Anyone who has served in REME will know well that no operation, exercise or plan ever goes ‘perfectly’. Whatever the circumstances, a soldier needs to be ready to adapt, improvise and overcome. Whether in the heat of battle or the remote wilderness of Antarctica, equipment simply has to be repaired with whatever is on hand. So why would a REME object collection look any different?

Much of the time in museum collections, we find ourselves looking for the ‘perfect’ objects – those that have a big visual impact and tell a great story. Captions will describe the ‘best’ features of an object or explain the most interesting, most famous parts of its history. Even in the records kept behind the scenes, condition reports will look for what is ‘wrong’ with an object and why it may or may not be suitable for display.

These objects challenge all of these assumptions. The following items within the Museum’s collection are ‘perfectly imperfect’, telling stories about REME that are all the more interesting because of the ways in which the objects are altered, broken or unfinished. Some of these items are already displayed in the Museum or discussed on our blog, while others are only now having their stories unveiled.

Flag, c 1950

On first glance, this flag looks like any other REME flag that has become worn from use. However, this flag is significant for where and why it was used, and subsequently how it came to be in this state.

This flag flew in Hong Kong and Korea with 11 Infantry Workshop REME. The workshop supported 27 Commonwealth Brigade Group, which for some time included units representing Australia, Canada, Great Britain, India and New Zealand. As a result of serving alongside many allies, the unit was frequently misnamed. The title of "Free Belgians" was heard, due to some similarity in colours of flags, and it became necessary to fly a more distinctive flag on certain occasions.

In addition, almost all sense of time disappeared with continued seven-day working. In order to distinguish days and weeks, this flag was also flown each Sunday. Within the workshop, the name "Sunday flag" came into being and was used by all personnel of the unit. The flag flew in 31 sites between September 1950 and June 1951, including during the Battle of the Imjin.

A blue rectangular flag with diagonal red and yellow stripe, REME cap badge in the top left corner, flag is ripped on the right side and torn.

The torn and frayed REME flag (with second pattern badge). 1958.27.

Knife, c 1940s

This simple kitchen knife is one of several items from Sergeant George Beeson’s time as a German Prisoner of War (POW) in World War Two. Beeson was initially captured in Calais, May 1940 and many of the objects in his collection are related to his escape attempts – efforts that led to him being awarded a Military Medal after the war.

His first known attempt was in the autumn of 1940, when he was captured five days after cutting the wire whilst trying to reach Russia. His clandestine efforts continued and could even have cost him his life in the least expected way when he ‘borrowed’ this knife from the German canteen and it almost cost him his life when the handle broke unexpectedly.

Luckily, his defiance was not in vain. In late 1943, he gained access to a French POW camp after bribing a German sentry and, despite the guards opening fire, he made it to Paris and eventually met up with advancing American troops.

A small knife with sharp silver blade and black plastic handle, mounted on a wire mount inside a glass display case, other objects out of focus in the background.

The broken knife as displayed in the POW case in our World War Two gallery. 1984.2824.2.

Battledress Blouse, 1944

This patch of fabric was taken from a battledress blouse worn by a REME soldier in World War Two. Sewing stitches are visible in two areas of the patch, where bullet holes have been repaired.

The battledress belonged to Captain Harry Roberts, who was attached to the Parachute Regiment and landed at Arnhem in a glider, September 1944. On landing, the glider’s crew came under heavy German machine gun fire, killing the two pilots, while Roberts took bullets to the shoulder and then to the base of his spine, which for a while left him paralysed. Taken to a German military hospital and then a POW camp, the German doctors didn’t believe him when he told them there was still a bullet in his spine. It remained there until he got back to England in 1945 and had it removed!

A small oblong patch of brown woven fabric with two patches sewn up in the middle, on white tissue paper.

The repaired bullet holes clearly visible on the textile patch. E:99.0201.38.

Statuette, c 1942-45

Once an unassuming wheelbarrow handle, this wooden statuette of William the Conqueror was carved by a POW in Italy sometime between 1942 and 1945. Craftsman J Scarth (RAOC, automatically transferred to REME on its formation while imprisoned) recalled that this statuette was made by a fellow prisoner, surname Ledgerton, using a broken pen knife blade. Ironically, since its creation part of the sword has broken off, though this seems to round off the story, having been originally created from (and with) broken materials.

A wooden sculpture of a knight holding a sword downwards and a shield on a plinth, two perspectives from the front and back, on a plain white background.

Statuette of William the Conqueror. 1999.4270.2.

Lucy Brown, Social Media and Digital Marketing Officer. Published in the September 2023 issue of The Craftsman.