Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers

This article looks at tunnelling companies of the Royal Engineers during the Second World War. It is one of a series of guides I’ve written to help you research soldiers who served in the British Army during the war. Many of these guides look at the different units of the Royal Engineers.

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

Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers

Tunnelling companies were war-raised units of the Royal Engineers which had no peacetime equivalent in the British Army. Around nine tunnelling companies were formed during the Second World War. As their name implies, they were created to dig tunnels. During the First World War, the static nature of trench warfare on the Western Front meant that tunnelling companies were used to dig under no man’s land to lay explosives beneath German positions. However, the nature of the fighting during the Second World War meant there wasn’t the opportunity to use tunnelling companies in this role. Though, tunnels were still dug by the companies away from the frontline. As well as digging tunnels, other tasks carried out by the companies included excavating deep shelters, quarrying, and general field engineering. Tunnelling companies served in a variety of locations during the war, including in France, Gibraltar and Malta. The companies were of particular importance in the last two locations due to the hard rock which needed to be excavated to construct shelters.

Many of the soldiers who served with tunnelling companies were miners in civilian life, but this wasn’t always the case. When the 178th Tunnelling Company was formed at St Mary’s Barracks, Chatham, in May 1940, Z Holding Company of the Royal Engineers supplied 167 soldiers. The Company’s war diary noted that “among these were some miners, but due to some mistake a lot of printers and other trades not associated with mining were included in the above draft”. Infantrymen with mining experience were also transferred to the Royal Engineers and posted to tunnelling companies.

The War Establishment of a Tunnelling Company

Each unit of the British Army had its own war establishment which recorded its structure and composition. The war establishment of a tunnelling company underwent a number of changes during the war. The first establishment was “Notified in Army Council Instructions for the week ending 15th November, 1939” and was designated III/1931/16B/1. It was replaced by an establishment designated III/1931/16B/2 which was “Notified in Army Council Instructions for the week ending 15th May, 1940”. Both war establishments kept the same structure. However, the number of soldiers serving in a tunnelling company was drastically reduced from 577 all ranks in the November 1939 establishment to 213 all ranks in May 1940. The May 1940 establishment, which was replaced about a year and a half later, is provided below.

A tunnelling company consisted of a headquarters, and four sections each of four reliefs. It had a strength of 6 officers and 207 other ranks. A Major commanded a company, with a Captain as second-in-command. Both officers served with the headquarters. Twenty-seven other ranks also served with the Headquarters, including the only warrant officer, a Company Serjeant-major. Each section had the same composition. A subaltern, either a Lieutenant or Second Lieutenant commanded a section. Then there were forty-five other ranks. Of the other ranks who served with a tunnelling company, 184 had passed a trade test in a specific skill. The tradesmen were:

  • 1 Blacksmith
  • 1 Carpenter and joiner
  • 1 Clerk
  • 1 Fitter
  • 1 Engine Artificer
  • 56 Miners
  • 118 Pioneers, Royal Engineers
  • 5 Cooks

Each section contained fourteen miners and twenty-nine pioneers. The rest of the tradesmen served with the headquarters. A soldier’s trade along with their skill level should appear in their service record. The 16 non-tradesmen were all Drivers Internal Combustion (I.C.). These soldiers drove and maintained a company’s transport. Six of them also acted as batmen to the officers, one was the officers’ mess servant, one was on sanitary duties and one was on water duties. For transport, a tunnelling company had:

  • 2 bicycles
  • 2 motorcycles
  • 1 four-seater four-wheeled car
  • 1 two-seater four-wheeled car
  • 1 30-cwt 4-wheeled winch lorry
  • 2 3-ton 4-wheeled general service lorries

For weaponry, a company was armed with eight .38-inch pistols, 205 Lee-Enfield rifles, and four light machine guns.

How to Research a Tunnelling Company

The most important document to research a tunnelling company during the Second World War is its war diary. This was written by an officer of a unit and recorded its location and activities. Without a war diary, you’ll often struggle to find out even the most basic information regarding a tunnelling company. All war diaries are held at the National Archives in London and I offer a copying service for the documents. Tunnelling companies could serve as corps, general headquarters or command troops and there may be war diaries for their headquarters. The order of battle for tunnelling companies can be difficult to find. The easiest way is to look at the tunnelling company’s war diary. Below is an extract from the field return of other ranks for the 173rd Tunnelling Company for April 1940. At the bottom right-hand there is a section for the writer to record which “Brigade, Division, Area, etc, with which unit is serving”. Field returns usually only appear in a war diary when a unit was serving abroad.

At the time, the 173rd Tunnelling Company was serving with General Headquarters Troops. There is a war diary for the General Headquarters Troops Engineers which would be worthwhile looking at if you’re researching the 173rd Tunnelling Company’s service in France as the unit’s war diary is quite poor. The General Headquarters Troops Engineers’ war diary may contain references to the 173rd Tunnelling Company in its daily entries or appendices.

173rd Tunnelling Company Field Return of Other RanksAn extract from the field return of other ranks for the 173rd Tunnelling Company showing it was serving as part of General Headquarters Troops in France in April 1940.

Other possible sources of information are the war diaries of units which worked with or at the same location as the tunnelling company you’re researching. These will often be other Royal Engineers units or companies from the Pioneer Corps. A tunnelling company’s war diary will usually mention if it’s working with another unit. However, you’re unlikely to find a lot of information in these war diaries. Though, you could find appendices relating to the work undertaken, especially if the tunnelling company you’re researching was working abroad.