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WORLD WAR 2

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CZECHOSLOVAKS IN THE PIONEER CORPS

1. Churchill's 'Foreign Legion'
2. Czechoslovaks join and train
3. 39 Group Pioneer Corps
4. 20 Group Pioneer Corps
5. Disbandment
6. Where did they go?

1. Churchill's 'Foreign Legion'

With the fall of France in the summer of 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill originally intended to form a 'Foreign Legion' with a strength of at least 5,000 from the non-British soldiers that managed to escape from mainland Europe. In fact, independent combat units of the occupied European nations were established in Britain. Those whose presence in these units was judged as 'undesirable', along with some refugees (especially those of German or Jewish origin), were enlisted in the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps (AMPC). This was a non-combat work unit of the British Army engaged on projects such as the construction of camps or defences and bomb debris clearance.

Foreigners had previously been recruited into the Pioneer Corps (to a total of around 2,000) until early 1940, when popular opinion dictated that they be interned instead. After the re-commencement of their recruitment, Churchill received weekly (later monthly) summaries of the numbers joining from the start of August 1940 until May 1941 when the total exceeded the original 5,000 target. At that time these men formed 19 'Loyal Alien' Companies from a total of more than 250. There were continued suspicions about the trustworthiness of these men. On 3rd January 1941 Churchill sent a minute to Colonel E.I.C. Jacob at the War Office about 'scrubbing' the corps "to make sure no Nazi cells develop within it". On 15th January he noted as seen a reply dated 13th January assuring him that the units were continually vetted and monitored by the security services.

2. Czechoslovaks join and train

After the 'Mutiny' at Cholmondeley Castle and the removal of those involved, most of them enlisted in the Pioneer Corps on 9th October 1940 and were included in the recruitment summary for the week ending 12th October 1940. A special note states "The number enlisting this week is raised to its high total by the fact that 454 Czechs who had been interned in a camp at Sutton Coldfield were released and offered the chance of enlisting". Another 7 Czechoslovaks joined by 16th November 1940, with one more in the week ending 1st February 1941, but these may well have come from sources other than the Sutton Coldfield camp.

'No.3 Centre' was one of several training units for the Pioneer Corps. Formed at Richborough (Kent) in 1939, it moved to Westward Ho! in May 1940 and became the main centre for foreigners joining. Due to 'unsatisfactory winter accommodation' it then moved to Ilfracombe in October 1940. It was here that the Czechoslovaks arrived on 10th October 1940. They were divided into 2 companies, designated as No.226 (Czech) and No.227 (Czech), and after the completion of their 2 weeks basic training they remained at Ilfracombe for another 3 weeks.

3. 39 Group Pioneer Corps

No.227 Company moved on 18th November 1940 to Newmarket, coming under 39 Group Pioneer Corps, Eastern Command region. It was billeted at Falmouth Lodge and Cremlin House Stables and employed mostly on 'hutting' at various locations in the area. On 13th October 1941 the order was received to transfer all 'Czech' personnel to No.226 Company, and for the Officers and British NCOs to proceed to No.12 Centre to reform.

No.226 Company moved on 20th November 1940 from Ilfracombe to Woodbury Hall near Sandy, Bedfordshire, also coming under 39 Group Pioneer Corps. It was mostly employed on work at the Royal Engineers dump at nearby Gamlingay, but also sent out working parties for other duties in the area. One of these was made up of 1 Officer, 4 NCOs, and 24 men, based from March 5th until April 8th 1941 at Duxford Airfield just south of Cambridge. At that time No.310 Squadron, the first Czechoslovak fighter squadron formed within the RAF in July 1940 at Duxford, was still based there. It might have been interesting if there was contact between the 'mutineers' and those serving in the RAF!

On May 11th 1941 the company HQ and 6 sections moved to a new base at Molesworth airfield to be employed on telephone cable laying duties, and in August the HQ and 5 sections moved to Kimbolton airfield in Huntingdonshire.

A full strength Pioneer Corps company normally had 10 sections of 26 men each, plus an HQ of around 20 men (including 5 or 6 Officers). With the addition of the men from No.227 Company on 19th October 1941, No.226 Company became a 14 section company (plus HQ). On 11th November 1941 a total of 10 sections moved location, the HQ and some of the sections going to Ludham near Great Yarmouth.

On the 28th and 29th November 1941 the men of No.226 Company were visited at various locations by the Czech Military Attaché who invited the NCOs and men to return to the 'Czech Army'. A total of 117 immediately indicated their desire to do so and signed a form to that effect. By 21st December 1941 the number of men who had applied for re-enlistment into the 'Czech Army' had risen to 154.

On 1st January 1942 a detachment of 94 men left to return to the 'Czech Army' at Leamington Spa, then the location of the Czechoslovak Brigade. This was followed by another detachment of 21 men on 9th January 1942. With this reduction in numbers, on 16th January 1942 No.226 Company was reorganised as a 10 section company (plus HQ). Another 6 men left for Leamington on 29th January 1942, with another 3 men on 31st January 1942. This left another 30 men who had applied for transfer still to go.

On 2nd February 1942 the whole company moved to Riddlesworth Camp near Diss, Norfolk, to be employed on camp construction at Riddlesworth and Southwood Camps. On 2nd March 1942 another detachment of 25 men left here for Leamington. These details come from the 'War Diary' of No.226 Company, and the total is 149 men rather than the 154 originally mentioned, but there are no other transfers noted. Then on 12th April 1942 the company changed location again to Hazlemere near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, to do camp construction at Peterley Manor and Dropmore camps.

4. 20 Group Pioneer Corps

On 8th June 1942 the whole company moved and came under the control of 20 Group Pioneer Corps, the HQ of which was based at Hatfield Peverel, to the north-east of Chelmsford, Essex. The HQ of No.226 Company was at Bury St. Edmunds, with 5 sections nearby at Fornham St. Martin to build tank standings, and another 3 at Shudy Camps, Cambridgeshire (note that this is the name of a small village not just a military camp) for camp construction. Things seemed to start off very well. The work at Fornham was inspected by the CO of 20 Group, Lt.Col. E.C. Flinn, on 12th and 15th June and judged to be satisfactory. On 23rd June there was a visit to Shudy Camps by several senior Officers and again the work was judged to be satisfactory. From 6th July 1942 all sections of No.226 Company were based at Shudy Camps, and from the next day, 7th July, the company was reorganised to be composed of an HQ plus 6 sections. This may well indicate further transfers of men away from the company, but none are noted in the 'War Diary' and therefore the possible destinations are not known.

By August 1942 considerable dissatisfaction seems to have developed both with the men's discipline and also among the men themselves. On 8th August Lt.Col. Flinn visited Shudy Camps to investigate complaints made by a Corporal Douda and Private Snitzer against the medical officer. These men were constantly reporting sick "with trivial complaints" and were informed by the medical officer that there was very little wrong with them. Flinn explained the seriousness of reporting sick in the British Army without just cause, and after this both men were satisfied. However, he considered that quite a number of Czechs in the company were trying to evade service by reporting sick without a cause. He was back at Shudy Camps again only 3 days later, on 11th August, to interview several men "of Czech nationality" who had lodged complaints against Captain Hoey (Royal Army Medical Corps). Flinn was satisfied that there was no cause for the complaints made, that the men were going sick for very trivial reasons, and that Capt. Hoey was justified in giving them "M&D".

One week later, on 18th August, Lt.Col. Flinn was again back at the HQ of No.226 Company in Bury St.Edmunds, this time to meet with Lt.Col. Adams from the War Office, Major Vedrenne from Eastern Command, and the CO of No.226 Company, Major A.E. Cockeran. The CO of No.58 Company, Major Burne, was also present. Cockeran pointed out the many difficulties regarding the personnel of the company, and was informed by Lt.Col. Adams that the whole matter was being dealt with by the War Office. There was another meeting at the same place on 23rd August, this time Flinn and Cockeran meeting with a Lt.Col. Wylie from Eastern Command to discuss "things in general". On 7th September Lt.Col. W.B. Baber took over command of 20 Group Pioneer Corps from Lt.Col. Flinn.

On 14th September, 16 men were transferred from No.226 Company to REME and posted to their command workshops at Kentford for general duties. The nationality of these men is not specified. On the 17th September the company was reorganised to consist of an HQ plus 5 sections. On the 28th September, 2 sections were moved from Shudy Camps to Stowmarket to be used to handle stores for the U.S. forces.

5. Disbandment

On 26th September 1942, 20 Group HQ received a copy of an order from the War Office for the disbandment of No.226 Company to take place on 20th October, and posting instructions were received at No.226 Company HQ from the War Office on 6th October. On 8th October Lt..Col. Baber visited Shudy Camps to complete the details for the disbandment of the company. An entry in the 'War Diary' for the 9th October notes that when the men were paraded to proceed on posting, 24 at Shudy Camps and 10 at Stowmarket refused to proceed in the former case and to proceed beyond Cambridge in the second. Presumably this was in protest at the disbandment of their 'Czechoslovak' company. They were placed under close arrest. There is no note of the intended destination, to which the other men of the 5 section company are assumed to have proceeded in an orderly fashion.

On 10th October Lt.Col. Baber visited Shudy Camps to consider the procedure to be adopted with regard to the arrested men, visiting the HQ 11 Corps District (regular army) later the same day on the same matter. On 11th October, under instructions from 20 Group HQ through the company commander, the arrested were released into open arrest. After a preliminary hearing they were remanded for a summary of evidence to be taken. This was instituted by Lt.Col Baber when he visited Shudy Camps on 12th October. On 13th October Baber went via HQ 11 Corps District to Shudy Camps again, meeting there the M.G.A. [?] who gave orders that the arrested should be released and no disciplinary action taken. The 34 men were also to be formed into one section and posted to No.827 (S) Company Pioneer Corps, proceeding to Southend to join it the next day. Major Cockeran was also due to be posted to this company.

On 20th October 1942 No.226 Company Pioneer Corps was officially disbanded, no Officers or men remaining.

6. Where did they go?

There is one question that remains unanswered. What happened to all of the 462 Czechoslovaks who joined the Pioneer Corps in the autumn of 1940?

When all Czechoslovaks (except for one sergeant) were posted from No.227 Company to No.226 Company in October 1941 it then had 14 sections, approximately 360 men (plus British Officers and NCOs). What had happened to the other 100 men in the year since they joined the Pioneer Corps? In early January 1942 115 men were posted to the Czechoslovak Brigade, leaving approximately 245 to form 10 full strength sections in the reorganisation in the middle of that month. Another 34 men (just over one section) left for Leamington in the following weeks, leaving about 210. But again on 7th July 1942 the company was reorganised into 6 sections, approximately 150 men. What happened to the other 60 men? On 14th September 1942, 16 men were transferred to REME, and a few days later the company was reorganised to be HQ plus 5 sections. What happened to the other 10 men which should make up the section?

It should be remembered that through most of 1941 there were 19 'Loyal Alien' companies, of which the Czechs formed only 2 (Nos.226 and 227). Other alien companies were Nos. 1(Spanish), 69, 74, 77, 87, 88, 93, 137, 165, 219, 220, 229, 246, 248, 249, 251, and 270. It was also noted many times how well qualified and skilled many of the Czechoslovaks were, so perhaps some of the 170 (although surely not all) were transferred away to meet specific needs elsewhere. Certainly there are brief mentions in other units, but whether these men had ever been with the 'real Czech' companies or had originally been posted to other alien companies whose composition was more suited to them due to 'nationality' (Sudeten German) or religious (Jewish) reasons, or if they had come from a source other than the 'mutineers', is not known. For example.....

No.165 Company, 11th June 1941. NCO Sergeant Russell of No.63 Field Security Section visited and interviewed Privates Baier, Wiener and Werau, the two former of Sudeten German origin and the latter an Austrian. It was stressed that the visit in no way brought into question the loyalty of the men.

No.137 Company, 16th October 1941, Dumfries, Scotland (having been transferred north one month before from St.Audries Bay Camp, Somerset). Five Other Ranks were discharged "under K.R. para 390 (XVIII)" (a paragraph of the King's Regulations, which defined rules for military personnel)  and transferred to the "Czech Flying Corps". Presumably this meant to the Czechoslovak squadrons in the RAF. Coincidentally, in still one of the best books on the subject of Czechoslovaks fighting with the western allies ('Na západní frontě' by Toman.Brod and Eduard Čejka, Naše Vojsko, Prague 1965) there is a photograph (opposite p369) of 19 men. The caption describes them as air gunners of the 311 Czechoslovak bomber squadron and states that the picture was taken in Dumfries in October 1941 (although the squadron was at that time based at East Wretham near Thetford in Norfolk). It also notes that in following actions 15 of them were killed, 2 captured and 2 injured.

No.93 Company, 19th January 1942, Redruth, Cornwall (also having spent time at St.Audries Bay Camp and nearby Liddimore Camp at Watchet during the previous year). The company commander visited working parties at Truro and St.Anthony, accompanied by Lt.Russell of Intelligence Corps who interviewed men of Czech nationality. Russell seems to have been promoted during the 7 months since his visit to No.165 Company.

There is also a lack of information about the disbandment of No.226 Company. There is no indication as to the destination for the majority of the 5 sections of men who proceeded to their postings on 9th October 1942 (approximately 85 men). Even with the 34 who refused to proceed there is confusion. It is stated in the records of No.226 Company that they, along with Major Cockeran, were to be posted to No.827 Company on 14th October 1942, but there is no note of their arrival in the records of this company.

However, records for 20 Group show that they were sent to this company, but that No.827 Company itself received instructions on 17th October to transfer to 31 Group Pioneer Corps and departed on 24th October for Woburn Sands. There is a note that it left behind 3 'unarmed' sections and one 'alien' section attached to No.86 Company Pioneer Corps. Records for this company show that Major Cockeran was posted to the unit on 22nd October (then based at Felixstowe but moving to Hutton near Brentwood on 10th November) and assumed command of it. There is no mention of any 'Aliens'. Perhaps it is just a coincidence that on 29th October 3 men (not identified) were sent from No.86 Company to the High Garrett POW camp.

Back in the records of 20 Group there is a note that on 28th October Lt.Col. Baber visited a detachment at Clacton, then proceeded to Great Holland to see an "Alien detachment" attached to No.86 Company for camp construction. After that there is no identifiable mention of these men in the records of 20 Group, No.86 Company, or No.827 Company. The closest is a reference to a half-section being moved from "C.S.D. Romford to I.A.D. Shoeburyness (Ex attached 827 Coy personnel)" on 23rd November, then on 19th December the half section being moved from Shoeburyness to Purfleet.

Although 150 men certainly returned to the Czechoslovak Brigade, possibly 5 went to the Czechoslovak squadrons in the RAF, and perhaps 16 were transferred to REME, the other 290 men who joined in the autumn of 1940 seem to 'disappear' in the records of the Pioneer Corps (170 'missing' by mid-September 1942 plus approximately 120 forming the 5 sections of No.226 Company when it was disbanded a month later).

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