
- Mark Conrad, The British Army in 1914.
- The Drill Hall Project
- Great War Forum
- Historic England
- London Gazette
- RE Museum
- Land Forces of Britain, the Empire and Commonwealth (Regiments.org)
- Richard A. Rinaldi, Royal Engineers, World War I at Orbat.com
- Richard A. Rinaldi, Royal Engineers, World War II at Orbat.com
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