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Military engineering – the Royal Engineers

Chatham, United Kingdom




302 years counting




United Kingdom
Project achievements

Tackle major engineering projects for the British Army since the time of William the Conqueror

The Corps of Royal Engineers, better known as the Royal Engineers (RE) or the Sappers, is part of the British Army. It provides military engineering and technical support to British armed forces around the world.

Although the RE trace their history back to the military engineers who came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, the origins of the modern RE date to the creation of a corps of engineers for the British army in 1716.

Since then – and among many other projects – the RE has designed and built dams and reservoirs in British colonial India, the Rideau canal in Canada and naval and civilian ports in the UK.

British military engineers have also been involved in many civilian projects. These include the construction of Pentonville prison in London in 1842 and world famous concert venue the Royal Albert Hall in 1871.

Other well-known schemes include RE's construction of a naval dockyard at Richborough, near Sandwich in Kent. The port was used to supply British forces fighting in Europe in both World War 1 and World War 2.

Having seen service in most of the conflicts British forces have been involved in, the modern Corps of Royal Engineers is now divided into several regiments. It's based in locations in the UK and around the world.

Military Railway Longmoor

Military historian, Martin Stoneham talks us through the role engineers played in helping the army operate in South Africa.

Did you know …

  1. British military engineers designed and built Pentonville prison in north London in 1842. The prison was one of many civil engineering projects the RE have worked on.

  2. The prison was the brainchild of Captain (later Major General) Joshua Jebb. The jail's design included new concepts such as single cells, good heating and proper sanitation. The cost of keeping a prisoner in Pentonville at the time was 15 shillings a week (75p).

  3. Captain Jebb also designed Portland prison on Portland Island, off the Dorset coast, and parts of Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight.

Difference the Royal Engineers have made

The Royal Engineers have provided engineering support to all areas of the British army in peacetime and during times of conflict for over 300 years.

The RE trains men and women in a wide range of skills. This includes training as divers, bomb disposal experts and parachute engineers.

Many RE engineers use their training and experience after they leave the forces. This helps them build a civilian career as well as contributing to the wider economy.

How the work has been done

The Port of Richborough on the Kent coast had been a haven for British shipping since ancient times but it wasn't fully developed until the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914.

A large part of the fighting between German and Allied forces was in the trenches of France. French seaports and railways were quickly overwhelmed. The British Army decided to create a barge service across the Channel to supply Allied troops.

The Royal Engineers drew up plans for a dockyard at Richborough that would build and launch a fleet of barges.

The scheme saw engineers extending the existing 258ft (79m) long river front to build a much larger wharf near the river mouth.

The project team used a construction method not seen before on large works. Steel sheet piles 40ft (12m) long were driven into dry land with engineers cutting the channel in front of the piles afterwards.

There were 24 slipways in service at Richborough by the end of the war in 1918. Engineers had built 230 barges at the port. The barges had carried 1.8m tonnes of freight without a single loss to enemy action.

The RE had always been well-known for coming up with ingenious solutions to engineering problems. A project in 1903 saw the Corps' engineers shift 68 timber and iron huts weighing 35 tonnes apiece from Longmoor in Hampshire to a base at Bordon, 4.5 miles away.

Engineers came up with the idea of building 2 light railway tracks over the flattest route possible. Each hut was jacked up onto a specially-built wagon, and a steam-powered winch – known as 'the Contraption' – attached to the front of the load.

Horses pulled the winch cable to a suitable anchor point – usually a tree – and the hut was winched forward along the rails.

The project team moved 4 huts a week at an average speed of 3 miles (4.8km) an hour.

Only one of the huts fell off its trolley during work on the scheme. It was abandoned and later converted into a police post.

People who made it happen

  • Royal Engineers: Commander: Brigadier Matt Beazeley and Chief Royal Engineer: Lieutenant General Sir Mark Mans
  • Pentonville prison: Designer: Captain Joshua Jebb

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