REME 'keep the punch in the British Army’s fist' by providing technical support in every unit across the world.

Before the formation of REME, maintenance and repair of equipment was the responsibility of the arms and services that used it most. Although this spread of repair organisations was uneconomical and often difficult for those units who had multiple authorities covering their equipment, attempts to streamline repair into a centralised system were rejected on the grounds that it would weaken the self-reliance of a unit, the esprit-de-corps of those tradesmen involved, and that it would be too expensive to set up.

By the time of the Second World War however, technology had expanded so much that the existing repair system simply could not support the massive scale or complexity of equipment in use. Following the recommendations of a Cabinet committee, chaired by Sir William Beveridge, the Corps of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers was formed on 1 October 1942. Their mission was to rationalise and improve the efficiency of the Army’s repair resources. Such a major re-organisation was too complex to be carried out quickly and completely in the middle of the war however which led to the change taking place in two phases.

Phase 1

In 1942, REME was formed from an existing branch of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC). This was supported by the transfer of technical tradesmen from the Royal Engineers (RE) and Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), as well as individuals from other Corps.

REME was responsible for repairing the technical equipment of all units with certain major exceptions, such as RE specialist equipment and some RASC vehicles. It was also decided that due to their presence on the front line, REME would be a combat Corps, leading to the phrase “Soldier first, Craftsman always”.

Special Army Orders Nos. 70 and 71 [...] authorising the formation and combatant status of REME. A:1958.0117.

Major General Sir Eric Bertram Rowcroft became the first Director of REME and drew up a plan in three parts for the future development of the Corps, covering everything from major strategic change to the creation of a Corps magazine to help foster an esprit-de-corps. HQ REME Training Establishment was set up at Arborfield, and army technical training was steadily adjusted to provide maximum uptake and retention to help bridge the shortage of qualified tradesmen.

Soon after formation, REME was tested at the Battle of El-Alamein and proved successful. REME grew and adapted throughout the war, not only in terms of repair, maintenance, and recovery but also by taking on crucial roles (such as waterproofing vehicles, parts manufacturing, and beach recovery) and demonstrating their ingenuity - for example by discovering a way to use semi-mobile radar sets to locate enemy mortar sites by tracking the paths of their bombs.

By the end of the war, the Corps had expanded in response to both the scale and variety of weapons and equipment in service, and had served with Airborne and Commando units as well as the main Army. It had proved to be indispensable.

Phase 2

From 1949, Phase 2 saw the Corps take over full responsibility for unit repair. Light Aid Detachments (LADs) were provided for units that did not already have them under the old organisation, new REME workshops were created to take over field repairs in RASC transport companies and vessels of the RASC fleet, and all regimental tradesmen were transferred over to REME – this latter point causing the most disagreement of any of the changes in Phase I or II. Nearly 10 000 officers and men were transferred to REME in Phase II and, despite concerns, the actual reorganisation was rapidly welcomed once the savings in manpower and increased efficiency of repair became apparent.

Demonstration and Trials Squadron LAD, 1979. A:1975.1362.450.

REME more recently

From up-armouring Pigs in Northern Ireland to working with Rapier in the Falklands, REME detachments have served in the front line of every major theatre of operation since World War Two and the functions of the Corps have increased in line with technological progress; for example, after the Army Air Corps was formed in 1957, in 1958 REME became responsible for field repair support for all aircraft used, and in 1966 they also took on responsibility for all first line repair of radio equipment (except that operated by the Royal Signals themselves).

Equipment in general in the Army has continued to develop in complexity, variety, and quantity, as well as needing to be more mobile and reliable, and so REME too continues to develop. Training has remained a key focus for a Corps so reliant on their skills and knowledge, with the Defence School of Electronic and Mechanical Engineering being purpose built in Lyneham in 2015. REME personnel receive qualifications from NVQs up to HND or degree level and can also gain professional recognition up to Chartered Engineer levels.

Top photograph: REME fitter vehicle FV434 carrying out a power pack lift. A:1972.1136.167.