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The sappers ("sapeurs") of the French Foreign Legion traditionally sport large beards

A sapper or combat engineer is an individual soldier who performs a variety of combat engineering duties. Such tasks typically include bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, demolitions, field defences, and building, road and airfield construction and repair. He is also trained to serve as an infantryman when needed. A modern sapper's tasks involve facilitating movement and logistics of allied forces and impeding that of enemies.

The term "sapper" is used in British Army or Commonwealth military service. In the United States Army, the term sapper leader has been instituted for elite combat engineers.[1] An ordinary engineer who has completed his training is called a pioneer. The German Army uses the term pionier, while sapeur is used in the French Army.


Historical origin



Soldiers of No 2 Field Company, Bombay Sappers and Miners on duty in China in 1900. The mule carries the tools required for field engineering tasks.

A sapper, in the sense first used by the Assyrian Army in the early 7th Century BC, was one who excavated trenches under defensive fire to advance a besieging army's position in relation to the works of an attacked fortification, which was referred to as sapping the enemy fortifications.

Saps were excavated by brigades of trained sappers or instructed troops. When an army was defending a fortress with cannon, they had an obvious height and therefore range advantage over the attacker's own guns. The attacking army's artillery had to be brought forward, under fire, so as to facilitate effective counter-battery fire.

This was achieved by digging what the French termed a 'Sappe'. Using techniques developed and perfected by Vauban, the sapeurs (sappers) began the trench at such an angle so as to avoid enemy fire 'enfilading' (passing directly along) the sappe. As they pressed forward, a position was prepared from which cannon could suppress the defenders on the bastions. The sappers would then change the course of their trench, zig-zagging their way toward the fortress wall.

Each leg brought the attacker's artillery closer and closer until (hopefully) the besieged cannon would be sufficiently suppressed for the attackers to breach the walls with their artillery. Broadly speaking, sappers were originally experts at demolishing or otherwise overcoming or bypassing fortification systems.


The fort of Ghazni which fell as a result of mining by a mixed contingent of the Bombay and Bengal Sappers during the First Afghan War on 23rd July 1839.

An additional term applied to sappers of the British Indian Army was 'miner'. The native engineer corps were referred to as 'sappers and miners', as for example, the Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners. The term arose from a task done by sappers to further the battle after saps were dug. The saps permitted cannon to be brought into firing range of the besieged fort and its cannon, but often the cannon themselves were unable to breach the fort walls. The engineers would dig a tunnel from the forward-most sap up to and under the fort wall, then place a charge of gunpowder and ignite it, causing a tremendous explosion which would destroy the wall and permit attacking infantry to close with the enemy. This was dangerous work, often lethal to the sappers, and was vehemently resisted by the besieged enemy. Since the two tasks went hand in hand and were done by the same troops, native Indian engineer corps came to be called 'sappers and miners'.

Specific usage

Commonwealth of Nations

Sapper (abbreviated Spr) is the Royal Engineers' equivalent of Private. This is also the case within the Indian Army Corps of Engineers, Canadian Military Engineers, Royal Australian Engineers, South African Army Engineer Formation and Royal New Zealand Engineers. The term Sapper was introduced in 1856 when the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners was amalgamated with the officer Corps of Royal Engineers to form the Corps of Royal Engineers.

Indian Army

The term 'Sappers', in addition to the connotation of rank of engineer private, is used collectively to informally refer to the Engineer Corps as a whole and also forms part of the informal names of the three combat engineer groups, viz. Madras Sappers, Bengal Sappers and the Bombay Sappers. Each of these groups consist of about twenty battalion-sized engineer regiments and additional company-sized minor engineer units. The three Sapper groups are descended from the Sapper and Miner groups of the East India Company and later the British Indian Army of the British Raj.


In France, the civil firefighters and the military firefighters of the Paris Fire Brigade and other town or country brigades are called "sappers-pumpers" (sapeurs-pompiers, SP): the first fire company created by Napoléon I was a military sappers company. Apart from this, the sappers are the combat engineers.

United States Army

US Combat Engineer setting a charge in World War II

In the U.S. Army, sappers are combat engineers who support the front-line infantry, and they have fought in every war in American history. For example, after the Battle of Yorktown, General Washington cited the U.S. Army's first Chief of Engineers for conduct which afforded "brilliant proofs of his military genius." [2]

Designation as a sapper nowadays is earned as an additional proficiency. The U.S. Army authorizes four skill tabs[3] for permanent wear above the unit patch on the left shoulder (Army Regulation 670-1 Chapter 29-13, Sub-Paragraph f). Along with the Sapper Tab, the Special Forces Tab and the Ranger Tab identify soldiers who have passed a demanding course of military instruction and demonstrated their competence in particular specialities and skills. The Sapper Tab ranks below the Special Forces Tab and the Ranger Tab, so the three tabs are worn in that order of precedence from highest to lowest. The President's Hundred Tab is worn by marksmen who qualify, and takes precedence over all other tabs. It is worn at the very top of the left shoulder of the uniform by any soldier who qualifies in the annual competition.

To wear the Sapper Tab, a soldier must complete the Sapper Leader Course which is operated by the U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The Sapper Leader Course is a 28-day course designed to train joint-service leaders in small unit tactics, leadership skills, and tactics required to perform as part of a combined arms team. The course is open to enlisted soldiers in the grades of E-4 (P) (in the Army, specialist on the list for promotion to sergeant, E-5) and above, cadets, and officers O-3 (Army, captain) and below. As students can come from any combat or combat support branch of the service, but priority is given to engineering, cavalry, and infantry soldiers.[4] The course is in two phases.

Phase I lasts 14 days and covers general subjects including medical, navigation, demolitions, air and water operations, mountaineering, and landmines and weapons used by enemy forces.

Phase II is the remaining 14 days. It covers basic patrolling techniques and battle drills that emphasize leadership. The subjects include urban operations, breaching, patrol organization and movement, and reconnaissance, raid and ambush tactics. It concludes with a three-day situation training exercise, and five-day field training exercise. These missions are a 60/40 mix of engineer and infantry missions.

Leadership is emphasized throughout the SLC. During the course leader roles are rotated regularly and each student is evaluated at least twice on leadership. The results of the Sapper Leader Course are soldiers who are better-trained combat engineers.[5]

United States Marine Corps

In the U.S. Marine Corps, the term sapper is commonly used as a call sign among combat engineer units to designate them as engineers when attached to infantry units. Combat Engineers in the Marine Corps, like their Army counterparts, are a sort of jack of all trades. During training at the Marine Corps Engineer School, Combat Engineer Instruction Company, a Marine is trained in a variety of fields which as a whole encompass the 1371 MOS. Subjects covered include Demolitions, Breaching, Wood frame Construction, Concrete and Masonry, Land Clearing and Falling Timbers, Survivability Positions, Medium Girder Bridge Construction, Minefield Clearing and IED Detection, and Counter Mobility. Depending on the type of unit the Marine is assigned to will determine what tasks they will be used for primarily. For example, a Marine assigned to a Marine Division will primarily be required to perform tasks involving infantry tactics, breaching, and mine clearing. That same Marine if assigned to an Air Wing on the other hand would be more likely to perform construction work and tactical airfield construction and maintenance. In any case, a Marine Combat Engineer is required to be proficient in all areas to include infantry tactics and weapon systems.

PAVN and Viet Cong

Sapper formation- PAVN/Viet Cong

PAVN and Viet Cong sappers, as they are called by US forces, are better described as commando units. In fact, the Vietnamese term "đặc công" can be literally translated as "special task". Thousands of specially trained elite fighters served in the PAVN and Viet Cong commando/sapper units which were organized as independent formations. While not always successful due to lack of appropriate personal weapon types for combat and assault like other special forces, at times they inflicted heavy damage against their enemies. In fact, they have had various types of bombs, mines, explosive charges, grenades and even steel-pellet mines which were much more devastating than the U.S M18 Claymore.These are still the main weapons of the Dac cong. This answers the question: "Why were they called 'sappers'?" These elite units served as raiders against American/ARVN troops, and infiltrated spearheads during the final Ho Chi Minh campaign in 1975- where they seized key road and bridge assets, destroyed installations, attacked command and control nodes located deep inside enemy territory, and otherwise helped PAVN's rapid mobile forces advance. A typical PAVN/VC Dac cong organization is shown here. The raiding force was usually grouped into assault teams, each broken down into several 3-5 man assault cells. Overall, there were generally 4 operational echelons.[6]


Sapper Island, St. Joseph Channel, Algoma District, Ontario was named in honour of Sappers, especially those who graduated from the Royal Military College of Canada. 46o 18' 56" North 83o 57' 29" West [7]

See also



External links


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