Although the words of John ‘Hannibal’ Smith will be familiar to those of us who watched the American TV programme The A Team during the 1980s, they could equally have been uttered by one man as he oversaw the creation of REME during the 1940s: quite simply, without the plan of Major General Sir Eric Bertram Rowcroft KBE CB MIMechE MIEE, there would be no REME Corps.

It is fitting that we spend some time during 2022, the 80th anniversary of REME, to consider the life of this remarkable man, as well as his extraordinary achievement.

Eric Rowcroft was born on 28 January 1891 in the West Kensington area of London; both his parents had strong connections to the military and also to India. His mother, Florence Marion Eva Rowcroft (nee Hennessy), was the daughter of Major General John Hennessy who served with the Indian Army’s 2nd Grenadiers. Eric’s father, Colonel George Francis Rowcroft DSO, saw action with the 15th Ludhiana Sikh Regiment and was later the Indian Army’s Surgeon Major.

Black and white photograph of three children, two standing and one on a chair in front.

This carte de visite shows Eric (seated), with his older brother and sister. Ruby Frances was born on 16 August 1886, while Maurice George was born on 1 September 1887. They were both born in Muree, which was then in India but now forms part of Pakistan. This photograph dates from about 1900.

Eric was educated at Caterham School in Surrey, Haileybury School in Hertfordshire and Regent Street Polytechnic, now the University of Westminster, where he studied engineering. He joined the Royal Engineers’ Territorial Army in 1908 at the age of seventeen. A year later he decided to take up a military career, and followed his father into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

He left Sandhurst in 1911 and was commissioned into the Army Service Corps in the same year. The ASC’s role was to feed, clothe, equipment and arm the British Army, a massive and continuous challenge they met by using vehicles, horses, railways and waterways, and a great deal of ingenuity.

He was part of the British Expeditionary Force that landed in France in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War and went on to serve with the ASC’s transport units there; he was also mentioned in dispatches. By the latter part of the war, Rowcroft had reached the rank of captain and was on the staff of the War Office in a technical capacity.

He married Mary Anderson Traill in 1917, when she was about 26. Known as Mollie, it is likely they met through her brother Charles Harold Traill, as he also attended Caterham (the 1901 census records them as boarding in the home of a Church of England clergyman and schoolmaster in the town). The brothers-in-law actually had a number of things in common: Charles studied engineering too (although he attended King’s College in London), and, like Eric, he saw action in World War One. Charles served in the Royal Artillery and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in 1916. He died in 1920, probably from complications with some of the wounds he received during the conflict.

Mollie and Eric’s wedding was announced in the Social and Personal column of the Surrey Advertiser on 12 September 1917: “The marriage arranged between Eric Bertram Rowcroft A.S.C., and Miss Mollie Traill, Cooralee, Sunningdale, will take place, leave permitting, on Wednesday 26th inst., at St. Alban’s Church, Windlesham, at half-past two o’clock.” The reference to “leave permitting” clearly emphasises the impact the Great War was having on every aspect of life.

Two black and white photographs, one shows Rowcroft and wife sitting on steps outside, the other shows the couple standing, she wears a wedding dress and he in uniform.

Eric and Mollie. Left: at her family home of Cooralee, Sunningdale in Berkshire, before they were married. Right: on their wedding day, 26 September 1917.

Mollie and Eric had two children. Kenneth George Caulfeild Rowcroft (1923-2000) and Rowena Rowcroft (born in 1924). Kenneth followed his father into the Armed Forces and was at Dunkirk and D-Day; he was demobilised as a captain in the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), but later became a Curate and Rector in the Lyme Regis area during the 1950s. Rowena married John H. Joliffe of the RASC.

Rowcroft and his wife sit in wicker chairs, their child stands in between. Behind stands an Indian man dressed in white with a turban

Mollie, Eric and their daughter Rowena with an Indian servant, probably taken in about 1927.

Following the war, Eric served in India, Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), and Palestine. By 1932, he was back in Britain and was appointed Inspector of Tanks, a role he held until 1936. He was then appointed Commander of the RASC’s 1st Division in Palestine during the 1936-1939 Arab revolt. His connection to the RASC continued upon his return to Britain at the end of this period, as he was given command of their training battalion.

Black and white photograph of two rows of Army Officers in uniform with Pith helmets (half sitting half standing). Most have moustaches.

This image shows the military officers who formed part of the British Governor’s staff in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Rowcroft stands at the rear on the extreme right. The photograph probably dates from around the mid 1920s, and the Governor at this time, resplendent in white, was Sir William Henry Manning (1863-1932). He served in the role from 1918-1925.© Plâté Photography, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

He then served on the fourth Tank Board from May until August 1942 as a direct result of the experience he gained from his earlier posting as Inspector of Tanks. The Tank Board was initially created in 1940 to oversee the vital production of British tanks for the war effort, and comprised representatives from the War Office, the Ministry of Supply and leading industrialists.

By early 1942, the momentous decision was taken to approve the formation of REME. The Army had realised there was a pressing need to train sufficient soldiers to a high standard across the many trades required by a modern military force, and also to ensure the inevitable advances in technology would receive a swift response. Special Army Orders numbers 70 and 71, dated 22 May 1942, authorised the formation of the Corps, as well as its combatant status. The launch date was later set as 1 October 1942.

Given this great responsibility, the appointment of the Corps’ first director was clearly a crucial decision. The choice of Eric Rowcroft, with his background in engineering, administration and management, as well as his intimate understanding of the workings of the British Army, was an inspired one. The challenge of creating a brand new Corps, comprising an initial group of 78,000 officers and men, from virtually nothing during an all-consuming war with the world’s freedom at stake must have been a daunting one, particularly at the outset. Nevertheless, Rowcroft met every task head on, and doggedly worked to get REME to a point where it could contribute to the war effort as quickly as possible.

Two page document, titled " special army orders nos 70 and 71 " .

The Special Army Orders that authorised REME’s creation.

One of the most important documents contained in the Museum’s Archive are the notes Rowcroft made for his own use that outline his plans for the Corps. They make clear nothing was beneath his notice, even in those early days. There are references to rates of pay for other ranks, the formation of new depots, units and messes, and even relations with American technical corps. The urgency of the situation in which he and the nascent Corps found themselves was evidently uppermost in his mind, as he wrote, “Stages by which any necessary reorganisation will be tackled – all stages to be pursued concurrently by all branches.” There is also evidence of his recent experience on the Tank Board, as he mentions the need to assign officers to the School for Tank Technology.

In terms of personnel, the early days of the Corps’ development saw the transfer of men from an existing branch of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC). This was supported by the relocation of technical tradesmen from the Royal Engineers (RE) and Eric’s former Corps, the RASC; specialists from other units were also assigned to REME.

The Corps’ first test was undoubtedly the second battle of El Alamein, which took place between 23 October and 11 November 1942. One remarkable statistic will serve to show REME’s extraordinary contribution after only forty-two days of its existence: by the end of the battle, of the 1,244 tanks that were damaged and subsequently recovered by REME, over 1,000 were repaired by the Corps and returned to the fight. This was a crucial factor in the 8th Army’s victory over the Afrika Korps. It is difficult to imagine a better tribute to General Rowcroft’s work than this single fact.

Although by 1944 REME was an established and vital part of the Allied Armed Forces, D-Day saw the Corps once again prove its worth. Anticipating that amphibious vehicles would be needed for beach landings, REME developed the Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle (BARV) during 1943. Based on an American Sherman Tank, the BARV was built to recover broken-down or damaged vehicles; it was able to operate in up to 3 metres of water and required an operational crew of 3. So effective was the design, that some BARVs were still being used in 1963.

Although the Allies had managed to conceal the true location of the D-Day landings from the Nazis, those that were defending the Normandy beaches still offered stern resistance. Many armoured vehicles were hit during the landings, and the BARVs played a crucial role in recovering them and ensuring nothing hindered the Allies’ advance.

Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, the man who led the 8th Army at El Alamein and someone who had first hand experience of REME’s effectiveness, wrote of the Corps, “REME keeps the punch in the Army’s fist, and I know well that if that punch is allowed to falter, then even the bravery and tenacity of the British soldier will find it difficult to achieve victory in battle.”

Following the war, Rowcroft was able to make good on some of the long term ideas that he included in the notes he made in 1942. The REME Association was created and the REME magazine launched; the Corps band was founded as well as the Benevolent Fund, the Officers’ Club and the Rifle Association. The Corps’ present comprehensive structure owes much to his all-encompassing vision for its operation.

Although General Rowcroft retired in 1946, he continued as Colonel Commandant for another decade. He and Mollie moved to Colway Rise, Lyme Regis in 1952, and he took an active part in the affairs of the town for the remaining eleven years of his life.

Mollie passed away on 21 December 1963, and Eric lasted only six days without her, as he died on 27 December in Lyme Regis’ Cottage Hospital. His incredible contribution is perhaps best summed up from the final line of the obituary that appeared in the February 1964 edition of The Craftsman: “He has left his mark for all time, not only on the Corps but on the Army as a whole.”

Richard Davies, Curator.

This article was published in The Craftsman on 1 October 2022.