Archive: Military Engineers — Masters of Mobility

The military engineer is arguably the most under-rated individual on the battlefield. Yet military engineers have been leaders in innovation in the face of the enemy for centuries. Any number of specialist corps originated within the engineers and at least one life-saving trade as well — firefighters. The artillery, the signals corps, among others, owe their existence to the intrepidity of the engineers — those who built and operated the “engines” or siege machines. (The world’s air forces are similarly the scions of the signalers.
The South African Engineer Corps (SAEC) earned much kudos during World War Two — so much so that King George VI afterwards awarded another two flames to their “bursting grenade” corps insignia, raising the number to nine. It was — and remains — a singular honour.
Engineers in Africa
There were never enough military engineers on 20th Century battlefields and it’s a sure bet there will not be enough of those of the 21st. It`s trite and polite to call Africa’s infrastructure “under-developed.” It not only lacks communication infrastructure such as roads, bridges and railways, but also the means to sustain modern armed forces in healthy conditions, like potable water and sewerage. It is the job of the engineers — and their civilian sub-contractors– to provide these.
What do Engineers do?
The fundamental task of the engineers can be summarised in a single word: mobility. It is their mission to enhance (or at least maintain) own forces mobility while doing all they can to hinder enemy movement. They do this by providing routes and bridging for personnel and vehicles to reach their objectives and by denying the enemy the same through demolitions, the wrecking of roads, culverts, defiles, bridges and the emplacement of mines. They are also expected to develop existing routes and provide others to allow for supply of troops in combat positions. This task flows into the host of household chores that make up the engineers’ secondary function. These include:
n       Acting as lead agency for camouflaging and concealing field positions and installations. In this regard they also assist the commander’s deception plan.
n       Construction: Engineers are responsible for planning, designing, constructing and supervising the erection of any number of structures for field forces and rear-area troops. These range from digging and fortifying defensive positions and helping other arms entrench to building landing zones, airstrips and air bases, to constructing and maintaining barracks, workshops, storage facilities and offices. The latter includes looking after the electrics and plumbing.
n       Demolitions: Arguably the “fun” part, engineers are often called to blow things up. Objects range from enemy field fortifications to unwanted installations and dumps, captured equipment or unserviceable machinery.
n       Minelaying: Engineers are often called to plan, construct or supervise the emplacement of mines and landmines. The latter refers to anti-personnel (AP) and anti-tank mines. The former are large quantities of explosives secreted within or under a structure and detonated by remote control or time-delay. During World War Two Russian engineers have numerous successes with radio-controlled mines and on one celebrated occasions killed a German divisional commander and his staff near Kiev when a mine obliterated the building they were occupying.
n       Mine clearing: Equally often, engineers are called on to remove own or enemy mine fields or to sweep routes for mines. Of special note here is the leading role the SAEC played in developing mine-resistant vehicles and high-speed mechanised minesweeping/mine hunting.     
n       Reconnaissance: There are always engineer parties in the forward areas seeking technical information such as the condition of roads and bridges, the whereabouts of enemy minefields and river crossings as well as the availability of local building materials.
n       Water Provision: Clean water and proper sanitation is the difference between a dying and a fighting army. Historically more soldiers have died from diseases (including water-borne cholera) than from combat. Finding and then providing clean drinking water is a thankless, but vital, engineering task.
The Engineers also have a number of ancillary tasks. These include:
n       Auxiliary Infantry: Engineer sub-units are generally assigned to infantry or armour units and normally carry out the bulk of their tasks in the forward areas, often under enemy fire. As a result it has long been the norm to train them as infantry.
n       Surveying and Map-making: Accurate maps are an essential precondition for successful military operations. Most military-grade maps of Africa date back to the colonial era and are in dire need of updating before use.   
n       Printing: Pamphlets, forms, manuals, propaganda leaflets. There’s always something that needs to be bulk printed.   
The SAEC is one of the larger Corps within the SA Army, but it is an open question how well — or competently — it is staffed and how ready and capable its main equipment is for a robust deployment. The Army has been underfunded for years — meaning equipment like bulldozers have aged substantially, even if they have not been over-used. And old equipment tends to break down. The SAEC has also traditionally had a hard time attracting professionals such as civil engineers and architects or tradesmen as they have skills well rewarded in the civil economy.
The SAEC`s sister, the Royal Engineers, insist on their officers qualifying as professional engineers and ensure that their other ranks are duly accredited tradesmen. The slogan is “soldier + combat engineer + tradesman = Royal Engineer.”  
Royal Engineer Officers. On its website (, the Royal Engineers say a “career as an Officer in the Corps of Royal Engineers is a unique and rewarding experience.” Joining the Royal Engineers as an officer, the site says, is similar to joining any other part of the Army as an officer. All potential Royal Engineers Officers must attend the Commissioning Course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Afterwards, young officers attend the RE Troop Commanders Course at the Royal School of Military Engineering. The course usually consists of 20 newly commissioned RE officers and may also include students from other Armies. The three yearly courses each last 26 weeks. “The RE Troop Commanders Course will teach you all the military engineering you need to know to command your first Troop. The training is intensive and rewarding. Your existing knowledge of the Army will be developed as you learn about the specific responsibilities of a Sapper Troop Commander. You will be taught leadership, reconnaissance and management… After nearly 18 months of training you will be ready to command our soldiers. Your first job or tour as a Troop Commander will be a challenging experience. During training, you will have received all the necessary technical knowledge and will begin to gain practical experience in a Regular Regiment. The posts available to you are many and varied.” A RE officer can expect further training throughout his career. Most of these will be short courses to prepare the incumbent specific posts or tours. “You could choose to undertake further military training in the form of Masters Degrees and gain Chartered Engineer Status with one of the Institutions.” After his first tour as a Troop Commander, the officer may fulfil a more senior troop command appointment like Recce Troop, Support Troop or a Training Troop. “You may control the Squadron`s Operations as Squadron Operations Officer. Typically after two tours you will undertake further command training at the Army Junior Division of Staff College before undertaking a Squadron Second in Command`s or Adjutant`s tour. At this stage in your career you may wish to undertake Chartered Engineer Training and gain Chartered Status from one of the following institutions: ICE, IMechE, IEE or RICS. This would involve a Masters Degree in Military Engineering and a 15-month attachment to Civilian Industry somewhere around the world. An option that may appeal is to enter our Survey Branch. You would complete the Army Survey Course and gain a Masters Degree in Military Survey from the Royal School of Military Survey. Another option available is to attend the Professional Engineer Trained (Plant) Course. This course would enable you to procure, manage and use Earth Moving Equipment and Construction Plant safely and train others to do so. You could be responsible for Procuring Technical
Equipment, commanding Field Force or TA Support Units, planning and supervising training and conducting field trials. You could then gain Membership of IPlantE.” 
RE Other Ranks. All Sappers are trained in first as soldiers, second as field engineers, third as tradesmen and finally they have the opportunity to train as Specialist Soldiers. All employment are open to both men and women providing they meet the academic, medical and physical standards. Soldier training includes the usual basic soldiers’ and infantry skills. Field engineering skills includes the full gamut of mobility, countermobility and survivability training. Sappers also have a broad
field of trades to choose from. They include: Bricklayer and Concretor, Building and Structural Finisher, Carpenter and Joiner, Communications Specialist, Construction Materials Technician, Design Draughtsman, Draughtsman Electrical and Mechanical, Driver Specialist, Electrician, Fabricator, Fitter (Mechanic), Fitter (Air Conditioning and Refrigeration), Geographic Technician, Heating and Plumbing, Plant Operator Mechanic, and Surveyor. Specialist training equips Sappers as
parachute engineers, commando engineers, divers, bomb disposers and armoured engineers.
The SAEC, like its peers, is organised into a number of regiments (battalions) and there is quite a variety in these. The regiment breaks down into squadrons (companies) and troops (platoons). These tend to be self-supporting with their own tools, explosives and cooking utensils. Traditionally, one regiment is assigned per division, with its squadrons distributed to the formation’s brigades. At the brigade level, engineer troops are often attached to battalions. The most numerous type of engineer unit is the Field Regiment. The 2001/2002 Department of Defence (DoD) Annual Report listed five regular and three reserve regiments in this category, in addition to a reserve parachute engineer regiment. Field engineering is “that part of military engineering simplified into standard drills with standard equipment including work of a non-civil engineering origin, such as minelaying and lifting.” Field Regiments are vast organisations. A few years ago their field squadrons had an establishment that provided for:
n       14 officers and 234 other ranks;
n       Four Field Troops, as well as medical, signals and light workshop sections; and
n       An equipment table that provides for one road grader, a bulldozer and a total of 81 other vehicles, including a 60-ton low-bed, 34 3-ton trucks and eight 10-trucks.
An engineer support squadron at the time included:
n       10 officers and 173 other ranks;
n       An establishment providing for a Stores Troop, a Workshop Troop, a Plant Troop, a Bridging and Assault Raft Troop and an attached light workshop for vehicles; and
n       An equipment table providing 14 30- and 50-ton tractors, 90 “B” vehicles and 19 “C” vehicles, the latter including 3 25ton cranes, two medium graders, four front-end loaders and two concrete mixers for the Plant Troop.                 
The nine Field Regiments are supported by a number of other Engineer units: There is a corps school in Kroonstad in the Free State responsible for training. There is a regular Engineer Support Regiment tasked with supporting the Field Regiments with heavier plant and machinery as well as the following:
n       An integrated (regular and reserve) Construction Regiment. 
n       An integrated (regular and reserve) Military Printing Regiment.
n       An integrated (regular and reserve) Survey and Mapping Regiment.
Engineering in the Air Force and Navy
The South African Air Force and SA Navy has since World War Two (WW2) enjoyed the luxury of mainly operating from well-established base areas. During the liberation struggle few suffered any damage and for the last fifty years, or so, both services have relied on commercial contractors or the public works department rather than in-house engineer troops. With the Navy tipped to take part in peace support operations off Liberia and the SAAF already active in Burundi and the Democratic Republic Congo, this approach may no longer be wise or sustainable. This does not mean the Navy or SAAF needs to establish engineering corps. An agency agreement may be all that is required, along with a review of the SAEC`s abilities. Perhaps a further Engineer support regiment or more construction troops will be needed. Expanding the latter may also allow the SANDF to transfer many of its over-aged infantry there, after suitable retraining as tradesmen or artisans. This will allow the SA Army to retain the soldiers while keeping them gainfully employed.
The SAEC is no stranger to such tasks. During WW2 the corps salvaged several ships and returned numerous bombed-out ports to service, built and maintained air bases in North Africa and Italy and even constructed the current Haifa-Beirut railway, including its several coastal railway tunnels. They further re-opened numerous road tunnels and mountain passes blocked by retreating German forces. In this regard, read Salute the Sappers (8 vols) by Neil Orpen & HJ Martin, as well as Orpen’s Nine Flames. Not mentioned by Orpen was the SAEC`s role in chemical warfare. Mustard gas manufactured at Firgrove (near Somerset West) at Modderfontein (east of Johannesburg) was depoted at North End in Port Elizabeth for use, if required. The requirement never came and the gas shells and containers now lie on the bottom of Algoa Bay.         
When not engaged in building or rebuilding infrastructure abroad in support of peace support operations, they can turn their attention to the SANDF`s many dilapidated offices and barracks, perhaps starting with the appallingly run-down facilities of the SA Army Gymnasium. The military is at present playing a cynical game in terms of which it insists that the Department of Public Works as “landlord” of all state property, including that of the DoD, is responsible for building upkeep. The purpose of the game is to dodge responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep costs.
A growing menace is the use of civilian contractors instead of military personnel. While perfectly feasible in peacetime and no doubt a “cost-saver”, this practice can leave one vulnerable in combat or during peace support operations. Unless they can be placed under military law or their employers can be compelled to keep personnel at their jobs, nothing prevents such civilians from fleeing at the first sound of gunfire. What then?
The SAEC`s equipment is aging. Fortunately, most plant equipment is freely available in the civil market and can be hired for a song, even by the military. However, some equipment, such as the 26 “Leguan” bridgelayers acquired under somewhat dubious circumstances during the previous dispensation are not only not freely commercially supplementable but are complicated to operate. Indeed, it has been known for the local contractor to be called to operate the system during military exercises. But can one count on them? In the forward areas one does not have to wear a uniform to attract bullets.         
23 January 2004