Author: Celia Cassingham, Museum Archivist

Our Archives deals with many research requests from all over the world about a broad range of subjects, from the technical to the personal. We thought it would be worth sharing with you the story of a research request that goes right around the world with REME: North Africa, Italy, Germany, and Canada, from the Second World War to today.

Last September Michael Brown from Ontario, Canada, contacted us seeking help with a project. He purchased a street sign from Bremen, Germany which had a photograph and a small written description attached to the back of the sign. The description was by a British Army soldier describing the advance into Bremen in 1945, and almost getting shot. When Michael removed the picture, and note, he saw that it had been written on the back of what looked like a medical chit (which it is – Army Short Medical Form AFW 3084). This is a detachable form which formed part of the service and pay book. Legible details include army number, name and REME. There is also a date in the narrative with the photograph which places the soldier in Bremen, Germany.

Metal street sign that reads " barrenstrasse " in white and showing damage from two bullet holes.

Street sign purchased by Michael in Bremen.

Back of a street sign. A note and a black and white photograph of people in a city are attached on the right. Bullet holes are visible.

Back of the street sign, showing the photograph and note attached.

Two images. Left shows a typed, yellowing form with some handwritten details. Right shows a black and white photograph of a man in a trenchcoat with his arms stretched to the side, standing outside with buildings and people behind. Handwritten note attached to the photograph.

Army Form AFW 3084 and close up of the attached photograph and note.

Michael wanted to know if we would have any information about this serviceman so that he could properly preserve this piece of personal military history. As a veteran himself, this is very important to him. Michael wanted to add the serviceman’s name, rank, army number and unit to a brass plaque and to mount the items in a frame to preserve and protect them.

Our first port of call for requests of this nature is to check our series of original paper tracer cards. These index cards (formerly know as location cards) were kept by the REME Records Office at the time to monitor the movements and postings of troops (other ranks) during the Second World War. The army number is pretty clear, and to me, the name and rank looked like Cfn CF Spice. I therefore checked the cards and, to my delight, there he was: 14311150 Cfn CF Spice.

Two images of yellowing lined paper with handwritten notes in black and red ink.

The tracer card for Craftsman CF Spice.

But what did CF stand for? We also have in our archives the REME Second World War Register of Soldiers (Army Book 358, volumes dealing with details of transfer to another corps or cause of becoming non-effective, such as discharge). Whereas the tracer cards only record the initials of the individuals, the register records the full names. We are therefore able to confirm the names of individuals by cross-referencing the cards with the registers. This meant that I could establish that CF are the initials for Cyril Frank.

Close-up of yellowing lined paper with handwritten details of Cyril Frank Spice and his service number.

The register entry of Cyril Frank Spice. 

The tracer card tells us that he started with REME on 25 November 1942 and after a period of training and postings at home, and on draft in a mobilisation and holding centre, he embarked for North Africa on 15 July 1943. He saw service in North Africa and Italy with 51, 80 and 88 Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) Regiment Workshop Sections between 28 October 1943 and 11 November 1943. It would appear that he remained with 88 HAA Regt Wksp Sect until its disbandment in 1944, after which he was put on the X – IV List. These lists which administratively managed personnel who had been struck-off-strength as ineffective for reasons including illness, injury, release leave, overseas postings, training courses, reinforcing other units. He was temporarily attached to 5 Army Troops Workshop Central Mediterranean Force on 1 January 1945.

The Unit Record Card (in our archives) of the latter states that personnel from 88 HAA which had disbanded, were posted into 5 Army Troops Workshop on 9 January 1945. The unit, which moved to Bologna (previously Prato) on 27 April 1945, was engaged as the British Element with the 5th (US) Army. The REME War Report for the North Africa / Italy Campaigns, in our archives, includes a layout diagram showing the organisation of REME support for British 10 Corps, under command of the 5th (US Army), including the British Increment to the American 5th Army HQ.

The next entry tells us that he disembarked UK No 1 LIHP Holding Centre on 27 November 1945 (codes for category of leave related to PYTHON, which was a code for the end of an overseas tour). His movements between January and November 1945 are unclear. The implication is that he stayed with 5 Army Troops Workshop (disbanded in November 1945). There is no record on the card of his being in Germany (Bremen), but if he was there in April 1945, it may be that he was sent there from Italy and before disembarking in the UK (according to the REME War Report: 21 Army Group, 30 Corps had captured Bremen by 28 April). It is clear that 5 Army Troops Workshop was in Bologna in April 1945, so it could be that Cyril had been posted on and did not remain with the unit.

Cyril re-embarked from the UK after leave (ex-LIAP, 29 December 1945). He was struck-off-strength Central Mediterranean Force and taken-on-strength Middle East Force on 24 June 1946. He arrived back in the UK on 28 November 1946, was posted to 3 Central Workshop on 31 December 1946 and finally released to the reserves on 27 May 1947.

Although we have managed to solve the mystery of the identity of Craftsman Spice, we still have some questions that require answering:

Was Cyril actually in Bremen? If so, how and why was he sent there?

If Cyril was not there, how did his medical form end up on the back of the sign?

Could it be that somehow, someone else got hold of the form and pasted it onto the back of the sign?

Further research into the personal service record and unit war diary may help to solve the mystery of Bremen.

We would love to know if anyone today knows of or has any connection with Craftsman Spice. This may help us to answer the questions we still have and connect with Michael in Canada, who would love to have a photograph of him. If there are any family, friends or relatives of Craftsman Spice or former colleagues, we would love to hear from you. Please contact the Museum Archivist at [email protected].

Article published in The Craftsman, September 2021.