Author: Celia Cassingham, Museum Archivist (with a little help from our Museum Director)

'The Vital Spark keeping the Army Firing on All Cylinders'

In October 2023, we dealt with Vehicle Mechanics 'A', so as promised, it is now the turn of Vehicle Mechanics (VMs) 'B'. I refer you to the previous as an aide memoire to the background and history of the VM Trade. A couple of pertinent points are worth noting. In 1968 it was recommended that there should be three categories of Vehicle Mechanic, namely 'A', 'B' and 'C'. In March 1990 it was decided to amalgamate the 'A' and 'B' trades to form a single trade of Vehicle Mechanic.

'B' Vehicles are soft-skinned, tracked and wheeled land-use vehicles, which may be armoured for defensive purposes.

We return to the Report on REME Units in 10 Corps during the period October 23-November 27 1942, as mentioned in the previous article, this time for the repair statistics for 'B' Vehicles. The excerpt notes that these statistics are: "... only for 2nd Line Repair. Figures of LADs are not recorded nor had we any 3rd Echelon 'B' Vehicle Workshop."

Document extract with typed text and a table.

REME in 10 Corps.

A document in our archives from a personal collection, includes a list of desert modifications for ‘B’ Vehicles undertaken by the base workshops.

Document extract with typed writing in a list.

REME in the 8th Army. The section shown is from a document entitled The Evolution of the 8th Army, which appear to be notes for a talk. E: 08.0403.08.

Our REME Middle East War Report, Part 4 includes a section that describes the numbers and types of 'B' Vehicles in the Middle East and Western Desert Campaigns, 40, to be precise. This is recorded in a section entitled "'B' Vehicles. General Appreciation of the Design of equipment as reflected by the load on REME". This gives us an insight into the scale of the work and variety of vehicles worked on. In this context 'appreciation' means assessment or appraisal of worth, quality and importance. Examples of vehicle types included are: four types of Motorcycles (Ariel, BSA, Matchless and Norton); utility vehicles and trucks (Ford, Morris, Bedford, Dodge), staff cars (Humber 4x2 Snipe), the Willys Jeep, noted in this report as a 'Ford Willys Jeep'; Albions, Austins, Leylands; and, of course, recovery vehicles (Dodge, Leyland, Scammell), transporters (40 ton Rogers), tractors (AEC Matador, Mack) and trailers.

Below is an example from the report concerning the Norton Motorcycle, followed by a photograph of a Norton, albeit in a pristine condition, from a photograph album depicting Service 'B' Vehicles.

Document extract with typed writing.

Appreciation of Norton Motor Cycle REME War Report, Middle East, Volume IV. A: 1958.0104.03.53.

A motorbike parked outside.

Norton 490 cc f. A: 1960.0325.05.

Another section from the report describing trucks, tractors and a Thorneycroft Tipper:

Double page typed document.

REME War Report, Middle East, Volume IV. A: 1958.0104.03.

We are going to do things slightly differently this time and take a leap through the ages. From the desert to the snow, we now learn about a VM from more recent history: none other than Major (Retd) Rick Henderson, our Director, who can be said to be 'part of the collections'. Major Henderson was willing, upon request, to share his experiences as a VM during his service.

Major Henderson's favourite vehicles to work on were tracked 'B' Vehicles, the BV 202s and BV 206s as a junior rank (BV stands for Bandvagn, which translates to tracked vehicle in English). As a senior rank, it was the Warrior series of AFVs (Armoured Fighting Vehicles).

Two soldiers working on an engine, one looks at the camera.

Henderson working on a BV 202.

The photograph, provided by Major Henderson (Lance Corporal at the time) shows him working on the repair of a Volvo Bandvagn BV 202 Snowcat in temperatures below zero, 600 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle, assisted by an American colleague, whilst deployed on Exercise AVALANCHE EXPRESS in Northern Norway.

Major Henderson's favourite posting was as a Junior Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) at AMF(L) Wksps (Allied Mobile Force Land Workshops), as part of the British contingent of a multinational force of some 25,000. The unit deployed to a number of different countries each year (including Norway annually). This provided the opportunity to work alongside other nations' engineers. Whist serving in this unit for almost four years, he completed his Artic Warfare training, learned to ski, became an Assistant Personal Training Instructor (PTI), qualified as a Sub-Aqua diver and deployed on an expedition to the USA assisting in the excavation of a British Merchant ship scuttled during the American War of Independence.

After that, another favourite posting had to be getting the opportunity to be stationed in Hong Kong at 50 Hong Kong Workshops for the last three years before the handover to the Chinese. Whilst this was not so much to do with fixing military vehicles, it was more about the opportunity to go to some of the UK's foreign embassies and inspect and repair their civilian vehicles. The posting that sticks out is being one of the first servicemen into Kazakhstan not long after a British Consulate had been established. This and the chance, of course, to play lots of rugby.

Apologies for the short treatise on Bandvagns that follows herewith. The Bandvagn 202 (BV 202) is an oversnow tracked articulated, all-terrain vehicle developed by Bolinder-Munktell, a subsidiary of Volvo, for the Swedish Army in the early 1960s.

Black and white photograph of a tracked vehicle with tracked trailer on the back.

A Volvo BV 202 from a collection of photographs of military vehicles. E:06.0655.109.

The following images form part of a photograph collection of black-and-white and colour prints in our archives entitled Tracked B Vehicles for Over Snow Operations and illustrate the types of working conditions.

Soldiers and a crane lifting an engine out of a vehicle in snow.

Engine change on a BV 206. E:11.0541.

Soldiers working under the bonnet of a vehicle, other vehicles visible next to it, toolbox on the floor.

VMs at work under the bonnet. E:11.0541.

The development of the BV 206 was started in 1974. It was produced by Sweden's Hägglunds & Söner (now BAE Systems Hägglunds AB) and introduced to many armies in 1980.

A tracked vehicle with tracked trailer, on snowy ground, trees in the background.

BV 206 that replaced the BV 202. E:11.0541.

Of course, the earlier story of REME activities in arctic conditions is also represented in our galleries, archives and our object collections. I speak, of course of Major Roy Homard, whose story forms part of the 'Around the World Gallery' display. This also features an ST4 Aktiv Snow Trac oversnow vehicle.

Last, but not least, we can't end off without including one or two images from our archives photograph collections that depict the Warrior Series of AFVs:

A silver coloured engine attached to a winch inside a workshop, two men in green overalls working on it.

4 Armoured Workshop Company, Op GRAPPLE, 1993. The Company Vehicle and Powerpack Repair Platoon Working on a Warrior gearbox. A:2013.5867.116.

Two soldiers in green coverall working on the tracks of a large vehicle.

11 Armoured Workshop, Soest, DGEME Visit, August 1990. Demonstration of how to check the torque on Warrior brake pads, using a self-designed tool. E:06.0452.16.

A large tracked armoured vehicle with crane outside a building.

Warrior repair vehicle with trailer, Vehicles and Weapons Branch, REME. E:06.0622.31.

As a final word, it is worth noting how our museum demonstrates REME history through our archives, objects and living history and how we can show a sense of continuity and links down the ages, to those who have gone before and those who are with us still.

Published in The Craftsman, March 2024.