General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma’s desert goggles. Courtesy REME Museum of Technology
Archive story from 2007 - please note this temporary exhibition is now closed. However items from the exhibition can still be viewed in the permanent collection at the REME Museum.
A temporary exhibition at the REME Museum of Technology in Berkshire reveals some of the extraordinary items collected by soldiers of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers while on active service.
From an Afrika Korps general's desert goggles to a mandolin made by a British prisoner of war in Italy during world war two, Souvenirs from the Field offers a fascinating trawl of the artefacts taken by ordinary soldiers.
The goggles were once the property of General Von Thoma, the commander of the German Afrika Korps captured after the Battle of El Alamein in 1942.
They were donated to the museum by Mr H Benson who was a fitter with a Light Aid Detachment (LAD) – part of the Corps Workshop REME during the Africa campaign. Mr Benson had to carry out a rapid repair to General Montgomery’s car and it is believed that Montgomery gave the goggles of the famous Panzer general to Mr Benson as a thank you.
Captain Murghie's mandolin - made by a REME officer while a POW in Italy. Courtesy REME Museum of Technology
Montgomery was always high in his praise of REME units upon whom fell the responsibility of repairing and maintaining tanks and other vehicles in the harsh desert conditions of North Africa.
Other artefacts in the exhibition include a varied array of items, many of them appropriate for soldiers who are known as the craftsmen of the army. Items include a a light fitting and an embroidered piece of chair fabric, both taken from Hitler’s office in the Reich Chancellery by a REME brigadier.
Towards the end of the war Brigadier CTW Gough OBE entered the Reich Chancellery in Berlin and made straight for Hitler’s personal office to see if there were any souvenirs to be had.
A light fitting from the Reich Chancellery. Courtesy REME Museum of Technology
Brigadier Gough recalled: “Being on the lookout for souvenirs, I went into the bathroom where the whole of the suite of bath, toilet and wash hand basin was in azure blue porcelain. Using my jack-knife I tried to remove some of the wall tiles but these all broke.”
“On going back into Hitler's office, I noticed that the seat of the chair was covered in a brown brocade with the German eagle woven into it in gold thread, and I cut a square piece of it out with my jack-knife.”
Around the walls were a number of fluted brass columns about 5cm wide by 46cm high, which had originally been part of wall light assemblies. The tops of these brass columns were finished off with an open tulip and the bottom had a tulip bud. By standing on the arms of a chair he was able to look into the open tulip part at the top.
A plaque of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee taken from a Kriegsmarine barracks in 1946. Courtesy REME Museum of Technology
“I could see that this and the tulip bud piece at the bottom were held together by a rod with screw thread and nut at the top end. I found one with a loose nut, which, with the aid of the marlin spike on my jack-knife, I was able to undo; the top and bottom parts then came away.”
Similarly two plaques captured from the Kriegsmarine Barracks, Hultenau, Kiel in 1946 by Captain A W Reading are iconic world war two German items. Of the ten plaques he collected, two of the most famous are included in the exhibition, the Scharnhorst and the Graf Spee.
Other souvenirs became important symbols of REME regimental history such as a steering wheel removed by Cpl Rigby of the 21 Beach Group when clearing the beach during the Salerno landings in Italy during 1943.
The wheel – from a German landing craft – became the unit sign of the recovery section and moved with them when the section returned to its parent unit, 78 Infantry Troop Workshop. The Army formation signs were then added to record those supported by the workshop and the wheel was eventually sent to Arborfield, home of the Corps of REME and site of the museum, when the unit disbanded.