New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
Divisional Engineer Units
Divisional Engineer Units
The Italians had made a cautious entry into Egypt but had stopped at Sidi Barrani, where a system of defended camps was established and stores were being accumulated; it is worth mentioning at this point that Egypt had replied to the invasion by breaking off diplomatic relations and then withdrawing its forces to a position ‘somewhere east of Suez’ so that they were not available to defend the sacred sands of the Western Desert.
General Wavell had bided his time until reinforcements, actual and potential, permitted him to consider the possibility of chasing the Italians out of Egypt before the build-up at Sidi Barrani was complete. One of the earlier moves towards the contemplated ejection of the enemy was the transfer of 6 Field Company from Agamy Beach to Garawla on 17 October to work on the Charing Cross-Matruh section of the water pipeline,21 so that almost simultaneously Kiwi sappers began pushing water along the railway and pulling the pipeline across the desert. The CRE, besides his duties at Divisional Headquarters, found time to make a personal contribution to the embarrassment of the enemy by passing on the tank-hunting drill that had been evolved in England for dealing with the expected German invasion. He writes:
‘I had been mixed up with this extempore offensive action in UK (with Second Echelon) and took up the role at Baggush to help 4 Ind Div (and 6 Aust Div too) prior to the 1940 offensive. We wanted smoke for blinding the tanks and my page 48 Adjutant Capt Max Carrie,22 a commercial chemist, suggested Chlor-sulphonic acid. We got some from RAF practice bombs, put it in lemonade bottles (beer too tough). Thrown on to a tank they burst, the acid formed a dense white smoke—and Bobs your uncle! In went the tough boys for the “Kill”…. Max was offered the job of Director Chemical Warfare for ME but General Freyberg wouldn't let him go. We were continually asked for engineers for special jobs but few were allowed to go.’
The plans for a limited offensive were almost disrupted by the next Italian move. Maybe the news was not exciting enough from North Africa and II Duce wanted to keep his newspapers in banner type. At any rate an invasion in the approved Teutonic style was launched (28 October) through Albania into Greece. The Greeks proved tougher customers than was anticipated, for, in spite of horse-drawn transport and an almost complete lack of modern weapons, they were soon throwing the Italians back into Albania. Sixth Field sappers finished laying the water pipeline a few days before the fighting began (9 December) and were putting the finishing touches to storage tanks (on the 12th) when Lieutenant-Colonel Clifton arranged a transfer with the newly arrived 19 Army Troops Company, whereupon they took themselves and their desert sores back to Maadi.
21 It was many months before both ends of the water pipeline system were connected.