Sappers return to historic German town

Former sappers who were based in Willich before the British Army base closed 25 years ago, timed their fourth reunion to coincide with the town’s Schützenfest celebrations.

Willich, near Krefeld, was the home of 40 Army Engineer Support Group, which was located in Kitchener Barracks, a former steelworks.

This year there was a distinct British flavour to the annual festival, which – as in many towns across Germany –  features a target-shooting competition in which the winner is declared the Schützenkönig (king of marksmen). That is followed by a long parade and several days of partying.

Adding to the musical entertainment and joining in the parade was the Crossed Swords Pipe Band, a British-led European Pipe Band from Germany with more than 60 military and civilian members drawn from across 12 countries.

Some 50 veteran sappers and about 20 serving members of Paderborn-based 35 Engineer Regiment, joined hundreds of marchers.

In the 1970s the Royal Engineers were granted the Freedom of the small town. Their presence lasted for four decades until 40 Army Engineer Group disbanded in 1992. Now, only a few of the original buildings in what was Kitchener Barracks remain. One of them is now a music school.

During the Cold War Willich engineers were on standby to carry out some risky tasks.

Lt Col Tony Waitson, the unit’s last CO, said: “If there was, say, a plane crash, and there was a nuclear device on board, [the engineers would have] to get access to that plane so that other specialists could go in and extricate the nuclear device. It was part of our normal, everyday mission.”

In the Gulf War, Willich engineers repaired equipment and in the desert helped guide the Army’s big guns.

In a speech that acknowledged the 25 years since British soldiers left the town,

During the event, the Bürgermeister of Willich Josef Heyes explicitly thanked the Britons for their work on behalf of peace.

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