Recollections from 558 Field Company, Royal Engineers, 1940
Christopher Thompson, Woodbridge
Christopher Thompson was a junior officer in 558 Field Company, Royal Engineers and took part in numerous operations in support of coastal defence in Suffolk during the invasion scare of 1940. Click on the play button below to hear him talking about some of his recollections from the time. Many of the events he describes also appear in the historical documents on this website, see ‘Documents and Maps'. Some of Christopher's other recollections can be read below.
The Walberswick project is very grateful to Mr Thompson for sharing his recollections with us and for allowing us to use this material on this website.
On Pillboxes and Anti-Tank Cubes
The infantry decided where they wanted the pill boxes, and we gave orders to Wimpeys [the civilian construction company assisting in the construction of the defences] to put them there, they did all the pill boxes and anti-tank blocks as well which we had to count so as they got paid per block, which we did by aerial photos as easier than walking along counting. Some of the blocks were half across the road as well as being on the beach. I think they were death traps personally. The access was very public, they would withstand small arms fire but nothing else, even though they were reinforced. I thought they were horrible things, glad we didn’t have to sit in them. Some were [camouflaged], mainly though they just stuck out like a sore thumb. They [Wimpey] had a clerk of works in charge on each site and he would maybe be in charge of several pillboxes and a line of blocks as well, and he was the boss of the thing and supposed to keep any eye, but we [558 Company] didn’t have anything else to do really apart from tell them where to put them and make sure reinforcements went in, and count the block.
We laid mines all round Benacre Ness and Covehithe. And a lot of the beach about quarter, half a mile beneath Covehithe we laid mines as well, and in fact on that beach I had to guide a stretcher party through to pick up an airman who floated ashore, body of an airman. The infantry really wanted the mines, and we said on one occasion that’s too low down, because when we get gales, which we shall do, they will move about. They said we shall be invaded by then so we had to put them where they wanted. And in fact that did happen, just not far from Benacre Ness on one occasion and four men were killed, one of them stepped on a mine, they took a short cut, shouldn’t have gone that way but they did, luckily I didn’t do the job, one of my mates did, sandbag and shovel job gather up the remains, but that was unfortunate. But they were good mines, we tried one out on a lorry chassis, pulled a lorry chassis over it and it sent it about 20 feet in the air, they were quite powerful.
On The Relationship Between Different Units
We felt ourselves superior to each of course! There is always a bit of jealousy between gunners and sappers because the Royal Military Academy where sappers and gunners and signals were trained [is] at Woolwich, unlike Sandhurst, and of course the top places went to signals, second places to sappers and all the lower places went to gunners, so we felt ourselves superior, we pulled the gunners’ legs on occasions. But I think relations were quite reasonable really, perfectly alright.
The Men of 558 Field Company
They had to be tradesmen, being sappers, apart from drivers, but they were plumbers and pipefitters, bricklayers, painters and decorators, electrical engineers, draughtsmen, all sorts, that sort of trade, you knew you could get things done by them you know, very useful. They were pretty good I think some of the conscripts we took in during the time in Leicestershire were pretty basic but we sorted them out; they had basic trades of some sort or another. So they weren’t too bad at all, some pretty good.