Those of us familiar with REME’s history will know that the Corps has always worked with every part of the UK’s Armed Forces. Although this was particularly the case during World War Two, some may be surprised to learn REME supported not just Britain’s military but that of the entire Allied war effort as well.

From the Museum’s perspective, this can be a challenging story to tell: how do you encapsulate the full breadth of REME’s vital role fighting the Axis forces using objects as illustrations? Fortunately, there is one item in the Museum’s permanent collection that allows us to do this in a very eloquent and fitting manner, and that is the Salerno Wheel.

The Wheel was one of the earliest objects acquired for the collection, as it was donated in 1958, the same year in which the Museum was founded. It has a fascinating and well documented history, and perfectly exemplifies the full extent of the Corps’ work.

Wooden wheel with eight spokes and twenty badges attached to the front around the edge of the wheel. Mounted on a white brick wall.

The Wheel as it used to be displayed in the Museum’s former home in Arborfield.

Surprisingly, the Wheel’s origins can be traced back, albeit somewhat tangentially, to the Casablanca Conference held in January 1943. Here, representatives of the Allied forces, including Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, met to discuss the next phase of the War. In particular, how the inevitable assault on the European mainland, much of it still held by Nazi Germany, should be executed.

Although Josef Stalin could not attend, he had made it clear that his preference was for the Allies to launch a second front in Western Europe to alleviate the pressure the Nazis were putting on the Russians in the East. The Americans seriously considered this, but Churchill thought the Allies were unprepared for such an undertaking at this stage of the War, and proposed an invasion of Italy instead. This compromise was eventually accepted, particularly as Churchill argued an attack on the Italian mainland might lead to a popular uprising against Mussolini’s government and take them out of the War entirely.

This decision eventually led to Operation Husky, the amphibious attack on the island of Sicily, which was a prelude to the invasion of Italy itself. Husky began on 9 July 1943 (the 80th anniversary of which marks the publication of this article), and ultimately resulted in an Allied victory by 17 August. The subsequent invasion of the mainland was made up of three distinct operations, Avalanche, Baytown and Slapstick; it is to the first of these, Avalanche, that the Salerno Wheel is connected.

Avalanche was launched on 9 September 1943, and included troops from the UK, the United States and Canada. It targeted Salerno, an ancient town in south west Italy, which the Allies wanted to use as a staging point from which to attack Naples, which lies further north. Naples’ port was to be used as a base to resupply the Allies, but also as a means of trapping German and Italian forces located near Italy’s southern coast.

REME’s Beach Detachment was given the task of keeping the landing area clear of broken down and stricken equipment. The unit was part of 21st Beach Group, itself an element of the British 10th Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General (Lt Gen) Richard McCreery. In turn, 10 Corps was part of the US 5th Army, led by Lt Gen Mark Wayne Clark.

Black and white photo of a man in army uniform, binoculars hanging from his neck, stood on a ship at sea leaning against the railings.

Lt Gen Mark Wayne Clark on board the USS Ancon, 12 September 1943. © National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC.

Unusually, the Allied landing at Salerno was deliberately not preceded by any sustained naval or aerial bombardment as they wanted to achieve a surprise. The Germans were well prepared despite this attempted deception, and progress was slow as a result. During the landings, a German landing craft carrying fuel oil was attacked by a Allied naval vessel; the crew took fright and beached the craft (it is difficult to say which type of ship this was, but it may have been a Marine Artillerie Leichter (MAL), Marine Artillery Lighter in English).

The wreck formed an obstacle to the landing. Corporal Rigby REME pulled it out of the way using two of the Beach Detachment’s D8 tractors. Rigby removed the landing craft’s wheel as a trophy and mounted it on the front of one of the vehicles. Thus the ‘Salerno Wheel’ was born.

Map document of the Salerno landings, with ground shaded in a darker grey, labels for Salerno, Vierri and Maiori among others.

A map of the Salerno landings. The incident that led to the capture of the Wheel took place in the Northern Attack Force Area. © HMSO.

Churchill’s view expressed at the Casablanca Conference proved to be a prescient one. The Italian people were thoroughly disheartened by the adverse impact the war was having on their country, and sensing the mood, the Government announced it had voted to remove itself from the Axis on 8 September 1943, just hours before the Salerno landings (negotiations between the Allies and the Italians had been happening in secret for some weeks before the formal proclamation). Mussolini was removed from power at the same time, although he was later reinstated following Hitler’s intervention. Thus we can be certain the Allies faced only German opposition during Avalanche, as the Italians were no longer combatants at this point.

Soldiers disembarking a landing craft at sea onto a beach.

A colourised image of American troops landing in the vicinity of Salerno on 19 September 1943. © National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC.

Silhouettes of soldiers walking in a line on a beach, ships are visible in the background.

This evocative image is one of the first taken of American soldiers landing in the vicinity of Salerno. © National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC.

In November 1943, 21st Beach Group re-joined its parent unit, 78th Infantry Troops Workshop, and the Wheel was used as the Workshop’s sign. It remained in this role throughout the Italian campaign, and even later into Austria. The twenty badges and signs it carries (there were originally twenty-one), allows us to trace the Workshop’s connections with the various detachments with which it was associated, as well as the dates and areas when and where it served. Here is the complete list, starting from the “twenty five to the hour” position and proceeding clockwise around the rim.

  1. 10th Indian Infantry Division (Italy, 1944).
  2. Jewish Brigade (this badge may have been incorrectly rotated through ninety degrees).
  3. 9th Armoured Brigade (British).
  4. 4th Infantry Division (British).
  5. Combined Operations (Salerno; British).
  6. 8th Indian Infantry Division (Italy).
  7. 1st Infantry Division (British).
  8. 5th Army (American).
  9. 5 Corps (Italy; British).
  10. 5th Infantry Division (British).
  11. 1st Army (North Africa; British).
  12. 56th London Infantry Division (Salerno; British).
  13. 78th Infantry Division (British).
  14. 8th Army (Italy; British).
  15. 30 Corps (Sicily; British).
  16. 10 Corps (Salerno; British).
  17. 13 Corps (Italy; British).
  18. 2nd New Zealand Division (Cassino, March 1944).
  19. 25th Armoured Engineer Brigade (British; 1945).
  20. 6th AGRA (Army Group Royal Artillery; British).

The unit, which had received the new designation of 692 Infantry Troops Workshop in March 1944, was finally disbanded toward the end of 1945. Some of its members took the Wheel to Naples where it was reconditioned, and it was from there that it was returned to REME HQ in Arborfield, and ultimately donated to the Museum.

Richard Davies, Curator. Published in The Craftsman, July 2023.