This article looks at the role of a field squadron of the Royal Engineers during the Second World War. It will show you how a field squadron was structured and how to research both the units and soldiers who served with them. This is one of a series of guides to I’ve created to help you research soldiers who served in the British Army during the war:
I also offer a Second World War Soldier Research and Document Copying Service.
Field Squadron Royal Engineers
A field squadron was a unit of the Royal Engineers which provided field engineering support to an armoured division. Its equivalent in an infantry division was a field company. An armoured division usually had two field squadrons and a field park squadron, compared to three field companies in an infantry division. A field park squadron held the division’s bridging equipment and a wide range of stores which could be quickly delivered to the division’s field squadrons or another unit in the formation. One of the main roles of a field squadron was assisting the mobility of an armoured division across rivers, streams and canals through bridging. This involved a field squadron being familiar with a variety of bridges e.g. scissor, Inglis and small box girder. If you read a war diary of a field squadron, you’ll often find them practising bridging. The units were also trained in ferrying of artillery and tanks across rivers.
Field squadrons were also trained in field engineering which involved a wide range of tasks. These included the construction of protective works, from anti-tank ditches, building shelters and cutting through walls in buildings. The units were also trained in the construction of roadblocks and anti-tank obstacles. Field squadrons were also trained in demolition and were used for cratering roads. Other tasks which field squadrons were trained in included the repair and maintenance of roads, development and maintenance of water supplies and the clearance of mines and boobytraps. By turning to a field squadron’s war diary, you’ll be able to find out what the unit was doing on any given day of the war.
The unit had a headquarters and three troops. In the headquarters was the Major who commanded the unit along with a Captain who was second-in-command. Each of the three troops had two officers, giving eight in total. There were also 271 other ranks distributed throughout the unit. The headquarters was the smallest part of a field squadron as it contained 34 other ranks. Each of the troops contained 79, giving a strength of 279. Of this figure, 174 were Sappers. Then, there were also twelve other ranks attached from the Army Catering Corps as Cooks. There were three each for the headquarters and troops. This gave the unit a total establishment of 291 all ranks.
The overwhelming majority of those serving with a field squadron had a trade. The trades with the most men serving with the unit were Carpenters and Joiners at 34, Fitters at 16, Engineer Artificers (internal combustion and pumps) at 13 and Blacksmiths and Bricklayers at 12 each. All these men would have passed a trade test to qualify for each trade. Then there was the trade of Pioneer which was for those who were trained for field works, bridge building, skilled manual tasks but didn’t have a specialised trade. John was a Pioneer. Each trade was clustered together in lettered groups, and Pioneer was in Group E. There were 75 Pioneers serving in the unit, nine in the headquarters and 22 in each troop.
A field squadron also had a variety of transport, including motorcycles, cars, trucks and lorries. The four-wheeled 15-cwt truck was the most numerous vehicle, with thirty in the company along with 21 motorcycles. The squadron was mostly armed with Lee-Enfield Rifles, there also being eight .45 Anti-tank rifles and eight light machine guns. The light machine guns would have been either Lewis or Bren guns. There were also eight light machine guns for the units eight scout cars. The unit also carried thousands of pounds of explosives shown below in a table from the war establishment.
How to Research a Field Squadron
The most important documents to research a field squadron during the war are its war diaries. These were written by an officer of the unit and recorded its location and activities. They often contain appendices in the form of maps, reports and orders and can run to hundreds of pages. Most of the field squadron war diaries end in 1945. All surviving war diaries are held at the National Archives in London and none have been digitized. I offer a copying service for these documents. As field squadrons served with armoured divisions, you can check the war diaries of the relevant division’s Commander Royal Engineers (C.R.E.). This war diary will contain information about all Royal Engineer units serving in the division.
For example, the 8th Field Company spent the period between 15 December 1940 and 31 August 1945 serving with the 6th Armoured Division. Therefore, if you wanted to find out as much information as possible about the unit, you’d turn to the war diaries of the 6th Armoured Division Commander Royal Engineers. It can be difficult to find out which division a field squadron was serving in. This information will usually be recorded in a war diary. I use Orders of Battle: Second World War 1939-1945 by Lieutenant-Colonel H. F. Joslen to check which division a field squadron was serving with. There could also be additional sources of information in the division’s other Royal Engineer units war diaries. Citations for gallantry medals or honours can also add more information and can be searched as part of the WO 373 series on the National Archives’ website.
How to Research a Soldier who Served in a Field Squadron
A soldier’s service record is the most important document to view if you want to research them. Without one, it’s often impossible to research a soldier’s service during the war. They are still held by the Ministry of Defence and I’ve written a detailed guide on how to order one. Once you have a service record, you can look for the war diaries the soldier served with at the National Archives and find other resources relevant to the soldier’s service. There aren’t a lot of resources available online but there are some if you’re looking for a casualty. Findmypast has digitized the British Army’s casualty lists covering the war and you’ll find soldiers who died during the war, were wounded, reported missing and were taken prisoners of war. Often, the unit they were serving in at the time was recorded. Findmypast also has a selection of prisoner of war records and the British Newspaper Archives.
If the soldier you’re researching was awarded a gallantry medal or honour, you can search for the citation on the National Archives’ website. There are over 200 citations which can be downloaded for a small fee as part of the WO 373 series. If the soldier you’re researching went missing then it is worth looking at the WO 361 series of “Enquiries into Missing Personnel, 1939-1945 War”. These often contain eyewitness accounts of the last sightings of missing soldiers and can be very detailed. If the soldier you’re researching died between 3 September 1939 and 31 December 1947 you can look at their entry on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website. This will tell you where they are buried or commemorated, the date they died, often the unit they were serving with along with other information. If you’re researching a soldier who was a prisoner of war and held in Germany, search the WO 416 series of German record cards. The cards have only been catalogued up to the surname Lusted and haven’t been digitized.