This section attempts to recognize the gallantry of Engineers during conflict. This is an ongoing project requiring considerable research, and although not complete, is a beginning.
In June 1940, during the time of the Dunkirk evacuation, the 1st Canadian Division began to move into Brittany in an attempt to re-establish a British Expeditionary Force in France. The British had moved too quickly and without French support, the troops had to be brought back to England within a week. In the rush, Sappers C. Julien and Fraser Peter Hutchinson, both in hospital, were left behind and taken prisoner. While both escaped and were recaptured, only Sapper Hutchinson, MM made good on a subsequent escape and made his way back to England, arriving back at company HQ in May 1942.
In 1940, during the height of the Blitz, there was a strong desire to reward "for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger" not in the face of the enemy. It was decided that the George Cross and the George Medal would be instituted to recognise both gallantry in the face of enemy bombing and brave deeds more generally. One George Cross and five George Medals were awarded to officers and men of the Royal Canadian Engineers. In contemporary times, the George Cross and George Medal are equivalent to the Canadian Cross of Valour and Medal of Bravery respectively.
In 1942, British operational command conceived of a combined amphibious, airborne, naval and air force assault on Dieppe, a German-occupied and fortified port on the French coast. The initial plan, Operation RUTTER, planned for a division-sized force to land, cease key facilities, destroy others, gather high-value intelligence, and hold the town for two tides before withdrawing back to England. It would be supported by airborne landings, fighter support and heavy air and sea bombardment. (Two Military Crosses, two Distinguished Conduct Medals, three Military Medals and numerous Mentioned in Dispatches)
The first Canadian sapper, and possibly the first Canadian officer, to set foot in Sicily was Captain George Wheelock Burbidge of the 4th Field Company. Captain Burbidge was attached to Combined Operations HQ and was assigned to 3 Combined Operations Pilotage Party in Malta. He disappeared on a reconnaissance mission on 4 March 1943. Four months later, The 1st Canadian Infantry Division, supported by three Field Companies, the 1st, 3rd and 4th, and the 2nd Field Park Company, landed on the beaches of Pachino. The degree to which the Royal Canadian Engineers contributed to the Sicilian Campaign can be measured by the degree to which they were recognised for bravery, receiving more awards than any other unit in the Canadian Army.
On 6 December 1943, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division under Major-General Chris Vokes, a Sapper, began a series of assaults on major crossing points along the Moro River along the eastern coast of Italy. The attacks were led by three infantry battalions and fighting was hard for two days and established two small bridgeheads over the Moro River. On December 8th, Vokes adjusted his plan to consolidate a larger bridgehead by launching a two-pronged attack out of the two smaller bridgeheads. The attack began in the afternoon with a massive artillery barrage with infantry following. During the night of 8/9 December, units of the Royal Canadian Engineers (RCE) built a bridge over the Moro allowing armour and equipment to move into San Leonardo the following day. (One Distinguished Service Order, two Military Medals)
In the spring of 1944, the Germans still held the line of defence north of Ortona, as well as the mighty bastion of Monte Cassino that blocked the Liri corridor to the Italian capital. Determined to maintain their hold on Rome, the Germans constructed two formidable lines of fortifications: the Gustav Line, and the Adolf Hitler Line, further up the valley. Early on 23 May, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division launched a three-brigade attack on the Hitler Line. Under heavy enemy mortar and machine-gun fire, and at great expense in killed and wounded, the Canadians breached the defences that day and the tanks of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division poured through toward the next obstacle, the Melfa River. (Four Military Crosses, five Military Medals)
The stories of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division's assault on Juno Beach on 6 June 1944 have been told many times and in many ways. This page will not attempt to re-tell those stories. It will simply set the scene and list members of the Royal Canadian Engineers who were decorated for gallantry that day. (One Distinguished Service Order, one Military Cross, nine Military Medals, one Distinguished Service Medal)
The battle for the city of Caen ended on 9 July with nearly 1200 Canadian dead and wounded in the final two days of the fight. This number exceeded the casualties of the landings themselves. The goal now was to continue drawing German forces away from the 1st US Army and push towards Falaise. Operation ATLANTIC aimed at securing the western bank of the Orne River and started on 18 July 1944 with elements of the 3rd Canadian Division crossing in the north-eastern parts of Caen and the 2nd Canadian Division crossing into the southern portions and striking south. (Three Distinguished Service Orders, three Military Crosses, two British Empire Medals)
At the end of August 1944, the last major battle of the Italian Campaign began. It would last a month and cost of 4500 killed, wounded and missing. It did not end the fighting in Italy, but it broke the back of Field Marshall Kesselring’s last line of defence on the Italian peninsula. For the Royal Canadian Engineers, the cost was high - over 40 killed and more wounded. Their gallantry through the month-long ordeal was two Military Crosses and five Military Medals.
Between mid-September and 8 November 1944, the First Canadian Army fought to unlock the shipping route to the port of Antwerp and open a vital supply route to support the advance into Germany. Strong defences and the unique geography of the Scheldt Estuary this one of the most difficult battlefields of the Second World War. The Canadians and their allies advanced over a maze of narrow roads, canals, dykes and flooded lowlands. While the ground dictated that the infantry would bear the brunt of the battle, and indeed they did, the ground also dictated that the sappers would be front and centre in every action. Of the nearly 1800 soldiers who died in the Battle of the Scheldt, nearly sixty were sappers.
By late October 1944, the 1st Canadian Corps had been in constant action since the Gothic Line Battle in August. The Savio River had been crossed but little success had been found moving forward to Ravenna over the flooded Po Valley plain. The Corps was moved into the 8th Army reserve except for a handful of Canadian units assigned to a hastily organised battle group dubbed Porterforce led by Lt-Col Porter. Among these units was 12th Field Company, RCE. Colonel Porter’s force of over 2000 all ranks consisting of armour, infantry, artillery and engineers, was tasked with the capture of the city of Ravenna. Operations started on 28 October over a line of advance across flooded plains, canals and rivers, mines and demolitions. (One Military Cross, one Military Medal)
After Operation MARKET GARDEN and the success of the Battle of the Scheldt, the Allies had driven a deep salient into the German defences of Holland. The Canadian First Army was at the north end of the salient, surrounded on three sides by Germans. Planning and preparation to break out of the salient and drive into Germany was delayed first by snow and rain, and then by the Ardennes Offensive in mid-December 1944 (The Battle of the Bulge). The German offensive drew British formations south and out of the salient to help stave off the German assault. In response, the Germans saw an opening in the salient and moved forces in positions to support the Ardennes offensive. Specifically, they placed a company-sized garrison defending a potentially important ferry cross in the town of Kapelsche Veer on an island in the River Maas. The capture of Kapelsche Veer was assigned to Major General Chris Vokes' 4th Canadian Armoured Division.
The engineer contribution to the battle fell to the sappers of the 9th Field Squadron. Undercover of darkness, they worked for a week to build a crossing from the remains of a destroyed bridge only 500 meters from the enemy. The Germans never knew. The Sappers sanded the ice-covered road and the infantry and light Stuart tanks crossed the 'Mad Whore's Dream'. A Class 40 ferry was built in ice chocked water and a Class 40 Bailey was put in place to cross the Sherman tanks. After four days of hard fighting, the Canadians eliminated all resistance. The cost was high - more than 20 sappers killed over the five-week period. Gallantry was recognised by the award of a Military Cross and three Military Medals to 9th Field Squadron.