“A High Test of the Young Corps”

At this stage in our series (earlier iterations are available to read on our Blog), we are now familiar with the fact that the history of REME Trades, which is represented in our archives, stretches back to 1942 and the formation of REME. This includes, of course, vehicle mechanics (fondly known as VMs). Due to the vast scope of the VM trades, there will be a separate article for the history of each VM trade category starting with the ‘A’ Vehicle trades.

As ever, it is worth having a look at Malcolm Heppolette’s article (History of REME Trade Changes since its Formation in 1942, REME Journal, 2011, pp.25-29) and noting his introductory comment about the VM trade:

“… probably the greatest turbulence in individual trade categories in terms of appropriate employment, job satisfaction and career opportunities, occurred within the trades of Electrician, Gun fitter and VMs A/B/C!

The article describes in detail developments in the trade since 1942: from the early Driver Mechanic; Fitter, MV; Motor Mechanic, to Vehicle Mechanic and Vehicle Mechanic (AFV) by the time of Phase II REME in 1951, through to continuing changes in the trades (Vehicle Mechanic ‘A’ and Vehicle Mechanic ‘B’ by 1963). In 1985, Vehicle Mechanic ‘C’ joins the trades, although of course ‘C’ Vehicles were in use from 1942 onwards. Changes in the noughties varied between Vehicle Mechanic and separate ‘A’ and ‘B’ categories again. Today, the modern trade of Vehicle Mechanic covers all vehicle types.

As this article coincides with the Corps' birthday month, it seemed appropriate to highlight the role of Vehicle Mechanics in the repair and maintenance of AFVs during the second battle of El Alamein in October 1942, as well as the subsequent campaigns in the Western Desert (of course, ‘B’ Vehicles also featured, which we’ll discuss in the next article).

“It was in the Middle East that REME was first called upon to work under active service conditions. The Battle of El Alamein took place almost immediately after the formation of REME and the following months … proved a high test of the young corps.”
- REME Middle East War Report, Volume II, p.200. From our Archives.

It is not within the scope of this article to discuss sources relevant to the battle and campaign in detail, but the following items should give you a flavour of what we have in our archives.

A photograph album in our collections, which depicts the experiences of the Western Desert Campaigns, includes a close up of a damaged Sherman Tank.

Side view of a tank, black and white photograph.

A damaged Sherman Tank, El Alamein, Egypt. E:06.0602.062.

We return to a previously mentioned item in our archives, namely the first issue of REME Notes of August 1943, for its references to El Alamein. The first item explains the brigading of the LADs of armoured brigades as 1st echelon repair workshops in order to facilitate the repair of tanks according to operational conditions. The second gives the impressions of a Craftsman who was with a workshop at El Alamein (unfortunately, we don’t know which one).

Typed document extract entitled "Brigading of LADs"

System of Repair, LADs at El Alamein. REME Notes, Issue 1, Item 2. A:1960.0266.

Typed document extract entitled "A Workshop at El Alamein".

Craftsman’s impression of a workshop at El Alamein. REME Notes, Issue 1, Appendix. A:1960.0266.

Our archives includes another document which gives an impression of conditions at the time, from a personal collection.

Typed document with list entitled "Description of Desert and Desert Life"

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.

A photograph album in our archives entitled Armoured Fighting Vehicles. 1939 - 1945. Volume 1, includes images of types of ‘A’ Vehicles that would have been familiar to VMs working on AFVs during the 1940s, of which two examples are included below:   

Side view of a tank, black and white photograph.

US Tank, Medium, M4A1 (76mm) (British Sherman IIA). E:07.0037.12.

Black and white photograph of an armoured vehicle, perspective from front side angle.

Armoured Car, Daimler. E:07.0037.23.

The following recovery and repair statistics are taken from a report in our archives entitled: Report on REME Units in 10 Corps during the period October 23-November 27 1942. (All the armour of the 8th Army was placed under the command of 10 Corps and included 1st, 10th and 7th Armoured Divisions in the ORBAT). The report outlines the methods used and difficulties encountered in a battle, which from the REME point of view was a unique one, and is dealt with in its two phases: the static and the mobile battles.

Typed document with tables of numbers of tanks recovered and repaired.

REME in 10 Corps Tank Recovery and Repair Statistics. A:1960.0287.

The map which shows the location of 10 Corps is an excerpt taken from our REME War Report, Middle East, Volume I, p.76.

Map of the Battle of El Alamein showing unit positions and a trainline.

Map of Battle of El Alamein, REME War Report, Middle East, Volume 1, p.76. A:1958.0104.044.

This image is from the photograph album mentioned above, which depicts the experiences of the Western Desert Campaigns, showing the testing of a tank after repair.

Black and white photograph of a tank, side on, with 4 crewmen standing on top.

On test - a Sherman tank. E:06.0602.075.

Static Base Workshops, such as No 7 Base Workshop, Alexandria, Egypt, also played a significant role in supporting the campaigns of the Western Desert. 7 Base Workshop was the main base for the repair and overhaul of British tanks and during the Alamein Period it played a vital part in direct support of the Eighth Army. During the battle, Main Workshop ‘A’ was responsible for tank overhauls chiefly on a line flow. The line moved every five hours, during which a battle casualty was put on Station No 1 and a completed tank removed from Station No 28. (Official War Office History of REME, Volume I Organisation and Operations and II-Technical).

The following images from a photograph album of 7 Base Workshop depict the interior of the workshop and work on the repair of a Crusader tank.

High view of a workshop in a large hangar with several vehicles and tanks lined up inside, black and white.

7 Base Workshops REME: Inside Workshop. A:1960.0241.051.

Black and white photograph of a tank with several people working on it at one end.

7 Base Workshops REME: Repair of a Crusader Tank. A:1960.0241.063.

It is worth returning to our Middle East War Report which includes a review of the development of the Fitter and related trades in the Middle East establishments. They proposed that there should only be one grade of fitter trade, namely Fitter, within which the other trades could be classified as Fitter, General (Class I Fitter); Fitter, MV (Class II Fitter), Driver Mech (Class III Fitter) and Motor Mech (Class IV Fitter). The reason for this proposal was that in the Middle East workshops, they had Driver Mechanics and Motor Mechanics working as Fitters on tanks, ‘B’ Vehicles and Guns; Fitter, General and Fitter, MV working on tanks, guns, armoured cars, etc. and “it was quite impossible to segregate these trades in the various base workshops according to the label these fitter trades had around their necks with the ever changing priorities of work in an Expeditionary Force. In field units … the same condition applied … each and every man had to turn his hand to the work urgently required at the time (Middle East War Report, Vol II, pp.224 – 228).

Celia Cassingham, Museum Archivist. Published in The Craftsman, October 2023.