This article on general construction companies will help you to research both the units and those who served with them. I’ve also written other guides to help you research those who served in the British Army during the Second World War:
I also offer a Second World War Soldier Research and Document Copying Service.
General Construction Companies Royal Engineers
General construction companies were war-raised units of the Royal Engineers which were mostly formed between January and April 1940 in Britain. At the time, the British Expeditionary Force was in France and needed large numbers of men to construct fortifications, buildings, roads, etc. In consequence, many new units were formed in the early months of the war, including general construction companies, road construction companies, and artisan works companies, and quickly shipped to France. The new general construction companies were numbered between 653 and 727 but numbers in this block were also used for artisan works companies. For example, there were the 663rd, 666th, 669th, and 670th Artisan Works Companies. During the war, some of the general construction companies were converted into artisan works companies. The raising of general construction companies were widely reported on in local newspapers and the following column published in the Shields Daily News on 5 January 1940 is a typical example:
Tynemouth Tradesmen Wanted for Royal Engineers
Urgent Call for 250 to Volunteer
The War Department has announced that it desires to recruit a number of general construction companies in the Royal Engineers, which are required for urgent engineering works overseas, and the Borough Surveyor of Tynemouth (Mr D. M. O’Herlihy) has been asked to assist in the formation of a new company in Tynemouth borough area.
This company is to consist of officers and about 250 men of other ranks between the ages of 20 and 55 years recruited from blacksmiths, bricklayers, carpenters, joiners, masons, plumbers, painters, decorators, tinsmiths, concreters and drivers of concreting machines.
In addition, non-commissioned officers are required with some engineering and architectural knowledge, Application should be made to the Borough Surveyor of Tynemouth for particulars of rates of pay and conditions of service.
The following war establishment for a general construction company was published in January 1940 and appears in January – June 1940 War Establishments: WO 24/937. held at the National Archives. A general construction company consisted of a headquarters and four works sections and was “organized for general construction work in the field”. Six officers served with a general construction company, with the commanding officer, a Major and the second-in-command a Captain, serving with the headquarters. Each workshop section was commanded by a subaltern, either a Lieutenant or Second Lieutenant. Then there were 253 other ranks. Twenty-five of these other ranks served with the headquarters, while each section contained fifty-six. The total strength of a company was 259 all ranks.
Of the 253 other ranks serving with the company, 230 were tradesmen, having passed a trade test in a particular skill. This will be recorded in a soldier’s service record along with their skill level in that trade. There were ten different trades, with Concreters of whom there were 64 and Pioneers of whom there were 118 making up the bulk of the tradesmen. There were also twenty-six non-tradesmen, all Drivers, though six of them acted as Batmen for the officers, and one each was on sanitary and water duties.
How to Research a General Construction Company
The most important document to research a general construction company is its war diary. This was written by an officer of a company and recorded its location and activities. They often contain appendices in the form of orders, descriptions of works carried out and maps. I offer a copying service for these documents held at the National Archives. Without a war diary, you won’t be able to research a general construction company and you’ll be lucky to find more than a brief reference or two to them online. General construction companies often served as general headquarters troops, on the lines of communications or under the command of a commander royal engineers. They may also have war diaries to consult. To find out if a general construction company was serving under a formation or on the lines of communication, you can turn to an order of battle or the unit’s war diary. Though, it wasn’t always recorded in every war diary. If the unit was serving abroad, then the information will usually be recorded on a field return of other ranks or officers. Below is an extract from the field return of other ranks of the 681st General Construction Company on 17 March 1940 showing it was serving with the II Corps Air Component.
How to Research a Soldier who Served in a General Construction Company
Unless you’re researching an officer, someone who became a casualty, or you hold a large quantity of paperwork, then the only way to research a soldier of a general construction company is to order their service record. Even if the above exceptions apply to the soldier you’re researching, a soldier’s service record will contain a lot of facts which you won’t be able to find elsewhere. They are held by the Ministry of Defence and a £30 fee is currently charged for a copy. I’ve written a separate article on ordering a service record. Once you have a service record, you’ll know which war diaries you need from the National Archives to find out where a soldier served and the activities of his unit. There will be a lot of military jargon in the service record and war diaries and my page on abbreviations and acronyms will help you.
If you’re researching a soldier who was killed, wounded or captured while serving with a general construction company, you can start your research straight away. If a soldier died between 3 September 1939 and 31 December 1947 then their death will be recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Their entry in the database will record where a soldier is buried or commemorated, along with the date of their death and other information such as their next of kin. Often, the exact unit a soldier was serving with will appear but it may just say Royal Engineers. Once you know a soldier’s unit, turn to its war diary to see if the circumstances of his death were recorded.
If you’re researching a soldier who was wounded or taken prisoner, you can search the casualty lists and prisoner of war records on Findmypast. Many soldiers serving with general construction companies were taken prisoner in France in May and June 1940. If a unit was recorded, then you can turn to its war diary to find out more. Findmypast also has the digitized British Newspaper Archive which is very useful to search if you’re looking for a casualty. Though, only a fraction of newspapers from the Second World War have been digitized. On 10 May 1940, Sapper Arthur Ernest Payton of the 697th General Construction Company was killed in an air raid on the Bapaume-Grévillers Aerodrome. Eight soldiers of the Company were killed, two died of wounds and many more were wounded. In its 25 May 1940 edition, the Bath Weekly Chronicle and Herald published this photograph of Arthur, “who came through the last Great War with only slight wounds”. There are six paragraphs in the column containing a lot of information about his life, including the fact that he rejoined the army “against the wishes of his wife” after he lost his job as a builder.
The National Archives has started to catalogue the WO 416 series of index cards created by the Germans for their prisoners of war. So far, surnames between Aaby and Lusted have been catalogued. If you’re researching an officer, you can search for them in the London Gazette to find out when they were commissioned as well as any subsequent promotions, honours or awards. Depending on the reason an officer appears in the gazette, they may be recorded either by their full name or just initials.