This article looks at road construction companies of the Royal Engineers during the Second World War. It is one of a series of articles I’ve written 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.
Road Construction Companies of the Royal Engineers
Road construction companies were war-raised units of the Royal Engineers whose primary purpose was to build and maintain roads, though they also carried out a wide variety of other engineering work. While road construction companies had been used in the First World War, they were disbanded shortly after the end of the conflict. A lot of road construction companies were formed in haste during the first months of the war for service with the British Expeditionary Force in France. A recruitment campaign targeted civilians who were involved in road construction which meant that units were soon brought up to strength. For the first three years of the war, the companies had a strength of just over a hundred soldiers. Most road construction companies were numbered between 113 and 122, and then 800 to 811. The 653rd Artisan Works Company and 681st General Construction Company were converted into road construction companies during the war.
Road construction companies served across the world, including continental Europe, in the Middle East, and Africa. A handful of West African road construction sections served in the Burma Campaign. The extract below was taken from the appendix “Description of Road Works at Bougon Aerodrome”, France which appears in the war diary of the 117th Road Construction Company. It shows the typical work that a road construction company undertook with the British Expeditionary Force in France. The unit landed at Cherbourg, France on 31 October 1939 and was serving with the No.2 Base Sub Area:
The works comprise about 11,150 square yards of new road the general ruling width being 14 feet, and the widening and improving of 650 linear yards of existing roads, also the attendant drainage works. Works commenced 10/11/39 and for the first week an average labour force of 20 were attached; this was increased to 30 on the 20/11/39; 80 on the 23/11/39 and 90 on the 27/11/39. The Company’s available transport, 5 tip lorries, were fully occupied bringing ashes and stone to the job. Approximate amount of work done 13/11/39 to 30/11/39. Finished works 3,220 square yards, 250 linear yards of existing road widened. Drainage ditching, work done 2,500 linear yards. These works are nearly complete.
Due to the large numbers of skilled tradesmen in the companies, they were also used on a wide variety of tasks such as constructing camps, cookhouses and aerodromes, clearing fields of fire, and building anti-tank defences.
Arthur Keeley who served with the 118th Road Construction Company
This photograph of Arthur Keeley was published in the Ellesmere Port Pioneer on 25 August 1944. Arthur served with the 118th Road Construction Company between January 1940 and July 1942. He was twenty-three, living in Ellesmere Port and working as a joiner when he volunteered to join a road construction company. There were widespread advertisements in local newspapers for both road construction and general construction companies of the Royal Engineers in early 1940. Arthur was typical of the type of man who volunteered, who were mostly young men working in the construction industry. Sadly, Arthur died of wounds while serving with the 7th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry on 10 August 1944 during the Normandy Campaign. He is buried in the Tilly-sur-Seulles War Cemetery.
War Establishment of a Road Construction Company
Each unit of the British Army had its own war establishment which recorded its structure and composition. At least three war establishments were in use by road construction companies during the Second World War. The first was “Notified in Army Council Instructions for week ending 1st July, 1936” and given the designation IV/1931/12/2. It was replaced by an establishment “Notified in Army Council Instructions for 7th October, 1942” and designated IV/12/3. This, in turn, was replaced by IV/12/4 “Notified in Army Council Instructions 3rd November, 1943”. The first two war establishments were similar, while the third marked a great increase in the size of a road construction company.
In the establishment which replaced it in 1942, a road construction company only consisted of a headquarters and technical section. The number of soldiers serving in a company was very similar, 105 in the 1936 establishment and 106 in the 1942 one. The latter figure included four soldiers attached from the Army Catering Corps. In the 1943 establishment, the size of a road construction company had been increased to 214 soldiers, and it now included a headquarters, two sections, and a plant section. The first war establishment for a road construction company in use during the war, IV/1931/12/2, is recorded below. A road construction company consisted of:
- One Headquarters
- One Technical Section
- Two Sections
Four officers and 101 other ranks served with a company, giving the unit a total strength of 105. This meant that road construction companies were small units compared to other types of Royal Engineers’ companies which often had around 250 soldiers. A Major commanded the company, with a Captain as second-in-command. Both officers served with the headquarters which had a total strength of 15. The technical section was the largest part of a company containing 74 soldiers. No officers served with the section. Both sections had the same composition. A subaltern, either a Lieutenant or Second Lieutenant commanded the unit. Then there were seven other ranks, giving each section a strength of eight. Of the other ranks, 68 had passed a trade test in a specific skill. If a soldier passed a trade test, it should be recorded in their service record. The following tradesmen served with a company:
- 4 Blacksmiths
- 2 Bricklayers
- 4 Carpenters and joiners
- 2 Clerks
- 2 Concreters
- 2 Drivers, transportation plant
- 1 Draughtsman (architectural)
- 10 Engine hands Internal Combustion (I.C.)
- 2 Fitters
- 4 Fitter drivers
- 2 Masons
- 13 Miscellaneous tradesmen
- 1 Painter and decorator
- 16 Pioneers Royal Engineers
- 1 Plumber and gasfitter
- 1 Surveyor (engineering)
- 1 Tinsmith and whitesmith
Of the non-tradesmen, twenty-five were Drivers Internal Combustion (I.C.). These soldiers drove and maintained a company’s transport. They also provided batmen for the officers. For transport, a company had:
- 1 2-seater car
- 4 motorcycles
- 8 3-ton, 4-wheeled tip lorries. These were “to be held in engineer base park and issued when required”
- 1 30-cwt 4-wheeled general service lorry
- 1 2-wheeled water tank trailer
The 1936 establishment doesn’t record a company’s weaponry. However, the Company would have been armed with .38-inch pistols, Lee-Enfield rifles, and a small number of light machine guns.
Researching Road Construction Companies
Your primary source of information for a road construction company is going to be its war diary. This was written by an officer and recorded a unit’s location and activities. They often contain appendices in the form of movement orders, reports on construction, field returns of officers and other ranks, etc. All war diaries are held at the National Archives in London and can only be viewed on-site. I offer a copying service for these documents and already have a large number of road construction company war diaries.
There may also be the war diary of a sub-area, general headquarters troops, etc. to consult depending on what the road construction company was serving under. This information can be found in the orders of battle held at the National Archives or in the war diaries of the units themselves. For example, while working on the lines of communication, the 117th Road Construction Company was under the command of the No.2 Base Sub Area. This Sub-Area has multiple war diaries, including one for the Commander Royal Engineers which may provide more information for the 117th Company. There may also be the war diaries of Pioneer Corps companies and other Royal Engineer companies to consult if the road construction company you’re researching worked with them. However, they are unlikely to add a lot of information.
An extract from the 28 April 1940 Field Return of Officers for the 118th Road Construction Company recording it was serving with Air Component (South) on this date. Field returns of officers and other ranks usually appear in the war diary of a unit serving outside of Britain.