The Tunnellers’ Cup

The Tunnellers’ Cup

In memory of the contributions made by Canadian tunnellers during the two World Wars, in 1989 the Tunnellers’ Association (Veterans) presented a silver trophy for MEAC competition. First presented in 1990, the Tunnellers’ Cup is awarded to the Construction Engineering section or unit with the best project in construction engineering.

A Short History of Tunnelling

World War I

Stalemates on the Western Front led to revival the medieval pratice of building tunnels or saps under ememy positions. The front lines were close and tunnelling offered a great advantage. As early as december 1914, the Germans detonated 500 kgs of explosive under British lines manned by an Indian Division and follow on with a successful infantry assault. The British responded immediately by forming tunnelling companies to dig tunnels and place mines under the enemy. Men experienced in tunnelling and mining were selected and the British set off their first mine under the Germans in February 1915.

By 1916, the Canadian Army had raised the 1st Canadian Tunnelling Company, C.E. from eastern Canadian recruits. The 2nd Canadian Tunnelling Company, C.E., was recruited in British Columbia and Alberta. The 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company was formed from mining sections initially created within the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions in France.

Over the next two years both sides dug tunnels under enemy lines and Crater fighting played a central role in many 1915 and 1916 battles. Tunnelling companies also dug subways, cable trenches, saps, and underground chambers for signal or medical services. In many areas extensive networks of tunnels were dug behind Allied front lines, allowing for movement of men and supplies into the front trenches without enemy detection.

The best example of tunnelling efforts assisting a Canadian attack occurred at Vimy Ridge. In the months prior to the April 9, 1917 attack, tunnelling companies dug an incredible 20 kilometres (12 miles) of subways for foot traffic, tramways equipped with rails for moving ammunition to the front lines and evacuating wounded soldiers, and light railways - all concealed from the enemy. The tunnelling system housed 24,000 men prior to the attack and was equipped with electric lighting, kitchens, latrines and a medical centre. A 250-metre section of the Grange Subway has been preserved and is accessible to the public at Vimy Ridge in recognition of the tunnelling companies' pivotal role in this milestone Canadian victory.

World War II

The RCE deployed 1 and 2 Canadian Tunnelling Companies to Britain early in the war. Both were deployed to Gibraltar. The collapse of France in June 1940 and the simultaneous entry of Italy into the war suddenly made the Mediterranean an active theatre of operations, placed British interests there in the utmost jeopardy and rendered the fortress of Gibraltar much more important than before.

In Novemeber 1940, detachment of 100 sappers with diamond drills disembarked at the fortress were soon hard at work. The British asked for more Canadian tunnellers, and a new unit was raised from among qualified men in the United Kingdom. No. 2 Canadian Tunnelling Company reached Gibraltar on 10 March 1941, and remained there until the end of the following year. They left behind them permanent monuments, the chambers they had hollowed, which will serve the garrison of the Rock as long as the British flag flies there.

On return to Britain, both units remained active on a wide range of projects including airfield demolition, mining and power plant construction in the British Isles. 1 Canadian Tunnelling Company served with Canadian, British and US units in Italy from the Sicily Landings in 1943 until April 1945, long after 1st Canadian Corps had re-deployed from Italy to Holland. 2 Canadian Tunnelling Company served in Northwest Europe from Normandy, through the Low Countries and into Germany. To show changing technology and employment, both companies were renamed 1 and 2 Canadian Drilling Companies in 1944. Both were disbanded in Europe at the end of the war.