Kent Fortress Royal Engineers
|Kent Fortress Royal Engineers|
|Sir David Salomons, 2nd Baronet|
The Kent Fortress Royal Engineers (KFRE) was a volunteer Territorial unit of the British Army that saw service in both World Wars. They are notable for their successful actions in May 1940, when they destroyed substantial oil stocks and installations just ahead of the German advance, and in August 1944 during the assault crossing of the River Seine.
- 1 Origin
- 2 World War I
- 3 Interwar
- 4 World War II
- 5 Postwar
- 6 Heritage
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 External links
When the Territorial Force was created in 1908, the 1st Sussex Royal Engineers (Volunteers) were split up to provide the Kent and Sussex Fortress Engineers, as well as the field companies of the Home Counties Division.
- HQ at Drill Hall, Chatham
- No 1 Works Company at Tonbridge
- No 2 Works Company at Drill Hall, Ashford
- No 3 Works Company at Southborough
- No 4 Electric Light Company at Submarine Mining School, Gillingham
- No 5 Electric Light Company at Gravesend
- No 6 Works Company at Southborough
- No 7 Works Company at Southborough
The Honorary Colonel was Sir David Salomons, 2nd Baronet
World War I
During the war the Kent Fortress RE formed a number of field companies for service overseas:
1st Kent Fortress Field Company
In June 1915 this company left for Gallipoli. On arrival at Suvla Bay on 7 October it was attached to the 2nd Mounted Division. The division was evacuated to Egypt in December and broken up in January 1916. The field company was then attached to 54th (East Anglian) Division in the Suez Canal defences on 1 July. The company was redesignated 495th (1st Kent) Field Company on 1 February 1917. In March it advanced with 54th Division into Palestine and fought in the First and Second Battle of Gaza. It joined 75th Division on 7 August 1917 and served with it during the Third Battle of Gaza but returned to the 54th in May 1918 when the 75th was partly Indianised. 495th Company remained with 54th Division for the final advance in Palestine (the Battle of Megiddo). 495th Company was demobilised during 1919.
2nd Kent Fortress Field Company
This company was formed from 2nd Line Territorials and was also sent to join 2nd Mounted Division. After evacuation to Egypt it was posted to the Suez Canal defences, and was redesignated 496th (2nd Kent) Field Company on 1 February 1917. It joined the newly formed 74th (Yeomanry) Division on 24 March 1917. On 25 May the company was transferred to 53rd (Welsh) Division and then transferred again on 4 July to 75th Division. Unlike, 495 Company, it remained with 75th Division until the end of the war, operating alongside two companies of Queen Victoria's Own Madras Sappers & Miners of the Indian Army. 496th Company began demobilisation in February 1919.
3rd Kent Fortress Field Company
HMS Hythe disaster
On 13 October 1915 the company left its depot at Gillingham and proceeded to Devonport where the boarded the troopship Scotian bound for Gallipoli via Mudros. On arrival at Mudros on 27 October the troops were transferred to the auxiliary minesweeper HMS Hythe to be landed at Suvla Bay the following morning. In the early hours of 28 October the Hythe was involved in a collision with the much larger troopship Sarnia. The Hythe sank within minutes, taking down most of its crew and passengers. The company lost its Officer Commanding, Capt D.R. Salomons (only son and heir of the honorary colonel), and 128 other ranks, almost all recruited from the Tonbridge area. The survivors (4 officers and 78 other ranks) were picked up by the Sarnia and returned to Mudros.
On the night of 7/8 January 1916, 52nd Division was evacuated from Helles and withdrawn to Egypt. Here the 3rd Kent Field Company transferred to the 29th Division, which proceeded to the Western Front in March. It participated in the Battles of the Somme, Arras, 3rd Ypres, Cambrai, Lys, and finally the Hundred Days Offensive. It became 495th (3rd Kent) Field Company on 1 February 1917, and had been disbanded by mid-March 1919.
1/6th and 1/7th Kent Fortress Companies
With the further expansion of the army the Kent Fortress RE organised the 1/6th and 1/7th Kent Fortress Companies to which the Cinque Ports Fortress Royal Engineers also contributed personnel. In late 1916 the 1/6th and 1/7th were converted to field companies and had joined 73rd Division by 22 November. 73rd Division was a newly organised Home Service formation concentrating at Blackpool. Once organised, the division moved in January 1917 into Essex and Hertfordshire to form part of Southern Army (Home Forces); the engineers were stationed at Witham and Chelmsford. The two field companies were numbered 546th (1/6th Kent) and 547th (1/7th Kent) in February 1917.
73rd Division's main role was to train and physically condition men for drafting as reinforcements for units serving overseas. By the end of 1917 the division's infantry battalions had largely completed their task and been replaced by training units, whereupon the division was broken up as a Home Defence formation. 546th and 547th Field Companies were redesignated Army Troops Companies and embarked for the Western Front on 22 June 1918, landing at Le Havre the following day, and working in the Third Army and Fourth Army areas respectively from 7 July.
The two companies were engaged in engineering works associated with the rapid advance of the British Expeditionary Force in the final months of the war. 546 Company had transferred to Fourth Army by the time of the Armistice, while 547 Company moved to VI Corps in September and to Third Army by November 1918.
546th and 547th Army Field Companies were disbanded in France on 4 June 1919 and 1 May 1919 respectively.
- 579th (Kent) Army Troops Company, formerly 2/6th Kent Fortress Company
- 598th (Kent) Works Company, formerly 2/4th Kent Fortress Company
It may also have been the parent for the following units:
- 580th (Thames & Medway) Fortress Company (possibly an amalgamation of 1/4th and 2/4th Kent Fortress Companies)
- 599th (Thames & Medway) Fortress Company
The Kent Fortress RE was not reformed in the Territorial Army immediately after the war, but was recreated in 1932 by Major (later Brigadier) Clifford Brazier, the works manager of Bevans Cement Works (later Blue Circle Cement Company) at Northfleet, and largely recruited from his employees.
The new unit consisted of Nos 1, 2 and 3 Electric Light and Works Companies. Personnel from the KFRE appear to have provided the basis for 347 (Kent) Anti-Aircraft Searchlight Company, RE, formed in 29th (Kent) Anti-Aircraft Battalion, RE by 1938. In April 1939, 347 Company became part of (and gave its name to) a new 73rd (Kent Fortress) AA Battalion.
World War II
On the outbreak of war in 1939, one of the war stations of the Northfleet Section was to man the 120 cm searchlights at Coalhouse Fort at East Tilbury on the north bank of the Thames Estuary. These new remote-controlled 'fighting lights' installed on the north Caponier of the fort were powered by Hornsby engines and enabled the fort's 6-inch coast defence guns to fire at night. Anti-aircraft searchlights were also installed at the fort.
In May 1940, the German Army invaded the Netherlands and Belgium. The British military authorities were determined that the large oil installations at the major ports should not fall into enemy hands. The KFRE were despatched in secrecy on 11 May to Amsterdam to negotiate with the local commanders and destroy the installations and the large oil stocks and assist with dockyard demolitions; these were called "XD Operations". They were successful in spite of the lack of planning and specialised equipment. After Amsterdam, detachments carried out more oil demolitions at Rotterdam and Antwerp, and assisted with the evacuation of 40 tons of Dutch gold from Rotterdam. At times they exchanged fire with German advance patrols.
The German advance continued into France, and KFRE were sent to destroy the oil depots along the lower Seine. Initial, but understandable, French reluctance dissipated as the Germans reached the area, and the installations at Rouen, Le Havre and Honfleur were all destroyed. In addition, a large British military fuel dump near Saint-Nazaire was destroyed. A British general ordered that no demolition was to be done at a refinery at Donges; the supplies were subsequently thought to have been used to re-fuel U-boats.
As an afterthought, detachments were sent to destroy smaller depots at Dunkirk, Boulogne and Calais. These were abortive, however; those at Dunkirk were destroyed by German bombs, Calais' facilities were unapproachable due to the heavy fighting and Boulogne, in fact, had none.
Further oil demolition operations were attempted at Caen, Cherbourg and St Malo, but only St Malo was successful. The installations near Caen were captured before the British arrival, and the French authorities prevented demolition at Cherbourg; KFRE assisted with the general harbour demolitions there.
Although these actions remained secret at the time, there was official appreciation. At the time, the KFRE became the most highly decorated unit in the British Army. Major Brazier received an OBE, three officers (Captains R Keeble, T F TGoodwin and B Baxter) received DSOs, Second Lieutenant B J Ashwell received the MC. A DCM was awarded to Corporal J T Hearnden and three NCOs (Staff Sergeant A H Smart, Sergeant A R Blake and Corporal J Matthews) received Military Medals.
During the British evacuations from western France (Operation Ariel), the final KFRE detachment lost seven men on the Lancastria when it was sunk at St Nazaire. One more went "missing, presumed dead" during the destruction of the British dump near St Nazaire and another died of wounds sustained at Boulogne.
There was concern that the Germans might attempt to capture the large British-owned oilfield at Kirkuk in northern Iraq. Although far from the war zones, the Germans were interested in the region. There were pro-Nazi factions in Iraqi politics, German aircraft had reached Baghdad via Vichy Syria (see Anglo-Iraqi War), and some German special forces had been planning to establish bases in the Kirkuk area using aircraft from Kampfgeschwader 200, a specialist unit.
An officer from the KFRE was despatched there with some urgency to review the situation. Apart from three wells needed to supply the British Eastern Fleet, all the wells were filled with concrete and drilling rigs were removed. Local management had already made adequate plans to render the pipelines useless to the enemy.
In September 1940 the KFRE was organised into 582 and 583 Army Field Companies and joined by 584 (from the Suffolk Fortress RE) and 297 Field Park Company (a London RE unit) to form Kent Corps Troop Engineers. After helping the construction of coastal defences against the anticipated German invasion, and clearing up and making safe bomb damage in London, the new unit was moved to a camp near Portadown, Northern Ireland as III (Kent) Corps Troop Engineers. The time was spent on training exercises and assisting in Belfast after the city had been bombed.
The Norwegian northern islands of Spitsbergen were inhabited by Russian and Norwegian miners who exploited the rich coal seams there. A detachment from III CTRE was part of Operation Gauntlet to destroy the coal mines and stockpiles and deny their use to the Germans.
In response to the axis invasion of Greece, at the end of 1940 a KFRE company was sent to Greece to assist with preparations for allied troops, train Greek army officers in demolition techniques, and carry out demolitions themselves. The first task on arrival was, however, to instal electric bells in the Hotel Acropolis - a task considered to be anti-climactic.
The engineers were transferred to Salonika and Volos and, when the Germans reached the city, successfully demolished installations of use to the enemy, including oil refineries, engineering works, gas works, port facilities and fortifications at Volos. Outside Athens, a new airfield and its equipment was destroyed. Some members of the RE detachment were lost, as casualties or captured, before the bulk were evacuated to Crete, where others were captured or killed when the Germans invaded. One captured officer (Dennis Alabaster) escaped while being transported through Yugoslavia and joined the Chetniks; he was subsequently killed there.
Those who escaped Crete were then based in Palestine. A detachment was employed during the allied invasion of Vichy Syria in July 1941: during this operation a two-man team was flown behind Vichy lines, where they destroyed a vital bridge and were recovered by aircraft.
Once absorbed into the local military organisation, they assisted with the wide variety of tasks performed by the Royal Engineers: construction and destruction, booby trap and mine clearance (often under fire), water supply, construction of dummy installations to deceive the enemy, etc.
2 Parachute Squadron
The newly formed British airborne units required sapper support and in early 1942, one of the companies in Northern Ireland was selected for conversion to this role, subject to the willingness and suitability of individual sappers.
Meanwhile, the bulk of III (Kent) CTRE had returned from Northern Ireland in July 1942, being redesignated 1st (Kent) General Headquarters Troops RE. Although assigned to First Army, they did not take part in Operation Torch, and in 1943 they were renamed again as 15th (Kent) GHQ Troops RE. The unit accompanied 21st Army Group to Normandy as part of Operation Overlord.
15th (Kent) GHQTRE under the command of Lt-Col L.R.E. Fayle was assigned to I Corps for the assault phase of the operation. The unit had been specially trained to construct Naval Pontoon Causeways to provide firm roads over soft beaches and to provide 'dryshod' landings for disembarking vehicles. The RE History comments that:
- 'Though, owing to partial failures in the arrangements for towing across the Channel, and later ro damage by storm, the number and speed of these causeways was not up to expectations, the Kent R.E. working with a will with the material as it came to hand, had some in operation by 11th June, and in the next week 1,339 vehicles, 35,150 personnel, and 450 tons of stores were disembarked by this means. The stream along the causeways continued for some weeks'.
During training in Northern Ireland, the unit's CO, Lt-Col Fayle, had developed a method of moving tanks across water obstacles using powered rafts. By the time 15th (Kent) GHQTRE landed in Normandy, 582 and 584 Field Companies had become experts in rafting, while 583 Field Company specialised in operating storm boats. For the crucial assault crossing of the River Seine at Vernon by 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division, the unit was tasked with manning DUKW amphibious trucks during the initial assault and then operating close support rafts before the first bridge was laid. Then, after a 40-ton Bailey bridge had been completed, they were to build a 70-ton Bailey bridge to permit fully laden tank transporters to cross. The heavy bridging equipment was held back on the road and only two platoons of 583 Field Company went forward with the assault group on 25 August. The storm boats were intended as a reserve but had to be used in the first wave because launching points for DUKWs were hard to find.
On the right, 5th Battalion Wiltshire Regiment began crossing at 19.00 on 25 August in eight storm boats manned by 583 Field Company, but they grounded before reaching the far side, and were raked by machine gun fire, incurring heavy casualties among boat crews and passengers. By the end of an hour only one boat remained. Only about a company had got across, and they were overrun during the night. Three of the four available DUKWs also grounded, the survivor ferrying across the rest of 5th Wiltshire in the dark. On the left, 4th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry got across in the storm boats relatively easily, but found that their bridgehead was on an island, and they were still cut off from the east bank.
The rafting troops did not get to the river until the evening of 26 August, and struggled to get a tank ferry into operation before morning on the 27th. However, 43rd Division had succeeded in seizing and maintaining a bridgehead. The Kent REs' third task in this complex operation was to build a 223-metre Bailey, codenamed SAUL, in 36 hours. When the 15th (Kent) GHQTRE and other bridging units had completed their tasks, 43rd Division and its supporting armour crossed in strength on 28 August and began 21st Army Group's rapid advance to Brussels.
Early in 1945, in order to improve the lines of communication for Second Army's planned assault crossing of the Rhine (Operation Plunder), additional bridges were constructed over the Maas at Venlo. 15th (Kent) GHQTRE was responsible for a 1220-foot (370 m) all-weather Class 40 Bailey pontoon bridge. 15th (Kent) GHQTRE was assigned to XII Corps for Operation Plunder itself, with its CRE, Lt-Col Fayle, controlling all engineering work for the right hand brigade's assault crossing downstream of the Xanten ferry site (Operation Torchlight).
This was carried out by 44th (Lowland) Brigade of 15th (Scottish) Division during the night of 23/24 March 1945. The first wave of infantry crossed at 02.00 aboard Buffalo tracked landing vehicles manned by 11th Royal Tank Regiment of 79th Armoured Division. Storm boats manned by the Kent RE field companies were held back until it was known that the Buffalo crossings had been successful. Word to start crossing with 6th Battalion King's Own Scottish Borderers was received at 02.45 and from then on the storm boats kept up a continuous ferrying operation, despite breakdowns of the unreliable engines. The 6th KOSB crossed without a casualty. At 03.30, rafting equipment was moved down to the river bank on sledges and by 06.30 the Kent RE had two of these in operation (two others were destroyed by shellfire before they could be completed and had to be replaced later from reserves). These rafts took over surfacing material for the exits on the far bank, which was laid under RE supervision by German prisoners. The rafts worked continuously for two and a half days, transporting across 611 vehicles among other loads. The RE History records that the rafting troops received an unsolicited testimonial for their watermanship from a captured German officer who was being ferried back.
After Bremen had been captured by XXX Corps on 27 April, the bridges connecting the two halves of the city across the Weser were found to be destroyed. After some changes of plan, the Kent RE was tasked with building a barge bridge. Three river barges found on the site were used with Bailey superstructure, and a 456-foot (140 m) Class 40 bridge was opened for traffic at 04.00 on 2 May. All German forces facing 21st Army Group surrendered at Lüneburg Heath two days later, but there were many months of bridgebuilding and reconstruction work before the troops could be demobilised.
15th (Kent) GHQTRE was disbanded on 19 June 1946.
When the TA was reconstituted in 1947, 582 and 583 Field Companies were reformed as Construction Squadrons in 120 Construction Regiment, RE, based at Gravesend. The whole regiment descended from the Sussex, Kent and Cinque Ports Fortress RE. 120 Regiment was disbanded in 1950, but 583 Construction Squadron continued as a bomb disposal unit until disbandment in 1967.
The present-day 579 Field Squadron (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), RE, raised in 1939 from the Cinque Ports Fortress RE, claims direct descent from 1/6th (Kent Fortress) Field Company of 1914–18.
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