REME in Denmark
The Museum’s Archive team deals with a variety of enquiries from REME personnel (both serving and former), other military groups, historical groups, and the wider public. We receive about 45 enquiries a month on anything from vehicle dimensions for accurate modelling, manuals for those fixing up the real thing, information about family members to full histories of battalions or units. Other than the odd article in the Craftsman magazine, our work is not as visible as our colleagues on the collections side who provide you with such lovely exhibitions and object posts, so we thought we would occasionally share some of our favourite enquiries with you here.
Our first enquiry of 2020 came from a local history archive in Dragør, Denmark. They have a collection of photographs of British military personnel working at a former Luftwaffe Fire Station turned airplane workshop which had been taken by two local men in around 1945-6. They intended to use the photographs in an upcoming exhibition to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Denmark and wanted to know a bit more about the men featured in the images. Logically, as it was an airfield, they tried the RAF Museum first who quickly recognised the REME cap badge and sent them our way instead.
An archivist’s job is not to know everything – even our Corps Historian has to look things up during his research – but rather to know where to find things and to help others access that material or information. This means a lot of our enquiries start with us researching the context of what we are being asked to track down and finding the relevant key terms for our catalogue search. In this case, there was very little in our catalogue with Denmark in the description, so I set out to find which British Army units had been there in general, so that I could instead look up those REME units attached to them.
The first British in Denmark after the surrender were Major General Richard Dewing (head of the SHAEF mission to Denmark), his staff, and ‘B’ company of 13th Airborne Battalion as escort. They flew to Copenhagen on the 5th of May. Shortly after, he also had access to 1st Parachute Brigade, minus their 2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions, but supplemented by the 1st Royal Dragoons and 2nd Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps (Motor Battalion).
There is some confusion to be had here with the air elements as the majority of 1st Airborne Division was actually sent to Norway rather than Denmark, with only 1st Parachute Brigade going to the latter. In the same way, we know that there were REME workshops attached to 1st Airborne Division as well as the smaller units within, and the majority of our post-war photos of them are indeed Norway based. However, there are a handful of photos which are of ‘No 1 LAD (Light Aid Detachment) attached 1st Airlanding Brigade’, who should assumedly be going to Norway as their brigade did, and yet within them is another captioned ‘returning from duty in Denmark’.
We know the photos are of the same group as the name of the man involved is repeated in many of them, so it is potentially either a case of a simple mislabel (of either the country or the unit’s name), or that the LAD came back through Denmark on their way home from Norway, or that the unit was reassigned to 1st Parachute Brigade from 1st Airlanding Brigade but was still thought of as the former by the caption writer. It is unlikely we will ever be able to find out, unless someone out there comes forward with more information. In addition to this, material in our archive suggests there was a 1st Royal Dragoons LAD as well, although very few details are given.
Here, fortuitously, the volunteer at the Danish archive came back with some more photographs from the same collection, including some with a few very prominent badges. The most recognisable one is perhaps the famous Pegasus of the British airborne forces, shared by both 1st and 6th Airborne Division and all those within.
Image courtesy of arkiv.dk.
This doesn’t help us to identify whether it was 1st Parachute Brigade or 1st Airlanding, but we can at least confidently say REME 1st Airborne Division was represented in some manner. One could suggest perhaps that the soldier with the Pegasus badge but without the parachute one implies the Airlanding Brigade rather than the Parachute one, as assumedly all members of the latter would have to be parachutists, but this is mere personal speculation.
Images courtesy of arkiv.dk.
As well as the Pegasus badge, we can also see the jousting knight of VIII Corps on some of the vehicles alongside the REME flash, although this is less obvious in black and white. This is likely to be from the 1st Dragoons who were previously under 7th Armoured Division and through them VIII Corps.
Image courtesy of arkiv.dk.
Although it is always reassuring to have the photographic evidence match up to what the independent research suggests you will find, it is nevertheless impossible to say for definite which units these REME men were in. That some were 1st Airborne Division seems fairly certain, we have both the specific badge and other archival evidence to state they went there, but that others were 1st Royal Dragoons is simply our most likely option, given the combination of a more general badge and the possible units present in the wider army.
If you, or anyone you know, was in Denmark with REME and can shed some more definite light than my investigations, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to learn more about this often overlooked aspect of the liberation in Europe.
Finally, if you think you might recognise someone and want to take a closer look, the Local History Archive in Dragør has also helpfully digitised many of the images in the collection which can be found here: https://arkiv.dk/en/vis/5515023. Thank you to our Danish colleagues for kindly allowing us to use their photographs.
Zoe Tolman, Archive Assistant