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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

11 Forestry Company

page 27

11 Forestry Company

The men of 11 Forestry Company whom we left at Woolmer went up to London on a couple of days' leave before departing for work in England that the Germans had deprived them of in France. The ‘woodpeckers’, as the railway sappers called them, were sorry to part with the ‘worm disturbers’, their term of friendly abuse, but were keen to get on the job. They left on 3 July for Jarvis Brook, near Crowborough, East Sussex, settled into tents and sharpened their axes. The next morning work started on felling trees for road blocks and tank traps along one of the defence lines across the south of England. Anti-tank ditches covered by pillboxes had already been completed parallel to the coast and about 30–40 miles inland. It was the job of the Forestry Company to build road blocks and clear fields of fire, and for a month they were widely spread—places mentioned in reports include the Dorking-London road, East Grimstead and Tonbridge Wells. Word got around that the Kiwis were pretty good at clambering up trees and cutting them back, with the result that a section was lent to the RAF to top and fell trees around the approaches to airfields.

Early in August headquarters and half the company moved to Cirencester in Gloucestershire, where it was to remain for the following three years. The other half of the company under the command of Lieutenant Collier43 remained at Jarvis Brook until October. Meanwhile the Cirencester detachment had taken over two mills, one in Hailey Wood and one in Overley Wood, while the Jarvis Brook detachment carried on with defence works. If they had needed any spurring on, the sight of massed formations of German planes would have been sufficient inducement. They left on 5 October for Calne, near Chippenham in Wiltshire, where they were to build the first New Zealand designed sawmill in Bowood Park forest. This mill, which completed the three mills that the company was to operate, commenced cutting at the end of December. There were delays in the arrival of essential equipment which threw the works programme out of gear, but a reserve of logs was cut between delays. The other two mills had their share of trouble, for with the onfall of winter the roofless Overley Wood mill had trouble with saw belts until the omission was rectified. Faulty pulleys kept Hailey Wood mill out of production for days on end awaiting replacements, and at both mills the page 28 prevailing wet weather slowed up the transport of logs from bush to bench through the logging units being rubber tyred instead of tracked.

A hint of the lack of equipment is evident from this passage from a letter written by Major Eliott:

‘Conditions have been completely altered as you might imagine. All our equipment went to France and we arrived here just as France collapsed and we are left to operate on what remains in England. We became an offensive unit ready to take our place at any time in the defence of England. At this moment I have established our headquarters in a very comfortable country home, a hotel (Stratton Arms) in the outskirts of Cirencester and have with me about half the company. The other half is down in Calne. We have had great difficulty in obtaining the type of equipment we are accustomed to using—axes, saws and the like. All manufacturers are so full of orders that deliveries are very slow.’

Cirencester, a town of about 10,000 population, had a history that began when it was the junction of three Roman roads, and Calne village, pronounced ‘Cam’, had once prospered on wool but had fallen on evil days until a bacon curing firm made it their headquarters. The Company was billeted in the firm's hostel for small-goods workers.

With the knowledge of the early arrival of 14 Forestry Company (Captain Jones44) and 15 Company (Captain Biggs45) the War Office requested the setting up of a Headquarters Forestry Group to control, as a self-contained unit, the three New Zealand companies. The establishment, based on English Forestry Groups, was a CRE and twenty other ranks, designed to supervise up to six sub-units and, equipped with sufficient vehicles, to be continually on the move from one area to another.

To this end Captain Gamman46 became OC 11 Company with the rank of major, and Major Eliott, promoted lieutenant-colonel, set up his Group Headquarters at Castle Combe in Gloucestershire. Lieutenant A. M. Collier became Adjutant and Second-Lieutenant A. P. Thomson47 Field Engineer and liaison page 29 officer. Lieutenant Greer48 had accepted a transfer to an RE Company on 7 October, which left Major Gamman short of four officers. Sergeants Coogan,49 McKenzie,50 Porter51 and Cook52 were accordingly promoted to commissioned rank to fill the vacancies.

The Company had been, and the Group continued to be, administered by 2 NZEF (UK) (Brigadier Park53) but was also subject to control by Southern Command, Forestry Division of the War Office and the Ministry of Supply. All interested parties met at conferences from time to time. Such a conference was held at Bristol on 5 November 1940, when it was agreed that 11 Company would continue to operate two mills at Cirencester and one at Bowood; 14 Company would make its headquarters at Grittleton, Wiltshire, and 15 Company at Langrish, near Petersfield, Hampshire.

The 14th and 15th Forestry Companies disembarked at Gourock on 7 November and entrained for their areas, where after a few days' leave they were to undergo a course of military training until 15 December and were then to be available for forestry work. Thereafter the Group would do ten days' training by companies every six months.

The disposition of 11 Company on 7 November was:

Cirencester 3 sections operating two mills, Hailey Wood and Overley Wood.
Calne 1 section building a third (NZ type) mill.
Benson 1 section on loan to Air Ministry felling trees near approaches to landing grounds.
Grittleton A detachment preparing billets for 14 Company.
Petersfield A detachment preparing billets for 15 Company.

43 Lt A. M. Collier; Tokaanu; born Hamilton, 7 Jan 1912; sawmiller.

44 Capt O. Jones; born England, 26 Jan 1888; forester; died Rotorua, 7 Feb 1955.

45 Maj C. Biggs; England; born England, 9 Jun 1890; Conservator of Forests, Nelson.

46 Maj G. A. Gamman; London; born Wellington, 14 Mar 1904; sawmiller.

47 Capt A. P. Thomson, m.i.d.; Rotorua; born Wellington, 2 Apr 1913; forest officer.

48 Lt A. Greer; Auckland; born N. Ireland, 27 Mar 1907; mechanical engineer.

49 Capt J. D. Coogan; born NZ 9 Feb 1906; timber worker.

50 Lt L. J. McKenzie, m.i.d.; Gummies Bush, Invercargill; born Riverton, 31 Jul 1905; bushman.

51 2 Lt G. A. D. Porter; born NZ 27 Apr 1911; tractor driver.

52 Capt W. L. Cook; Palmerston North; born England, 13 Jun 1919; audit clerk.

53 Brig R. S. Park, CB, CBE; Auckland; born Dunedin, 18 Feb 1895; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1917–19 (Lt); NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1939–46; Commander, Northern Military District, 1947–50; Commander K Force (Korea), 1950–53.