2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
CHAPTER 13 — The Surveyors
BEFORE the Alamein battle was over, Brigadier Weir arranged for a valuable addition to the Divisional Artillery: 36 Survey Battery. Formed as an engineer sub-unit, this battery had left New Zealand with a section of the 4th Reinforcements, broke its journey in India, sailed from Bombay in the Indrapoera, and reached Port Tewfik on 24 March 1941. It contained many men with a high educational level and they soon found outlets for their talents. Early in April Major Rawle1 carried out a survey of the area east of Maadi Camp, in addition to a crowded training syllabus. Towards the end of the month Rawle yielded command of the battery to Major Stevens-Jordan from the 4th Field, an able mathematician with an original turn of mind and a lively personality. At the same time the battery had to put aside its syllabus for a day or two and undertake camp fatigues on behalf of gunners returning from Greece. There followed a brief and tantalising encounter with these members of the Divisional Artillery, an organisation which the surveyors would have loved to join at once; but for well over a year they were destined to tread other paths, sometimes as a battery and sometimes as separate troops or smaller detachments, often far apart.
The first such task took X Troop under Captain Park2 to Amiriya, near Alexandria, on 12 June, and Y Troop under Captain Nelson3 sent No. 1 Section to Suez and No. 2 Section to Qassassin in the Canal Zone on the same day. No. 1 Section of X Troop surveyed water mains and worked out drainage levels in the camp area; but No. 2 Section had a more interesting task in connection with the desert pipeline which took it a hundred miles westwards along the coast. Shortage of transport hampered all this work; but the gunners begged and borrowed and made do. Headquarters Troop, stationed at Maadi, surveyed bearing pickets and a calibration range for the 4th Field page 424 in July; but this was no more than a taste of things to come when the battery eventually joined the New Zealand Division. For the time being X and Y Troops carried out engineering surveys, and at the end of the month Second-Lieutenant Christian4 took six men to Cyprus to help complete a topographical survey of the island in accordance with the instructions of the Survey Directorate of the Middle East Forces.
Surveying drains, pipelines and sewers was all very well; but the various sections (other than Christian's party) were far more interested in the prospect which opened up in mid-August when they were recalled to Maadi in preparation for a battery move to Transjordan. Four Dodge 8–cwt pick-ups, nine Chevrolet three-tonners and three motor-cycles arrived on the 17th and slightly eased a critical shortage of transport. Major Stevens-Jordan-a name that now seemed curiously apt—left on re-connaisance the next day, and by the 28th the battery had assembled at Amman and its leading elements had already begun their work, escorted by colourful detachments of the Arab Legion.
The battery came under the command of the Palestine and Transjordan Command and a letter from its Survey Directorate on the 18th outlined the tasks. The immediate one was to observe a primary triangulation chain in Transjordan. In particular the survey detachments were to gain trig control in the Ma'an and Aqaba areas, where railway and road surveys were already being carried out for the port development of Aqaba. They were also to relate their observations to similar work being carried out by South African surveyors along the border between Egypt and Transjordan and from there towards Aqaba. When the details were studied, Stevens-Jordan decided that Y Troop should carry out triangulation from Amman to Tafile and ordered X Troop to do the same from Ma'an to Tafile. X Troop accordingly moved to Ma'an on the 31st, escorted by men of the Arab Legion. They took with them some sore heads, for the RAF had entertained them the night before. Those who stayed at Amman made up a cricket team to play the RAF and the survey team lost. There was method in the RAF hospitality.
By this time the survey parties had already done a good deal of work and on 1September they completed the stations of the first polygon in the Amman area. Suitable materials to make opaque beacons for daylight observations could not at first be found and the surveyors had to do a good deal of work by night, page 425 using petrol pressure lamps for beacons and signalling lamps for communication. A strong wind rose every evening and blew nearly all night, obscuring visibility and making this method difficult. Major Stevens-Jordan therefore obtained some lengths of hessian and arranged for a tradesman in Amman to dye them black. He also managed to get a supply of timber and hired donkeys to carry these materials to the beacon sites. With them Y Troop constructed the necessary opaque beacons and made more accurate readings by daylight. Early in September, however, a persistent daylight haze in the Jordan valley impeded daylight observation.
Stevens-Jordan had already concluded from reconnaissances that the tasks allotted to X Troop could not be carried out as ordered. The ground in the Ma'an neighbourhood—famous to readers of T. E. Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, to say nothing of the Bible—was difficult in the extreme and he had to revise the scheme presented by the Director of Trans-jordan Surveys. He decided to use a quadrilateral scheme, but much careful reconnaissance was first called for. By mid-September the whole battery was quartered with the RAF at Ma'an and by the end of the month leave to Jerusalem began. The surveyors felt they had earned it. Erecting and occupying trig stations, particularly in the Ma'an area, involved climbing precipitous rock faces, often with heavy burdens. Two peaks in the south, Jebel el Ram and Jebel Bakir, were reputed to be unscalable and the Arab Legion men refused to attempt them. Many well-known mountaineers had failed, they pointed out, and without alpine gear it was a waste of time trying. But the surveyors, laden with instruments, timber and other materials, scaled both peaks and capped them with beacons. The local Bedouin were thought to be untrustworthy, except in the Kerak area where most of them were Christians and very friendly. When survey parties had to camp out for the night they therefore had Arab Legion protection. In the course of many contacts with the Bedouin throughout Transjordan, however, the surveyors (who always gave them whatever water they could spare) found them hospitable (though desperately poor) and suffered no molestation.
One subsidiary task was to fix on aerial photographs all prominent points such as ruins and the relics of the railway destroyed by Lawrence and his Arab guerrillas in the First World War. A newly-formed air-interpretation section quickly became skilled at pinpointing survey stations on the photographs page 426 provided. The battery was also asked to survey a deviation on the Ma'an-Aqaba road where it descended far too abruptly from the high plateau south of Ma'an to the Kuweira plain at Naqb Ashtar. For army transport this stretch was almost impassable. Stevens-Jordan and Captain Park reconnoitred the route and the latter with a detachment undertook this task. When Gunner Hayman5 became ill on the 26th a local Arab doctor diagnosed appendicitis. The nearest army medical officer was 80 miles away, but the RAF provided an emergency service from Ramleh and flew the sick man to hospital.
Second-Lieutenant Christian and his party duly finished their work in Cyprus and reached Jerusalem at the end of September.6 Just over a fortnight later, however, Christian had to return to Cyprus with 10 men to rectify errors discovered in a minor triangulation carried out by civil authorities there. This task, too, led to others and Christian's detachment became involved in a check of details such as vegetation, village boundaries and cairns, which were to be printed in a series of topographical maps. In due course Christian produced a thorough critique of the proposed maps and made many useful suggestions to the map-makers. In this his knowledge of the kinds of survey work that were possible in the course of military operations was valuable. Certain details or distinctions which the civil authorities thought necessary, he pointed out, were either unhelpful or unreliable; if it turned out that they were wanted, they could be provided more accurately when the operational need arose.
The fixation of minor points for the aerial survey became a major task which engaged Captain Nelson and most of Y Troop for nearly a month. This took them through rugged and interesting country which included Petra with its spectacular approaches through a series of ravines, and its temples and dwellings carved in sandstone cliffs, a ‘rose-red city’ indeed. Most members of the battery were able to visit Petra from Ma'an on recreation days, and also the ancient town of Tafile and the crusader castle at Kerak.
An apparent error in azimuth of 10 seconds at various points on the main net, detected by astronomical checks, led to much page 427 extra work. It was found to be caused by gravitational deflection of the bubble in areas near the great rift of the Dead Sea, the Jordan valley, and the Wadi el Araba—a rare phenomenon also observed by the civil survey department. In the end Major Stevens-Jordan decided to measure another check base near the northern end of the net near Amman, thereby completely checking the battery survey. The balance of Y Troop and Lieutenant Mawson7and two men of X Troop moved for this purpose to Amman at the end of October, and they stayed there when they finished this job, pending a battery move to the Jordan valley.
Leaving men behind to finish work on the Naqb Ashtar deviation, Captain Park and 22 other members of X Troop meanwhile travelled post-haste to Safaga, on the Red Sea coast of Upper Egypt, to carry out contour surveys, ground control surveys for aerial photographic surveys, and other work related to several small ports and islands in that area, and also to establish bearing pickets for some anti-aircraft batteries. The urgency of this mission probably had something to do with fears that the Suez Canal might be rendered unusable by air action, thereby creating a need for further port facilities in the Red Sea. The hinterland was rugged in the extreme and Park's men had a formidable task converting this contorted ground into lines on a map. Their boots soon wore through and could not easily be replaced. They also co-operated with the Royal Navy in carrying out a hydrographic survey, in the course of which they discovered an excellent swimming pool at Hurghada.
The battery completed the major triangulation in Transjordan and moved to the Jordan valley early in November. Despite the many difficulties the New Zealanders achieved a very high standard of accuracy, average closures being less than three seconds per triangle. Pride on this account, however, was mingled with apprehension. Stevens-Jordan wanted the battery above all to end its detached role and become part of the New Zealand Division. If this proved unacceptable, he suggested in a report of 7 November, it might do counter-battery work (presumably at Corps level) and for this the recent experience of air survey and air-photographic interpretation would be valuable. A reputation for speed and accuracy in work of the kind just finished could lead to other similar tasks and frustrate Stevens-Jordan's ambition, which was warmly shared by his men. And indeed it had this effect.page 428 page 429
The new headquarters area was on the eastern side of the River Jordan, five miles north of the village of Shune on the road between Jerusalem and Amman. Topographical and trigonometrical data were incomplete in the Palestine maps for the land between the northern end of the Dead Sea and Tiberias on the Transjordan side of the river, and the task of the battery was to fill in these gaps, to the point of producing finished fair drawings for reproduction. The weather was fine and the work proceeded rapidly with no high winds to interrupt it.
Royal Engineer surveyors had failed to provide an acceptable alternative to the hairpin bends and grades as steep as 1 in 7 at Naqb Ashtar, and the X Troop detachment which took over from them had to display great skill and ingenuity to find a solution. In due course the New Zealanders succeeded in surveying a route with easy curves and an average gradient of 1 in 16. They pegged the six-mile route, drew plans and other details, and handed them over to the Royal Engineers. On 8 November they and the party which had been working on the Aqaba port area rejoined the battery in the Jordan valley.
The battery was still uneasily in search of an identity: its present work belied its name. Major Stevens-Jordan drove to Cairo early in December to discuss its future with the RE survey authorities, senior RA officers, and the new CRA of the New Zealand Division, Brigadier Weir. In the vast ill-mapped expanses of the Middle East Command there was plenty of map work to be done and the Royal Engineers were all for turning the battery into a non-divisional field survey company of the NZE. The RA people and Steve Weir had other ideas and the matter, to the great relief of Stevens-Jordan, was deferred for further consideration. The officers of the battery were nevertheless considered to be interchangeable with those of the NZE rather than the NZA. Captain Nelson, for example, marched out late in the month to Headquarters of British Troops in Egypt and was replaced by Captain Clark,8 NZE. Minor detachments continued to fragment the battery. Second-Lieutenant Arthurs9 and two men, to cite one case, went to the Survey Directorate in Cairo to carry out computations to tie up the New Zealand trig chain from Amman to Aqaba with the South African chain in the latter area.page 430
The Jordan valley was notoriously unhealthy, as the experience of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles in the First World War had shown, but strict precautions against malaria and other sickness and whole-hearted co-operation from the local director of army medical services10 kept sick parades small. The Arab Legion escorts were careless in this respect and paid a heavy price for their neglect. In the second half of December the weather, however, was atrocious and caused the surveyors much trouble. The rain came down in torrents, washing bridges away, blocking roads, and bogging lorries. Men had to labour until midnight on one occasion before they could salvage a three-tonner caught in a flood in a wadi near Shune. Other vehicles could not be brought out of remote places until the waters subsided and some parties, unable to carry on their work in the pouring rain, had a hard job getting back to camp. Even Christmas dinner had to be postponed until Boxing Day because of floods. It was held in the Winter Palace Hotel in Jericho and representatives of the Transjordan civil service and the Palestine Police attended. A local dignitary, Hanna Bishara Effendi, spoke eloquently of his service in that area with the Anzac Mounted Rifles, and Raouf Al-Khateeb Effendi, a staff officer of the Turkish Army in this area in the First World War, happily reminisced with a later generation of New Zealanders.
Despite the bad weather the redrawing of the Palestine 1: 25,000 maps, Jerusalem Sub-District (to give them their correct designation), proceeded rapidly. In mid-January an RE company printed the sheets ‘Sweime’ and ‘Es Shune’ of this series from drawings finished to the last detail and beautifully hand-lettered by the New Zealanders. They were warmly complimented on their draughtsmanship. Three more sheets were ready for printing by the end of February and the remaining three were finished except for the contours. What held up the contouring, apart from scarcity of equipment, was that three detachments had concurrently to undertake plane-table contouring of various defence works in the Jerusalem-Jericho area. One such job entailed contouring 25 or more sheets on a scale of 1: 2500, a huge amount of work. In the course of February, too, field parties were sent out on preliminary ground control work in an area called Amman West to revise a 1: 50,000 series. A subaltern and eight men page 431 also marched out to Beirut with theodolites to help calibrate coast defence guns. Their task, like most others, turned out to be more complicated than they had been led to expect. They detected inaccuracies in the existing French survey of the area and had to correct them before the calibration shoot could take place.
The battery was hard-pressed to provide transport for these widespread tasks and the RE authorities were far from obliging in this matter. As Stevens-Jordan wrote to a CRE in February, ‘on every job we have done for the R.E., whether here or in Egypt, we have had the same difficulty in obtaining assistance page 432 with transport. I do not know whether to sympathise for the R.E. lack of transport or get angry for lack of co-operation, but in either case it is very discouraging, because we are quite keen to help you’. The detachment in Cyprus had the same trouble. There and elsewhere detachments also found the army authorities obstructive in other respects. Red tape abounded, survey detachments engaged on work of the greatest urgency were expected to conform to regulations which, had they heeded them, would seriously have delayed their work, and on many occasions they were even told to drop their work and take part in field exercises. This, of course, they refused to do; but much time was wasted arguing such points. The first Cyprus detachment had to wait five days after arrival before transport—on a meagre scale—was provided. The second detachment there waited more than three weeks and was then given four Indian motor-cycle combinations. These worked well enough for a day or two, then the rains came and they proved useless. Trucks which were then provided were scarcely better; they had been poorly maintained and saw more of the RAOC workshops from then onwards than they saw of the Cyprus roads. Even with improvised mud chains they found the winter conditions more than their failing strength could cope with. The warmth of Cypriot hospitality could not overcome the continual exasperations and frustrations experienced by the second detachment in its battles with intractable transport and Cyprus mud. The battery as a whole was trying to carry out its many tasks with half its war establishment of vehicles—and those who drew up the establishment lists had not envisaged a battery divided into many pieces operating so far apart.
Even the Safaga detachment (which was also desperately short of transport) had to be subdivided in March, when Captain Drummond11 and three others went to Aden to do artillery survey work, carry out ground control for an air survey of some 300–400 square miles of the rugged hinterland, and reconnoitre a similar area running back to the Yemen border as a preliminary to a triangulation extension. Drummond's party spent three weeks in the arid coastal plain, a region of spiky scrub and thin desert grass with water wells at 10-mile intervals. Features were hard to discern in this monotonous terrain and the intense heat shimmer made accurate readings difficult to obtain. The results of a 1931 survey were nevertheless confirmed page 433 within close limits and much information was added from various sources. Then the party moved into the back country with an interpreter and an Arab escort. The local sheiks were touchy about their rights within their areas of the protectorate and their permission had to be sought at every move. The transport provided could barely negotiate the main roads and tracks and the surveyors had many a laborious climb over sun-baked rock to heights of 4000 feet or more. In one remote spot a truck sank into a hole and badly bent its front axle, tie rod and drag link. But the drivers would not admit defeat. They brought the petrol cooker into use as a blowlamp and after five hours' toil in blazing sunshine they got the truck going again. At the end, early in May, the party had to move on to Cairo and carry out computations arising from the work at Aden.
Towards the end of March the battery moved to Aleppo and the headquarters staff and draughting rooms were established in flats or in the German barracks, with a field troop 15 miles north of Bab, north-east of Aleppo, and another south of Djerablous on the Euphrates River at the Turkish frontier. The task was again a map-making one and the battery hoped to find time to finish the fine drawings as before and get them printed by the Service Géographique in Beirut. This time, however, the facilities were far better than before. The latest American stereo-contouring machines—' Stereo-comparagraphs' and ‘Contour-finders’—were provided. They were new to the Middle East and the surveyors and draughtsmen had to teach themselves how to use them. The pamphlets supplied with the machines and some technical instructions from the survey directorate were helpful; but there was still much to learn. Six sheets of a 1: 50,000 series were to be prepared from a French 1: 30,000 series in colour, and quick, accurate work and up-to-date methods were essential. Aerial surveys were to be flown so as to provide overlaps of about 60 per cent in consecutive photographs along the line of flight. This would ensure that each point to be established would appear in at least two pictures and could be viewed stereoscopically. Captain Arthurs undertook to prepare detailed instructions and did so admirably. ‘Technical Instructions’ Nos. 1 and 2 were consequently issued to all surveyors and draughtsmen, and besides these Arthurs also compiled tables for obtaining the true bearing of Polaris in those latitudes at various times every night from May to December, a total of no fewer than 7656 computations. page 434 These tables, too, were reproduced and issued to those who might need them. With such aids the battery made rapid headway.12 But events moved even faster and late in May it was learned that the battery could not be spared long enough to complete the fair drawings, and that these would therefore have to be done in Beirut.
The New Zealand surveyors were glad to be working in Syria, where the Division was then stationed, and those in or near Aleppo had many pleasant encounters with their countrymen. At the same time the CRA was able to consider more carefully the requirements of his Divisional Artillery and to persuade the authorities concerned that the battery should become a part of it. The headquarters of 2 NZEF had been working on this matter and in mid-June a war establishment for an NZA survey battery appeared, a promising development. A less welcome one was that Major Stevens-Jordan was posted on 10 June to his former regiment, the 4th Field, to assume command of 25 Battery. The year he had spent with the Survey Battery had been profitable in all respects. The maps of what are now Jordan and Israel and of Syria owe much to his skill, resourcefulness and independence of mind, and to the high standards he demanded of his men. As he pointed out in a farewell message, it was constructive work, unlike ‘the usual job of an Army Unit, which is destructive’. The men were sorry to see him go, anxious on his account when the Division rushed into action in Egypt later in the month, and sad indeed when they heard of his death in the Alamein line. Major Kensington, who replaced him, had commanded 1 Survey Troop in its early days.13
For a brief period the battery came under the command of the New Zealand Division; but a message of 15 June 1942 abruptly ended this agreeable status. Various reconnaissances were undertaken at the end of the month to enable Y Troop to cross the Euphrates and begin work on the eastern side. Early in July work started by another survey unit was taken over and the battery now had to prepare nine sheets of the 1: 50,000 series, all of them abutting the Turkish frontier. All page 435 detached parties had by this time returned, the battery was at full strength, and the work progressed rapidly. The main impediment at this stage was the continuing shortage of transport, which limited the number of parties that could be maintained in the field. Despite this, all field work was finished by the end of September and the final traces of all but three sheets were complete. All field parties had moved on to a new area to carry out triangulation and a plane-table survey of about 4000 square miles of land south-east of Aleppo in the course of a revision of the ‘Ressafe’ sheet of the 1: 200,000 Levant series.
Interesting though this work was, the members of the battery wanted above all to join the Division, and it was therefore good news when on 17 October they were ordered to hand over the results of their current work on the Ressafe sheet, which was already half finished, to RE surveyors and they were given until the end of the month to complete their part of the 1: 50,000 series. They were to revert to RA control and as soon as possible start training for artillery flash-spotting. Major Drummond returned from Cairo on the 28th with the further good news that the battery was to move to the artillery depot at Almaza near Cairo on 2 November. Contour plotters and other equipment associated with the aerial survey were returned to Ninth Army and the gunners happily packed their vehicles for the journey south. Forty men left by train on 1 November and the road party left next day, staging at Baalbek, where a detachment of 25 members of the battery was still engaged in RA survey work. In the second week of the month the battery reorganised itself into survey and flash-spotting troops, the Baalbek detachment returned on the 15th, and training started in earnest. When it was learned that sound-ranging equipment was available the nucleus of a sound-ranging troop was formed. On the 25th 1 Survey Troop arrived from the Western Desert to join the battery. This troop had what it called a ‘wind-up dinner’ on the 29th to mark the ending of its independence and it was attended by Major Dawe and other former members. By the end of the month the battery had regrouped to form survey, flash-spotting and sound-ranging troops, equipment was coming to hand in satisfactory quantities, and training was well under way.
The routine was interrupted on 2 December by an order from the Division that the survey troop was to join it at once. Transport for the troop was hastily procured and it left on the 4th. Two days later a detachment of 12 men was attached to page 436 the 4th Durham Survey, RA, for experience in sound-ranging, while a meteorological section of five men trained with the RAF at Heliopolis aerodrome. This section was to take the place of the similar RAF section that in RA units would be attached to the sound-ranging troop. Orders arrived at the end of the month for the flash-spotting troop to join the Division as soon as possible and for the sound-ranging troop to do so, with battery headquarters, as soon as it completed its establishment in men, transport and equipment. A Troop, the survey troop, had meanwhile caught up with the Division in the far reaches of Cyrenaica in the course of a headlong pursuit of the retreating Axis forces. The new year therefore saw the battery on the threshold of new adventures in the role for which it had been intended when it left New Zealand.
3 Maj G. W. Nelson, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Leeston, 8 Nov 1897; civil engineer; served on loan to the Royal Engineers, Jan 1942–Apr 1944, as Deputy Asst Director of Works (Designs Officer I), Royal Engineers, GHQ, MEF.
6 A three-tonner carrying this party from Jerusalem to Ma'an on 1 October turned over in the Dead Sea area when a wheel struck a rock and the road gave way. Lance-Sergeant J. J. Green was pinned under the side and suffered head injuries and broken legs. He died next day; when he was buried at Ramleh on the 3rd the battery provided a detachment to act as pall-bearers. Other members of Christian's party suffered minor injuries.
10 Ample anti-malarial and other medical equipment was provided and the area DDMS also attached an ambulance car to the battery.
12 One diversion late in May was when Captain Arthurs was sent to Haifa to investigate an error reported to have been found in the work of the detachment which had helped to calibrate the coast guns. He soon discovered that the error was in the work of another survey unit and received a handsome apology from the authorities who had complained.