New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
CHAPTER 19 — 14 Forestry Company in Italy
14 Forestry Company in Italy
The two detachments which, after fitting farewells, left Bugeaud on 20 December 1943, en route to Italy to organise the supply of timber for the Eighth Army, discovered that the importance of their mission was not fully realised by the people controlling the movements of troops. The transit staff at Phillipville did not expect them, in fact had never heard of them, and most certainly had made no arrangements to embark them. Phones were rung and signals were sent but no action ensued. On the 24th a three-tonner from the Company arrived with turkeys, pork, peas and beer, which, supplementing the camp fare, produced a successful Christmas dinner. It was their share of the Company canteen operations whereby wine, purchased in bulk, was retailed to thirsty sappers at a profit.
The detachments finally sailed on the 27th, landed at Taranto on 30 December, and marched into Transit Camp 199. Their arrival created some interest for they had come from a district noted for its briars, and pipe-smoking Kiwis were sporting very ornate samples of the pipe maker's art.
Captain Tunnicliffe and Lieutenant Sexton celebrated New Year's Day by hitch-hiking to New Zealand Advanced Base at Goia, where their arrival was news and where they were received with open arms. Steps were taken to get the wanderers transferred there, but before it could be arranged Captain Tunnicliffe received instructions to move his section to the Gargano Peninsula, some 120 miles north of Bari.
Transport was supplied by Advanced Base and, via Bari, Barletta, Foggia and Manfredonia, the party arrived on 3 January at the Mandrione sawmill, about five miles from the coastal town of Vieste. Lieutenant Sexton and party were transferred to Goia the same day. The Tunnicliffe section settled into a mill building, made themselves comfortable and studied the methods of cutting timber as practised in Italy. They were somewhat ‘rocked’ to see that no gauges were used by the civilian workers and that all widths were cut by eye. The mill was State-owned and had been requisitioned upon the departure of the occupying enemy. It was the only log-sawing plant in the area and was fitted with both vertical frame and band saws page 570 for breaking down; in addition, there were five smaller saws for recutting the broken-down logs into the required sizes. Timber was normally brought in by light railway, which extended some 18 miles into the Bosco d'Umbra hills, and the average production was 16,000 super, feet daily. Ten-ton trucks were also used as the railway was frequently snowbound in winter and it was easier to clear the roads of drifts than to dig the log trains out. The Kiwi sappers had early experience of Italian snow, for the day after their arrival at Mandrione the ration truck got stuck in a drift and the entire party had to dig it out.
Until the arrival of the New Zealanders the plant had been run under the direction of a British RE sergeant who was very keen but not very conversant with milling. Italian civilians, plus a section of an Italian pioneer unit, provided the labour and worked two nine-hour shifts.
January the 5th was pay-day at Mandrione. Over one hundred Italian civilian workers, all it seemed with complaints about short pay, incorrect time sheets and illegal deductions, argued vehemently with the civilian clerks. It was a scene never to be forgotten but not to be endured, and a system was evolved whereby workers had to pass a ticket box on entering and leaving the mill. A numbered metal disc for identification and pay purposes had to be lifted and deposited daily at the ticket box, where a sapper was always on duty, for the clerks were not above removing a relative's or friend's disc on days when he was absent. Complaints were reduced to a minimum by insisting on a deposit before they were heard. If they were successful the deposit was returned, otherwise the canteen fund benefited.
All timber was going by road and rail to the Sangro area. Sixty-two trucks, an all-time record for the mill, were loaded on 12 January. It was midnight when the last vehicle pulled out.
The number of NCOs for this work was inadequate and in many cases the rank held was little indication of professional capacity, for some sappers had owned or operated their own mills before enlistment. Lance-Corporal Cann's1 elevation to bush boss was an early example of a sapper doing an officer's job. Joined later by Sapper Leith,2 he went to live in the Umbra forest and supervised the extraction of logs by bullock team, 10-ton Mack truck and narrow-gauge railway.page 571
January passed with the New Zealanders learning a little Italian and tallying and loading trucks and wagons. There were minor incidents—the night shift cut through a steel dog and ruined the saw; Canadian truck drivers waiting for their loads got drunk and started a fight; parties out shooting deer in the forest got lost and had to be found; there were delays because of power restrictions of up to twelve hours, and sappers not already conversant learnt the art of possessing their souls in patience. The civilian ration scale was not sufficient for men doing heavy manual work and, after much arguing with Authority, permission was obtained for the millhands to be rationed on a higher scale. That could be one of the reasons why the Kiwi bushmen got on so well with the local population.
The job for Lieutenant Sexton's party, when its instructions arrived, was to ensure that timber cut or being cut on the eastern littoral of the Calabrian peninsula was placed under control.page 572
The rapid advance from the Straits of Messina towards the airfields of Foggia had taken the Eighth Army through Calabria, a province of many mountains and poor roads but with the richest timber area in Italy. For administration Calabria had been divided into three—two zones controlled respectively by the United States and British forces, and a Free Area from which both armies had the right to purchase timber should the supplies in their own zones prove inadequate. The British zone, with headquarters in the seaport town of Crotone, covered 14,000 square miles, and the thirteen sappers did not have thirteen words of Italian among them.
The South Party, the official name for Sexton's detachment, after being turned back by snowdrifts on the inland route, arrived at Crotone via the coast road on 11 January. A short background to the port and its people may be of interest.
Crotone, a small seaport with a population of thirty-odd thousand, had been a Greek colony some two and a half thousand years ago, and was later overrun by Romans and Arabs. The local dialect is a mixture of all three tongues.
On arrival, the New Zealand bushmen held a council among themselves to consider their position, summed up by Lieutenant Sexton:
‘The way we looked at it was this. We were a small detachment of Kiwis in a population of several million. We had little or no communication except by road; we were 165 miles from the nearest Allied unit; we were going to take over a long established industry which was generally of a very high efficiency. After a bit of talk with the boys we decided that the only way to run it was to try and do things as though we were at home. We decided to think in metric tons and to learn the language as quickly as we could, on the principle that it was easier for 13 to learn than 7 or 8 million.’
While the sappers settled into their billets and assimilated the local geography, Lieutenant Sexton with a six-inch ‘Sempre Legname’ sign, meaning ‘Timber Only’, on his windscreen toured Calabria from end to end, inspecting mills and getting a grasp of local forestry conditions. The significance of ‘Sempre Legname’, which indicated that the newcomers were not interested in black marketing, palm greasing, wine, signoras or song, but just timber, was gradually appreciated by the population.
At that date the Calabrians had not recovered from the effects of being overrun by the Eighth Army and the administration of a rather scratch team of Allied Military Government officials. Rations were insufficient for those doing hard manual labour and there was a black market of impressive dimensions. Many mills were idle and others were filling black-market orders.
The New Zealanders assumed responsibility for the area on 17 January 1944, when a start was made in getting some system into the chaos by taking over from two rather overwhelmed RE sappers the consigning out of all timber by rail, road or sea, and supervising the unloading of wagons and trucks at the delivery point in the station yards. An interpreter was installed in the Crotone Timber Office and the staff began to acquire a knowledge of Italian forestry terms and to distinguish between travi (a beam tapered with the tree) and a travi uso fiume (a beam sawn or chopped without a taper). Soon they tossed about such words as tavola (board), and traverse per ferrovia (sleepers) with careless abandon. Even the official signboard was in Italian—Ufficio di Legname—surmounted by a silver fern and the letters NZ.
The system of accounting was, shortly:
In the first instance release vouchers detailing the amount and specifications of the timber required and the name of the consignee were received from the office of the Directorate of Works. The measurements, which were in inches, feet and tons, were converted into metric equivalents and a Bullettino di Commando made out showing the amount and size of timber required, the point to which it had to be delivered and the price per metre cube (hereinafter written M3). Timber, supported by a tally sheet (AF G990), excepting that loaded at outlying stations on the State railway, was transported to Crotone station or port by the millers. When the account was rendered one copy of the bullettino was attached, the bill was checked in the office, signed by the OC as Inspecting Officer, forwarded to the Director of Works, thence to the Paymaster.
Crotone railway station was a serious bottleneck. The Calabro Luciana and the Val di Neto, two private lines, joined the State line in the marshalling yards, but no bomb damage with the exception of that to the main line had been made good; as a consequence it was difficult to transfer loads from branch to page 574 main-line trucks, and timber that arrived by road transport had often to be carried up to a hundred yards between lorry and wagon. Often the branch lines were not working through lack of fuel or lubricants. In spite of all obstructions, 1600 tons of timber were not only despatched but accounted for by the end of January. Lieutenant Sexton ended a memorable month by having his jeep stolen.
The first part of February in the Umbra forest area is best indicated by items from Captain Tunnicliffe's diary:
Tuesday 1. Several trucks in for timber. To Foggia to try and get material in salvage dump etc.… At night five Yank lorries took timber from station, was I mad. Saw Security Capt. in Vieste about it.
Thursday 3. Mill and bush a normal day. Ack ack Major in from Manfredonia on scrounge. Several slab lorries in for wood.
Wednesday 9. Mill idle. No power. Very cold and heavy rain part of day, snow in forest. Logs coming in in spite of that. Light on from 4 p.m. to 9.30 p.m.
[Captain Tunnicliffe went to Naples on the 11th, returning the following day after a conference with the Director of Works at which the decision was announced that the New Zealanders would assume responsibility for the bush work as well as the sawmill.]
Tuesday 15. Ruggere the contractor in and informed we were taking over bush work as from 16th Feb. Signed inventory of all administration gear and material taken over. Self feeling a bit fluey.
Thursday 17. Mill working. Many power breaks. Pay workmen during day. Major Thomas arrived in and Coy is at Base.
The main body of the Company had disembarked at Taranto on 15 February and had been taken the same day by New Zealand transport to Goia. While the vehicles were being unloaded, Major Thomas reported to No. 2 Works District at Bari and was instructed to get his men and plant as soon as possible to San Menaio, on the coast about five miles from the Mandrione mill. He then went on to Mandrione, where he and Captain Tunnicliffe decided to put down two portable mills for the time being in the pine stands at San Menaio belonging to the Commune of Vico. The third was to go to Mandrione and help page 575 production there until the worst of the winter was over, when all three mills would be moved into the Umbra forest. At that date the Umbra forest was under nine inches of snow.
The Company, moving partly by road and partly by rail, arrived at San Menaio on 20 February and thoroughly approved the billets that had been obtained for them. They were, in fact, living in a seaside rest camp originally provided for the sons of good Fascists but at the moment temporarily without light or water.
All three mills had a trial run on the 24th while arrangements were being finalised with representatives of Corpo Reale della Foreste, which body administered the Vico communal forest, and with the Podesta of Vico, who apparently owned it on behalf of the community, to make a selective cutting and to mark the required trees. Arrangements were also made with the same authorities to take over a number of logs already felled by a civilian contractor.
1944 was a leap year, and Captain Tunnicliffe celebrated 29 February by handling a strike of bullock drivers who were trying out the new bush bosses in the Umbra forest. He threatened to requisition both the bullocks and their owners, whereupon the strike collapsed and men and bullocks started work again in the morning.
The supply of rail wagons to send out timber from Crotone was for some time left to the Sexton detachment itself to arrange, for almost none came into the area. This was done by collecting some 900 wagons from bombed-out railway stations and sending them out loaded with timber. How the supply of wagons was put on a firm basis is related by Lieutenant Sexton:
‘We'd been sending out strings of signals about the non supply of railway trucks. Railways in that area were under the Yanks and so one bright day when Bernie Farrell3 was hard at it trying to boss a lot of civilians and Italian soldiers, a big shiny railcar pulled into the station and a lot of American Brass got out. One of them came over to Bernie and said, “Who's in charge?” Bernie said he was and the American said, “Come on over, the boss wants to talk to you.” When they got over to the party, the American general turned to Bernie and said, “Boy, I came down to see about railway trucks but I have been watching this job of yours and I have decided you have page 576 far too many men moving the timber around. You're wasting time.” Bernie is a fairly hot tempered Irishman and he said, “If you knew as much about your bloody business as I know about mine we would not have to be yelling for railway trucks.” The American General said, “Maybe you've got something there.”—and that was the end of the truck shortage. General Lucius Clay knew his job all right.’
Petrol supplies were also in a chaotic condition and were remedied by arranging for a civilian distributing organisation4 to supply petrol, diesel fuel, and lubricants to Crotone in the charge of one of their officials. It was stored in a walled yard and issued at a controlled price to authorised firms.
Road transport was also in bad shape. There were civilian trucks that could be requisitioned if tyres could be procured, but Ordnance would not supply tyres for civilian trucks. The Military Liaison Officer attached to the Italian 5 Army Corps at Catanzaro arranged for a company of Italians with trucks and a battalion of sappers to help in loading and unloading timber.
The availability of mill maintenance stores was another problem. Nearly all the manufacturing centres in Italy were still occupied by the enemy and most lines were not to be had from civilian sources—they had gone into the black market. Indents on Ordnance on behalf of the millers were not very fruitful for, like lorry tyres, bandsaws, belting, emery wheels, files, etc., were either not held in stock or were in short supply.
A search of premises in Crotone suspected of hoarding sawmill supplies unearthed a large quantity of files, saws, hacksaw blades and the like. The haul was reported and a suggestion made that it be acquired by requisition or purchase. Ordnance people appeared like magic and, typically, the find was taken out of the area never to return. Sea transport from Crotone began with a weekly schooner service to Bari and Naples and by the middle of February one 10,000-ton Liberty ship per week was being loaded by Italian labour, supervised by Sappers McQuaker5 and Mitchell.6 Eventually a naval port officer (RN) dealt with ship clearances.
The problem of extra rations for forest workers was not as easily solved as at Mandrione, and indeed was not fully solved for some time and the workers remained underfed.page 577
The picture that emerged concerning the mills was that most of them were closed owing to the uncertainty of their future. It was necessary to reassure the owners that their supplies of standing timber would not be drawn on and that they would not be left after the war with sawmills and no logs. To this end a system of area requisition was initiated by the detachment and later expanded by the unit when it moved from the Umbra forest.
The principles were:
‘We wanted the Forest Service to help us so we didn't requisition State forest. We wanted the workmen and the small communities to help us so we didn't requisition the forest belonging to the Communes. We had no particular friendship for the absentee landlords who mostly had fairly lengthy titles and were on the other side of the line so we requisitioned their timber and everybody was happier—except the absentee landlords.’ Such is a brief review of the main problems tackled by one Kiwi officer and twelve sappers around Crotone until the situation altered in April.
Gaining the confidence of the mill owners was a gradual process, but the Sempre Legname sign on the jeep windscreen helped, as did the offer of extra areas from which to provide the Allied requirements for the following season. Other difficulties were that Italian milling practice differs widely from New Zealand; for instance, scantling is unheard of in a country of stone buildings and all timber is cut to certain lengths and no other. When, as often happened, unusual sizes and lengths were wanted, it was necessary to bargain for a price, and here the interpreter was no help for instead of asking the price he said, ‘How much do you want? He offered so much up the road.’ Thereafter the detachment used its own version of the Italian language.
As soon as proficiency in the language was gained some mills were induced to begin working again by suggesting that if the owner produced such and such a piece of equipment from the cellar of such and such a building, or retrieved a truck from its described hiding place, the mill would work more efficiently. In a country of divided political thinking information was not difficult to acquire. The motto Sempre Legname began to be believed.
Before leaving the South Detachment for the moment, it should be mentioned that the first two unusual orders were for the supply of timber for making 10,000 pairs of wooden clogs page 578 for workers in the Giovanessa steelworks and the cutting and marking of lengths to replace the swing bridge connecting the inner and outer harbours at Taranto.
Conditions in the Umbra forest were normal for the first three weeks of March; all the mills were cutting and the output of the Mandrione plant had been lifted considerably, for a diesel generator had made the mill independent of the irregular power supply.
Its acquisition is wrapped in mystery, for it was being held by the authorities for use when Rome was captured; either Major Thomas possessed hitherto undisclosed powers of eloquence or timber was needed very urgently indeed. But whatever induced the Army to part with the plant, its installation was a major operation for it weighed over nine tons. The generator and a breast bench made up from scrap material lifted production to as much as 30,000 feet per day, partly through the constant supply of power and partly because the breast bench converted into useful timber the side cuts and large slabs remaining after the production, in varying lengths, of bridge stringers and other unusual sizes.
It will be remembered that on 23 March Allied Headquarters had accepted the fact that Cassino was not to be taken until a new offensive could be mounted in the spring. There is little doubt that the connection between the winding up of the Cassino battles and orders to reconnoitre for a suitable area for a portable mill nearer the scene of active operations is a close one.
Captain Tunnicliffe left (20 March 1944) via Vasto for the Agnone district, between the headwaters of the Trigno and Sangro rivers in the western Apennines, with instructions to look over bush areas. His report was that the oak and spruce stands near Pescolanciano, some 30 miles north-east by road from Cassino, offered the best prospects. During the last week of the month two mills were moved from San Menaio into the Umbra forest near Vico and began cutting timber from the smaller trees. The third mill did not shift until 9 April, by which time the total production at San Menaio totalled 28,674 cubic feet.
Major Thomas received a signal from Movement Control, 151 District, on 5 April instructing him to have one section with a sawmill in readiness to proceed to a forward area. Thereafter things moved rapidly; another signal the following day asked for the earliest date the section could start; still another sent page 579 Captain Tunnicliffe post-haste to report to CE Eighth Army to settle the location and other details of the transfer to Pescolan-ciano. During his absence the plant was packed up and loaded on a 10-ton truck, with the date of departure finally fixed for the 10th.
CE Eighth Army instructed Captain Tunnicliffe that:
The section would come under command 10 Corps.
The mill should commence cutting with all possible speed.
The first block would be a small oak stand at Pescolanciano.
The timber would be carted out by 10 Corps transport.
Tenth Corps would erect an access bridge to a stand of Norway spruce before the oak was cut out.
The mill site had been chosen by the second-in-command and checked for mines by 10 Corps sappers when No. 2 Section (Lieutenant L. J. McKenzie), the mill and a D4 tractor arrived on the evening of the 10th. Tents were pitched and the mill set up, bushmen felling trees and the mill producing sawn timber by midday on the 13th. At the end of April No. 2 Section had produced 60,000 super. feet of oak and had orders on hand for three months' cutting, mostly sizes suitable for bridging work.
April continued to be a month of movement for 14 Forestry Company. Major Thomas had been called to Naples and he returned on the 13th with the information that the Company would in due course be posted to Calabria, and that it would be replaced at Mandrione and Umbra by a composite English/Italian forestry company. A week later a message from the Director of Works confirmed that Company Headquarters at least would move down to Crotone by 1 May; this was amplified a couple of days later by instructions to move the Company forthwith to Crotone. As there was not sufficient transport available to do so without double-banking, it was decided to leave No. 3 Section and mill in production at Umbra forest for the time being.
Company Headquarters and No. 1 Section departed on 26 April and was camped at 30 Rest and Recreation Camp at Crotone the following afternoon.
Before the arrival of the Company, Captain Tunnicliffe had been seeking an area in which to place its mills where suitable lengths of 10 in. by 10 in. bridging timber might be readily obtained. This was located at Lago Ampollino, a lake some 50 miles inland from Crotone and 4000 feet above sea level.page 580
No. 1 Section—Lieutenant J. T. Pasco and 43 other ranks—left for Lago Ampollino on 28 April and was cutting pine a week later. In the event No. 3 Section's mill did not move at all but was handed over to the English/Italian Forestry Company, together with the Umbra forest area, on 7 May and the section joined the others at Crotone. Production at Umbra from 30 March to 7 May 1944 was 19,352 cubic feet.
The sappers, one officer and 43 men, stayed in their mountain retreat for ten weeks, working a double six-hour shift. The felling in this instance was done by civilian workers under the direction of forestry officials, who also served other mills in the area. Each shift cut about 7000 super. feet in 14 ft lengths of 10 in. by 10 in., which was taken by 10-ton Mack trucks down the 50-odd miles of tortuous roads and very steep grades to Crotone. The slab wood was taken by New Zealand Advanced Base for camp firing.
The three-hour trip to Crotone was not without incident apart from the hazards of the road; bullock-drawn carts were common and were generally met at the sharpest bends, and often the drivers left the driving to the bullocks while they slept in the sun. At the site it was not long before water was laid on by means of a wooden sluice and a hot shower improvised; a pinewood recreation hut was built to house the radio and a small library, where a fire in the open fireplace added a homely touch. Punts and canoes of varying design provided the means for trolling and fishing for the plentiful trout that inhabited Lago Ampollino. Although isolated, the men were not uncomfortable. Over 35,000 cubic feet of timber was produced by this section by the time it ceased cutting on 17 July.
The main body of the Company remained at the rest and recreation camp until billets were arranged in Crotone. Billets were the affair of Hirings and Claims, Allied Control Mission, situated at Catanzaro, but its idea of billets did not quite coincide with those of 14 Forestry Company. Major Thomas had been granted the power to requisition anything, and in terms thereof the Albergo Grande was taken over for the sappers. It was a three-storied hotel containing fifty bedrooms and the action created quite a stir in the town. Hirings and Claims, faced with a fait accompli, acquiesced and the sappers moved in on the last day of April, which was a Sunday and a good day for moving.
The South Detachment had raised the output from the British zone from 1500 tons to 8000 per month, a noteworthy page 581 performance but quite insufficient for the requirements of the Director of Works. The job given to 14 Forestry Company was to raise the despatch figure as much as possible, with a target of 24,000 tons monthly, to bring all the existing Italian mills into production and to arrange for sufficient logs to meet a twelve-months' programme. It will be apparent that the tasks involved in the project were far removed from the customary duties of a forestry company which were, by and large, to cut down trees and saw them into suitable sizes of timber.
Millers were invited to apply for cutting rights over an area extensive enough to ensure twelve months' work, and the State Forest Service was instructed, through the Prefect of Reggio Calabria, to allot areas on request and at a price fixed by the OC 14 Forestry Company. All trees were to be marked and felled according to the forestry laws of the country and no person was to obtain a monopoly over timber in any area.
But if the forest owner was confined to a price, so also was the miller, which brings us to the interesting case of the mill owned by the Societa Forestali del Mezzogiorno d'Italia, hereafter spoken of as the So. Fo. Me mill. It was one of the largest in Italy, employing about 500 hands. Like most of the others it had stopped work and had found a variety of reasons for not starting again. The fact was that the management, with extensive stocks of cut timber and logs in the yards, provided by men who were paid at the lowest rates in the district, was hopeful of black-market prices. It announced that it could not possibly work within the price offered, whereupon a requisition order was served and a guard placed on the mill. Within a matter of hours the management discovered that it could carry on after all and asked to be permitted to operate on its own account. The policy was not to requisition mills if it could be avoided, and so the request was granted subject to the raising of the wages of all the employees to the ruling rates. It is probable that the Company was even less popular with the management than before, but the So. Fo. Me. mill began, as instructed, to produce by 8 May. News of the requisitioning spread and had a salutary effect in persuading other recalcitrant owners to bow to necessity. Some attempts to slow down production by giving unpaid holidays for Saints' feast days were met by instructions that feast days were off for the duration, unless permission was previously asked and obtained.page 582
With adequate stands of timber available to the millers at a price at which they could operate their plants, the question of manpower and rations for both man and beast had to be dealt with.
The civilian ration at the time was meagre, its basis being 200 grammes of bread and 150 grammes of flour daily, a quantity insufficient for a man doing heavy work. The only supplementary ration available was one issued to forest workers on the direction of the Corpo Reale della Foreste of 73 grammes and that was not given to all entitled workers. On the other hand some firms had persuaded the civilian rationing authority, the Alimentationze, to give their workers as much as an extra 150 grammes daily. Nobody was getting sufficient rations but some were getting more than others, and the low rates of pay precluded the workers buying on the black market, which had ample food available—at a price.
There was the Army midday ration scheme, but the South Detachment had been unable to operate it because of insufficient transport to collect and insufficient personnel to supervise, as the meal was to be prepared and eaten under army supervision. If the industry was to be revived, extra rations just had to be supplied, and after much hammering at the raticning authorities the scheme was modified for the Calabrian timber industry. It cut right across the Army scheme and was operated as follows:
Issues were made in bulk fortnightly to mill owners, who rendered certificates showing the number of man-hours worked, hence the number of rations issued. The certificate served both as a basis of payment and for keeping a check on the ration stock at each mill.
Methods were also devised of persuading the millers to pay for the extra ration themselves so that the workers incurred no extra cost. In all some fifty-four organisations were involved, benefiting 2500 workers. The food position was further improved by the publication of an Army directive dated 25 May authorising the issue of an ‘A’ supplementary ration card to heavy manual workers employed exclusively for the benefit of the Allied forces.
The last obstacle to the delivery of the timber after the mills were functioning was transport. The vehicles at the disposal of the Company were not sufficient to bring the timber to the railheads, and after much worrying of the Director of Works, ten Italian 10-ton trucks were made available. Their tyres were page 583 worn out, and after much more worrying 160 tyres were issued, enough to put the extra trucks on the road and maintain those already in service.
Steps were then taken to locate all the auto treni (a truck and trailer carrying 20-ton loads) in the area and the owners were offered the choice of working for the Company or being requisitioned. Only one had to be requisitioned. The peak number of vehicles was 51 Italian Army lorries, 28 civilian auto treni and 7 unit lorries.
The privately owned narrow-gauge lines already mentioned were also short of rolling stock, and as long as sawn timber existed in mill yards they were forbidden to carry firewood or other goods which were not the concern of 14 Company. Because of the extremely slow and cumbersome arrangements between the State and the Calabro Luciana lines, the latter was requested to provide a loading loop, and when the management failed to act the unit's tractors and dozers proceeded to do the necessary levelling. Apprehensive of being requisitioned, the company then ‘got cracking’ and installed the loop. In addition to these measures a detachment of thirteen sappers was stationed at a mill near the Rossano station which had a full yard, and with a unit 3-ton truck cleared the stocks themselves. Some 1700 tons of timber were moved in the two months the detachment was at this mill.
The measures so briefly sketched were not implemented with a stroke of a pen or the signing of a memorandum; there was much hard and long travelling, particularly for the second-in-command, who was the technical expert on milling and in charge of production. In all, 5 officers and 12 NCOs were on timber control and 2 officers and 10 NCOs on unit administration; the sappers were spread in parties over the whole area, loading wagons, issuing rations, supervising working parties, watching mill stocks; and on duties around the dock and railway marshalling yards, etc.
The result was that for May the despatches were lifted from the April figure (8272 tons) to 12,413 tons and for June to 13,045 tons. These figures will be better appreciated when it is remembered that before the war the New Zealand output of sawn timber per month averaged about 40,000 tons, so that one part-company of sappers was supervising nearly one-third of the total New Zealand output.page 584
May opened for Lieutenant McKenzie's detachment with the discovery that 5 Field Park Company was at Montaquila,7 some 14 miles away to the south, and that 14 Forestry Company was much farther away than it had been. Its whereabouts were in fact quite unknown, and the sudden stoppage of mail added to the sense of being cut off from the world they knew.
Extracts from the detachment's war diary of the period give some idea of the work of the forward sawmill:
May 1. Routine operations as usual with bush and mill. SORE rang up to ask if I would take six REs for a tree felling course. TPM8 sent to 14th Hq and arrived back in the evening.
May 3. RO's. Despatched six trucks timber for 8 Army. 6 REs started tree felling course. Transport took D6 with Hyster and left D7.
May 4. Bushmen finished felling oak trees. Four lorries collected timber for Army…. All hands anxious re mail, no word from OC of whereabouts of Company HQ. L/C Barrett10 fully extended breaking in tractor drivers. Six so far.
May 5. Mill working. Bushmen started to fell spruce timber. Arranged with Mob. Dental Unit (NZ) to send men for dental repairs. OC 5 Field Pk Co said he would be pleased to have as many men as possible from this section visit his location on Sunday.
Twenty Forestry sappers set out on Sunday, 7 May, to find 5 Field Park Company and meet friends and workmates. The Field Companies were camped not far from Montaquila, and henceforth seldom a day passed without the sawmill receiving a visitor from the Division.
The oak stand was cut out on the 11th with a total of 132,000 super. feet and the plant was moved to a spot conveniently near the spruce trees referred to in the detachment diary. The oppor- page 585 tunity was taken to overhaul the mill before starting on the spruce, but speculation about the meaning of the continuous rolls of thunder that began the night the mill cut out was the chief subject of conversation. The men knew, now that the battle had begun, that they had heard the opening barrage of the spring offensive which would see the Polish flag flying on Montecassino and the whole German Army reeling backwards.
Cutting began on the 15th, with priority given to 9 in. × 9 in. and 9 in. × 4 in. sizes, but there were complications. The section was working the spruce block before it had been requisitioned, and they found four Italian pitsaw teams and four sets of oxen in the area supposedly reserved for Eighth Army.
They also found that trees marked the previous day had been felled by the Italians and moved to the roadside in readiness for the pitsaw gangs. Lieutenant McKenzie had to be quite firm to the culprits—when he found them—about the matter of timber pirating. The whole affair was eventually thrashed out between the ten owners involved and 10 Corps which needed the timber.
The reputation of the Kiwi foresters must have been considerable and their mana high, for two Signals officers appeared on the 18th and hopefully suggested that the party might provide a small matter of 30,000 telegraph poles. There was not that number of trees in the area, let alone trees of suitable length for telegraph poles.
The signallers departed, but they managed to stick the detachment with an order through Eighth Army for 400 telegraph poles, to be supplied at the rate of 100 a week. The breaking of the letter drought on the 20th by the delivery through 5 Field Park Company transport of a mail that averaged ten letters a man, and the farming out to Italian contractors of the telephone pole order ended an eventful month.
Tenth Corps disappeared like defaulting tenants on 2 June, and after some days of waiting for orders Lieutenant McKenzie was told that his detachment was not under command of the Corps any more but was to take instructions from CE Works. There did not seem to be the same urgency about timber supplies and half the party spent a day in Naples sightseeing. A message from L of C Venafro that they were moving forward and would not be able to cart any more timber decided McKenzie that he would have to get some orders from somewhere. The CE Works for the area washed his hands of the detachment by saying it was only under him for administration and that Eighth page 586 Army would have to make arrangements about the timber. Rome had fallen to the Fifth Army by this time and CE Works could not say just where Headquarters Eighth Army was, except, guardedly, that it was three hours away in travelling time. The CE Branch was eventually located and McKenzie was soothed with assurances that the Canadians would soon be along to take his timber and that a message had been sent to the OC 14 Forestry Company about someone making another forward reconnaissance. Canadian RASC trucks did arrive before the mill was quite blocked up with timber; Major Thomas also arrived on 21 June with a portable radio and the detachment was able to follow the advance through Italy by way of the BBC broadcasts.
The OC's appearance followed the instructions to reconnoitre forward for suitable timber, and the two officers left on the 22nd in the Major's car and stopped the night with 5 Field Park Company, now located at Fontana Liri north of Cassino.
Divisional Headquarters was looking for firewood for the New Zealand Forces Club recently opened in Rome, so word was sent that all the firewood needed or likely to be needed could be got from the slab heap at Pescolanciano and that 5 Field Park Company knew how to get there.
The pair went on through Rome towards Avezzano, where the enemy was fending off a threat to Florence, but no suitable timber was seen. Major Thomas left for the south on the 25th after arranging that Lieutenant McKenzie would stay on and continue the search as the CE was anxious to get the mill forward again. He was provided with a jeep and set off with three days' rations. He roamed far and wide until stopped by shellbursts, but saw little timber worth putting a mill into, and that mostly in small plantations around country houses or in avenues leading to the houses, or rather mansions. McKenzie reported there was a week's cutting in a pine stand near Perugia which was, in general, the most suitable place for the mill, and was told that arrangements would be made to shift the plant there as soon as possible. He returned to Pescolanciano on the 29th and all hands prepared for a quick move. Transport arrived for the tractor and mill on 3 July. Timber cut at Pescolanciano between 12 April and 2 July 1944 was 41,177 cubic feet.
The production of timber in the British Area was still insufficient and recourse was had to the Free Area. A compact group page 587 of mills was known to exist at Serra San Bruno, but although the Army reserved the right to purchase in the Free Area, it could not enforce sales or prevent civilians from buying as long as the price regulations were observed.
A reconnaissance in the area disclosed a large mill standing idle, also a dozen smaller plants working flat out and selling their products on the black market.
There were difficulties in getting the big mill, the Societa La Foresta, into action; the owner was from the north and on bad terms with the Corpo Reale della Foreste, who refused to allocate him suitable forest areas; the black market had so raised living costs and the price of bullock fodder that labour was scarce and haulage prices prohibitive. The black market therefore had to be broken before either La Foresta could start or the other mills would come under contract. This was the way of it.
All trees had to be marked before felling, and the Corpo Reale della Foreste was instructed that no more trees would be marked except on orders from the OC 14 Forestry Company. It was pure bluff for the Company had no authority whatever in the Free Area. The hint was then dropped that if the millers decided to cut for the Army the prohibition on marking trees would be revoked.
Haulage contractors remained obdurate on price, so bullock transport was avoided by instructing that the mill be allotted an area suitable for exploitation by tractors. Three tractors with the necessary staff appeared, to the amusement of the bullock owners, because the country was very precipitous. It was even thought possible that, through the intercession of the patron saint of haulage contractors, the drivers might break their necks. The tractors did not fail and the drivers' necks remained unbroken; one by one the small mills agreed to supply the Army if the price of haulage could be reduced; the bullock contractors discovered that they could work at a price less than the 110 lire per metre cube being paid for the tractors, which were then withdrawn. The black market was broken but the tractors were kept at Serra San Bruno—just in case. The net result was that the July output went up over 1100 tons to a total of 14,152 tons.
While the Company was wrecking the black market in timber in Calabria, steps were already being taken to remove the sappers to another theatre. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser, had been touring the New Zealand sector meeting the troops and evading any direct questions page 588 about the next furlough draft. It is a way politicians have, but as a matter of fact the matter had already been decided and involved the balance of the 4th Reinforcements. Fourteenth Forestry Company would have had 44 all ranks left if furlough had been available on the same basis as for the Division.
The Prime Minister's words did not match his actions, for he wrote to the War Office suggesting that it was time 14 Forestry Company returned to its homeland as soon as the matter could conveniently be arranged. It was convenient to the War Office to release the Company as from 15 August.
On 1 July Major Thomas left en route to New Zealand and Captain Tunnicliffe, promoted major, took command. First warning of a changeover came by TPM in the first week of July, but it was thought to be merely to another job somewhere else.
Major Tunnicliffe's August diary notes unfold the news:
Thursday 6 TPM arrived re change over. Major Holland arrived to recce area and prepare to take over from us at a later date.
Sunday 9 Major Holland going over transport details and general discussions re layout of work.
Monday 17 Had TPM to report to HQ 2 NZEF.
Tuesday 19 Found we were to go home being relieved about Aug 15.
Sunday 23 British officers and personnel arrived to take over our job at month end.
Thursday 27 Just waiting for news and clearing up. New gang getting used to ropes. Very hot. Had swim.
On the day that Major Tunnicliffe got his first faint inkling that the Company was likely to move to another area (6 July) the North Detachment had spent three days sitting in the sun waiting for transport to move them to the new forward area.
During this pleasant period the transport, a Mack 10-ton truck and trailer, had covered 600 miles looking for them and returned with a nil report. The sappers continued sitting in the sun until they were found and delivered on the 11th to the new location, where the party that had left earlier had prepared the camp and got the mill in readiness.
The mill began cutting on 13 July with priority given to sizes 9 in. × 9 in. and 9 in. × 4 in. The stand was cut out on the page 589 20th,11 and Lieutenant McKenzie was instructed to look for more timber (39,500 super. feet).
Before doing so he arranged Rome leave for the section. They had not had any leave for twelve months, and the suggestion was that they should take a look at Rome while he looked for timber. It was arranged that way. He returned from his reconnaissance, which took him as near the front line as the enemy would permit, on the 25th to find an RE Don R with a letter from Major Tunnicliffe saying that the Company was to return to New Zealand. The timber ‘recce’ did not seem important after that.
One last dip into the detachment diary:
‘26 July. Called on 11 CE to find particulars regarding move to NZ Advanced Base. He did not know about our move, and rang Army to find all particulars and they confirmed it. Said they would let me know as soon as Movement Orders arrived. Capt Greenhow, CE Branch 8th Army, wasn't clear regarding leaving mill and equipment. Showed him patch of timber I had found and the place I was going to put mill. He said that quantity of timber cut by mobile mill had astounded CE Branch 8th Army. Capt Greenhow wished us all the best for the future. Mill ready to hand over. Everyone keen to move.’
The Company concentrated at Advanced Base on 3 August en route for New Zealand. For the last of the New Zealand Forestry Group the war was over. They went on to Egypt, where they joined the Taupo furlough draft and sailed for New Zealand on 28 September 1944.
|Bugeaud||21/9/1943 to 31/1/1944||63,623 cubic feet|
|San Menaio||21/1/1944 to 9/4/1944||28,674 cubic feet|
|Umbra||30/3/1944 to 7/5/1944||19,352 cubic feet|
|Pescolanciano||12/4/1944 to 2/7/1944||41,177 cubic feet|
|Lago Ampollino||8/5/1944 to 17/7/1944||35,084 cubic feet|
|Perugia||11/7/1944 to 20/7/1944||3,407 cubic feet|
|Total||127,694 cubic feet|
|Mandrione||3/1/1944 to 7/5/1944||150,078 cubic feet|
|Calabria||17/1/1944 to 31/7/1944||3,340,736 cubic feet|
|Dimensions||Foot Super.||Foot Board||Foot Haakon Dahl||Foot Hoppus||Foot Cubic||Metric Cubic||Ton Cubic|
|Foot Super.||12? × 12? × 1?||1||1||.785||.0655||.083||.0024||.002|
|Foot Board||12? × 12? × 1?||1||1||.785||.0655||.083||.0024||.002|
|Cubic Foot Hoppus||¼ G2||15.3||15.3||12||1||1.273||.036||.032|
|Cubic Foot||12? × 12? × 12?||12||12||9.42||.785||1||0.283||.025|
|Cubic Metre||1M × 1M × 1M||424||424||333||27.7||35.31||1||.88|
|Cubic Ton||4' × 10' × 1'||480||480||378||31.4||40||1.1||1|
4 Agencia Generale Italiana di Petrolio.
8 Teleprinter message.
11 The last production returns were sent to HQ 14 Forestry Coy on 17 July and show the production as at that date on the final returns. The table is therefore not completely accurate.