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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

The Field Companies

The Field Companies

February saw 6 Field Company, now for one month residents of Kabrit, enjoying a spot of leave, attending schools of instruction, absorbing reinforcements, building a camp for 4 Brigade Headquarters, revising its elementary infantry training and generally flexing its muscles.

Eighth Field Company was doing the same, at first in Maadi and later at Kabrit; Headquarters NZ Engineers and 5 Field Park Company were in Syria. In Baalbek Headquarters was studying files concerned with contracts for earthworks bequeathed by a departing 70 Division and investigating maps also left for the new incumbents. Fifth Field Park was 20 miles north of Djedeide, making an inventory of an RE dump and trying to discover just what stores it was supposed to be responsible for.

Seventh Field Company was back in the desert at El Adem, south of Tobruk and a few miles west of Sidi Rezegh, helping 5 Brigade build a fortress. All of which needs some explanation.

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There were more than enough trained men to fill the ranks of the New Zealand Division after the Libyan campaign. In the Engineers 5 Field Park sappers who had been captured when the prisoner-of-war cage had been overrun were back with the unit again, and so were the majority of 7 Field Company captured at Sidi Azeiz. They had had a bad time for six weeks in an overcrowded pen in Bardia until released by its capture on 2 January.

Fifth Brigade was still in the fighting at Gazala in the middle of December when a projected Divisional move to Syria for refitting and training was cancelled to allow the Division to train for a projected seaborne landing behind the enemy line. The New Zealanders were to do this training at Kabrit, on the Bitter Lakes portion of the Suez Canal.

It was expected that after General Rommel was eased out of the Gazala position his next stand (if he escaped capture) would be at El Agheila, where the Italian Army had sheltered the previous January and from which the combined Italian-German force had regained the lost province of Cyrenaica three months later.

To hold Cyrenaica it was necessary to hold Agheila, and the long-term plan was to land a force behind the enemy position which would join with another force making a wide outflanking move through the desert; they would then sit astride the enemy's communications while a third force attacked frontally.

Fifth Brigade, which with the attached Maoris had three battalions that had not been unduly tried in CRUSADER, was cast for the seaborne role and went to Kabrit on 4 January with 7 Field Company8 for a comprehensive course in landing operations.

General Freyberg asked the CRE to have a plaster model of the area constructed forthwith. The only maps available were without contours or spot heights and were inaccurate regarding sand dunes and marshes, all vitally necessary knowledge in the deployment of ground troops. A satisfactory model was produced by piecing together vertical and oblique aerial photographs, supplemented by Long Range Desert Group reports and information obtained from prisoners. Maps were then prepared for distribution to the units about to be involved. The work was carried out in such secrecy that those employed page 246 on the project (Lieutenant Wildey and Sappers Hardy9 and Barclay10) ate and slept in the hut where they were working. The GOC and his senior officers studied earnestly and often their problems as disclosed on the model. There were some who thought it could be another Gallipoli.

Training and planning for the amphibious landing were complicated by the fact that Rommel was not co-operating by staying in his lair at Agheila. On the contrary he was again taking an active interest in the war by making a reconnaissance in force which developed into a definite thrust (21 January). By the time 5 Brigade had finished its first trial run on a beach in the Red Sea the Germans were back in front of the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line covering Tobruk, The seaborne landing was declared off. So, at first, was a projected New Zealand sojourn in Syria.

The Division was ordered to be ready within a fortnight for a full operational role, but the New Zealand Government made known its feeling that, if possible, the Division should not get involved in possible further heavy losses so soon.

Movement orders affecting thousands of men and tons of material cannot be altered with a stroke of the pen, and the final arrangement was that 5 Brigade Group would report to 13 Corps until another division could be deployed. The Group, now commanded by Brigadier Kippenberger, was in position by the required date (16 February) after borrowing desertworthy trucks from the rest of the Division, and was ordered to dig a fortress at El Adem as part of the defence in depth of the area. Ten days later the rest of the Division began its trek into Syria, where it became part of Ninth Army (General Wilson), whose task was to oppose any enemy thrust on the Middle East from the north. Among the various considerations were the necessity of covering up the weakness in strength through the transfer, proposed and actual, of forces to counter the Japanese threat in the Pacific, preparations to assist Turkey should that country resist a German invasion, and the construction of fortresses designed to impede any enemy progress through Syria.

Demolitions are a sine qua non in such a situation, and Engineer Headquarters traversed every square inch of Syria from the Turkish frontier north of Aleppo to Baalbek, and from the coast to the eastern desert, noting bridges, tunnels, page 247 crossroads and the like. At Baalbek plans were drawn from the field notes and demolition charges calculated and recorded on the plans for use when and if necessary.

map of souther Mediterranean

Sappers with architectural, surveying and engineering training were employed in building a plaster model of Syria showing all defensive works and communications. It was the biggest and longest modelling task undertaken by Divisional Engineers, who by this time had become experts in transforming photographs and maps into something solid that could be understood by commanders who were not invariably expert map readers.

map of eastern Mediterranean

eastern mediterranean

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While 6 and 8 Field Companies are improving their general knowledge at Kabrit before moving to Syria in March, we will return to 5 Brigade and 7 Field Company.

The building of a fortress at El Adem was to counter precisely the same operation Eighth Army had been training to perform against the enemy—an outflanking march that would put enemy troops on the Trigh Capuzzo and cut off the El Adem airfield—our most westerly operational airfield at that period.

The advance parties met their units as they arrived and conducted them to their bivouac areas, in the case of 7 Field Company halfway down the escarpment overlooking the airfield. The site had been occupied before and little digging was needed to make the place comfortable. The only drawback was rats, thicker than rabbits on a Canterbury sheep station and nearly as big. But there was a fine view of enemy air attacks on the airfield below.

The sappers were kept exceedingly busy for six weeks wiring the infantry positions before starting on the minefields, where only salvaged British, German and Italian mines were to be used. New ones were all needed further forward. In ten days they put down 20,000 mines, 13,000 of which were lifted from the outer defences of Tobruk. Other jobs were salvaging enemy water tanks for storing the reserve supply (seven days at half a gallon per man), operating their compressors on gun emplacements and weapon pits, excavating a site for Brigade Headquarters, dismantling observation towers in Tobruk and re-erecting them at El Adem.

The last fortnight was occupied in less specialist work such as repairing the tarsealed road to the airfield, for which job Lieutenant Page had to scour the desert until he found a tar boiler. Other parties were collecting Spandau ammunition boxes from the Gambut battlefield for the even less romantic purpose of manufacturing fly-proof latrine seats for the infantry battalions. All hands were unanimous in thanking the God of War that they were not in Tobruk, which was again under constant attack from the air.

They left El Adem on 23 March and five days later arrived in Maadi. Seven days' leave was granted for those entitled to it and the Company was paid £E1000 for the purpose. A thanksgiving display of enemy rockets with explosive effects on the side was organised, with the result that Maadi Camp page 249 was in an uproar most of the night, and with an extra result that leave was cancelled and the culprit company did four hours' square-bashing the next day.

The requirements of discipline thus satisfied, the sappers went on their leave and those remaining went into training for a ceremonial parade for General Freyberg. To the sappers left behind it was only an elaboration of their punishment, but on the day (2 April) all went well, and four days later 7 Field Company set out for Syria.

Sixth Field Company by this time had been nearly a month at El Aine, near Baalbek, working on the Djedeide fortress situated at the northern entrance to the Bekaa valley between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges. Djedeide had been designed to hold four infantry brigades and auxiliary arms and to be self-contained for two months, with five days' rations held in each company area, five more days under brigade and fifty days under divisional control. The work had to be finished by 15 May, the earliest date an enemy force might reasonably be expected. Some work had been done but there were still dugouts, pillboxes, anti-tank ditches, minefields and barbed-wire defences to be built or excavated, as well as provision for sanitary services, ration and water stores, not to mention ammunition reserves. Communications ranging from mule tracks to main roads had to be constructed. Besides five-hundred strong infantry working parties whose work had to be supervised, 1971 and 1974 (Bechuana) Pioneer Companies and 600 native labourers working under civilian contractors had to be watched. The last month of the Lebanese winter was a time of rain and bitingly cold winds which turned roads into bogs and blew down tents. Compressors were worked in two six-hour shifts and daily maintenance was carried out in the fitters' bay by night in shifts. Overhauls were done on Sundays. A unit library was established in the recreation room but nobody knew what to use for leisure time.

By contrast 8 Field Company was on velvet.

They relieved 42 Field Company, RE, and saw the Syrian winter out in the walled city of Aleppo (population 250,000), 150 miles north near the Turkish border. They took over a comfortable camp at Nerab aerodrome on the outskirts of the city and manned demolitions on tunnels and viaducts, guarded ammunition stores, commenced road blocks and generally ‘recced’ the country as far as the Turkish border with a view to blowing up anything that would impede an enemy's progress. page 250 They also tried to give the impression that they were very thick on the ground by taking out-of-the-way routes and showing themselves in as many places as possible. The Company was not pleased when 7 Field Company took over in the middle of April and they themselves moved to Zabboud in the Djedeide fortress, from where they supervised the construction of a road from Aleppo to the Turkish border, together with the necessary bridges and culverts, as well as running the Aleppo RE stores dump and making roads to the infantry positions in the high Lebanon Mountains. But it was the Syrian spring and the fruit trees were in blossom and the grass was green underfoot, even if the work was unusually hard and battalion commanders wanted their private latrines dug in solid rock.

Brigade exercises began in May and the engineers practised their mine laying and lifting techniques, techniques that had not been taken advantage of in Libya but which were now gaining recognition. An accidental if rather dramatic exposition of the value of minefields was given in the Forqloss desert area where the manoeuvres were being held. Practice mines were contrived by 8 Field Company taking the charge out of EP Mark II mines and replacing it with a small amount of black powder and an ounce of gelignite. The charge was worked out by trial and error with a truck until harmless proportions, giving a loud bang from the gelignite and lots of black smoke from the powder, were determined. These mines were laid by 6 Field Company for the 4 Brigade exercises and proved such a success that Colonel Hanson ordered more to be made forthwith for the 6 Brigade exercises.

Eighth Field Company made the mines but got a bit careless in measuring the proportions for a second batch. Major Currie, who was responsible, describes the result of omitting to put a warning fence in front of part of his minefield before breaching the real field and erecting the standard gap fence.

‘After the exercise all were to congregate on a low hill to watch an anti-tank gun shoot…. The gaps were a bottleneck to the traffic so they started to cross the unmarked minefield. Then the fun started. Trucks and cars were being immobilised all along the line. The overcharged mines were cutting tyres and breaking sumps. We got a General, several Brigadiers and junior Officers. There was a bit of inquiry afterwards because tyres were very precious in the Ninth Army. The CRE told them off for not being mine conscious. I think this was the beginning of mine consciousness in the 2 NZ Div.’

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The time passed pleasantly enough for 7 Field Company stationed around Aleppo. There was daily leave with transport provided, and besides the YMCA in the city there were sixteen cafés in bounds for sappers, two for sergeants and five clubs or hotels for officers. Finding them was quite simple, for unless the IN BOUNDS sign was displayed the place was out of bounds. If you didn't feel like going into town there was the Company canteen, which produced sufficient profits to put on supper in the mess through the good nature of the cooks, who didn't seem to mind working an 18-hour day. There were, of course, minor crises such as when the canteen reported that owing to New Zealand tobacco and beer both being available in quantity at the same time there were not enough funds to purchase both, so would tobacco smokers put their orders in with the requisite cash in advance.

The weeks rolled by almost unnoticed and it was a distinct shock to learn that 8 Field Company was coming back and that 7 Field Company would follow 5 Brigade into the Syrian desert on manoeuvres. It was only too sadly true, and 13 June found the 7 Field Company sapper in a bivouac area at Muskene, wondering just who was sitting in his favourite seat in his favourite café being served by his favourite waitress.

But there was something more than practice going on in another desert facing the Mediterranean, something that needed the immediate attendance of the New Zealand Division.

The following signal was sent by Divisional Headquarters to all formations at 11.45 a.m. on 14 June:

MOST SECRET. WARNING ORDER. NZ Div be prepared to move earliest after 15 Jun following order. three fd regts. remainder NZ div then div cav regt. unit at leave camp return 15 June. 5 NZ bde proceed BEKAA valley forthwith. all informed.