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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

19 Army Troops Company

19 Army Troops Company

The disposition of 19 Army Troops Company on 1 November 1942 was:

Safaga—Headquarters Section (Lieutenant Loudon5). Supervision of contracts on deep-water berth.

E and M Section (Lieutenant Thomas). Mechanical and electrical installation and maintenance.

No. 1 Section (Lieutenant Chapman). Construction and supervision of contracts on oil berth.

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No. 2 Section (Lieutenant Dalmer). Standing by under orders to move to Adabiya Bay.

No. 3 Section (Lieutenant Nicol). Construction of pipeline and reservoirs for Mons ClaudianusSafaga water supply.

Adabiya Bay—No. 4 Section (Lieutenant Gayford). Supervision of contracts in conjunction with 21 Mechanical Equipment Company.

No. 2 Section arrived at Adabiya Bay a couple of days later and joined No. 4 Section and No. 1 Section, 21 Mechanical Equipment Company (Captain Allen). The rest of the Company had moved to other areas and the composite company was under the command of Captain Malt, second-in-command 19 Army Troops Company. Captain Allen's sappers carried on with the excavation and supervision of pile driving by contractors and by directly employed native labour; Lieutenant Gayford's section supervised labour excavating for freshwater reservoirs and contractors placing stone fill, making precast concrete piles, driving steel sheet-piles and sundry other jobs; Lieutenant Dalmer's sappers were chiefly occupied with earthwork construction, quarrying and crushing stone and metalling roads.

A considerable quantity of dredging was involved in the construction of the deep-water and the lighter berths. They were on each side of an earth-filled, sheet-piled mole, and Suez Canal Company dredges pumped the spoil from their dredging into the mole. Top filling was done by carry-alls and hand labour with Decauville trucks. There were eight pile drivers on the job and spoil was moved in at the rate of 2000 cubic yards per day.

Work went on steadily at Safaga until 23 November 1942, when a telephone message sent Major Marchbanks up to Cairo at the double. There he was instructed as follows:

60 men and 1 officer were to remain at Safaga.

Company Headquarters was to move to Adabiya Bay.

3 officers and 90 sappers were to move to Benghazi as soon as possible.

Work at Safaga was to be reduced and a detachment of 540 RE Company would take over from 19 Army Troops Company.

Major Marchbanks was to accompany A.D. Works (Docks), Brigadier Marriott, to Benghazi forthwith to inspect harbour facilities and the damage thereto.

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It is convenient at this point to finish the story of Safaga where 19 Army Troops Company had been toiling for sixteen months.

Sappers continued to be withdrawn as the RE company became conversant with the various contracts nearing completion and as the operators of bulldozers, carry-alls and other equipment became used to their machines. New Zealand severed its connection with Safaga on 23 December 1942, after the remaining sappers, commanded by Lieutenant Loudon, gave themselves a farewell party, the ingredients of which were fish caught in the harbour and fried, potatoes stolen from the local DID and chipped, and beer obtained by cajoling the newly-opened NAAFI to issue the Christmas ration in advance. Several million pounds had been spent on a port that the Army never used, for with the clearance of the enemy from Egypt the Suez Canal was fully open to shipping and the need for an auxiliary to the ports in the Gulf of Suez vanished. It was freely rumoured, but the writer cannot confirm it, that the port was offered to the Egyptian Government for a song, but the wily Wog, thinking that it would fall into his hands for nothing, would not play. Eventually most of the sheetpiling was pulled up and sent to India, the concrete structures were demolished and other works so systematically dismantled that the port of Safaga became a mass of wrecked reinforced concrete and rusting scrapiron.

To return to 19 Army Troops Company. The Benghazi party, a composite section of 93 all ranks (Captain Thomas), left Maadi by truck on 2 December and arrived at Benghazi five days later. Major Marchbanks was waiting for them. For the sappers with memories of Greece and Crete the trip was both interesting and satisfying. They followed the coastal highway with the drivers sticking religiously to the centre of the road, for the shoulders had not yet been cleared of mines, as some of our own blown-up trucks testified. But what was completely satisfying to the one-time front-line engineer-infantry was the succession of burnt-out enemy tanks, trucks, guns and planes. Major Marchbanks' first impressions of chaos at Benghazi were confirmed by inspection:

‘The harbour in Benghazi was in a terrible mess. Apart from the damage done by our own bombers, the German demolition had been most thorough. He had blown holes in two of the concrete moles, blown up every quay and sunk all lighters, tugs and small craft alongside them. The deep water basin was page 408 fouled by sunken ships everywhere. There was room inside for only 6 or 8–3,000 ton ships. Two sections of a German tanker blown in two were still floating and blazing in the harbour. There were half a dozen R.E. Sapper Companies available and all these were hard at work. On 7 December, when my detachment arrived they started repairing the break in the centre mole and two of the R.E. Companies worked on that in the east mole. We also started installation of light and power plants and water supplies. At this time Rommel was standing at Agedabia and the 8th Army could not attack until it was assured of supplies.’

The repair of the Central Mole was regarded by the naval authorities as of paramount importance, for the inner harbour was not safe until a large hole blown by the enemy was filled again—and could it be done by the end of the month?

Lieutenant Nicol was placed in charge of the job, which posed some problems. A strong sea pounding through the gap had to be restrained with a layer of spawls and the erection of steel shuttering before the estimated 500 tons of concrete could be poured to close the gap. But probably the biggest job ever tackled by 19 Army Troops Company was the restoration of the Benghazi electric-power system. The Benghazi powerhouse had been made utterly useless and it was vitally necessary to provide power for lighting the docks. The E and M sappers included in the composite party proceeded to do so. Under the direction of Lieutenant Thomas they spread into small parties and got to work; an Italian diesel motor was reconditioned and installed in the nearly demolished wireless station to run a nearly demolished generator. In the meantime the docks had been rewired for power and lighting. The underground high-tension cable was fractured in a dozen places and there was no plan of the reticulation network. An impossible amount of digging would have been involved had not Kiwi ingenuity devised a method of ascertaining the route of the underground cable. Sapper Jack Boyer6 contrived a home-made search coil on the lines of a mine detector which was joined to an amplifier of a radio set. The end of the cable was then connected to the spark plug of a truck and the resultant signal was received by the search coil. It was then possible to map quickly and accurately the buried network. Eleven breaks were found and repaired, while the poles and lines outside the town area were renewed by another party. Still another sub-section, with the assistance of a specialist from the Royal Engineers, salvaged in a brewery page 409 a 500 h.p. diesel plant which drove a 100 k.w. generator from which sundry parts were damaged or missing. When again in working order this plant was connected with the high-tension system through a transformer and became the main generating station in the locality.

The main job of the third party (Lieutenant Faram7) was the pumping out of five concrete caissons constructed and sunk by the Italians. They were 18 ft deep by 16 ft 6 in. wide by 39 ft long and were to be filled with concrete and sunk in line to form 460 feet of quay with a depth of 18 feet of water. This breastwork when completed was christened the New Zealand Quay.

The repairs to the mole and urgent electrical work were finished by the end of December. Christmas passed by unnoticed, for the Eighth Army was waiting around Nofilia for the build-up of supplies before advancing on Tripoli. A considerable proportion of these had to be landed at Benghazi. On 3 January 1943 a storm that was felt as far east as Alexandria and which put the railway system out of action for some days did terrific damage to Benghazi harbour. Typhoon force wind and terrific seas wrought havoc on the harbour Outer Mole, which had already been cratered and otherwise damaged by German demolitions. The greater part of the protecting wall was washed away, exposing the inadequate Inner Mole to mountainous seas. When the storm subsided two days later four ships had foundered and two had been piled up on the foreshore. The entrance to the inner harbour was blocked by the wrecks and the harbour itself had silted up to such an extent as to be almost useless until large-scale dredging had been done. The end effect was that unloading from lighters must take place on the Cathedral Mole in the outer harbour, which was now nothing more than an open roadstead.

Instead of the two thousand tons per day of stores coming through Benghazi, six hundred tons would be the limit after lighters, tugs, cargo handling gear and the people to use them had been provided. It would take months of work with up-to-date equipment to rebuild Benghazi harbour, and had the enemy been able to fend off the Eighth Army from Tripoli for just a little while, a third withdrawal into Egypt might have occurred.

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No permanent salvage work could be started, while the telegraph lines of the Royal Signals Corps were running hot with requests from Cairo for fuller information and demands from Benghazi for pioneers and salvage gear.

In the meantime the sappers were kept busy enough repairing and extending the electrical supply, digging bollard holes and cementing anchor chains as a precautionary measure against the possibility of further storms before the harbour reconstruction work began.

It was decided to relieve 19 Army Troops Company of all work in the Suez area as soon as possible. The Company, less No. 4 Section, left by road and rail and arrived at Benghazi on 28 January and 1 February, by which time five caissons had been placed in position, further major repairs made to electric generators and the reconditioning of the main powerhouse commenced. The Company strength in Benghazi was now 6 officers and 233 other ranks. Work commenced on a slipway for Z craft, repairs to the Cathedral Mole, installation of an oil pipeline to Torpedo Jetty, salvaging from wrecked ships and reconditioning the pumphouse of the Fuihat water point.

The necessity for equipment to accelerate the salvage work provided the Kiwi sappers with a job that allowed their native ingenuity the fullest scope. A sheerlegs mounted on a timber punt 83 feet long, 32 feet wide and 10 feet deep, had been scuttled by the Italians during the Wavell offensive and was lying in some ten feet of water with the decks awash. It was to be raised and recommissioned and Lieutenant Nicol, with Sergeant W. R. Smith8 as chief of staff, set about it. A naval diver assisted by Sapper Hamilton,9 who contrived his own diving suit out of a tight-fitting gas respirator and a flexible hose connected up to the air drum of the compressor truck, surveyed the wreck and discovered that a hole 14 feet by 6 feet had been blown in the side. As for the sheerlegs, 80 feet long with ball joints at the lower ends sitting in cast-iron sockets in the deck, plus all the bracing and guys, these were lying in a tangle in the water. Finally the ball joint in one of the legs had been blown. It was quite a job to recommission this with no equipment.

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‘There is no tide in the Mediterranean but there are sieches during which the sea level may fall and stay down for a few days. We waited for a sieche which uncovered the deck of the punt, temporarily covered the hole in the side with timber and tarpaulin, raised the punt by pumping it out and sealed the hole permanently with concrete. The damaged ball joint, which was beyond repair, presented a problem but S/Sgt Spence10 displayed considerable initiative and scrounged a cast steel compressed air bottle with a rounded end from an Italian power house, slipped this up the inside of the leg and welded it in place to form the ball to fit into the socket on the deck. The bracing and ties of the main legs were improvised out of 6” and 8” diameter pipe. Fortunately the boiler and winch were found to be undamaged. The Sheerlegs was christened the “Kiwi” and did a lot of useful work in clearing the harbour…. I received a special signal from the Navy congratulating us on the job.’11

No. 4 Section (Lieutenant Gayford) arrived at Benghazi on 22 February, thus again bringing the Company up to full strength in one locality.

It was about this time that another Kiwi improvisation occurred that was not so well received by the naval authorities in Benghazi. It concerned some assistance rendered by an 18 Army Troops barge that had just arrived from Tobruk. Major Marchbanks tells the story:

‘A timber jetty had been partially demolished by the Germans and all the piles were leaning over at an angle to the vertical. To repair it the chaps on the floating pile driver conceived the brilliant idea of getting the crew of an 18th Army Troops water barge to charge the jetty at right angles with the barge to push the piles upright and when they were upright to let the hammer on the pile driver drop. This was quite effective and the work was going well until the King's Harbour Master, a heavily bearded naval officer with a lot of gold braid on his cap came running down the quay and called to the crew of the barge, “If you can't handle your bloody barge better than that I won't let you berth at all”.’

5 Maj B. J. Loudon, m.i.d.; Syria; born Dunedin, 1 Jun 1896; civil engineer and surveyor; 1 NZEF, 1915-19; twice wounded.

6 Spr J. P. Boyer; born NZ 28 Jul 1911; labourer.

7 Maj L. F. Faram, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Tikokino, 19 Nov 1900; consulting civil engineer; OC 27 Mech Equip Coy Jun-Nov 1945.

8 Sgt W. R. Smith, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Wellington, 11 Nov 1912; rigger and winch driver.

9 Spr C. D. J. Hamilton, m.i.d.; Mount Maunganui; born NZ. 14 May 1903; cabinetmaker.

10 S-Sgt W. S. J. Spence, m.i.d.; Australia; born Scotland, 5 Feb 1911; fitter.

11 Letter, Maj Marchbanks.