Royal Pioneer Corps

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Royal Pioneer Corps
Pioneer Corps Badge.jpg
Badge of the Royal Pioneer Corps (early version)
Active 1917-1921 (as Labour Corps)
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Branch  British Army
Role Light engineering tasks
Garrison/HQ Cuddington, Cheshire
Motto Labor omnia vincit
March Pioneer Corps

The Royal Pioneer Corps was a British Army combatant corps used for light engineering tasks. It was formed in 1939 and amalgamated into the Royal Logistic Corps in 1993. Pioneer units performed a wide variety of tasks in all theatres of war, handling all types of stores, laying prefabricated track on the beaches and stretcher-bearing. They also worked under Engineer supervision on the construction of the Mulberry Harbour and laid the Pipe Line Under the Ocean (PLUTO), constructed airfields, roads and erected bridges.


The first record of Pioneers in a British army goes back to 1346 where the pay and muster rolls of the English Garrison at Calais show records of the Pioneers' pay.[1] Though there was traditionally one pioneer for each company in a regiment, in about 1750 it was proposed that a Corps of Pioneers be formed, although nothing was done on this for nearly two hundred years.[1] The Army Works Corps was established during the Crimean War in 1854.[1] The Labour Corps was formed in 1917 during World War I and employed 325,000 British troops, 98,000 Chinese, 10,000 Africans and at least 300,000 other labourers.[1]

In September 1939, a number of infantry and cavalry reservists were formed into Works Labour Companies. These, in October 1939 became the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps (AMPC), and a Labour Directorate was created to control labour matters. A large number of Pioneers served in France with the British Expeditionary Force. During the Battle of France, an infantry brigade was improvised from several AMPC Companies under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel J. B. H. Diggle. Known as "Digforce", they became part of Beauman Division and fought in defence of the Andelle and Béthune rivers on 8 June 1940 against the 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions. They, and thousands of other BEF Pioneers, were evacuated to England in Operation Ariel.[2] An unknown number of AMPC troops were killed when the HMT Lancastria was sunk off St Nazaire on 17 June.[3]

On 22 November 1940 the name was changed from the AMPC to the Pioneer Corps.[4] In March 1941 James Scully became the only member of the Pioneer Corps to be awarded the George Cross although 13 George Medals and many other lesser awards have been won by Corps members.[5]

A total of 23 pioneer companies took part in the Normandy landings.[6] The novelist Alexander Baron served in one of these Beach Groups and later included some of his experiences in his novels From the City From the Plough and The Human Kind. He also wrote a radio play about the experience of being stranded on a craft attempting to land supplies on the beaches of Normandy. Nos 85 and 149 Companies, Pioneer Corps served with the 6th Beach Group assisting the units landing on Sword Beach on D Day, 6 June 1944. [7]

On 28 November 1946, in recognition of their work during the Second World War, King George VI decreed that the Corps should have the distinction "Royal" added to the title.[6]

On 5 April 1993, following the Options for Change review, the Royal Pioneer Corps united with the Royal Corps of Transport, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, the Army Catering Corps, and the Postal and Courier Service of the Royal Engineers, to form the Royal Logistic Corps.[8]


In the early part of the Second World War the Pioneer Corps was apparently the only British unit that enemy aliens could serve in.[9] Many thousands of Germans and Austrians joined the Pioneer Corps to assist the Allied war efforts and liberation of their home countries. These were mainly Jews and political opponents of the Nazi Regime who had fled to Britain while it was still possible, and included the film production designer Ken Adam, writer George Clare and publisher Robert Maxwell. These men - often dubbed "The King's Most Loyal Enemy Aliens" - later moved on to serve in fighting units. Some were recruited by Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) as secret agents. They were instructed to choose an "English" name using their old initials, and some of them were parachuted behind enemy lines.[10]

Serving as German nationals in the British forces was particularly dangerous, since, in case of taken captive, there was a high probability they would have been executed as traitors by the Germans. Also, the number of German-born Jews joining the British forces was exceptionally high; by the end of the war, one in seven Jewish refugees from Germany had joined the British forces. Their knowledge of the German language and customs proved useful; many served in the administration of the British occupation army in Germany and Austria after the war.[11]

British conscientious objectors were sometimes drafted into the Pioneer Corps by Military Service Tribunals.[12]


  1. ^ a b c d "The Pioneer: History". Royal Pioneer Corps Association. p. 1. Retrieved 18 May 2014. 
  2. ^ *Ellis, L. F. (1954) The War in France and Flanders 1939–1940. J. R. M. Butler (ed.). HMSO. London p.280-282
  3. ^ "The Pioneer: The Lancastria Story". Royal Pioneer Corps Association. Retrieved 18 May 2014. 
  4. ^ "The Pioneer: History". Royal Pioneer Corps Association. p. 2. Retrieved 18 May 2014. 
  5. ^ "The Pioneer: Honours and awards". Royal Pioneer Corps Association. Retrieved 2007-11-22. 
  6. ^ a b "The Pioneer: History". Royal Pioneer Corps Association. p. 3. Retrieved 18 May 2014. 
  7. ^ "Invisible Ink: No 83 - Alexander Baron". The Independent. 26 June 2011. Retrieved 18 May 2014. 
  8. ^ "The Royal Logistic Corps and Forming Corps". The Royal Logistic Corps Museum. Retrieved 13 May 2013. 
  9. ^ "House of Lords Questions - Aliens in the Pioneer Corps". Hansard. 22 July 1941. 
  10. ^ Interview by Colin MacGregor Stevens with Major George Bryant (aka George Breuer)
  11. ^ National Geographic documentary Churchill's German Army
  12. ^ "House of Lords question: conscientious objectors". Hansard. 22 July 1941. Retrieved 10 November 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Fry, H, The King's most loyal enemy aliens - Germans who fought for Britain in the second world war, 2007, ISBN 978-0-7509-4701-5
  • Smith, L, Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust, Ebury Press, 2005, ISBN 0-09-189825-0

External links[edit]