REME is perhaps most associated with repair but their role in keeping the punch in the army’s fist often leads to ingenuity on unexpected fronts. You might think of course of the new designs, the improvisation (or bodging), or the UORs, but at the start of the war in the desert, REME proved their reliability and support capabilities simply by producing spares.

4 Base Workshop was originally an RAOC Base Ordnance Workshop (BOW). Formed June 1940 in Abbassia, it was indeed the very first BOW in the Middle East and became the base camp and mobilising unit of most workshop establishments formed thereafter, including for example the famous 7th Armoured Division Workshop. Although it started with a single factory, it soon grew alongside demand and took over nearby premises, some of which maintained their original form whilst others had to be converted. In 1942, 4 BOW comprised 74 officers, 1,599 OR and approximately 13,000 civilians but as this was considered slightly unwieldy, the decision was made to split the workshop into two. The split coincided roughly with the formation of REME and so 4 BOW became 4 Base Workshop, responsible for all manufacturing, whilst repair and maintenance went to 533 Base Workshop. 4 Base Workshop continued to grow however and in 1944 had 39 officers, 740 ORs and 8040 civilians, and 14 sub-workshops. 

White map with black outline of the workshop. Labels of rooms around the outside.

A map of 4 Base Workshop in Abbassia, Egypt from our Archive.

4 Base Workshop produced everything from tank parts (both British and American) and gun gauges to cushions and “crates (various)”. From Jan 42 to Dec 43, they produced 242,462 miscellaneous MT spares, 103,560 ammo boxes, 195,843 trestles, and 179,650 “various items in leather and canvas” - truly a remarkable spread and quantity of items. As well as these standard items, it was also involved with creating new pattern equipment such as those involved in deception and in mine detection.

Black and white photo of a clothed table with old fashioned footballs, football boots and bags displayed on top. On the ground in front of the table are two rucksacks and a large case with materials secured inside.

Sports kit and other textile offerings from No 10 Sub-Workshop.

It should be noted that these numbers, the approximately 2,473,000 items in total, may in fact be lower than the actual production figures. For starters, there’s very little mention of electrical equipment despite the fact that 15 Sub-workshop employed 381 people on electrical items from 3hp motors to electrical ovens. Furthermore, 533 Base Workshop who, as we know, were focused on maintenance and repair, manufactured over 2,000,000 items themselves - whilst these are admittedly likely to have only been small components such as nuts and bolts, it still suggests a disparity between the recorded and expected output of 4 Base Workshop.

Manufacturing on this scale was required for several reasons. The main one is that equipment simply hadn’t been scaled sufficiently (in the British case) or at all (mostly with regards American equipment), which then combined with a lack of shipping space for spares - before the fall of France, troops there had priority for demands, and afterwards all space was devoted to men and equipment for the continued push, rather than spares there or elsewhere. The desert conditions also played a part as equipment faced greater strain than expected but, without spare parts, was forced to continue, or rather be kept going, long after it would normally be profitable to do so and so 4 Base Workshop was called upon to create these spares. Many Fordson trucks, for example, broke their axles soon after arriving in the desert due to the fitting of desert tyres and new ones had to be made from various half-shafts.

Black and white photo of a busy workshop. There are three long rows of stations, and pulleys attached to them from the ceiling. Men work with machines at the stations.

The Machine Shop in No 9 Sub-Workshop.

Although there was of course overlap between the sub-workshops, they each had specialities and some were significantly more specialised than others. No 1 Sub-workshop, for example, was a general engineering shop capable of producing almost any article in large quantities as it had a machine shop, blacksmiths, a foundry, fitters, welders, and woodworkers. Over 200 25-pounder gun barrels were machined, screwed, and fitted with muzzle brakes by this sub-workshop, a job requiring extreme accuracy and normally therefore an armament machine shop, but they also created moulds for submarine components, crankcases and sumps, and even machinery for other factories.

On the other end of the spectrum, 5 Sub-Workshop housed within it the metallurgical laboratory which was started in 1941 by a former Skoda staff member (showcasing REME’s continued cooperation with car manufacturers) to counteract the difficulties faced in both analysing the material used in spare parts the workshops were asked to copy, and in analysing the raw material they had to work with - particularly the large quantities of scrap metal used for casting. Despite their struggle to acquire the necessary equipment and chemicals for testing, their work was invaluable in preventing the production of sub-standard spares which would only lead to future failures, as well as developing refining methods to get the most useable material out of what was available to the workshops at the time.

Black and white photo of a man smoking a pipe and pouring liquid from a balloon flask into a test tube. Labeled bottles of liquid on shelves behind him in background.

A photograph at the metallurgical laboratory of 5 Sub-Workshop.

In addition to the actual manufacturing workshops, there was also HQ 4 Base Workshop which handled the standard regimental and administrative matters but also contained the Technical Branch who were responsible for handling and assigning the requests that came in, as well as translating said requests. Common issues for design included being given a vague description of an aim for a piece of equipment, without any great idea of exactly how that was to be achieved, or being given a sketch or mock up to develop, whereas issues in manufacture usually required them to rethink an existing item to facilitate production either in terms of speed, i.e. adjusting them to be made by casting rather than fabricating, or in terms of material.

4 Base Workshop was eventually handed over to the Egyptian Army in March 1947. After a rough beginning with 12 months cut off from G1098 supplies and therefore much desperate improvisation, its ongoing output and diversification, matching the needs of the Army as required over the years, means that its contribution to the war effort was invaluable or, in the words of Brigadier Wright CBE, “unparalleled in the history of the Army”.

Information in this article was taken from 4 Base Workshop REME: History and Organisation and 4 Base Workshop REME: Notes extracted from War History for presentation to REME Officers’ School SMC.

Zoe Tolman, Assistant Curator

This article was first published in The Craftsman on 1 November 2021.