This page looks at the service of the 51st Company Pioneer Corps in 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. Many of these articles look at the Pioneer Corps:
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The 51st Company Pioneer Corps
The 51st Company Pioneer Corps was a war-raised unit which was in existence for less than two years. It was most likely formed around early November 1939 in Britain, for service in France with the British Expeditionary Force. At the time, the Pioneer Corps was known as the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, and over a hundred of its companies were sent to France to provide military labour. The most important document to research a unit is its war diary, written by one of its officers which recorded its location and activities. Unfortunately, the war diary of the 51st Company doesn’t begin until 20 December 1939, when it landed at Cherbourg, France. From Cherbourg, the Company was moved to Le Havre, where it spent most of its time working on the docks. It also sent a detachment to work with the No.3 Field Bakery of the Royal Army Service Corps at Bolbec, nineteen miles northeast of Le Havre.
In March 1940, a detachment of fifty other ranks from the 105th Company Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps was attached to the Company. This detachment worked for the Army Post Office at Le Havre. The Company remained working at Le Havre until 21 May, when it was ordered to take up a defensive position near the port. Around a week was spent holding defensive positions in the area before the Company returned to its work on the docks. On 7 June, the Company left Le Havre. It reached Brest on the morning of the 9th, where it began work on the docks. On 17 June, the Company was evacuated at Brest on “at least four different boats”. One of these ships was the Bellerophon. Most of the Company landed at Plymouth on the morning of the 18th, from where the unit was moved to Willsworthy Camp, Dartmoor. Willsworthy is nineteen miles north of Plymouth. After arriving, the war diary reported:
Company is still short of Lieutenant Smith and some 50 men who arrived at Plymouth but were despatched elsewhere. Also the 30 odd men and non-commissioned officers who were left on the Company Dump South of the Seine but have not been traced but believe they were attached to some other company.
In these various moves Company lost its entire office equipment including all its records. The officers, non-commissioned officers and men have lost practically all their kits.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission recorded one death for the Company during the campaign. On 17 June, Private Joseph McKigney was killed in action. He was on board the Lancastria which sank with the loss of an estimated 4,000-6,000 lives off Saint-Nazaire. The ship was evacuating troops and civilians when it was hit during an air raid and sank rapidly. Joseph is commemorated on the Dunkirk Memorial to those with no known graves. He had been admitted to hospital in February and hadn’t returned to the Company which is why he was being evacuated at Saint-Nazaire.
The Company remained at Willsworthy Camp throughout July, as it was re-equipped. Rather than returning to its labouring tasks, the 51st Company was converted into a home defence unit. There were around thirty-four home defence companies of the Pioneer Corps. In July, the Company was sent to protect Royal Air Force Chilmark, also known as the No.11 Maintenance Unit. This was an armament depot which was built at a disused limestone quarry to the south of Chilmark. It was in use by the R.A.F. up until the early 1990s. The Company remained at Chilmark until January 1941.
It was at Chilmark on 10 October that Company Serjeant-Major Percy Durrant was shot and fatally wounded by Private Francis Dignan Collins of the Company. Company Serjeant-Major Durrant had sentenced Private Collins to a period of detention just before he was shot. The killing was widely reported in the national press at the time. Percy Durrant was a 44-year-old veteran of the First World War, who had rejoined the army on the outbreak of war. In its 30 October 1940 edition, The Midland Daily Telegraph reported under the header “Soldier on Murder Charge”:
When Private Francis Dignam Collins (31), of the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, was charged at Salisbury to-day with the murder of Company-Sergeant-Major Percy Durrant, it was alleged by the prosecution that he had told the police: “I lifted the rifle to give him a shock. I knew there was a round in it, but I did not know it was ‘up the spout’.”
Mr J. F. Claxton, prosecuting, said that Collins, who had overstayed his leave, was sentenced to 72 hours’ detention and lost two days’ pay. The charge of being absent without leave was made out by Sergeant-Major Durrant.
Collins was alleged to have said to a soldier: “Imagine getting 72 hours for a —– like that, but I will get him”. He then received an order from the Sergeant-Major to get into a van.
Man Appeared to Go Into Fit
“Immediately,” said Mr. Claxton, “Collins raised his rifle to his hip and fired a shot. The Sergeant-Major fell to the ground, followed by Collins, who appeared to go into a fit. Durrant was rushed to a doctor who, unfortunately, was not in, and when taken to camp headquarters was dead.”
Counsel added that on no account should Collins have had a bullet in the barrel of his rifle except under express instructions. After the incident he was alleged to have said to one of his guards: “I shot Durrant. I hope I have not killed him.”
Private Francis Collins was found not guilty of murder at the Hampshire Assizes in December, but guilty of manslaughter. He was sentenced to ten years of penal servitude.
A photograph of Company Sergeant-Major Percy Durrant which was published in The Liverpool Echo, 16 October 1940.
In January 1941, the Company moved to guard R.A.F. Station Brize Norton, seventeen miles west of Oxford. The Company remained at Brize Norton until the unit was disbanded in early September 1941. The last entry in the Company’s war diary on 25 August recorded that it had received instructions for the “disbandment of (home defence) Pioneer companies”. The Company’s soldiers were transferred to the 10th (Home Defence) Battalion The King’s Regiment (Liverpool). The Battalion’s war diary recorded that the 51st, 106th, and 124th Companies of the Pioneer Corps were transferred to the unit on 3 September.
War Diaries of the 51st Company Pioneer Corps
There are two war diaries for the 51st Company which cover the period between December 1939 and August 1941. Both war diaries are held at the National Archives in London.
- Date: 20 December 1939 – 30 June 1940
- Reference: WO 167/1287
- Notes: A good war diary with a lot of information. There are detailed entries in the war diary covering the Company’s activities from mid-May until its evacuation in June. There are field returns of officers and other ranks as appendices.
- Date: 01 July 1940 – 25 August 1941
- Reference: WO 166/5537
- Notes: A good war diary for a home defence company of the Pioneer Corps between July 1940 and February 1941. After February, there aren’t as many entries and the war diary is poor. There are no appendices.