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Royal Canadian Engineers

View from Vaucelles of Monty's Bridge, built in eight days by the 20th Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers. Caen, Normandy, 12 August 1944.
Photo by Ken Bell. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-169327.

Imagine planning an attack as the commander of an infantry division who must assign objectives on the battlefield to his brigade commanders and coordinate support from artillery and the air force, as well as arrange for the provision of supplies of food, fuel, and ammunition from Royal Canadian Army Service Corps (RCASC) units. You must accomplish these tasks in unfamiliar territory, such as the Norman countryside in Northern France, with your troops and supporting elements spread over hundreds of square kilometres of terrain. Now imagine trying to do so without maps. Or consider the difficulty of moving supply trucks forward to troops at the front without roads. Or crossing water obstacles such as the Orne River, which flows through Caen, without first repairing the bridges destroyed by the enemy upon his withdrawal. How would you move all the human and mechanical components of a modern army through the rubble-strewn, booby-trapped, and obstacle-ridden approaches of a Second World War battlefield without engineers?

Providing battle maps; repairing and building roads, airfields, and bridges; clearing mines, road-blocks, and other obstacles; filling-in craters and anti-tank ditches; and constructing facilities such as headquarters, barracks, and hospitals; these tasks and more were the responsibility of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers (RCE). The chief role of RCE troops therefore was to enable the army to move. In the mobile warfare conducted by the Canadian Army in Europe from 1943-45, their role required the engineers to work alongside other combat troops at the front, under fire, to open routes for the tanks and infantry to continue their assaults. In the earlier period of static defence in the United Kingdom, Canadian engineers built defences like beach obstacles, pill-boxes, anti-tank ditches, and minefields. They also improved British road-ways to facilitate the movement of military traffic, constructed military and air bases, and even built the Canadian wing of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in East Grinstead.


Clearing by the Royal Canadian Engineers of rubble in order to start an other road to the river bridges, Caen, Normandy, 4 August 1944.
Photo by Ken Bell. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-169342.

By the time of the campaigns in Sicily, Italy, and Northwest Europe, each Canadian infantry division's RCE organization counted three Field Companies to provide engineering services to the division's three brigades, as well as a Field Park Company to hold construction and bridging equipment. Armoured divisions, with only two brigades, were supported by two Field Squadrons and a Field Park Squadron. As with the RCASC organization, the RCE supplied units of corps, army, and GHQ (army group) troops for more specialized tasks such as mapping and tunnelling. In general, while the divisional engineers worked to open routes for attacking troops as expeditiously as possible, more permanent road construction, bridging, and obstacle clearance was left to the Corps and Army Troops.

RCE troops travelled far and wide in the performance of their duty during the war. Personnel from Nos. 1 and 2 Canadian Tunnelling Companies worked on improving the fortifications at Gibraltar from November 1940 to December 1942. The 3rd Canadian Field Company participated in the August 1941 Spitsbergen expedition, destroying coal and other resources to prevent their capture by the enemy. The 24th Field Company took part in the relatively uneventful sojourn in the Aleutian island of Kiska - the American-led invasion took place after the Japanese evacuation. One of the more significant operations was the Dieppe raid on 19 August 1942, although the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division's engineers were largely unable to carry out their planned program of demolitions of enemy beach defences and inland installations.

The RCE played an important part in the major campaigns which brought about the German defeat. Operations in Sicily and Italy posed special problems. As the Germans retreated through the mountainous terrain, they destroyed the few roads available to the pursuing Allies, as well as bridges over the interminable water barriers and stream beds. Many of the latter were empty in the dry summer months but strewn with large boulders which testified to the torrents unleashed during the rainy season. Facilitating mobile operations in such country proved to be an arduous task. The nature of this campaign provides an example of the vital job done by the RCE. A.J. Kerry and W.A. McDill's The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, vol. II 1939-1946 describes

The important part enemy demolitions played in delaying the drive and . . . the opportunities the enemy sappers had to create trouble and confusion at every "twist and turn" in this mountainous country. When an advance is made against an enemy who chooses to stand and fight, the infantry have the predominant role. But in this . . . trek the load bore heavily on the engineers. It was emphasised again and again . . . that the division could go forward only as rapidly as craters could be filled, diversions or bridges built and the roads repaired (p. 157).

Meanwhile, the failure of the Dieppe raid taught a number of lessons that were fruitfully applied in the later invasion of Normandy. The most significant lesson for the engineers was the need for an armoured assault vehicle that would enable them to lay explosive charges for the clearance of concrete and other obstacles under fire without suffering prohibitive casualties. A Canadian sapper, Lieutenant J.J. Denovan, RCE, conceived the design for the AVRE (Assault Vehicle, Royal Engineers), essentially a modified Churchill tank outfitted with a 105-mm mortar called a Petard. The AVRE could also mount a dozer blade, assault bridge, crane, or fascines and rolled track for crossing broken ground. The Petard proved especially useful in opening exits through the sea wall bounding Juno Beach on 6 June 1944.

Dedication of Canadian Memorial Cemetery, Ortona a Mare, Italy, 16 April 1944.
Photo by G. Barry Gilroy. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-112937.

The RCE continued to perform their "routine" chores throughout the campaign in Europe, but they also took on a variety of less publicized and less glamorous jobs. Among these were the production of smoke screens to hide combat movements, and construction of fuel pipelines in the sector of Northwest Europe held by First Canadian Army. Perhaps the most difficult tasks, however, were done by the sappers who cooperated with the Imperial War Graves Commission and the various Graves Concentration and Graves Registration Units to provide a final home for comrades who would not return to their families. One poignant example comes from the Italian campaign:

When the Canadians left the Ortona sector there were many who remained behind-their resting-place a headland overlooking Ortona Bay. As a last duty the 2nd Field Park Company marked the haven with a tall wooden cross, on which was superimposed a crusader's sword (Kerry and McDill, v. II, p. 178).

Suggested Reading

A.J. Kerry and W.A. McDill's The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, vol. II 1939-1946 (Ottawa: Military Engineers Association of Canada, 1966).