This article looks at general construction companies of the Royal Engineers and will help you 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. One of these guides looks at artisan works companies, which most general construction companies were converted into:
I also offer a Second World War Soldier Research and Document Copying Service.
General Construction Companies of the Royal Engineers
General construction companies were war-raised units of the Royal Engineers, 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 for construction work, especially for building pillboxes, airfields, and roads. In consequence, many new units were formed in the early months of the war, and quickly shipped to France, including general construction companies, road construction companies, and artisan works companies. 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. The raising of general construction companies was 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.
You’ll find that most of those who volunteered to join general construction companies in 1940 worked in the building trade. One of the benefits of volunteering for these new companies rather than waiting to be conscripted was they offered men the opportunity to continue their civilian trades in the army. Local councils and building firms helped to raise some of the early companies. In the General Return of the Strength of the British Army on the 30th June, 1940, there were sixty general construction companies recorded as serving in Britain. This compared to just fourteen artisan works companies. A small number of additional companies were raised later in the year.
In 1941, general construction companies began to be converted into artisan works companies. They were very similar units. Though, at least one, the 681st General Construction Company, was converted into a road construction company on 1 December 1943. The date a company was converted can usually be found in its war diary. By September 1942, there were only four general construction companies left in Britain, the 667th, 710th, 712th, and 724th Companies. All had been converted to artisan works companies by mid-1943.
War Establishment of a General Construction Company
Each unit of the British Army had its own war establishment which recorded its structure and composition. The war establishment of a general construction company was “Notified in Army Council Instructions for the week ending 17th January, 1940”. It was initially given the designation III/1931/15C/1, but the same week an identical war establishment for a general construction company was published with the designation IV/1931/9A/1. At least some of the companies began using the war establishment for an artisan works company before they were officially converted to one. The January 1940 war establishment is outlined below.
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 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-seven. 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 64 concreters and 118 pioneers making up the bulk of the tradesmen. The other trades were carpenters and joiners, clerks, draughtsmen (architectural), engine artificers, drivers (transportation plant), fitters, platelayers, and engine hands internal combustion. There were also twenty-six non-tradesmen, all drivers internal combustion (I.C.) who drove and maintained a company’s vehicles. Though six of them acted as batmen for the officers, one was on sanitary duties and another on water duties. For transport, a company had:
- Six bicycles
- Five motorcycles
- One 4-seater 4-wheeled car
- One 12-cwt van
- Five 30-cwt 4-wheeled lorries
- One 3-ton 4-wheeled lorry
For weaponry, a company was armed with eleven .38-inch pistols, 248 Lee-Enfield rifles, and four light machine guns. Early in the war, most general construction companies were armed with the First World War era Lewis gun, rather than the Bren gun which replaced it. Though such were the shortages in weapons at the time, there was no guarantee that a general construction company would receive any light machine guns.
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. A general construction company’s dead and where they are buried or commemorated will be recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The easiest way to find a company’s dead is to type “Royal Engineers” into the “Regiment” box, and then the number of the company into the “unit” box. The unit box is available in the “Additional Fields” section. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission hasn’t standardised the terms it uses for units, which is why I’d recommend searching a unit’s number, rather than its full title. Not every soldier of the Royal Engineers has their unit recorded. Once you have a list of soldiers, search their army numbers on Findmypast’s military section. The Royal Engineers index cards and casualty cards for the dead soldiers may shed some light on the unit’s activities. If you find enough index cards belonging to soldiers of a unit, you should be able to find out the date it embarked for overseas service.
General construction companies often served as general headquarters troops, on the lines of communications or under the command of a Commander Royal Engineers. These units often have war diaries to consult which may contain more information on the company you’re researching. 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, this information wasn’t always recorded in every war diary. If the unit was serving abroad, then the information can usually be found on a field return of officers or other ranks. 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. There is a war diary for the General Headquarters Chief Engineers (Air Components) which may provide useful information for the Company. Another source of information is the war diaries of the units a general construction company worked with. These could include other units from the Royal Engineers, the Pioneer Corps, or the infantry. A company’s war diary will usually record this information.
An extract from 17 March 1940 Other Ranks Field Return of the 681st General Construction Company showing the unit was serving with II Corps Air Component at the time.
How to Research a Soldier who Served in a General Construction Company
The most important document to research a soldier during the war is their service record. This document contains a lot of information which isn’t recorded elsewhere and should provide you with a complete list of units a soldier served with. The Ministry of Defence is currently in the process of transferring the service records of Second World War soldiers to the National Archives. Due to the millions of service records that need to be transferred and catalogued, this is a slow process. You’ll find some soldiers from the Royal Engineers already catalogued in the WO 422 series of other ranks of the infantry who were discharged due to being overage. Some soldiers were transferred from the Royal Engineers to the infantry which is why they would appear in this series. If you already know a soldier’s army number, I’d recommend searching it in the National Archives’ catalogue. I’ve written a separate article on ordering a service record.
If you’re researching a soldier who served in the ranks of the Royal Engineers during the war, then I’d recommend searching the Royal Engineers’ tracer cards which have been digitized by Findmypast. You can search the tracer cards by name, army number, or enlistment year. Initials were often recorded rather than full names. Even if you don’t know a soldier’s army number, you can often find a soldier from the information recorded on the tracer card. A card should provide you with a complete list of the units a soldier served with, along with the date they joined them. For example, a soldier who served in a general construction company would have the number of the company followed by G.C.C. on their card. These cards are full of military jargon, and I have a page listing the most common abbreviations and acronyms. There will be more information in a soldier’s service record than is found on their tracer card, so I’d recommend viewing both.
If you’re researching a soldier who was killed, wounded or captured while serving with a general construction company, you have a number of sources to consult, some of which are online. If a soldier died between 3 September 1939 and 31 December 1947, their death will be recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. An entry in the database will record where a soldier is buried or commemorated, along with the date of their death and other information e.g., their next of kin. Often, the exact unit a soldier was serving with will appear but it may just say Royal Engineers. You can also search the Royal Engineers’ Other Ranks Casualty Cards available on Findmypast. The cause of a soldier’s death will usually be found in these cards, and they may contain a detailed account, especially if a soldier wasn’t killed in action. You can search by name or army number. The latter can be found in a soldier’s entry in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database.
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 information. The National Archives has the German record cards of British and Commonwealth prisoners of war (WO 416 series) which has been fully catalogued. You can search for a soldier by name, number, date of birth, and other information. Some of these cards contain photographs of the soldier. 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.
Findmypast also has the British Newspaper Archive which is very useful to search if you’re looking for a casualty. Although, only a fraction of newspapers from the Second World War have been digitized. Local newspapers are a very important source of information if you’re researching a casualty, especially a soldier who died during the war. On 10 May 1940, Sapper Arthur Ernest Payton of the 697th General Construction Company was mortally wounded 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. Arthur’s Royal Engineers’ Other Ranks Casualty Card recorded he “Died 18:15 hours in No.3 Casualty Clearing Station France. Burns and gunshot wound leg”. In its 25 May 1940 edition, the Bath Weekly Chronicle and Herald published a 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.
Sapper Arthur Ernest Payton of the 697th General Construction Company is buried in Fillièvres British Cemetery.