This article looks at the role of forestry companies of the Royal Engineers during the Second World War. It is one of a series of articles to help you research both units and soldiers who served in the British Army during the Second World War:
I also offer a Second World War Soldier Research and Document Copying Service.
Forestry Companies of the Royal Engineers in the Second World War
Forestry companies were war-raised units of the Royal Engineers formed to provide the British Army with timber. At least three forestry companies were raised by the British Army during the Second World War. They were the 129th, 130th, and 131st Forestry Companies. A small number were also formed by the Australian, Canadian, Indian and New Zealand Armies. During the early part of the war, forestry companies used a war establishment which had been “Notified in Army Council Instructions for the week ending 1st November 1939”. This was given the designation IV/1931/12A/1 and had been replaced by a similar war establishment, designated IV/1931/12A/2 by the end of 1941. The first war establishment for the unit can be found in WO 24/936: War Establishments 1939 held at the National Archives in London. It is recorded below.
A forestry company was divided into a headquarters and four sections. In the headquarters could be found the commanding officer, a Captain and his second-in-command, either a Lieutenant or Second Lieutenant. Each section was commanded by a Lieutenant or Second Lieutenant, giving a forestry company a strength of six officers. At least two of the officers held the rank of Lieutenant. Also found serving in the headquarters was the only warrant officer serving with the unit, a Company Serjeant-Major. There was also a Company Quartermaster-Serjeant serving with the headquarters, along with a Serjeant. Then there were two Corporals, fifteen Sappers and nineteen Drivers Internal Combustion (I.C.). The latter soldiers drove and maintained a company’s transport. This gave the headquarters a total strength of 41 all ranks, making it the largest part of a forestry company.
Each section of a company had the same composition. There was a Sergeant, two Corporals and twenty-four Sappers for a total strength of 28 including one officer. At full establishment a forestry company had a strength of 6 officers and 147 other ranks. This made it a smaller unit than most Royal Engineers companies, which tended to have around 250 soldiers. Of the other ranks who served with a forestry company, 120 were tradesmen having passed a test in a particular skill. If a soldier passed a trade test, it should be recorded in their service record. Fifty-seven held the trade of axemen, sixteen were sawyers, four were saw doctors, three were millwrights and there were also small numbers of blacksmiths, carpenters and joiners, clerks, cooks etc. The twenty non-tradesmen were Drivers I.C. Three of these soldiers acted as batmen, one was on sanitary duties and another on water duties. For transport, a forestry company had eight bicycles, one motorcycle, one 4-seater 4-wheeled car, two utility cars, six 3-ton 4-wheeled lorries and a 15-cwt water tank trailer. For armament, each officer had a .38-inch revolver and there were twenty Lee-Enfield rifles as a “Pool to be used as required”.
An axeman serving with the 2nd Forestry Company of the Royal Australian Engineers felling a tree in Northumberland in 1940.
Researching a Forestry Company of the Royal Engineers
The most important document for researching a forestry company is its war diary held at the National Archives in London. A war diary was written by an officer of a unit and recorded its location and activities. Without a war diary, you’ll struggle to find even the most basic information about a forestry company. I offer a document copying service for these records. The links below will take you to the first war diaries of the 129th, 130th, and 131st Forestry Companies. There are also war diaries for the No.1 Forestry Group, which administered the companies. However, these don’t add a lot of information for each company but can be useful for adding a bit of context regarding how the units trained and operated.
129th Forestry Company
The 129th Forestry Company was formed at the No.1 Training Battalion of the Royal Engineers at Shorncliffe, Kent in October 1939. It was the first forestry company to be created during the war. The Company remained at Shorncliffe until 7 January 1940, when it embarked for France, landing at Cherbourg the next morning. Most of the Company’s service in France was spent at Crecy-en-Ponthieu, to the north of Abbeville, and at La Mailleraye to the west of Rouen. The Company was evacuated at St. Malo on 17 June. After returning to Britain, the Company moved to Cinderford, Gloucestershire in August where it was still working at the end of 1941.
- 13 October 1939 – 17 June 1940
- WO 167/943
- Notes: This is a good war diary with a lot of information, especially for May and June 1940. There are also a small number of appendices, including field returns of officers and other ranks once the Company was abroad.
- 1 August 1940 – 31 December 1940, then 1 October – 31 December 1941
- WO 166/3628
- Notes: There are some longer entries for the first part of this war diary, but it is missing the period between January and September 1941. The second part of the war diary is very poor with only a small number of short entries.
130th Forestry Company
The 130th Forestry Company was formed at Cleethorpes at the No.22 Training Centre of the Royal Engineers on 20 June 1940. Around early July, the Company followed the Training Centre to Halifax. In late September, the Company moved to Ollerton. The Company was still stationed at Ollerton at the end of 1941.
- 24 September 1940 – 31 December 1941
- WO 166/3629
- Notes: This war diary contains basic information about the Company’s activities during this period but isn’t very detailed. Most months have summaries, with a couple of daily entries. There are no appendices.
131st Forestry Company
The 131st Forestry Company was formed around July 1940. When its war diary begins on 28 September 1940, the Company was preparing to leave the No.22 Training Centre of the Royal Engineers at Halifax. The Company moved to Broadwell, in Gloucestershire in October 1940, and was still stationed in the village at the end of December 1941.
- 28 September 1940 – 31 December 1941
- WO 166/3630
- Notes: This is a very good war diary which is packed full of information. It also has the added benefit of mostly being typed. There are no appendices.