The Electrical & Mechanical Engineers - A Brief History

An old foot-slogger salutes the Corps of EME

Columnist Capt (Retd) AA JILANI writes a fascinating account of a SERVICE not normally recognized for their actual worth

The Role of EME in Army History

Throughout the ages warriors have always tried to use newer and more destructive weapons against their adversaries. Professional builders of weapons had existed even during the ancient civilisations. In the middle ages armourers, swordsmiths and gunsmiths plied their trades as civilians. The civilian 'artificers' accompanied armies to the wars to maintain early cannon, and during the 15th century a Master-General of Ordnance was the first Government appointment whose role was to supervise the production, acquisition and storage of cannon in addition to the supply of gunpowder.

At the end of the 19th century the supporting services of the Army were divided into a number of 'Corps'. Equipment repair was mainly the responsibility of the Corps using it - i.e. Engineers, Artillery and later the Army Service Corps. The inspection and major repair of weapons remained linked to their supply by the Army Ordnance Department.

From 1927 the Royal Army Ordnance Corps repaired a much wider range of equipment including motorised vehicles. However, the resources for equipment repair were now generally spread amongst many Corps. Occasional studies of rationalisation were made by the UK War Office, but progress was impeded by costs and the vested interests of individual Corps.

The Pakistan Army today has many old Regiments which are very rich in tradition and history as for instance this year the elite PIFFERS mark the 150th anniversary since their formation. At the time of partition in 1947 the youngest and juniormost of all the Regiments/Corps inherited by the Pakistan Army was the Corps of EME with a brief history of only 5 years since its formation. The EME was formed during the peak period of mid-World War II when the tide of battle was turning at EL-ALAMEIN and STALINGRAD. The IEME of the pre-partition era was born from the REME and this Corps was accordingly bifurcated in 1947 between India and Pakistan. The Army Service Corps (ASC) boasts that 'the Army marches on its stomach' whereas the EME can rightly claim that their role is 'to keep the punch in the Army's fist'.

I would here like to express may profound thanks to Major-General Sikander Hayat HI (M) ndc psc Director-General EME whose generous words of encouragement had inspired me with the confidence to compile this brief background history of his distinguished Corps - a humble effort from an obsolete old foot-slogger in dedication to him.

Formation of REME during World War II

During World War I the British Army became adapted to trench warfare and fighting in the built-up areas inch by inch on the western front in FRANCE and BELGIUM. These bitter struggles entailed a prolonged war of attrition which ravaged an entire generation of manhood. Twenty years later the British Army plunged into World War II with a Maginot Line mentality, hence they were quite un-prepared and ill-equipped to face the desert warfare of North Africa where the sea-saw battles involved advances and withdrawals covering thousands of miles. When the campaign started in 1941 much of the Army's equipment failed and was lost. The vehicles and the tanks either broke down or were bogged down due to long distances and sandy terrain. Consequently the Army's fragmented repair and recovery organisation came under scrutiny. The problem was mainly one of unsuitable designs and inadequate supply of spares, but some blame was directed against the organisation. The Engineering Branch of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) attracted some unfair criticism because it was the largest component of the organisation and had direct responsibility for tank repair and recovery. A major difficulty was the shortage of skilled tradesmen.

The mechanisation of the Army in the late 1930s and its expansion on the outbreak of war in 1939 (too little and too late) had created a huge load of equipment repair. The Army's own technical training organisation was expanded to include commercial engineering firms and technical colleges, but still it could not meet the demand for skilled tradesmen. Increasingly, trained men were conscripted from civilian industries. Despite these shortages, many skilled tradesmen in the Army were serving in non-technical posts while others were mis-employed. The entire problem was examined by a Government committee which concluded that a separate Army repair Corps should be formed so as to bring together all the men with technical skills where they would be best employed. This confirmed the War Office apprehension of a need for change and by 1942 the plan was complete. The new Corps would initially absorb the Heavy Repair Sections of the Royal Army Service Corps and also some workshops of the Royal Engineers. The formation date for the new Corps REME was set for 1 October 1942.

The Director of Mechanical Engineering (DME) was appointed early in 1942 and his Branch at the War Office planned the detailed organisation and operational methods of the new Corps. The DME was a former RASC Officer with rich experience in vehicle engineering, and his organisational flair made a great impression on the War Office. Records depict the depth and breadth of his skills in the enlightened proposals he formulated for the development of the new Corps.

The REME in UK

Great Britain remained the base of operations for the Army worldwide, but was at the same time in the front line under severe attack from the Luftwaffe. Although the air blitz had ended by 1942, occasional air-raids still continued until late in the war. The Nazi U-Boats were exerting blockade of the British Isles. From the middle of 1944, V1 and V2 rockets (the Fuehrer's secret weapons) intensified the air threat while the anti-aircraft defences were being constantly updated with the latest radar installations. The coastal defence artillery and associated radar were the REME support tasks.

Other REME responsibilities included the manufacture and repair of equipment in base workshops, extensive modification to improve service material, the training of REME personnel and the formation/equipping of new workshops for the field armies. After embarkation of the British 1st Army for TUNISIA in 1942, reinforcements were despatched to the Mediterranean area and also to INDIA. But the main emphasis was on the build-up of forces for the forthcoming NORMANDY landings on D-Day. The airborne assaults launched on the Continent after the NORMANDY landings also included REME elements.

The REME was involved with large-scale waterproofing of vehicles for assault landings from the sea - e.g. the commando attack at DIEPPE in 1942. Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicles (BARVs) were developed which could wade into deep water to recover drowned vehicles during amphibious operations. The REME also designed an improved Armoured Recovery Vehicle which included a winch to ease the task of unditching other tanks. In the Anti-Aircraft Command, REME designed one of the first radar guided anti-aircraft missiles, although this was perfected too late for operational use.

Just before the outbreak of war the Ministry of Supply had inherited a number of poor tank designs and was blamed for the defects in British equipment. The REME seconded personnel to the Ministry of Supply and they jointly succeeded in overcoming many of the design problems. The Ministry workshops provided a back-up repair facility under supervision of REME Officers. Specialist technical training was provided to other Commonwealth countries by the REME personnel sent from UK who also went to USA in a liaison role. President Roosevelt had declared that America would be 'the great arsenal of Democracy' to supply Great Britain's war material.

The REME in North Africa campaign

The implementation of REME was very advanced in North Africa and the canal zone of EGYPT because new procedures and appointments had been made in advance of the formal date of formation. The RAOC base workshops in the Middle East, with one addition from the RASC, became REME to continue their repair and manufacturing role. Some workshops were equipped to the level of ordnance factories with capacity for manufacturing a wide range of equipment, material and spare parts. Among the many items which were built were sledges for the Russian Army to operate in snow, iron lungs (respirators) for military hospitals and a wide range of dummy military equipment for the deception plans linked to forthcoming campaigns. Experimental work included the building of anti-mine flail tanks and mine detection equipment.

Just after formation of the REME, the British 8th Army in North Africa fought the famous battle of EL-ALAMEIN which halted the German drive to the Suez Canal. In this crucial battle the ability of the REME to 'turn round' equipment (repair and recovery) was adequately demonstrated. The pursuit of the Axis armies across North Africa considerably stretched the Allied L of C causing further wear and tear on supply vehicles. Additional semi-static workshops were provided to cope with vehicles recovered from the battlefields. The British 1st Army had been despatched with a very sparse REME component in anticipation of a brief operation, which proved to be a false hope. By November 1942 another Allied Force had landed in MOROCCO and ALGERIA which later linked up in TUNISIA with the victorious 8th Army shortly before the enemy surrendered in 1943. The first production armoured recovery vehicles were used in TUNISIA, these were turretless tanks used to extricate bogged down tanks and then tow them away for repairs. Prior to this any recovery of vehicles under enemy fire was dangerous as the recovery vehicles had no armour.

After surrender of the Axis in North Africa, the allied forces began to re-organise and prepare for new operations. The REME initiated major refurbishment of worn equipment and undertook a huge programme of vehicle waterproofing for the projected landings in SICILY and ITALY. Success in North Africa brought relief to MALTA where the REME had taken over the RAOC responsibility of maintaining anti-aircraft defences during the siege. About this time the REME discovered that guns from wrecked Sherman US tanks could be re-fitted to the British Churchill tanks. As the Sherman tanks could use a much wider range of ammunition this substitution extended the capability of the Churchill tanks. The design was perfected and two regiments of tanks were successfully converted for active service in ITALY.

The REME in Sicily & Italy campaigns

The landings in Sicily introduced the REME to a situation which it would encounter throughout the campaign in ITALY. On the narrow mountain roads one broken-down vehicle could hold up an entire Army while the absence of large flat areas caused problems for deploying mobile workshops. As the Italian forces in SICILY negotiated surrender, the German Army fought a fierce rearguard action and withdrew across the Straits of Messina to mainland ITALY to oppose the Allied landings there. Those Italians not in the German occupied areas joined the Allies.

In this campaign the problems for REME included worn equipment, lack of strategic base repair units, heavy damage to equipment by enemy action and the harsh unsuitable terrain. The supply of new equipment was sparse as the UK based forces were preparing a stockpile for the invasion of FRANCE. Most of the new equipment was either American or Canadian. When Divisions were withdrawn from the front line the workshops ensured that the equipment would be in good condition by the time the Formation went back into action.

At the Anzio beachhead behind the German lines, the initial outcome was disastrous. The German resistance intensified so that the beachhead could hardly expand and the Allied casualties rose steeply. The REME troops were amongst many who were called upon to discard their specialist roles and fight as Infantry until the situation improved.

Eventually based workshops were established in ITALY, largely manned by Italian civilians. After D-Day in June 1944, the Italian campaign became a secondary operation from where troops were being withdrawn to fight in FRANCE and BELGIUM. The scarce supplies of new equipment dwindled even further so that the REME had to maintain old vehicles and weapons in action until the final German surrender in 1945.

The REME became involved in some mammoth rebuilding and modification work while copying the new specialist vehicles which were designed locally in the Normandy campaign. This included the creation of 'ARK' bridging tanks and 'Kangaroo' armoured personnel carriers.

D-Day in NORMANDY and the North-West Europe Campaign up to 1945

D-Day heralded a massive amphibious assault on the NORMANDY beaches by American, British and Canadian forces whose landing operations were divided into 5 different beachheads. Amongst the first ashore were the REME beach recovery sections, removing damaged vehicles and keeping the exits clear. Special purpose armoured vehicles were concentrated in the 79 Armoured Division whose REME workshops were amongst the largest deployed. The first accolade for the REME was the perfection of waterproofing techniques where the failures were even less than 1%.

Workshops were quickly established ashore, and as the major battles moved forward the REME continued its normal function of recovering damaged equipment and repairing it for re-issue. The REME operated in close liaison with the Royal Canadian EME and the EME Corps of Allied Armies with necessary improvisation. Among the new developments were the tracked armoured personnel carrier, the 'Kangaroo' and the conversion of tank transporters to carry bulk supplies and stores. The shortage of armoured recovery vehicles was overcome by the use of captured German tanks. There were four semi-mobile advanced base workshops in FRANCE, some of which later moved up into BELGIUM and eventually into GERMANY. To provide repair support in a fast moving campaign, the technique of 'leap-frogging' workshops was adopted - i.e. while one Divisional workshop remained static and repaired equipment another moved up to a forward site and their roles were reversed.

In a bold but abortive attempt to shorten the war, a major airborne assault took place at ARNHEM in September 1944 but it proved to be 'a bridge too far'. The REME support was included, most of the personnel landing in gliders with basic repair facilities on jeeps or trailers. The German surprise offensive in the Ardennes in December 1944 was directed mainly at the American front, the wedge driven into the Allied line cutting off some of their forces from their main supply bases. These detached American troops were temporarily issued with British equipment which had to be modified by the REME workshops. The next major operation, crossing the river Rhine, involved another airborne operation and an assault crossing by amphibious vehicles. The REME contribution was the modification of tank transporters, used to carry small landing craft from the coast to support river crossing.

At one juncture a shortage of Infantry led to the creation of a 'Services Battalion' to which the REME contributed a company. This Battalion served in the front line of battle while an Infantry Battalion was rested. In another skirmish a REME Light Aid Detachment (LAD) led the attack on a German held wood in the Vosges, and after reinforcements arrived the Germans were routed. By April 1945 the Allied Armies, pressing forward from east and west, shook hands at the River Elbe and within a month the war in Europe was over.

Post-War Reflections

The Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers was formed in 1942 during the thick of the fight with the purpose of concentrating our electrical and mechanical maintenance services for introducing new and improved methods. The REME emerged as a separate Corps charged with the vital task of keeping practically the whole range of Army equipment in repair, vehicles on road, tanks and guns in action etc.

During World War II the state of manpower, in particular technical manpower, was such that every economy had to be enforced to ensure that the Army's assets were economically utilised for really technical work. The hitting power of an Army lies in its being maintained as near as possible to full strength in men, weapons and equipment. The only means by which the last two commodities can be met is by recovering, repairing and returning to Units every possible gun, tank and vehicle within a matter of hours.

The work of the Corps thus covers the inspection and repair of all electrical and mechanical items of equipment in the Army - a very wide range on the mechanical side from the 15-inch Coast Defence guns down to push-bicycles and in the field of telecommunications from radar equipment to the hand telephone. In emergency the EME must be prepared to carry out large-scale manufacture in overseas theatres of operations. The Army of the future must excel in mobility, fire power and communications. Standardisation of tanks and transport vehicles should simplify some of the problems pertaining to repair and maintenance, but the increasing complexity of equipments and introduction of new unorthodox types will obviously extend the field of engineering knowledge required by EME personnel.

Amongst the REME's greatest achievements during the last war were:

(a) Their contribution to the defeat of the mine menace in the Middle East.

(b) Their preparation for amphibious operations in the Mediterranean and Normandy.

(c) Their maintenance of the anti-aircraft defences of Great Britain.

The REME was a new Corps born in mid-war but they performed magnificently and truly won their spurs in battle.

Next month (in Part II of this study) I propose to look at the role of EME in the Far East and BURMA campaign 1942-45, the Mediterranean, East and West Africa. Then the post-war rebellions and uprisings in NORTHERN IRELAND, PALESTINE, MALAYA and INDONESIA, the KOREA war, NATO, The FALKLANDS war and the Gulf War 1990-91.

At the age of 57 years the EME is now shining in orbit.