1 Beginnings and Rebirth

In the British forces communications by landline were organised by the Royal Engineers, and the Sappers provided telephone and telegraph lines and instruments as well as visual signals and despatch riders mounted on horses, motor-cycles and bicycles. South Africa had no signals corps, and the old colonial volunteer telegraph companies had not yet been incorporated into the Active Citizen Force.

With operations in German South West Africa decided upon, E. A. Sturman was appointed Director of Postal Services, and a Field Post and Telegraph Corps was established with equipment taken over from departing British troops. Some 300 men were to be recruited, mainly from the former Natal Telegraph Company, whose men joined Sir Duncan McKenzie's force, and the Transvaal Signal and Field Telegraph Company.1

Maj. N. Harrison, the Engineer-in-Chief of the Post Office, acted as Director of Signals in the fledgling Union Defence Force in the field both during the Rebellion and in German South West Africa. General Botha's forces, who had to rely for supplies on almost non-existent roads, were often dependent on the proper fulfilment of other Sapper tasks for their conduct of operations. A small Engineer unit was therefore raised for operations in German South West Africa, with mounted field troops under Maj. Hanerley, R.E., who had as his adjutant Capt. J. H. Alexander, the former Officer Commanding, Natal Engineer Corps, who later received the D.S.O. for his services. The Natal Engineer Corps, formed in 1910 by Maj. J. F. E. Barnes, ceased to exist.2

Maj. Campbell-Pitt was Second-in-Command of the new band of more than 200 Sappers, whose mobility enabled them to be attached to the mounted brigades, while railway units acted on the lines of communication. One Sapper section actually joined Brig.-Gen. H. T. Lukin's force which went to Port Nolloth at the end of August 1914, even before the Rebellion broke out.

In South West Africa, the Union forces were sadly handicapped all the way back from Walvis Bay and Luderitzbucht to Cape Town and Pretoria through their lack of a basic Engineer organisation, and at least once trucks of a similar type were being sent simultaneously in both directions between Cape Town and Pretoria, with the same


thing happening with loads of lucerne. However, more than one Active Citizen Force unit had a company recruited exclusively from the South African Railways, and by the end of May 1915, for example, a number of men from the so-called "Railway Company" of the 2nd Durban Light Infantry were transferred to a newly formed Railway Regiment and the S.A.E.C., to work the railways taken from the Germans.3

On all lines of advance in German South West Africa water was a problem, and this presented particular difficulties for Eastern Force, operating more than 800 km from its base, with some waterless stretches of over 160 km. Tank stations were established and filled by motor cars carrying 227 litres each, Brig.-Gen. J. J. Collyer recorded. About 40 cars were allotted to each station, working in pairs, with the drivers having to fill and empty the drums themselves.4

The Irrigation Department helped at all times, and the South African Railways carried out all the work necessary on the railways for the campaign, including the extension between 31 August and November 1914 of the line for more than 240 km beyond Prieska to the south bank of the Orange River at Upington. By 25 June 1915 the German Windhoek-Kalkfontein railway, having been extended by 272 km, was carried across a new bridge over the Orange River, to link up with the line from Prieska, and the railway engineers could claim a South African record for having laid 8,4 km in one day.5

When consideration was given to sending a South African contingent overseas, an Engineer signals company was suggested and accepted by the Imperial authorities and Maj. N. Harrison, whose Post Office personnel had attended to the army's landline communications throughout the South West African campaign, was called upon to raise the company for overseas service after the German surrender in South-West in July 1915. During August and September some 230 highly qualified specialists concentrated at Potchefstroom under his command. The G.P.O. and electrical engineers from the Reef filled all officers' posts, and on 17 October 1915 the S.A. Signal Company, R. E., sailed from Cape Town in the Kenilworth Castle with six officers and 229 other ranks.

The company reached Bordon Camp, Hants on 4 November 19156 and was reorganised as a Corps Signals Company, which trained at Bedford.

Maj. Harrison was already in France when his signals company on 10 April 1916 sailed from Southampton. They landed at Le Havre on 21 April and then moved to Vignacourt village in the Somme valley. Lt.-Gen. Home had his XV Corps headquarters there, and Harrison was appointed his Staff Officer Signals, or Assistant Director of Army Signals. The company, wearing brass shoulder titles "South Africa--R.E.--Signals Service"7 on their tunics and a distinctive cap badge with a springbok's head in the centre, became XV Corps Signals Company and served with the same corps for the rest of the war, during which its members gained a number of awards and a fine commendation from Gen. Sir J. P.


Ducane, who wrote: "In the many bright spots of the XV Corps, I have always maintained, and always will maintain, that the Signal Service was far away the best Signal Service of any organization in France. Not only was there a very thorough grasp of the work, but always--what was so pleasant to find--there was a desire to go out of your way to help. It is with the greatest pleasure that I write to say how much I always appreciate having the South African Signal Company in the XV Corps. They were not only highly efficient in all departments of this work, but I can honestly say they were the most energetic, hard-working, well-disciplined, and courteous body of men that I have come across in my experience of the Army."

Never, stated the general, had the corps ever been let down during the most trying times--on the Somme, on the coast, or on the Lys. During the enemy's attack on the Lys in April 1918 the communications had held out remarkably for three days, till they were compelled to abandon La Motte. They had greatly facilitated command of the corps during that difficult time, and their work was eloquent testimony to the thoroughness and skill with which preparation had been carried out within the unit.8

Other Companies in France

It was only in 1916 that all railways, roads and canals and docks in the British zone in France were put under command of Sir Eric Geddes. They fell under Transportation, and appeals went out to the Dominions for suitable men to form railway operating companies of three officers and 266 men each. South Africa had formed a railway unit for South West Africa, but South Africans were by this stage also serving in German East Africa9 and the S.A.R. could only spare enough men for one railway unit. It was decided to form a second from other volunteers with suitable experience, and before November 1916 was out, both companies had been established. The 1st, under Capt. H. L. Pybus, assembled at Potchefstroom, and the 2nd under Capt. W. McI. Robinson at Roberts Heights, each with a nucleus of 50 locomotive drivers and 50 firemen and guards. The rest were traffic controllers, blockmen, signalmen, mechanics and the necessary clerical staff. Both units were organised to act independently, but were under overall command of Lt.-Col. F. R. Collins, the former Commanding Officer of the Central South African Railways Volunteers and a Mechanical Superintendent of the S.A.R.

During December 1916 Lt.-Col. Collins sailed for England. The companies followed, and gathered at Bordon in March 1917. There a depot was formed before the two companies left for France at the end of the month and were detailed for light railway work as No.'s 7 and 8 S.A. Light Railway Operating Companies.10 No. 7 Company was sent off to Romarin on the Belgian border, while No. 8 was posted to Savy in the Arras area before 25 drivers and 25 firemen from each of the companies were transferred to broad gauge in which they remained for the rest of the war.

With the completion of the Ploegsteert light railway, No. 7 Company became responsible for all traffic on this line, which carried


mostly ammunition. No. 8 Company, meanwhile, operated the light railway from Maroeuil to the north and north-east of Arras. After the Vimy Ridge battles, the lines were further extended, and by June 1917 both South African companies were at Audruicq before being switched to broad gauge work and re-designated No.'s 92 and 93 Companies respectively.

The 5th Army was now in the Bapaume sector south of Arras, and Lt.-Col. Collins was appointed Assistant Director of Light Railways in the sector during May 1917. When the army was moved well north for the Third Battle of Ypres, light railways had to be built to follow the advance, and both the South African companies were lent to Light Railways to join five Imperial operating companies in 5th Army area. There they took part in operations up till the end of the offensive in November 1917, with 92 Company working the lines north-east of Ypres and gaining 11 Military Medals in the process.

The other company was working from Elverdinghe through Boesinghe to Langemarck and dropping ammunition forward of the guns on the eastern slopes of Pilckem Ridge and in Steenbecque Valley before the attacks during September and October 1917, which resulted in the advance to the edge of Houthulst forest. The company earned seven Military Medals during the operations.

The first week of January 1918 saw 5th Army taking over a 72 km sector on the southern flank of the British front, where a considerable amount of light railway construction was done under Lt.-Col. F. Newell,11 but when the system was divided into two, Lt.-Col. Collins was put in command of the northern railway area. Both 92 and 93 Companies were ordered to move from Belgium, the latter being sent to Boyon until 23 March, when an enemy advance forced the unit to route-march to Flexicourt west of Amiens. There the railwaymen had to set to, building defences like other Transportation units, and it was only later that they switched back to railway construction.

On the Belgian front, when the enemy advanced, 92 Company was ordered to Crombeke and assisted in railway construction and other work in that area until September. With its headquarters at Berguette, the company operated a new line towards Merville and later towards the frontier at Armentieres further to the north-east.

Headquarters of 93 Company, now under Capt. M.J. Byrne, was at Ligny in July 1918 and from there they were operating the main line to Arras until the Germans began to pull back. Then, from November--when the war ended--they operated over the Douai-Mons sector, across the frontier to Belgium, with headquarters at Somain. Moving forward to Lille, to the north-west of the other company, No. 92 had its headquarters at Tourcoing, a fair-sized town on the frontier. They operated the line from there to Tournai, lying inside Belgium and to the south-east.12

Tradesmen at War

Both the railway operating companies were already in France when the Government in 1917 consented to the formation of a Miscellaneous Trades Company, and in June the men began


assembling at Potchefstroom. From there they travelled to Cape Town to embark under Capt. C. E. Mason on 25 July. They arrived at Bordon on 28 August, and did a short training course before being sent to France on 14 October, renumbered No. 84 Miscellaneous Trades Company, R.E., (S.A.).

The locomotive workshops at St. Etienne-du-Rouvray near the big railway junction of Rouen were the largest locomotive workshops under the British in France, and 84 Company, because of the skill of its members, played an important role there, with Capt. Mason as Erecting Works Engineer. On his being recalled to South Africa, the company was taken over by Capt. N. S. Weatherley, under whom it remained at the Armistice, when Lt.-Col. Cole, the Royal Engineer commander of the units at the workshops, expressed his appreciation to all ranks at a special parade.

With the war over, the South African railway and trades companies which had served in France could boast still more awards to add to the long list of decorations earned by the Signals Company. Lt.-Col. F. R. Collins, in addition to the D.S.O., was also awarded the French Legion d'Honneur, Croix d'Officier, and thus became the only South African Engineer officer so honoured.13

German East Africa

By the time the S.A. Signal Company, R.E., left England for France in April 1916, Lt.-Gen. J. C. Smuts had already consented to take the place of the seriously ill Gen. Sir H. Smith-Dorrien in command of the forces in East Africa, where he re-formed the available troops into three divisions, two of them South African, each with a mounted and an infantry brigade.14 Brig.-Gen. J. L. van Deventer's brigades arrived with no Engineers at all, but success in 1916 was largely due to Sapper restoration of the damaged Northern and Central Railway lines and the lengthening of the link line from the British Uganda Railway--which ran from Mombasa through Nairobi to Kisumu--to Salaita and Taveta south-east of Kilimanjaro, eventually to join the Northern Railway at Kahe, south of the towering peak15 which straddled the frontier between British Kenya and German Tanganyika.

The S.A.E.C. already boasted a cap badge not dissimilar to that adopted later, but with a springbok's head in the centre, the words "South Africa" across the top beneath a crown, and "Royal Engineers" in a lower scroll.

Capt. H. C. Hawtrey, R.E., had immense problems as Assistant Director of Army Signals and Telegraph Services, with five or more languages to cope with, but eventually three divisional signals companies were formed. One was South African and wore the same shoulder titles and helmet badges as the South African signals units in France. Many difficulties were encountered and when Brig.-Gen. A. H. M. Nussey in the Uluguru Mountains was trying to coordinate operations with Brig.-Gen. B. G. L. Enslin and Maj.-Gen. C. J. Brits, communications failed completely when the mule carrying the wireless set fell over a cliff.16


Map 1. East Africa, 1916
Map 1. East Africa, 1916. Reproduced under Government Printer's Authority 7655 of 4.5.1981

It was not yet the end of May 1916 when a Railway Battalion was formed in East Africa under Lt.-Col. C. W. Wilkinson and they, with other units, including South African, followed General Smuts's arduous advance down the Northern Railway from Kahe to Tanga on the coast. Almost all bridges and culverts had been demolished, and much crib and trestle work was needed to replace them, but Tanga was occupied on 7 July, and within another six weeks through communication was re-established.

The Railway Battalion halted at Mombo, then moved to the Central Railway running from Dar-es-Salaam to Tabora, with bridges blown and nearly all rolling stock destroyed. Both 25 and 28 Railway Companies sailed from Tanga to Dar-es-Salaam and 26 and 27 Railway Companies with some South African Pioneers under Maj. J. H. Dobson landed at Bagamayo to do forced marches to Ruvu station. While 26 Company repaired the line eastwards towards 25 Company, coming up from Dar-es-Salaam, 27 Company worked towards Mikesse and Morogoro, and repairs to the wharves and sidings at the coast were handled by 28 Company.

In the meantime, it was impossible to employ locomotives, but Dobson devised an effective alternative and a rail service was maintained by the ingenuity of the S.A. Pioneers under Van Deventer's command. With 66 bridges between Dar-es-Salaam and Kilossa demolished, they were temporarily repaired with wood and whatever


material was available. Ford motor lorries were then fitted with railway axles and, hauling a trailer, each one could move 15 tonnes at a time. The 2nd Division was thus supplied by rail during an advance of 192 km from Dodoma eastward to Kilossa and, with the occupation of Morogoro, these novel railway tractors and trailers opened the Central Railway to traffic for some 482 km, all the way from Dar-es-Salaam up to Dodoma. Normal traffic with locomotives was running from the coast to Morogoro by November 1916 and to Dodoma itself by the end of the year, when the Central Railway replaced the British Uganda Railway as the main line of communication. By the time Gen. Smuts handed over to Maj.-Gen. A. R. Hoskins on 16 January 191717 Lt.-Col. L. N. Malan had succeeded Lt.-Col. Wilkinson as Officer Commanding, Railway Battalion, and his four companies worked for some time on bridging in the coastal region and in construction of a branch line from Dodoma.

With Maj.-Gen. Van Deventer as C.-in-C. from 29 May 1917 operations shifted southward in June, and the Railway Battalion moved to Kilwa and Lindi to build light railways18 to supply the troops moving towards the Portuguese border. Permanent way was taken from local plantations and Ford lorries provided traction, with nearly 100 km of line laid from Kilwa and another 25 km from Lindi once the enemy was driven southward.19 Summarising Sapper exploits during the campaign, which saw whole units decimated by malaria and thousands of horses lost owing to tsetse flies, Lt.-Col. F. P. Rundle20 mentions the South African Engineer units as coming to East Africa in 1916, with some remaining till late 1918. A Topographical Section--after beginning reconnaissance and compass sketching--suffered from illness even more than from its lack of experience of East African conditions, and virtually ceased operations after July 191621 but others continued, building roads and bridges, constructing railways, repairing harbour facilities and doing a multitude of tasks.

In addition to Dobson's Pioneers on the Central Railway, there were also 1 and 2 S.A. Engineer Troops raised in Johannesburg and four S.A. Railway Companies, the S.A. Water Supply Corps and the S.A. Labour Corps, all of whom were mainly occupied on the lines of communication. The water supply Sappers made their biggest effort at the ports, but the two Engineer Troops did a considerable amount of bridging during operations in the field, where some idea of the problems involved may be gained from the fact that Brig.-Gen. E. Northey needed tens of thousands of porters to carry supplies to his scattered columns until the advent of the light motor vans and the construction of roads, 720 km of which were completed in six months by Maj. Colin Clark's detachment of South African Engineers. This included a stretch of 56 km rising to 2 435 metres above sea level, and the South Africans had no assistance other than what could be provided by an East African Pioneer Company and a Railway Pioneer Corps raised locally.22

By the time Gen. Von Lettow Vorbeck surrendered at Abercorn on 25 November 1918 the war in Europe was over. Both there and in South West and East Africa, the South African Engineers had had


a foretaste of the military engineering problems which they might have to face under the most trying conditions in the event of again having to go to war. The high standard of their performance and the regard in which they were held can best be judged by scanning the list of more than 100 decorations awarded to them, as shown in Appendix I on page 464.

The Aftermath

All the South African Engineer units which had served in the field during World War I were disbanded. Only the permanent Cape Fortress Engineers, with one officer and 24 other ranks, remained to maintain the searchlight and telephone equipment, the power houses with their chugging old "hot-bulb" engines and the obsolete wireless sets with which doubtful communication was established between battery observation posts and target-towing tugs. Theirs, too, would be the responsibility for training the Defence Electric Light and Telephone sections of the Coast Garrison Force or any Active Citizen Force Sapper units which might be established.

It was the S.A. Defence Act Amendment Act of 1922, however, which constituted the Permanent Force in place of the old Permanent Force Staff and S.A. Mounted Riflemen, and at the same time included a S.A. Engineer Corps among the elements of South Africa's new regular full-time forces. The existing unit became its Fortress Engineer and Signals Section, and a Works and Maintenance Section was added in July 1923.23 During succeeding years the latter section had to cope with all daily requisitions and all minor repairs required by the Permanent Force. Its headquarters was at Roberts Heights--as Voortrekkerhoogte was still called--and civilian labour was employed on any major works involved in the wide variety of Engineer duties. The responsibilities of this handful of men included the running of the S.A.E.C. Pumping Station at Fountains' Valley for the reservoirs of Roberts Heights, and smaller installations of the same kind for Defence Headquarters, the Defence Reserve and Grand Magazines.24 In addition to other tasks they maintained Permanent Force buildings, water supply, and sewerage, and about 25 km of roads as well as the military cemetery.

The small Permanent Force S.A.E.C. unit also had to cope with the water supply for A.C.F. camps,25 which in those days were not only far less frequent but also on a considerably smaller scale than in later years. Tents and rough living were still considered part of a soldier's normal life between the World Wars.

Capt. ffrench-Mullen of the Royal Engineers had been seconded to the Union Defence Force in 1922 after the coastal defences had been taken over from the Imperial authorities, but in 1925 a South African, Capt. N. J. Grobbelaar, assumed command. The Cape Peninsula unit left its barracks at Woodstock and moved into the Castle, Cape Town.

By 1926, however, the S.A.E.C. was also shown in C.G.


Engineer Corps". Tentative as such a step appeared, it was of considerable significance.

A.C.F. Field Units Appear

By the time the A.C.F. units had actually been formed in 1927, Capt. A. C. Baillie of the Royal Engineers had arrived to take command of the Permanent Force unit at the Cape, the duties of which now included the training of three field companies and a field troop of part-time soldiers, all of whom would be from the A.C.F.26

In the very year of its formation, 3 Field Company from Bloem-fontein under Capt. M. A. Allan, with Lt. Gill as his Second-in-Command, went into camp with the infantry at Potchefstroom in April, 1927. But there was no engineering equipment of any kind available, and the Sappers trained as infantry,27 under Sgt.-Maj. Jock Wormand, who brought them to a high pitch of smartness in ceremonial drill in fours. S./M. Steven Tappin, a World War I veteran, was said to be among the unit's most experienced scroungers, ably assisted by S./Sgt. Charlie Young, sometimes with Sgt. R. D. Henderson also giving a helping hand. One of his most classic remarks was his reply to a mild rebuke from a Permanent Force instructor who told him, "That's not the way, S./M. Tappin. Don't request the men--ORDER 'em!"

"Look 'ere, mate", was Tappin's retort, "I was soldiering before you came up, and what's more I'm doing this for fun and you're doing it for a bl---- living! And that's what makes all the difference, don't it?"

The first real Sapper training camp for A.C.F. units was held the following year at Wynberg Camp, Cape Town under Capt. Baillie, and all four existing A.C.F. units attended. The Troop from Durban--4 Field Company, in fact--was commanded by Capt. H. Mill Colman, with 2/Lt. Jeff Williams as his Second-in-Command; 1 Field Company from Cape Town was under Capt. Abrahams with 2/Lt. Fridjohn as Second-in-Command; Pretoria's 2 Field Company had Capt. John Reid and 2/Lt. H. D. Ward Smith; and 3 Field Company from Bloemfontein was still commanded by Capt. M. A. Allan.28

Who commanded the Permanent Force unit at the time is not quite clear, for one account29 states that "after the 1927 Potchefstroom camp, the training was co-ordinated under the direction of Capt. Louis Schoon and Lt. Jack de Klerk of the Permanent Force Engineers." Capt. Schoon, it appears, had recently returned from a course at Chatham in England, and displayed great keenness in organising the Sapper camps which in 1929 and 1930 were held at De Beers, Somerset West. But Capt. Baillie was in charge of the actual continuous training, which was--rather curiously--based on the Cape, where opportunities for Engineer experience and recruitment could hardly have compared with what offered on the Reef.

The engineering firms of Cape Town nevertheless donated a fine trophy, designed as a "stick-and-string" bridge in silver and bronze, and it was competed for by units in camp. On the only two occasions


when the competition was held, it was won by the Bloemfontein Sapper unit, in 1929 and 1930,30 by which time 3 Field Company was commanded by Capt. R. D. Henderson.

Conditions of Service

With military mechanisation still almost unheard of and specialisation largely confined to individuals within units, the S.A.E.C. enjoyed a special corps allowance of an extra 1s a day for qualified Sappers, rising to 7s 6d a day for colonels,31 but there were also specialist allowances within the corps bearing little relation to engineering skill. Farrier quartermaster-sergeants, baker-sergeants and pioneer-sergeants topped the scale at 2s extra a day, while the shoemaker, tailor, butcher, wheelwright, fitter and other specialist privates earned an extra Is a day on continuous training or special duty, regardless of whether their work was in fact connected with engineering.

Promotion could only be gained by success in examinations, and subjects now laid down were unit and corps duties, drill, discipline, interior economy in quarters and camp, technical duties and regulations.32 Sappers were not expected to have any knowledge of musketry--a strange omission in the light of past experience--and field engineering only entered the picture above the rank of lieutenant, when it covered a general knowledge of the "Manual of Field Works", Chapters I to III, and X.33

Continuous training during a man's first year of service was officially 50 days, with two periods totalling not more than 30 days during the subsequent three years and 15 days a year thereafter. A trained man could be expected to attend at least 16 non-continuous parades of four hours each during a training year--or their equivalent--in addition to his 15 days at camp.

The Depression

In 1928 the permanent S.A.E.C. claimed to be recovering from a "financial nightmare", and on 31 July 1931 the Fortress Engineers and Signals Section became No. 4 Company of the Cape Garrison Artillery and adopted a trade badge, "DELT"--34 for defence electric lights and telephones. The effects of economic depression were still being felt as late as 1933, when the Fortress Engineer Section of the permanent S.A.E.C. was disbanded. There were still only the four original S.A.E.C. field units in the A.C.F., and no continuous training of A.C.F. units could be held during the year ending 30 June 1934.35 However, with a new Government in power, eight new infantry units were being established and a field organisation of six brigades was about to be formed into "forces" corresponding to divisions.

Two further A.C.F. field companies were authorised in 1935, bringing total A.C.F. Engineer strength to six field companies, each of three officers and 52 other ranks--obviously insufficient to cope


with Engineer tasks on a war footing, as the bitter experiences in East Africa in 1916-18 must have shown.

The companies were numbered 1 to 6, with headquarters at Durban (Maj. H. Mill Colman), Uitenhage (where a new 2 Field Company was formed under Maj. C.J. Venter), Cape Town (Maj. H. A. Coetzee), Bloemfontein (Maj. R. D. Henderson), Johannesburg (Maj. G. H. Cotton) and Pretoria (Maj. J. Eddy) respectively. Thus one field company was provided for each Command other than Roberts Heights--where the Permanent Force was active--and the numerical designation of all existing units was changed. When Maj. Eddy retired, Maj. H. D. Ward Smith because company commander at Pretoria, and Capt. A. Fraser-Lawrie became his Second-in-Command.

A.C.F. Engineer officers now attended promotion courses at the Military College, and during non-continuous training they did tactical exercises without troops--T.E.W.T.s for short--based on imaginary situations involving all arms. More rarely, exercises were organised in co-operation with other A.C.F. units of different branches of the service but, as Maj. C. J. Venter later confessed, when 2 Field Company first went to training camp at East London, he realised that though demolition training was essential, there was no one qualified to give instruction. He simply took on the task himself and set off such an explosion that the O.C., Training Centre tried--unsuccessfully--to get Defence Headquarters to call off the exercise. During an army field exercise north of Hammanskraal in 1937, however, Sapper sections did carry out low-level bridging projects to allow transport to move forward. From then onward other short exercises in the Magaliesberg and elsewhere were carried out, and infantry commanders began to realise engineering requirements, which had to be fulfilled if an army was to remain mobile.

Early 1938 saw a "troop carrier transport test" from Pretoria to Beit Bridge, and its success under Col. George E. Brink of the Permanent Force led to the later equipping of 1st S.A. Division with Ford 3-ton troop-carriers, which were destined to do magnificent service in Kenya and Abyssinia in 1940-42, and even in the Western Desert later. A number of Engineer officers were exercised in tests of Sapper problems along the route, and the "demolition" of Beit Bridge over the Limpopo was the task given to Maj. A. Fraser-Lawrie.

When Mr. Pirow's famous--or notorious--"bushcart" transport was put to the practical test in 1938 north of Hammanskraal, Johannesburg's 5 Field Company was among the units attending the manoeuvres. Largely under the inspiration of its Second-in-Command, Capt. C. W. Couchman, who had won the Distinguished Conduct Medal at Gallipoli and had been commissioned in the field during World War I, this company had carried out T.E.W.T.s to train its junior officers and N.C.O.'s in tactical field requirements in attack, defence and withdrawal, and at Auckland Park they also developed systems of trenches, including barbed wire entanglements, machine-gun emplacements and booby traps. Being based not far from Defence Headquarters and always in close touch with the latest


developments in the Union Defence Force, 5 Field Company thus became possibly the most advanced of all S.A.E.C. units as regards field engineer training at the time, with the Pretoria field company concentrating more on explosives and bridging.

Liaison with army training and staff at Defence Headquarters had previously been maintained by a rather loose but nevertheless fruitful contact between some of the interested Permanent Force officers and 6 Field Company in Pretoria. Maj. Louis Schoon (now attached to the S.A.A.F.), Maj. Jack de Klerk, Lt.-Col. D. H. Pienaar and Col. George E. Brink, the Director of Military Training, were prominent in this sphere. As 6 Field Company's offices bordered on the parade ground at Defence Headquarters, the unit's training was certainly observed by D.H.Q. Staff, among whom an awareness of the necessity for creating a strong operative S.A.E.C. took firm root.

"Father" of the Modern S.A.E.C.

George Harry Cotton started his military career at the age of only 17 as a private in the 4th (Territorial) Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment, but when war broke out in 1914 he enlisted in the Royal Engineers. He was severely wounded while serving in 71 Field Company, R.E., fighting against the Turks at Gallipoli, but was only discharged from wartime service on 14 December 1918. He returned to South Africa shortly afterwards,36 was commissioned in the A.C.F. in 1935--the year that two extra field companies were authorised-- and on 8 September 1937 he was granted the rank of major as Commanding Officer of 5 Field Company.

Cotton was succeeded in command of 5 Field Company by Maj. C. W. Couchman, who had been his Second-in-Command. Capt. T. E. Sayle now became Second-in-Command of 5 Field Company at Auckland Park, where training was intensified as the war clouds gathered over Europe in 1938.

There was as yet no S.A.E.C. representative at Defence Headquarters, but on 29 September, 1938 the General Staff, as if awakening from a long sleep, had granted approval for the transfer of Maj. G. H. Cotton to the General List, A.C.F. on appointment as Staff Officer (Engineers) on the staff of the Army Training Section. The appointment was only on a part-time basis37 but it came at a time when news of the Munich Agreement was still being broadcast round the world. South Africa still had only six A.C.F. field companies, with a total of only 36 officers and 390 other ranks for the whole of the S.A.E.C, but it was an improvement on the past.

However, there were now nine infantry brigades in the A.C.F., and three further field companies were formed. Thus 7 Field Company came into being at Durban, 8 at Cape Town and 9 at Johannesburg. However, since the organisation of "forces" or divisions was already being sketched at Defence Headquarters early in 1938, it was clear that further Sapper units were required. Provision had also to be made for both G.H.Q. Troops and the lines of communication, as well as the necessary field park companies with the divisions themselves.


Capt. T. E. Sayle of 5 Field Company now became Commanding Officer of the new 9 Field Company at Auckland Park and his place as Second-in-Command of 5 Field Company was taken by Lt. K. T. Gilson, while Lt. C. B. Stewart became Sayle's own Second-in-Command. Maj. J. W. O. Billingham took command of 8 Field Company at Cape Town, and initially 7 Field Company at Durban was under Maj. T. F. Gillespie. With Maj. Cotton's appointment at Defence Headquarters, discussions on Engineer training took a very positive turn, and it was decided in April/May, 1939 to arrange a series of training attachments overseas with both the British and French armies for Maj. A. Fraser-Lawrie.

The ball had been set rolling while the world was still enjoying-- or enduring--a period of precarious peace. Such was the situation when the Secretary for Defence informed the General Manager of Railways that Mr. J. M. Greathead, the Chief Civil Engineer, S.A.R. & H., had been appointed Director of Fortifications as from 1 June 1939. Mr. John F. Craig, who had served with the Engineers in 1914-1916, was in England in mid-193938 on leave from his job as Harbour Advisory Engineer on the S.A.R. & H., and he was also approached. Considerable thought had already been given to the expansion of the S.A.E.C. when, on 3 September 1939 the world was once again plunged into war.


Next Chapter [2]


1. The S.A. Corps of Signals, p. 22; Regimental Devices in South Africa, 1783-1954, p. 32.

2. The Armed Forces of South Africa, p. 165; Regimental Devices in South Africa, 1783-1954, p. 31.

3. Durban Light Infantry, Vol. I, pp. 192, 195.

4. The Campaign in German South West Africa, 1914-1915, p. 161.

5. ibid, p. 162.

6. The South African Forces in France, pp. 279, 280.

7. Regimental Devices in South Africa, 1783-1954, pp. 51, 86.

8. The S.A. Corps of Signals, pp. 28, 29.

9. History of the Corps of Royal Engineers, Vol. VII, p. 114.

10. The South African Forces in France, p. 333.

11. ibid, p. 334.

12. ibid, p. 335.

13. ibid, pp. 381, 382

14. History of the Great European War Vol VIII. pp. 100, 101.

15. The South Africans with General Smuts in German East Africa, 1916, Map 7.

16. S.A. Corps of Signals, p. 24.

17. The South Africans with General Smuts in German East Africa, 1916, p. 258.

18. History of the Corps of Royal Engineers, Vol. VII, p. 121.

19. ibid, p. 122.

20. ibid, p. 123.

21. ibid, p. 127.

22. ibid, p. 124.

23. The Armed Forces of South Africa, p. 53.

24. Nongqai, March 1928.

25. ibid, p. 238.

26. Nine Flames, p. 262; S.A. Sapper (date unknown).477

27. S.A. Sapper, Desperate Ride of a Sapper Officer.

28. ibid; Nine Flames, p. 262.

29. S.A. Sapper.

30. ibid.

31. Coast Garrison and Active Citizen Force Regulations, Chapter 5, para. 19

32. ibid, Chapter 7, para. 24. v

33. ibid, para. 29.

34. The Armed Forces of South Africa, p. 53.

35. Annual Report of the Department of Defence, U.G. No. 47, 1934 p 11

36. The Story of the Ninth, p. 8.

37. ibid.

38. South Africa at War, p. 27.

Transcribed and formatted by Roman Hruska for the HyperWar Foundation