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Royally Ready

Royally Ready for Takeoff

The Corps of Royal Engineers were formed in the British Army to both design and construct fortifications and to lay siege to the enemies' forts. The Sap, a shallow trench, dug at an angle for protection from enemy fire to bring guns and attackers forward, gave the Royal Engineers the nickname “Sappers,” one that they are all justly proud of. Initially a corps of officers, it later added soldiers of many skills as its remit expanded to bridges and balloons, roads, railways and airstrips, ferries and rafts—anything that the army needed to move or attack the enemy.

In 1794, a military expedition was assembled for the purpose of once more expelling the French from the islands they held in the West Indies. Colonel Durnford was in command of a party of eleven Royal Engineer officers. They were responsible for both laying siege to French forts as well as constructing new British ones. Lieutenants Richard Dowse and Douglas Lawson were sent to the BVI to construct a ring of forts around Road Harbour to protect the harbour from attack from the French, when convoys were assembled here before returning to England. The work would have been carried out by local labour as well as soldiers of the West Indies garrison and Royal Navy personnel to help mount the cannons. The remains of their wok can be seen at Fort Burt, Fort Charlotte, Fort Shirley and Fort George as well as at Fort Purcell (commonly known as the Dungeons)—and at many minor gun emplacements.


No doubt other serving Sappers visited the BVI besides the author who in 1965 temporarily ran the Public Works Department for a month, an issue I’ll delve into in an upcoming article. In 1967, after retiring as a Sapper, he assisted Lt Col Mitchley (commanding the Royal Engineers Airfield Construction Regiment) in his Anegada survey as well as on Beef Island where his 53 Field Squadron under the command of Major Nigel Clifford came in March 1968 to extend the 2,500-foot dirt and grass airstrip to a 3,600-foot tarmac strip—Operation Treasure Isle it was called. Some 100 strong counting mechanics, medical and signals soldiers made up for the temporary workforce. This project cost £216,000 (about $350,000 US) and was done by clearing and levelling the site and mixing cement with the existing tarras (decomposed granite) to form a solid base—as had been done in 1965 for the West End road—and then laying tarmac over it.  

The soil's technician was Captain Cyril Woodfield RE, an experienced army engineer who had worked his way up from the ranks—a  hard thing to do in the British army—and  had survived one of the infamous Chindit expeditions. These raiding columns marched several hundred miles behind the Japanese lines in Burma during WWII through the jungle and swamps. Cyril well remembered the squelch of leeches between his toes. After inflicting considerable casualties and disruption on the Japanese, though only after having nearly 75 percent casualties themselves—mainly from disease and exhaustion they were extracted—or walked in Cyril’s case—back to India. He somehow survived to continue his Army career and returned later to the BVI  to work at PWD and married the daughter of the founders of Caribbean Printing Company; to work later at CPC and start the Welcome magazine. A typical resourceful Sapper.

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