Pioneer Corps

This article is about the Pioneer Corps and will help you to research both the Corps and the soldiers who served with it during the Second World War. First, an overview is provided of the Pioneer Corps before you can learn how to research any of its hundreds of companies or a soldier who served with the Corps. This is just one of my guides on researching soldiers who served in the British Army during the war:

I also offer a Second World War Soldier Research and Document Copying Service.

The Pioneer Corps in the Second World War

On 17 October 1939, shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps was formed. In November 1940, it was redesignated as the Pioneer Corps and in 1946 was granted the Royal prefix on account of its valuable work during the war. The Corps’ antecedent in the First World War was the Labour Corps. Leslie Hore-Belisha, the War Secretary, spoke of the new corps just before its formation:

We are also in the process of forming an Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, to be organised in battalions which will take over military pioneer work both overseas and here. It will not be composed of the men of early military age and all will be volunteers. Here then is another outlet for military service which it is so generally desired to give.

The overwhelming majority of those who served with the Pioneer Corps were either too old to serve in a front line unit or had been placed in a low medical category. Many of the older soldiers were veterans of the First World War. There were also thousands of refugees, many of them Jewish, who initially served in “Alien Companies” of the Pioneer Corps. After a period of service in the Pioneer Corps, many were transferred to other regiments or corps. There were also companies raised from across the world, including of Indians, Basutos (from present-day Lesotho), Mauritians and Palestinians. The photograph below shows men at a London recruiting office wishing to enlist in the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps on 26 October 1939, the opening day of the Corps’ enlistment.

Pioneer Corps recruiting

Most of the Corps’ units were companies which were divided into sections which often worked away from each other. The Pioneer Corps served around the world during the war, from Iceland and Italy to Madagascar and Malta. Wherever the British Army was operating, there was usually a large number of Pioneer Corps companies.

The tasks of the Pioneer Corps were varied but often involved manual labour. Many units found themselves stationed at ports, railheads and bases to help load or unload supplies. Work was also carried out on the construction and repair or roads and railways, often with the Royal Engineers. Over fifty Pioneer Corps companies served in London during the Blitz, clearing debris, demolishing damaged buildings, keeping roads open and rescuing survivors of the air raids. This was dangerous work and over a hundred soldiers of the Pioneer Corps were killed or seriously wounded during the Blitz. The Pioneer Corps also formed smoke companies which produced smoke screens. These companies were used both in Britain and around the world and were used to screen areas from air raids, e.g. oil refining plants at Suez, naval sites at Plymouth and Chatham and dams in Britain after the successful raid on Mohne Dam by the R.A.F.

Researching a Pioneer Corps Company

Researching a company of the Pioneer Corps is very difficult and often impossible without consulting their war diaries held at the National Archives in London. These documents were written by an officer serving with a company and recorded its location and activities. They often contain appendices in the form of orders, maps and reports. There are over 6,000 war diaries for the Pioneer Corps at the National Archives. I’ve written a separate article on how to find war diaries and offer a document copying service for them.

Pioneer Corps war diaries can be very hit and miss regarding the level of detail found in them. While some contain long detailed entries and lots of appendices, you’ll often find brief and repetitive entries. Most companies served as part of a group which administered a number of companies under its command. I’d recommend also looking at the war diaries of the group the company was serving in as these will usually add more information and contain appendices missing from a company war diary. The group a company was serving with was usually recorded in its war diary. Below is an extract from a field return of officers of the 152nd Company showing that on 28 November 1942, it was serving with the No.26 Group.

Field Return of Officers 152nd Pioneer Corps

Not all war diaries will contain field returns of officers as they are usually only found when a company was abroad. They will usually be found with a field return of other ranks which also recorded the group, or area the company was serving under. If the company was serving in Britain, you’ll often find a mention of the group within the daily war diary. Companies also served with areas, on the lines of communication, as army troops etc. and these usually have war diaries to consult. Orders of battle are very useful for finding out which group, area or formation a pioneer corps company is serving with. Unfortunately, they are held at the National Archives but I’ve written an article on two of them:

Another source of possible information is the war diaries of other Pioneer Corps companies which were part of the same group or mentioned in the war diary of the company you’re researching. An order of battle or group war diary will record all the companies under its command. Pioneer Corps companies often worked closely with Royal Engineer companies. As you read a war diary, note down any mention of field companies, artisan works companies, general construction companies etc. and look at their war diaries.

There is a good history of the Pioneer Corps A War History of the Royal Pioneer Corps, 1939-1945 by Major E. H. Rhodes-Wood but it can be quite difficult to find. The book is most useful for providing a history of the entire Corps rather than of individual units, though companies are mentioned throughout.

Researching a Soldier who Served with the Pioneer Corps

The most important document to research a soldier who served in the Pioneer Corps is their service record which is held by the Ministry of Defence. Without a service record, most soldiers will be impossible to research unless they became a casualty, you have a large quantity of documentation relating to their service or they were an officer. Even in these cases, you often hit a brick wall with your research very quickly. A service record should provide you with all the units a soldier served with and when. With this information, you can then view the correct war diaries to find out where they were stationed and the activities of their units. I’ve written a separate article on how to order a service record from the Ministry of Defence.

There are only a small number or resources available online if you’re researching a soldier who served in the British Army during the war. One of the most important is the War Office casualty lists available to search on Findmypast. These record all soldiers who died, were wounded, went missing or were captured during the war. Often, the exact company of a casualty was recorded, though they may just appear in a list headed “Pioneer Corps”. With the date and unit of a casualty, you can turn to the company war diary to find out more. Findmypast also has the British Library’s digitized newspaper archive which is an important collection to search if you’re looking for a casualty. However, only a fraction of newspapers have been digitized from 1939-1945.

Another source of information for soldiers of the Pioneer Corps which is online is the citations for honours and awards which are part of the WO 373 series. These can be downloaded for a small fee from the National Archives’ website. If you’re looking for a prisoner of war of the Germans, you can search the WO 416 series. However, this series has only been catalogued between the surnames Aaby and Lusted at present, though work is continuing. If you’re researching an officer, you can search the London Gazette for the date they were commissioned, promotions and any honours or awards. Officers are recorded by both their full name and initials in the gazette. The London Gazette‘s search engine is very unreliable.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission recorded the deaths of all soldiers who died between 3 September 1939 and 31 December 1947. Over 4,400 soldiers who died serving with the Pioneer Corps are listed with information recording their date of death and where they are buried or commemorated. A soldier’s company wasn’t always recorded but if it was, you can turn to its war diary to see if the circumstances of the soldier’s death was recorded. Other information, may also be recorded e.g. the next of kin, the soldier’s age or any honours or awards.