The Birth and Background of the South African Army Engineer Corps
Birth of the SA Military Engineer
From the moment that man devised the means of providing himself with artificial protection to his person, and further, created engines for the purpose of hurling destruction on his enemy, he became to that extent an Engineer.
As time went on, he found that in addition to these primary wants, there were others equally necessary, but more difficult to attain, such as the formation of roads, the bridging of rivers, and the protection of the clusters of houses in which he and his neighbors dwelt.
The provision of all these things demanded the exercise of an inventive and construction genius. Thus the science of the Engineer, rude indeed and inchoate, but still quite distinct from and superior to the mere fighting duties of the soldier, forced its way as a necessity of military life.
It was long, however, before there was any attempt to sever the engineer training of the soldier from the other more normal branches of his occupation. In the armies of old, every man was more or less an engineer. He constructed his own roads and bridges, he fortified his own camps and further, he prepared and worked his offensive engines of war - catapults, battering rams and the like.
Ample evidence of this is found all over Britain and Europe in the form of roads, blockhouses and walls combined with forts such as Hadrian's Wall across the north of England to keep out the marauding Scots. Even in China, the Great Wall of China was built to keep out the ravaging tribes.
The engineer carried out all these tasks in addition to the actual fighting which in later times was looked upon as the sole legitimate function of the infantry or cavalry soldier.
Corps of the Royal Engineers
As the SA Army Engineer Corps developed out of the Corps of Royal Engineers, it is necessary to give a little background of the growth of the Royal Engineers up to the time when the South African Army Engineer Corps was formed.
When in 1066 William the Conqueror invaded Britain, he brought with him his own engineers headed by an officer known as "Ingeniator". Engineer stems from the Latin word "ingenarius" and originally meant "a person skilled in the art of constructing defenses, a gifted person or perhaps a genius", or "Genie" by the French and the Afrikaans interpretation. At that stage, the term was only applicable to officers and there were no regular soldier engineers until much later. From early in the 16th century we find the Engineer identified with the field operations of any army. His title itself changing in accordance with the division of duties. The original term "Engineer" seems to have been considered hardly sufficiently martial to represent their military duties. The new term "Pioneers" was used to name the new Corps which was formed expressly for work in camp or field. The Pioneers fulfilled much the same duties in the field as now fall to the lot of the men of the Engineers, but to a humbler degree.
With the development of the technique of war and particularly the necessity for the employment of artisans such as carpenters, bricklayers and masons, etc who were urgently required particularly for fortifications, a new body of men was engaged, known as the Corps of Military Artificers. After years of valuable service supporting the armed forces in the field, this Corps of Military Artificers was eventually absorbed into the Corps of Sappers and Miners.
The Corps of Sappers and Miners had been formed when the nature of warfare had changed, requiring an art to be developed. With the development of the bastioned fortress in the latter part of the 17th century, it became clear that the role of the military engineer was to plan and build such defences, but it was also his responsibility to assist the attacking force in gaining entry into the fortress and thus conquering the defenders. This entailed an elaborate system of earthworks comprising trenches giving cover to the attacking force. Specially trained men called "sappers" dug slowly ahead shielded by gabions. In many cases, it was necessary to tunnel the final approach to the external wall and, if necessary the wall had to be mined . The term "sapper" is derived from the word "sap" or "to sap" which means to work in the open face of a trench in order to lengthen it or to form a tunnel.
Early in the 19th century the School of Military Engineering was established at Chatham, England, to give instructions to officers and men in the duties of sapping and mining and other military field works.
In 1856, the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners was renamed the Corps of Royal Engineers. Previously, only officers were members of the Corps of Engineers and the separation of the officers and men into two distinct corps under separate titles was an anomaly which was prejudicial to the discipline and harmony of the service. As a result of the change, the rank and file were no longer termed privates but sappers.
SA Army Engineer Corps
The SA Army Engineer Corps is directly descended from the Corps of Royal Engineers.
Military Engineers first made their appearance in South Africa during the Colonial Regime when in 1859 the Governor of the Cape Colony authorised the establishment of the Cape Engineers (Volunteers), which was comprised of South Africans and which in 1861 became simply the Cape Engineers . In 1865, the title was changed to the Cape Volunteer Engineer Corps, but in 1869, the Corps literally faded away. Ten years later in 1879, the Corps was resuscitated under the name Cape Town Volunteer Engineers. These sappers supported the ground forces during the Frontier Wars and even as far afield as Basutoland. The tasks they had to carry out were the normal duties carried out by sappers but by 1895, the sappers again disappeared from the scene.
It might be of interest to note that in 1879, the British defeated the Zulus, fresh from their triumph at Isanalwana, at Rorke's Drift, and that the young lieutenant in charge, who was awarded the Victoria Cross, was an Engineer Officer by the name of John Chard. The SA Defence Force has honoured his memory by creating the awards of the John Chard Medal and John Chard Decoration, both awarded for long and efficient service.
In 1910, the Natal Engineer Corps was formed but ceased to exist in 1913, a year after the passing of the Defence Act in 1912. Just before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Cape Fortress Engineers were formed to relieve Imperial Troops occupied on sapper tasks in the fixed defences of the Cape Peninsula.
Although basically under the control of the Royal Engineers both in employment and training, the Engineer Units were composed of South Africans who were gaining valuable experience both in South West Africa and East Africa as also during World War I (1914 - 1919), and it was amongst these men that the seed was sown which has since flowered in the SA Army Engineer Corps with its superb achievements.
After World War I, all SA Army Engineer Units with the exception of the permanent Cape Fortress Engineers were disbanded. The SA Defence Act Amendment of 1922 made provision for a SA Army Engineer Corps among South Africa's new regular full-time forces, and in 1923 the Permanent Force element was established. By 1926, authority was granted in the GC and ACF Regulations for the Citizen Force Engineers. In 1933, due to the economic depression, the Permanent Force Engineers were disbanded leaving only the four original SA Army Engineer Corps Field Units in the ACF and in 1935, this number was increased to six. In 1938, the post of Staff Officer (Engineers) was created on the staff of the SA Army Training Section. At the same time, the number of SA Army Engineer Companies was increased to nine to serve the nine Infantry Brigades. In 1939, the post of Staff Officer (Engineers) was upgraded to Assistant Director of Training (Engineers) and in 1940 to Director of Engineers at Defence Headquarters. Also in 1939, the Engineer Training Centre was established at Zonderwater which was part of the military base established at Premier Mine. In 1949, the additional Directorates of Works, Fortifications and Coastal Works had been formed and also in 1949 the Railway & Harbours Brigade, which had been disbanded after World War I, was resuscitated.
During the period 1940 - 1945, the SA Army Engineer Corps which had started the war with a strength of 54 officers and 585 sappers, rose to the strength of approximately 16 000 men belonging to over 70 different companies or units. In the development of the Corps, three aspects of military engineering had to be considered and the obvious sapper groups were the Base, Lines of Communication and Field or Fighting Groups, each with its own particular tasks but motivated by the basic requirements of maintaining the mobility and comfort of the ground forces. Hence, the 70 different units covered the whole spectrum of military engineering, such as close support Field Companies and their Field Park Companies, Road Construction Companies, Railways, Harbours and Tunneling Companies, Survey Companies, Water Supply and Treatment Companies, Workshop and Engineer Stores Units and Chemical Warfare, Bomb Disposal and Camouflage Units, in all, 31 different functions and disciplines.
On 29 December 1944, in recognition of outstanding achievements by the SA Army Engineer Corps during World War II, His Majesty King George VI approved the design of our Corps emblem, a bursting grenade, to be a device of 9 flames instead of the original seven, and authorised the use of the motto "Ubique", meaning "Everywhere". This is the same as that of the Corps of Royal Engineers and has been incorporated in the cap badge.
With the end of the war in 1945, the SA Army Engineer Corps disappeared from the military scene, and only a Junior SA Army Engineer Corps Regular Force Officer was appointed on the staff of the Director of Military Training. However, with demobilisation, 16 Field Squadron was resuscitated to accommodate sappers wishing to remain in the Regular Force. In 1946, a GSO2 Engineers was appointed with two other Regular Force Officers and an Engineer Training Wing was established at what was then the Military College, now the SA Army College. The two posts were both held by one officer, a most inconvenient situation, and it was not until 1964 that the post of GSO2 Engineers was filled full-time by a Regular Force Officer. In 1948, the Wing was moved to Potchefstroom, where it became the Engineer Wing of the SA Army Artillery and SA Army Armour School. In 1968, it was transferred to Kroonstad as the Engineer Training Centre and finally in 1969 became the School of Engineers.
Meanwhile in 1957, the Mobile Battalion was established, which later in 1959 became the Mobile Watch, and after going through various changes in 1964 eventually became 1 Composite Construction Regiment and in 1967, 1 Construction Regiment, which was also disbanded in 1968.
In 1969, the Directorate of Engineers was established at Kroonstad, but in 1972 it was moved to SA Army Headquarters, Pretoria where it was developed to what it is today.
In 1968, the 35 Field Park Squadron was established as a Regular Force Unit and in 1974 was renamed 35 Engineer Support Unit and stationed at Kroonstad. In 1975, the South West Africa Engineer Support Unit was formed and stationed at Grootfontein. Also in 1975, arising out of all the Survey and Printing activities of the Survey and Printing Units of World War II, the 47 Survey Squadron, a Regular Force Unit, was formed. This Unit trained all the National Servicemen posted to it and in turn fed the two DF Survey Units which had been established - the 46 Survey Squadron at Cape Town in 1959 and the 45 Survey Squadron at Pietermaritzburg in 1969.
Meanwhile in 1946, the ACF Engineers were resuscitated and 1 Field Engineer Regiment was formed to be followed by 2 Field Engineer Regiment. In 1958, 2 Field Engineer Regiment was disbanded but to meet the demands of the South African Defence Force, further squadrons were formed. In 1973, 1 Field Engineer Regiment was disbanded and the Squadrons attached to various formations. With the development of the SA Defence Force to meet both the internal and external threat, Field Engineer Units were created to support the new organisations.
In 1962, the Regular Force was formed and 17 Field Squadron was created to support this force, stationed in Potchefstroom. However, in 1967 it was moved to Bethlehem and became a purely training unit. In 1974, it became the two new squadrons 24 and 25 Field Squadrons as support squadrons in the operational area of South West Africa.
1 Construction Regiment was re-established at the end of 1976 at Marievale near Springs, Gauteng and towards the end of 1977 was tasked with the construction of the Military Base at Dukuduku on the Natal North Coast. Subsequently, due to policy changes, its activities were confined to the operational area, in support of the SA Army, with great success.
In 1982, the SA Army Engineer Formation was created with the Directorate of Engineers as its Headquarters and commanded by the Director of Engineers which gave the Directorate operational control over most of its Engineer Units. During this time, control of the School of Engineers passed to the Director of Training, so did all Corps Schools.
In 1983, ministerial authority was obtained for the conversion of all Field Squadrons, normally attached to the conventional forces, to Field Engineer Regiments, each comprising a headquarters, 2 field squadrons and a support squadron. Each squadron has 3 troops. This did not affect Engineer Squadrons attached to the territorial commands for counter-insurgency operations.
The Post War SA Army Engineer Corps - Operational
The main functions of the Sapper are to ensure the mobility of the fighting men both in the advance and retreat, to make life as secure and comfortable as possible for them, in order to maintain their morale and hence their fighting ability, and whose duties often go far beyond that which is expected from the normal field engineer. In addition, he must possess enough initiative, experience and imagination to deny these necessities of modern warfare to the enemy. It is therefore obvious why we are proud of our famous motto, "First In and Last Out". First in to enable the ground forces to move forward and last out to delay or prevent the enemy from moving and harassing our retreating forces.
To do this, the Sapper must know all the arts and functions of the Corps which have been included in the Training Manual of the SA Army Engineer Corps.
Prior to the institution of what is now known as "border duties" in the 1970's the combined engineer capabilities represented by the School of Engineers, Mobile Watch, Construction Regiment, Engineer Units and 17 Field Squadron, the Squadron attached to the Regular Force, carried out numerous sapper tasks as set out below:
- The building of a 180 m double story/single story floating bridge across the Vaal River to relieve the traffic crossing the Barrage Bridge while alterations and repair work was done.
The building of a reinforced concrete access bridge from the town of Middelburg to the Military Base, and also one giving access to the training area.
- The building of a double/single bailey bridge across the Ngebele River in the Northern Transvaal.
- The building of a triple/double bailey bridge over the Umzinto River on the Natal South Coast after the original bridge had been washed away.
- The construction of airfields at Pietermartizburg, Nkuze, Jan Kempdorp and Pietermaritzburg.
- The building of classification ranges at Messina, Walvis Bay and Bellville.
- The building of miniature ranges at Potchefstroom, Ladysmith and Lenz.
- The temporary repair to the Nahoon Bridge at East London pending repairs, by the erection of a 50 m double/single bailey bridge.
- The demolition of a 200 m reinforced concrete road bridge across the Pongola River.
- During Exercise Kwiksilver, the erection of a 110m triple/single bailey bridge on unifloat piers across the Vaal River.
- The demolition, as a training exercise, of a 370 m Bethulie railway bridge over the Orange River.
- Operation CHETTO, which was the building of a gravel road of approximately 160 km running east-west through the Caprivi.
- The building of a Military Base at Dukuduku on the Natal North Coast.
- The erection of military security fences throughout the Republic of South Africa.
- The dismantling and re-erection of six Bellman Hangars throughout the Republic of South Africa and South West Africa for use by the SA Defence Force.
In the fulfillment of their border duties, their tasks comprised mainly mine warfare, with all its various forms and challenges, the erection of undercover accommodation to make the life of the soldier serving in the operational area more comfortable and hygienic, and as always, the compilation of various maps, and the siting of beacons by the survey companies, to assist the ground forces in their task.
As far as mine warfare is concerned, it is recorded that during 1980/81 the Sappers cleared an average road distance of 19 600 km per month, which represents a distance of ten times that between Beit Bridge and Cape Town, thus ensuring the mobility of the ground forces. A total of 330 mines were detected and removed during this period, which is equal to 1848 kg of explosives, which is sufficient, with efficient planning, to destroy Beit Bridge.
In the field of construction, undercover accommodation, including living quarters, stores messes, ablution and toilet blocks and defensive positions, were erected during 1982 to a total area of 101 104 m², which is equal to the total area of 17 rugby fields. It is interesting to note that on one rugby field 250 x 4,9m x 4,9m tents can be erected, which gives a total tentage on 17 rugby fields of 4 250.
In the field of survey and mapping 46 Survey Squadron has since 1980 extended the primary and secondary trigonometrical beacon system of the Northern and Eastern Transvaal and at the same time updated ± 90 x 1:50 000 scale maps – the area covered being approximately ±65 000km² (four times that of the area of Swaziland). At the same time, 45 Survey Squadron completed ±460 x 1:10 000 orthophoto maps of Northern Natal from Josini to Pongola, covering a surface area ±17 000 km², approximately the size of Swaziland. The number of maps which 47 Survey Squadron completed or reviewed in 1981, covers a surface area of 40 000km², approximately the size of Lesotho.
It is fitting to record at this stage, that during Operation Savannah, the mobility of the advancing forces was so impeded by a fairly fast flowing river, that the sappers had to erect an improvised bridge under enemy fire, and which is now known as the famous Bridge 14.
In 1982 the Chief of the Army decided to establish the SA Amy Engineer Formation, with the Director of Engineers as the Officer Commanding, and which would give him increased functional and operational control over the whole of the SA Army Engineer Corps. Accordingly, on 26 November 1982, the Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General J.J. Geldenhuys SSA, SD, SM presented the written authority to the Director of Engineers which reads as under-mentioned:
SA Army Engineer Formation
"In the light of the above, this Command Directive is issued to you, in the knowledge that you have an important contribution to make in the creation of a more dynamic SA Army”.
The efforts of the modern sapper, after years of hard and rigorous training, and a wealth of practical experience, was awarded to the SA Engineer Corps on 15 December 1982, again by the Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General J.J. Geldenhuys SSA, SD, SM, whose commendation reads as follows:
Commendations for Members of the SA Army Engineer Corps Involved in Mine Warfare
"The SA Army Engineer Corps has delivered service of a high order during operations, and particularly in the sphere of mine warfare. Their contribution to the maintenance of mobility of our own forces is exceptional and praiseworthy. Mines have been located and rendered safe by continuous action conducted on foot under trying conditions and often under enemy fire. In the process of locating mines and the rendering safe thereof, Field Engineers are continuously exposed to perilous conditions under which they display a high degree of bravery, perseverance, teamwork, spirit and dogged refusal to accept that trying conditions and fear of mortal danger cannot be overcome. For this particular quality of the will to win on behalf of the leader element and on their own terrain I commend the SA Army Engineer Corps.”
In modern warfare, the Sapper has to adapt himself to the manner in which the campaigns are fought and to the demands which are made on the Corps by the ground fighting troops. Hence the SA Army Engineer Corps in World War II grew from small beginnings comprising 9 field companies to a total of approximately 70 units exercising a total of 31 different functions and disciplines with a total manpower of 16 000 men. Apart from the fighting elements, there were units dealing with all aspects of water supply and treatment, road construction and maintenance of railways and harbours, tunnelling, survey, engineer stores units, chemical warfare, bomb disposal, camouflage, forestry and geological survey to mention the main elements. Many of these were provided from various provincial and government departments, from the Mining Industry and from private enterprise.
In the process of adaptation you will see that the Sapper not only has to make use of the natural human resources, he often has to possess the expertise to improve on existing equipment, such as bailey bridge equipment, and he also has to improvise in the many strange circumstances he finds himself. So a good Sapper must be skilled, well-trained and flexible in his solution to a problem, always bearing in mind the mobility of the fighting man and his comfort and security.
This adaptation is not only concerned with the strategy of war but must also contend with the weather and natural conditions wherever a campaign is launched. For instance, during World War II, there were four theatres of war. In East Africa, the sapper had to contend with arid, lava covered areas in the South which made communications difficult and in the North with rain and monsoons which meant flooded areas and swollen rivers. In North Africa, it was the desert with its hot, dry Khamsin winds with the subsequent dust storms which made visibility nil and of course the problems of water supply. In Italy, it was the mountainous nature of the country with its innumerable rivers and extreme winters and summers. Fighting along the length of the country made it easy for the enemy, by means of demolitions and minefields, to hinder our advance. In the Levant, it was somewhat similar to the desert, but the main task was clearing blocked tunnels to restore rail communications and in Madagascar, a very undeveloped country, a Field Company together with elements of a Field Park Company, supported the SA Brigade and its main task was construction of road communications and the replacement of bridges destroyed by the enemy.
To fulfill his responsibilities to his fellow fighting men, the Sapper has not only to possess the necessary expertise, but a sense of adaptability, an ability to improvise and a dogged determination to overcome his problems and so satisfy his will to win.
Source: SA Army Engineer Formation