131 Independent Commando Squadron Royal Engineers
|131 Independent Commando Squadron|
|Part of||3rd Commando Brigade|
131 Independent Commando Squadron Royal Engineers, is a reserve unit of the British Territorial Army, affiliated with 24 Commando Regiment Royal Engineers. It provides general engineering support to 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and is the largest Territorial Army Commando unit. The squadron has deployed worldwide to provide combat engineer support to 3 Commando Brigade, often deploying in small sub-units. 131 Independent Commando Squadron was first raised in 1947 as an airborne engineer regiment, with a strength of over 1,000 trained parachute engineers. Since 1978 the unit has been an independent squadron of Commando-trained soldiers providing engineering support to the Royal Marines.
As a Commando unit the majority of the squadron's personnel have completed the Territorial Army All Arms Commando Course, run by the Royal Marines at Lympstone. This demanding course is the foundation for all further training. As an engineer unit the squadron trains for a variety of tasks from demolitions to construction. The unit has its own chefs, clerks and mechanics to sustain personnel and equipment.
The unit frequently deploys on tasks with, or to support, the Regular Forces in both the United Kingdom and abroad. In recent years the Squadron has deployed personnel on exercises and operations with 3 Commando Brigade units to Iraq, Afghanistan, Oman, the United States, Norway, France, Malawi, the Falkland Islands, Jordan, Romania and Egypt . 131 Squadron has sent teams to the annual Exercise Cambrian Patrol competition held at the Sennybridge Training Area and has won the Courage Trophy competition a record five times (1977, 1978, 1992, 1993 and 1994).
- Headquarters and Support Troop (Kingsbury in North West London) – recruiting from London and the South East
- 300 Troop (Plymouth) – recruiting from Devon and Cornwall
- 301 Troop (Sheldon in Birmingham)
- 302 Troop (Bath) – recruiting from Bristol, Bath, South Wales and the M4/M5 corridors
1940s: Airborne Forces Role
With the reformation of the Territorial Army in 1947, the unit was raised as 131 Airborne Engineer Regiment in support of 16 Airborne Division. The division, taking its number from the wartime 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions, was commanded by Major-General Roy Urquhart and consisted of three TA parachute brigades (44, 45 and 46 Parachute Brigades), each containing three parachute battalions. With all volunteers going through 'P Company' to gain their Red Berets and earning their Parachute Wings at RAF Abingdon, the Regiment provided a squadron of parachute engineers to support each Brigade: 299 Airborne Field Squadron in Hull; 300 Airborne Field Squadron in Liverpool, later Glasgow; and 301 Airborne Field Squadron in Croydon. The regimental headquarters was in Pont Street in Knightsbridge, with 302 Airborne Field Park Squadron based in Hendon. Manning a regiment of this size presented no problems, with many recently demobilised World War II soldiers, including many former paratroopers, willing to join the regiment. Experienced leadership was also readily available. 299 Squadron was raised by Major George Widdowson, previously of the Green Howards, who had fought at Arnhem as second-in-command of the decimated 10th Battalion The Parachute Regiment, whilst at Surrey-based 301 Squadron Major Bev Holloway became OC and later regimental second-in-command. His World War II service included parachuting into Normandy on D Day as a troop commander with 3rd Parachute Squadron RE.
Territorial Army reorganisations took place in 1956, with 16 Airborne Division being disbanded and replaced by a single TA parachute brigade, 44 Independent Parachute Brigade Group. 131 Regiment was sufficiently well established to ensure that it was retained in size but redesignated as 131 Parachute Engineer Regiment, with all squadron titles replacing the term "Airborne" with "Parachute". RHQ moved half a mile down the road to the Duke of York's Headquarters in the King's Road, co-located with Brigade Headquarters. Troop locations evolved through the 1950s too, with 301 Squadron moving to Guildford and gaining a Birmingham based troop as a result of the demise of 18th Battalion The Parachute Regiment. The Liverpool-based troop also went on to become part of 299 Squadron, whilst 300 Squadron, gained troops in Edinburgh and Falkirk to become wholly Scottish. One final change saw 302 Squadron move from Hendon to nearby Kingsbury, with its Luton-based Plant Troop also relocating to Kingsbury, in 1959.
In the early 1960s, 131 fielded over 1,000 trained parachute engineers and was believed to have the largest amount of men earning their annual bounty in the whole of the Territorial Army. Many of the unit's members were also members of the Emergency Reserve, giving them a higher call-out obligation. Basic training was only beginning to be introduced because, up until this time, all unit members were either ex-regulars, ex-WW2 volunteers or ex-National Servicemen. Throughout this period of the regiment's existence, squadron-sized detachments served their annual camps in many overseas theatres, carrying out close support and construction engineer tasks as well as parachuting with United States, Canadian, French and Italian forces. A major regimental event during the 1960s was Exercise Sea Splash, during which its soldiers would parachute into the harbour in St Peter Port in Guernsey, awaited by a fleet of small boats and cheering islanders. 131's first Honorary Colonel, Lieutenant General Sir Philip Neame VC, KBE, CB, DSO, had initiated the regiment's involvement with the island when he served as its governor after the war, and the parachute foray was always treated as a celebration of the liberation from German control in 1945.
In 1964, the bulk of the regiment carried out its Annual Camp in Aden Protectorate and in 1965 and 1966 elements of the regiment deployed to the country again. During the 1965 camp, on the night of 12 April, 300 Parachute Squadron was attacked by guerrillas whilst working with 24 Field Squadron on the construction of the Dhala Road at Al-Milah near the Yemen frontier. Squadron Sergeant Major John Lonergan of 300 Squadron and Sergeant Atfield, the pay sergeant of 24 Field Squadron, were both killed during the action and are buried at the Ma-Allah Cemetery, now within the Republic of Yemen. The Regimental Medical Officer, who risked his life to attend to those who had been wounded and to rescue two badly injured men caught out in the open, was awarded the MBE for gallantry. He was recommended for the award of the Military Cross but that award could not be made, as the regiment had not been mobilised for active service.
The second major post-war reorganisation of the TA in 1967 saw the regiment reduced to a single independent squadron on 1 April 1967. 131 Independent Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers (Volunteers) maintained its role in support of the three parachute battalions of 44 Independent Parachute Brigade Group (Volunteers). Squadron Headquarters and the Support Troop was based in Kingsbury in London, with Troops in Birmingham, Hull and Grangemouth. Troops took the names of the Squadrons they had replaced, with 299 Troop in Hull, 300 Troop in Grangemouth, 301 Troop in Birmingham and 302 Troop (Support Troop to the whole Sqn) in Kingsbury. The remaining locations, ranging from Guildford to Glasgow, were lost along with a significant portion of the unit's manpower.
The three field troops continued to support a TA parachute battalion each, with 299 Troop linked to the 4th (Volunteer) Battalion The Parachute Regiment, 300 Troop to the 15th (Scottish Volunteer) Battalion and 301 Troop to the 10th (Volunteer) Battalion. Travel far and wide, with associated opportunities for engineer support, construction and parachuting continued as ever. At times troops carried out annual camps in direct support of their battalions, such as 299's 1972 camp with 4 Para in Jamaica, whilst on other occasions the squadron exercised as a whole. In 1973, the squadron undertook Exercise Sacristan in the United Arab Emirates, which saw 180 members of the squadron deploy for between two and six weeks, carrying out a variety of construction tasks and desert training exercises. Close ties with 9 Independent Parachute Squadron RE, then based at Church Crookham, also continued throughout the period.
On 28 September 1975 during Exercise Trent Chase, while the squadron was conducting its annual watermanship-based section competition on the River Trent in Nottinghamshire, an assault boat containing eleven Sappers of 300 Troop was swept over the Cromwell Weir near Newark. Ten of the eleven men were drowned, including two brothers, Sappers Stuart and Peter Evenden. After the military funerals, which took place in various parishes around Scotland, a memorial service was held at the site of the accident, and a stone of Scottish granite bearing the names of those killed was laid in a small commemorative garden close to the lock. Another memorial was established near Grangemouth, at Falkirk Cemetery, and the men are also commemorated at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. A bridge over the River Toscaig was built in their memory in 1996 at Toscaig (Highlands).
1978: Commando Role
In 1977, reductions in regular and TA Airborne Forces were announced and on 31 March 1978, 44 Independent Parachute Brigade Group (Volunteers) was disbanded in a parade at Altcar Ranges, near Liverpool. Although the three parachute battalions were retained, support arms and services were to be disbanded. On 1 April 1978, the squadron was accepted into the order of battle of 3 Commando Brigade on 1 April 1978. Following the Airborne Engineers Commando Conversion Course in July 1978, the squadron, now in green berets but retaining a significant parachute capability, did not have to move from its four locations.
1980s and 1990s
In 1982, it was decided to raise a field troop in Plymouth to capitalise on the significant number of ex-regular Commando-trained personnel living in the area and the fact that 131's new sister-Squadron, 59 Independent Commando Squadron RE, was based within the town at Crownhill Fort. This sub-unit was to become the new 300 Troop, but whilst Grangemouth and Plymouth were both on the Squadron's order of battle, Plymouth temporarily used the old Support Troop number, 302. Recruiting at Plymouth was buoyant, and the then-PSI, Staff Sergeant Dave Quinn, was awarded the BEM for his leadership in helping to establish the new Troop. Finally, in 1983 at a ceremony in Grangemouth, the Scottish 300 Troop was re-roled as a Royal Marines Reserve Assault Engineer Troop, and Plymouth took on the 300 Troop title. During the 36 years that the Scottish sub-unit had existed it had consistently been the best recruited and the best attended.
The 1980s and 1990s saw 131 more closely integrated within 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines and with its regular sister-squadron. Many members of the unit had been ex-regular Commandos, the majority of them with 59, but always with some former Royal Marines and Commando Gunners (from 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery), plus the occasional Commando logistician or craftsman, within its ranks. Arctic Warfare Training in Norway and amphibious training were added to the skills which had to be absorbed by the Commando Engineer volunteers of the squadron, whilst parachute training, now taught at RAF Brize Norton, was still open to those suitably qualified. In the mid-1990s, diving was added to the squadron's capabilities and in 1995 Lance Corporal Arnold from 131 became the first TA soldier to attend and pass the Army's basic diving course for many years.
21st Century: Close Support to Operations
In January 2003, the squadron was compulsorily mobilised and deployed in Iraq as part of Operation TELIC 1. Returning to the UK in May 2003, a significant proportion of the unit was mobilised for a second time in Autumn 2006 for service in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. This deployment ended in Spring 2007 and since then the squadron has supported a further three tours of the province. Smaller-scale deployments have seen sub-units and individuals deploy to Cyprus (with the United Nations) and the Balkans during the 1990s, to Afghanistan on Operation JACANA in 2002, to Iraq on Operation TELIC 4 in 2004/5 and to the Bagh region of Pakistan during earthquake-relief operations in 2005.
- 131 Independent Commando Squadron official webpage http://www.army.mod.uk/royalengineers/units/853.aspx
- Royal Engineers Museum - Military Engineering Histories (Commando)