Quarrying Companies of the Royal Engineers

This article will look at the quarrying 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 war:

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

Quarrying Companies of the Royal Engineers

Eight quarrying companies were formed by the British Army during the Second World War. These were wartime units with no peacetime equivalent. They were the 125th, 851st, 853rd, 854th, 855th, 856th, 857th and 858th Quarrying Companies. There was no 852nd Quarrying Company. Large numbers of civilian labourers were also employed, both in Britain and abroad, to provide the army with stone.

Quarrying companies were smaller than most Royal Engineers’ companies, having just 4 officers and 181 other ranks at full establishment. This compared to around 6 officers and 250 other ranks for most of the Corps’ companies.  As quarrying companies made up less than 1% of the strength of the Royal Engineers, you’ll unlikely to find that many references to them. The following quarrying company war establishment was “Notified in Army Council Instructions for the week ending 22nd November, 1939”. It appears in WO 24/936: War Establishments held at the National Archives in London and was given the designation IV/12B/2. It was the war establishment which quarrying companies used for the first two and a half years of the war before it was replaced by IV/12B/3 in the summer of 1942.

A quarrying company contained a headquarters, a technical section and two sections. In the headquarters could be found the commanding officer, a Captain along with a subaltern, either a Lieutenant or Second Lieutenant. No officer served with the technical section and each of the other two sections contained a subaltern. This gave a quarrying company a strength of four officers. There was one warrant officer, a Company Serjeant-major who served with the headquarters. Also serving with the headquarters was a Company Quarter-master-serjeant, one Corporal, five Sappers and five Drivers Internal Combustion (I.C.). This gave the headquarters a total strength of fifteen, which made it the smallest part of a quarrying company.

The technical section was the largest part of a quarrying company containing eighty-eight ranks. There was a Military Mechanist, a Serjeant who acted as the Storeman, four Corporals, including two Drivers I.C., forty-two Sappers and forty Drivers I.C. Each of the two sections was commanded by either a Lieutenant or Second Lieutenant. They also contained one Serjeant, two Corporals, thirty Sappers and one Driver I.C. Of the other ranks serving with a quarrying company, 122 were tradesmen having passed a trade test in a specific skill. If a soldier passed a trade test, then it should appear in their service record. There were sixty-four Quarrymen, twelve Drillers, six Blacksmiths, six Engine Artificers and smaller numbers of Carpenters and Joiners, Clerks, Masons etc. For transport, a quarrying company had four motorcycles, one 2-seater car, one 30-cwt lorry, and twenty 3-ton tip lorries. The latter lorries were “to be held in engineer base park and issued when required”. There was also one 15-cwt two-wheeled water tank. For arms, a company had five .38-inch revolvers and twenty Lee-Enfield rifles.

Researching a Quarrying Company

The most important document to research a quarrying company during the Second World War is its war diary. This was written by an officer of a company and recorded its location and activities. They are held at the National Archives in London and I offer a copying service for the records. Without consulting a company’s war diary, it is very difficult to find even the most basic information about them. The war diaries of each quarrying company are listed below with links to their entries in the National Archives’ catalogue. A good document which provides a lot of context regarding the roles of the 125th, 853rd, 855th, 856th, and 858th Quarrying Companies on continental Europe in 1944 and 1945 is History of the Quarry Group by Lieutenant-Colonel A. R. O. Williams WO 205/1190.

125th Quarrying Company

This unit was recruited by the manager of Skipton Rock Company Ltd. in April 1940 at the request of the War Office. The manager, who became the Company’s first commanding officer. was Major J. E. Weatherill. He recruited the Company from the Leeds, Skipton, and Bradford area and it was trained between June and September at the No.22 Training Centre Royal Engineers at Halifax. The Company initially worked as a bomb disposal unit in the Chelmsford area, with the designation 125th Quarrying Company (Bomb Disposal). Returning to Halifax in early 1941, the Company subsequently moved to Skipton in May, where it spent the next year quarrying. In May 1942, the Company was sent to Sorvagur, in the Faroe Islands where it quarried until returning to Britain in September 1943. Once home, the Company moved to Garelochhead.

  • 01 September 1940 – 31 December 1941
  • WO 166/3622
  • Notes: This is a more detailed war diary than is usually found for quarrying company units serving in Britain. It also contains a handful of appendices. The most interesting is a series of letters relating to the complaints of Mr B. Newton Brooks on the running of the Company. This man handed a letter to Ernest Bevin, then Minister of Labour in July 1941. Major Weatherall wrote a detailed letter in response remarking on his surprise that B. Newton Brooks “should be so ill advised as to write a letter on a subject of which he knows nothing whatever about”. Just the kind of appendix you want to come across after many pages detailing quarrying at Skipton!
  • 01 January – 31 May 1942
  • WO 166/8081
  • Notes: This is a very good war diary with a lot of information both in the daily entries and the wide variety of appendices it contains. Appendices include a couple of Part II orders, movement orders, strength return, nominal rolls of officers, etc. There are nominal rolls of other ranks from May prior to the unit’s embarkation which include each soldier’s army numbers.
  • 01 June 1942 – July 1943
  • WO 176/89
  • Notes: A very good war diary with a lot of detailed entries covering the Company’s service on the Faroe Islands. Appendices are mostly production returns and quarrying progress reports.
  • 01 August – 31 December 1943
  • WO 166/12057
  • Notes: This is a good war diary with a lot detail. There are a small number of appendices, including There are weekly production returns for August, a strength return on embarkation dated 2 September which includes a nominal roll of officers and other ranks, the latter with army numbers included.

851st Quarrying Company

The 851st Quarrying Company was formed in 1940, and also spent a period working as a bomb disposal company. Its designation during this time was the 851st Quarrying Company (Bomb Disposal). On 1 January 1941, the Company was stationed at Blackheath, and moved later in the month to Garelochhead, thirty miles northwest of Glasgow. Here, the Company spent the next two years. On 5 January 1943, the Company embarked on board the Bergensfjord for the journey to Algeria. The Company disembarked at Algiers, the capital of Algeria on 17 January. Once ashore, the Company moved to Rouiba, to the east of Algiers, where it remained until 13 February. On this date, the Company began a journey to “Djebel Reioua” near the town of Mondovi, now Drean. Here, the Company quarried until at least late June 1943.

  • 01 January – 31 December 1941
  • WO 166/3927
  • Notes: Not the most detailed of war diaries but this is to be expected considering the Company remained in the same location for most of this period. There are no appendices.
  • 01 January – 31 December 1942
  • WO 166/8337
  • Notes: The same level as detail as the Company’s first war diary. There are no appendices.
  • 01 January – 30 June 1943
  • WO 175/703
  • Notes: A good war diary for a quarrying company abroad. There are field returns of officers and other ranks as appendices.

853rd Quarrying Company

The 853rd Quarrying Company was formed in consequence of “an appeal by the Institute of Quarrying to its members asking for volunteers to form a few complete companies for quarrying operations abroad” in May 1940. Mr Joseph Setchell, the general manager of the Old Delabole Slate Company Ltd was appointed as the Company’s first commanding officer in June 1940, and instructed to begin recruitment. The Company was trained at the No.22 Training Centre Royal Engineers at Halifax and in late September 1940, was informed it was to work as a bomb disposal company. After training at St Germans, Cornwall, the Company was moved to Brislington in early November. Fortunately for the Company, it wasn’t long before the unit left the dangerous work of bomb disposal and returned to quarrying. The Company spent most of 1941 quarrying in Northern Ireland at Carrowdore , having landed at Larne in early February. In May 1942, the Company moved to Woodstock, Oxfordshire, where it spent the remainder of the year. In July 1943, the Company moved to Wheatley, to the east of Oxford. The Company remained at Wheatley until October when it moved to the No.3 Practice Camp, Royal Artillery, at Otterburn where it spent the remainder of the year.

  • May, then 16 July 1940 – December 1941
  • WO 166/3928
  • Notes: This is a good war diary with a lot of information which has the benefit of being typed. There are a lot of appendices. One, dated 26 July 1941 is titled “Report on production possibilities, condition of plant, and additional plant required should 853 Quarrying Company, R.E. continue to work Morrows Quarry and take over Belshaws Quarry, both in White Mountain Area”. This includes maps of the quarries. There are also a small number of other appendices concerning “Stone production statistics”, the “Monthly return of mechanical plant & transport”, statement of strengths, etc.
  • 1942
  • WO 166/8338
  • Notes: This is a good war diary with a lot of information. Rather than daily entries, each month has a record of the unit’s location, strength, administration, training, works, etc. Appendices include monthly returns of “mechanical plant and transport held” with the vehicle numbers recorded, “Stone production Statistics”, reports on quarries, and a training programme. There is also map of White Table Mountain Quarries.
  • 1943
  • WO 166/12261
  • Notes: This war diary follows the same format as that for 1942, and is also typed. There are a wide range of appendices.
  • 01 January – 08 March 1946
  • WO 171/9476
  • Notes: The only entry for January is “Operating quarries at Bramsche, Steinbergen, Northeim, Osnabruck”. Entries for February and early March are slightly better. For appendices, there is a daily situation report for January, field returns of officers and other ranks, and a document on the Company’s disbandment.

854th Quarrying Company

The 854th Quarrying Company was formed at Halifax in late July 1940, by Thomas William Owen, who became the unit’s first commanding officer. It was reported that of the initial 105 other ranks to join the unit on its formation, 90 were from Blaenau Ffestiniog, a town in north Wales. There were a lot of slate quarries in the area. Captain Owen had “personally recruited” these men. In true Welsh fashion, within a week of the unit’s formation, the Company already had its own Welsh male voice choir. After a brief spell as a bomb disposal company at Mill Hill, London in late 1940, the Company was sent to Scotland to quarry at Cairnryan. This village is located seventy-eight miles south of Glasgow and 100 miles west of Carlisle. It was chosen to be the site of the No.2 Military Port, and huge quantities of stone was needed in its construction. The Company was tasked with providing stone for the port’s jetties. It was still quarrying at Cairnryan in December 1942.

  • 24 July 1940 – December 1941
  • WO 166/3929
  • Notes: A mixed war diary which has a lot of detail for some months, while others have barely any entries. There are some monthly summaries for July and August which add some much needed information for the period. There are no appendices and the war diary is typed.
  • 12 January –  31 December 1942
  • WO 166/8339
  • Notes: Mostly short entries in this typed war diary, which still provides a good account of the Company’s activities during the year. There are no appendices.
  • January – June, then August – December 1945
  • WO 170/5304
  • Notes:

855th Quarrying Company

The 855th Quarrying Company was formed at Barton Stacey in April 1941. Its first commanding officer was Captain H. W. Morton. By the end of the month, the Company had a strength of one officer and thirteen other ranks. On 5 May, 83 other ranks joined from the 681st General Construction Company, with more officers and other ranks also arriving later in the month. In June, the Company moved to Poolewe, Scotland where it began quarrying. The Company left Poolewe on New Year’s Day 1942 for Darlington, before proceeding on to Silsden “to work the Skipton Rock Quarry” . A detachment left the main body to proceed abroad on 29 January. On 28 February, the Company moved to Cowling, six miles away. Here, the Company remained working the Skipton and Southowram Quarries until it moved to Skipton on 21 May. On 10 June, half the Company was sent to the 806th Road Construction Company at Castlemartin, while the other half was sent to the 808th Road Construction Company at Sennybridge. At both locations its soldiers were engaged on quarrying for road construction.

  • April – December 1941
  • WO 166/3930
  • Notes: A good war diary. Rather than having daily entries for the period between September and December, the war diary has summaries of the Company’s activities. There are no appendices.
  • 01 January – July 1942
  • WO 166/8340
  • Notes: A short typed war diary with sparse daily entries and some months containing a summary only. There are no appendices.
  • January – February, then April – December 1944
  • WO 171/1717
  • Notes:

856th Quarrying Company

There doesn’t appear to be any war diaries for the 856th Quarrying Company prior to September 1943, when the unit received orders to mobilize for service overseas. At the time, it was stationed at Belmore House, Shandon, Dumbartonshire. On 14 June 1941, the Company was stationed at Achnasheen, Scotland. Its strength was only 4 officers and 88 other ranks, so the Company had most likely been formed shortly beforehand, probably in April or May considering the 855th Quarrying Company had been created in April 1941. At the end of the year, the Company was stationed at Woodstock, Oxfordshire. By 27 June 1942, the Company had moved to Sennybridge, Wales.

  • 27 September -31 December 1943
  • WO 166/12262
  • Notes: An average typed war diary for a unit serving in Britain which still contains a lot of information. There are no appendices.
  • 01 – 30 June 1945
  • WO 166/17011
  • Notes: A short typed war diary covering the mobilization of the Company. The only appendix is a daily situation report.

857th Quarrying Company

The 857th Quarrying Company was formed at Garelochhead, Scotland on 9 October 1942 “under the supervision of No.1 Military Port”. A small cadre from the 851st Quarrying Company was sent to the unit on its formation, including Captain P. G. J. Gray who became the first commanding officer. The company remained working at Garelochhead until at least July 1943, apart from a period of military training at Edinburgh.

  • October – 31 December 1942
  • WO 166/8341
  • Notes: A good war diary covering the formation of the Company and its early work at Garelochhead. There is a detailed appendix at the end of November showing the work undertaken by the unit which also includes a “Sketch plan showing south end of construction work” at the No.1 Military Port. This is an A4 sketch.
  • 01 January – 15 July 1943
  • WO 166/12263
  • Notes: A short typed war diary, which contains no appendices.

858th Quarrying Company

The 858th Quarrying Company was formed in March 1943 at East Camp, Street, Somerset. Its first commanding officer was Captain W. H. R. Evans. On 30 July, the Company left East Camp and moved to the Drill Hall, Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Here, the unit took over quarrying from the 853rd Quarrying Company. It remained at Woodstock for the rest of the year.

  • 23 March – 22 December 1943
  • WO 166/12264
  • Notes: A typed war diary which provides enough information to give a good account of the Company’s activities. The war diary is typed and there are no appendices.