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Waterbeach Military  Heritage Museum

Waterbeach Barracks Denny End Road Waterbeach
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Did you know?

39 Corps Engineer Regiment was formed at Crickhowell, Wales, in 1950 and served in Kenya, East Africa, from 1953 to 1955 during the Mau Mau campaign. The Regiment then returned to the UK and was disbanded in February 1956, before being re-formed as 39 Engineer Regiment (Airfields) at Waterbeach in 1967, a year after the Royal Engineers took over the barracks at Waterbeach.

HQRE (Airfds) was formed in June 1966 in Waterbeach. On this formal change of name from ‘RAF Waterbeach’ to ‘Waterbeach Barracks’, some RAF officers and other ranks took the option of transferring to the Royal Engineers. The Regiment was based in Waterbeach until July 2012, when it went north to Kinloss in Scotland.

The secondary role of the Regiment - combat engineering, as carried out by other Sapper front-line Regiments - included mine warfare, bridging and demolitions, road construction, defensive works, and water supply. Combat engineering training was mostly done on the airfield and on the area around Waterbeach. For example, for many years there was an inter-troop competition in combat engineering skills on the orders of the CO. One year, nine troops rotated on the airfield on eight tasks, the ninth task being to prepare the concrete bow-string bridge on the Stretham-Soham Road for simulated demolition, while keeping the road open.

39 Engineer Regiment (Airfields) was not the only regiment stationed at Waterbeach, although it was the only one to remain there from 1966, when the RAF handed it over to the army, until 2012, shortly before the Barracks closed in 2013. Other regiments stationed at Waterbeach were 12 Engineer Brigade/Group (1981 – 2013), 23 Engineer Regiment (Air Assault) (2003 – 2005), and 25 Engineer Regiment (2007 – 2012).

As well as airfield operations, the Regiment was tasked with much other construction work overseas, such as road, school and other infrastructure projects like those carried out by 48 Field Squadron in Malawi, and in Kenya in 1983. Royal Engineers have also been deployed to various parts of the Middle East ever since the Regiment was formed in 1966, and that continues until the present day.

From 1970 until the late 1990s Squadrons from the Regiment at Waterbeach were regularly deploying to Northern Ireland. That campaign was and is the longest in the Corps’ history.

Squadrons from Waterbeach were not involved in the 1982 Falklands War, but after it ended, they rotated through 4-month tours of duty. 34 Fd Sqn deployed from December 1982 until May 1983, handing over to 48 Fd Sqn (Airfds) who were there from September 1983, working the rock quarry, among other tasks. Royal Engineer Squadrons are still serving tours in the Falklands.

Waterbeach squadrons were involved in the Iraq War -  known sometimes as ‘the hundred hours war’. At its successful conclusion, 39 Engineer Regiment made a phased return to Waterbeach, from April to July 1991.

After the collapse of the Taliban-led regime in Afghanistan, a coalition force went into Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, in what was called Operation Enduring Freedom. Squadrons from Waterbeach were involved not just in the war itself, but also in building roads and social accommodation, including playgrounds and school facilities, and medical infrastructure for local towns and villages.

More information about the Royal Engineers at Waterbeach can be obtained from the booklet “Sappers at the Beach”, available at the Museum shop. See below for an extract from that book:

Royal Engineers squad outside J hangar at Waterbeach Barracks

Bridge construction

The origins of the Royal Engineers

The origins of military engineering can be traced back to 1066 when Humphrey de Tilleul, William the Conqueror’s engineer, brought a pre-fabricated fort across the Channel and erected it at Hastings after the battle. He was succeeded as King’s Engineer by a monk named Gundulf, who later became Bishop of Rochester. Among Gundulf’s better known works are the Keep of the Tower of London and the Old Barbican.  

In 1415 Henry V raised a permanent ‘Office in Ordnance’ which included engineer and gunner officers. Subsequently renamed the ‘Board of Ordnance’, it remained in being until 1855, and was the source of military engineering officers for engineering works in both peace and war.

A ‘Corps of Engineers’ was established in 1716. Members were all deemed to be officers, but were not, until 1757, given military rank as such. So this officer-only Corps had no soldiers, and working parties were raised as required from local civilians, tradesmen, and from the infantry.

On 25 April 1787 the Corps of Engineers - still officers only - received a Royal Warrant from King George III authorising the style and title of ‘Royal Engineers’. In the same year, the ‘Corps of Royal Military Artificers’ was formed, and, although separate from the Royal Engineers, it was officered by them. Then, in 1812, the Duke of Wellington, recognizing the importance of professional engineer support, set up in Chatham the ‘Royal Engineer Establishment’.

After the abolition of the ‘Board of Ordnance’ in 1856, the soldiers of the Royal Sappers and Miners were combined with the Royal Engineers into the ‘Corps of Royal Engineers’, hence combining both officers and soldiers and creating the Royal Engineers as we know it today.

39 Regiment, Royal Engineers at Waterbeach

The Operational Role of 39 Engineer Regiment

The unit’s main role was Airfield Damage Repair (ADR)

An extract from ‘Sappers at the Beach’

The operational role of the Regiment once formed was to ensure the survivability of the four major airbases in Germany, and support at Royal Air Force (Germany) HQ in Rheindahlen. Airfield support was first known as Rapid Runway Repair (RRR). So the major duty, the primary operational role, of the RE at Waterbeach right from its formation was to develop the methods and skills to carry out its role of immediately repairing, in war-time conditions, damage to airfields after enemy attack: the Arab Israeli War of 1966 had shown how military capability could be rendered almost totally ineffective if air power is extensively impaired, as had devastated the capabilities of the Arab forces. The main challenge was the repair of the huge craters caused by large bombs, particularly on the runways. The first RRR challenge in the Regiment was assessing the likely size and shape of such bomb craters. Glyn Berry, then a troop commander in 53 Fd Sqn(Airfds), remembers returning from an airfield construction project in Beef Island, British Virgin Islands, and immediately taking up this challenge: firstly assessing, under the guidance of Nigel Clifford, that a sound basis for training would be to define what became known as the ‘standard NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) crater’, and from that, the best way of deploying the fleet of engineer plant supported by combat engineers to effect full repair of craters in order to allow resumption of aircraft operations within the NATO-specified two hours. So, he recalls, there was at Waterbeach a demonstration in front of serried ranks of senior NATO officers, with over 80 pieces of engineer plant deploying to fill a specified number of ‘standard NATO craters’, and then covering the filled and compacted holes with interlocking steel planking, all within the NATO ‘two hour’ requirement. To provide emergency default-landing/take-off capability, sections of Motorways in the UK and in Western Europe were designated in case airfield operations could not be affected soon enough.

By the early 1970s, when air forces started having cluster bombs (large bombs spraying out many small ‘bomblets’), repair of smaller scab-damage was added to the requirement. Many a night on the Waterbeach training areas there were Sappers operating plant, rolling out matting and treating scabs with epoxy resin mixes.

In the early 1920’s, electrical and mechanical elements of the Royal Engineers, led by Major John Mizen of 39 Engineer Regiment, clearly showed how airfields could be put out of action by the destruction of electrical installations and circuitry, or by damage to major mechanical equipment, fuel pumps, fuel supply lines, or indeed key buildings such as the Combat Operations Centre. It was following this analysis, that the role of 39 Engineer Regiment was redefined as Airfield Damage Repair (ADR). Training on Waterbeach airfield and barracks, and in the wartime locations of the Squadrons, reflected this shift in emphasis; indeed, the organisation and staffing of the Squadrons and Regimental headquarters were accordingly enhanced by adding Officers, Warrant Officers, Senior NCOs and craftsman from electrical and mechanical backgrounds; a Fd Sqn Airfields had eight officers, including at least 5 majors/captains and a large number of Warrant/Senior non-commissioned officers, an establishment which proved invaluable in combat engineering in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

In 1984 there came a sudden order from BAOR, the British Army of the Rhine for all ‘medium-size dozers’ held by runway repair Squadrons in UK to be sent over to the Germany for an indefinite period for the reinforcement of the RRR (Rapid Runway Repair) capability held in readiness on the four RAF airfields in Germany (and station commanders had the
plant spray-painted per RAF vehicles).

Each ADR Squadron had an effective and close affiliation with its war-time station in Germany as follows: at RAF Gutersloh supporting the Harrier force, 60 (later 48 Fd Sqn when that came under command of the Regiment); 51 Fd Sqn at RAF Laarbruch; 52 Fd Sqn at Bruggen and 53 Fd Sqn at RAF Wildenrath. In war and on training exercise, Regimental HQ command element went to HQ RAF (G) at Rheindahlen with the Commanding Officer on the staff of the commander of UK Air Forces in Germany. These affiliations were very close and symbiotic, and there was a great deal of mutual professional respect.  Indeed, from the mid-1970’s some of the heavier ADR plant of the Squadrons was also kept in sealed protection on the affiliated RAF(G) air bases. Not only did each Squadron train annually, or nearly so, on its affiliated airfield, it joined in NATO and RAF (G) and other exercises, sometimes at very short notice. For example, in 1977 one of the fairly regular NATO TacEvals (Tactical Evaluations by NATO of the competence of units: many careers blossomed or faded depending on the results) was called to assess NATO operational readiness, and a ‘Flash message’ went out for all troops to muster in the various Combat Operation Centres on the four airfields. The Sqn Commander of 53 Fd Sqn was arming-up and heading for the gate in a top-priority operation in Crossmaglen, South Armagh, when a signaller came rushing out yelling he had a FLASH NATO message that the OC and Sqn had to report to Wildenrath: the signaller was mollified and persuaded that he should signal back that as the Sqn was currently in operational action against the local IRA, it therefore had a dispensation!

In its war establishment the Squadrons and Regimental HQ had considerable reinforcement from other Regular and Territorial Army (TA) units; for example, each Sqn took under command a Specialist Team (Bulk Petroleum). A further Field Squadron (Airfds) also came under command of the Regiment--50 Fd Sqn (Airfds) from 36 Engineer Regiment based in Maidstone. The Peace Establishment of the Regiment then was some 900 and its
War Establishment (Order of Battle, or ORBAT) said to be over 2,100.

For five years from 1977 the operational role of 39 Engineer Regiment changed to support of 7 Field Force based at Colchester, but in 1982 the Regiment, less 34 Field Squadron, reverted to its role of support to the RAF,
with combat engineering as its second role.  

Liaison with the RAF locally also remained very close: utill the closure of nearby RAF Oakington in the early 1970s, the main runway at Waterbeach remained active, along with its control tower, and was a relief landing ground for Varsity aircraft used in the advanced pilot training role; there was also use by helicopters and by Vertical/Short Take-off and Landing (VSTOL) Harriers. Waterbeach was popular for RAF reunions, and Burma Star Days, as described below,
always attracted huge crowds.

One element of support to the RAF was the installations of Rotary Hydraulic Arrester Gear (RHAG) on airfields; this was a rather specialist aspect of Squadron training. Other less conventional tasks added to the variety: for examples, a short take-off runway, 400 m by 15 m, for Harrier aircraft, was constructed in the Stanford training area in Norfolk, and at RAF Upavon a runway surface of prefabricated aluminium matting was laid straight onto grass, and then tested by
fully-loaded Hercules and Andover aircraft.

On several occasions there was recovery of various crashed aircraft in UK.

The secondary role of the Regiment, combat engineering, as carried out by other Sapper front-line Regiments included mine warfare, bridging and demolitions, road construction, defensive works, and water supply. Combat engineering training was mostly done on the airfield and on the area around Waterbeach; for example, for many years there was an inter-troop competition in combat engineering skills on the orders of the CO. Nine troops rotated on the airfield on eight tasks, the ninth task (one year) being to prepare the concrete bow-string bridge on the Streatham to Soham Road
for simulated demolition, while keeping the road open.

Crater left after being blown up. Photo D M Adamson

Equipment for runway repair. Photo D M Adamson