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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

Railway Construction and Maintenance Group

Railway Construction and Maintenance Group

The rainy season, which in the Levant begins at the end of September, posed an unexpected problem in track maintenance. Between Haifa and Beirut the line ran for most of its length on a bed of well packed soil supporting a layer of sand and rock, but the fine-grained soil, known locally as cotton soil, had an extraordinary capacity for absorbing moisture. Its stability then broke down and it would support only the lightest distributed load. As the rains set in, the saturated track sank and cant could not be maintained on curves. A flat track had to be laid, for the first train could double or treble the cant.

To make matters worse the construction trains had been withdrawn and army labour units transferred to other projects; native labour was scarce, poor, and busy collecting the olive harvest. ‘With no stocks of stone ballast and no construction trains the units passed through a difficult and anxious period, and only by supreme efforts with poor labour did they manage to keep the service running. Construction trains were absent for about a month during which time various expedients were adopted by the Units to meet their immediate problems. Owing to the presence of rock only at long distances apart, the Tenth Coy could do little towards supplying the track with ballast. A Mule Company was obtained to try and carry in some stone, but the nature of the soil soon put an end to that. Where road and railway were close, some delivery by MT was possible. During this period however, having promise of the return of page 400 trains, sidings for ballast were laid at matfana (55 Km.) to the sea beach, and at adloun to a limestone quarry which was equipped with numerous crushers.’1

On the 13th Company section small contracts were entered into with local natives for the delivery of stone and its knapping by hand. Another expedient was the conversion of a number of small crushers to run on rails. Native women carried stones from the fields to the crushers and the ballast was deposited directly on the track. But it was not until the construction trains were brought back in December that any real progress was made.

Ninth Survey Company had in the meantime, after a period of puzzlement, established that paiforce was the code-word for Persia and Iraq Force, or in other words the Tenth Army, a somewhat nebulous formation with its headquarters in Baghdad.

On 9 November 1942 the Company, less No. 3 Section which remained on railway work, and consisting of 6 officers and 52 other ranks, left Az Zib to join Paiforce. They went by desert road in their own sixteen trucks from the Mediterranean coast across Syria and Iraq to the Euphrates, about 650 miles. The first day's journey took them to Mafraq, near the crossing of the HaifaKirkuk pipeline and the Hejaz railway, thence to H4 in Transjordan, to Rutbah in the Wadi Hauran which runs down to the Euphrates, to Wadi Mohamed and finally to Baghdad, where camp was made in 35 Rest and Transit Camp on 13 November.

Captain Clark, who had gone ahead with two sappers as an advance party, had received instructions that one section was to work in Iraq and the other in Persia. Company Headquarters would remain in Baghdad.

No. 2 Section left Baghdad on 16 November for Ahwaz, the first considerable town on the railway that runs from Bandar Shahpur at the head of the Persian Gulf to Teheran, the capital of Persia. From Ahwaz they went on to Ur, camped a night in the desert and finally arrived on the 19th at Basra, the river port of Iraq and an important link in the supply route to Russia. From there they moved along the river to Khorramshahr, another oil shipping port, made camp and began a topographical survey of the rail facilities, redesigning marshalling yards, surveying new depots and pegging new layouts. These and similar projects were carried on until the end of December, when heavy falls of snow stopped all work.

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No. 1 Section left Baghdad on 17 November for Jessimiyah, some 40 miles to the north on the narrow-gauge line from Baghdad to the pipeline terminal at Kirkuk. The section's job was the layout of a station and depots for stores and ammunition, while parties went off for inspection and surveys in various parts of the country. The weather, with alternate rain and duststorms, was unpleasantly reminiscent of the Western Desert where 2 NZ Division was so busily engaged under similar conditions.

Company Headquarters, after some delay, was set up in a house in Baghdad, and it was then possible to complete draughting projects that had been unfinished at Az Zib as well as to carry out ordinary maintenance.

Meanwhile events were in train that were to result in the recall of 9 Survey Company and its transformation. It was to take over the BeirutTripoli section of the HaifaTripoli railway from the Australian railway engineers who were leaving the Middle East. It was, in other words, to forsake the theodolite and chain of a survey unit and take up the pick and shovel of a construction and maintenance unit. Groups were recalled to their parent sections and the Company was back in Az Zib by the middle of January 1943.

The completed line from Beirut to Tripoli had been opened with some pomp and ceremony by General Alexander on 21 December, and it was now possible, but highly improbable until the war was over, to travel by rail from Cairo to any continental city.

Group Headquarters moved to Beirut on 15 January and took over from the Australian Construction and Maintenance Group. The transfer was completed the next day when 13 Company extended its section by eight miles, leaving 9 Survey Company some 46 miles of track to maintain from its headquarters in Byblos on the Syrian coast, now vacated by 2 Australian Railway Construction Company.

The new construction unit found, as with the other two companies, that its greatest preoccupation would be with ballasting the cotton-soil country. Major Halley had inherited 87 gangs of natives, some 2200 all told—too many for the work now available and a different state of affairs from that pertaining in the original New Zealand sector. In his first report Major Halley wrote:

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‘Steps are being taken to place gangs near their homes, to cut out unnecessary transport … and also to reduce the number employed. I also think a little more work is going to be got out of those remaining.’

There was a change in the command of the Railway Construction and Maintenance Group at this period. Colonel Anderson relinquished command on account of sickness to Colonel R. T. Smith and Major C. Clark left 9 Survey Company to take over 13 Construction Company. Colonel Anderson's farewell message was published in routine orders on 24 December. It read:

‘To all ranks of the NZ Railway C and M Group.

‘My best wishes for a Merrie Christmas and a Happy and Eventful New Year. My grateful thanks for all the willing service so ungrudgingly given in the Western Desert. You will be proud to know that our railway now carries daily eight supply trains right through to Tobruk. In the Xmases to come we shall remember with pleasure the comradeship and associations of 1942.

‘Good luck to you all, and Good-bye.

(Sgd) J. E. Anderson Lt-Col.’

January was a month of heavy rain and storms along the sea coast. It seemed doubtful if the line could be kept open for there was a succession of ‘Extreme Caution’ notices, minor derailments, cancelled trains and transhipment of travelling troops. Where the track skirted the coast the sea walls required constant attention. Several walls had not been founded on solid rock, for lack of which large limestone boulders had been rolled over from the cliffs above and embedded in the base of the concrete wall. Heavy seas were scouring away the back fill and 20-ton concrete blocks were hurriedly cast and dropped into the cavities. Others were cast on top of the walls and tipped over into the sea to break up the force of the waves.

February was another month of ballasting, lifting, packing and concreting the sea walls. The weather was better and some football was played. On 13 February 9 Survey Company gave itself a party to celebrate the third anniversary of its formation.

1 Lt-Col R. T. Smith, Completion Report on Haifa-Beirut-Tripoli railway.