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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

18 Army Troops Company

18 Army Troops Company

On 23 October the diarist of 18 Army Troops Company noted the opening of the Battle of Alamein with characteristic brevity in the war diary—‘The balloon went up—8 Army attacked all along the front—night anything but quiet.’

page 403

On that day the disposition of the company was:

Headquarters Detachment, Workshop Detachment, water barges and crews at Alexandria.

No. 1 Detachment—Operating and maintaining the pipelines of the Western Desert water supply from Hammam, inclusive, to Alamein, inclusive.

No. 2 Detachment—Working on the oil facilities at Chevalier Island.

No. 3 Detachment—Operating pumping stations from Nubariya to Hammam.

No. 4 Detachment—Working on fuel and water storage and reticulation between Alamein and Hammam.

Major Learmonth had been instructed that the duties of 18 Army Troops Company in the initial restoration of the water supply would be:

1. Instal one Caterpillar-Gould pumping set at Ghazal, two at Daba and one at Fuka, or recommission the original sets by the replacement of parts removed in June if not otherwise damaged.

2. Instal pipelines and connections within pumphouse compounds and connect up to main pipelines, which would be restored or relaid by South African units. Other formations, among them a sub-section of 21 Mechanical Equipment Company,2 had been detailed to restore pumphouses and reservoirs.

Captain Wallace was put in charge of the work with authority to draw on Nos. 1 and 3 Sections for the necessary labour, while Lieutenant Mackersey was to be responsible for the operation of existing pumphouses and was also to take over Ghazal and Daba when they came into operation. Lieutenant Tuck3 was to check all new pumping equipment before it was used.

The unit diarist took the news of the break-through at Alamein very calmly:

‘Suction flex hose of fire booster burst. 588 Coy contacted and flex connection replaced with iron pipe. Awkward day spent endeavouring to contact people with telephone out of gear 95% the time. Benghazi handicap commences.’

Daba was reported clear of enemy at 2.30 p.m. on 5 November and within an hour and a half the selected sappers from Nos. 1 and 4 Detachments were on their way. They arrived at Daba at dusk and worked through the night pumping out the flooded pumphouses. It was possible to survey the damage at dawn. page 404 The plant and reservoirs were ‘a sorry mess of demolished machinery covered with a thick coat of slime, oil and bone oil. In all four pumphouses the enemy had pushed aside the machinery which we had demolished in June and installed his own small pumping sets instead. All the pipe fittings and some of the engines were captured British ones he had used. He had very effectively demolished all his own installations. Three of the six reservoirs were in the state of demolition as we left them in June. The other three had apparently been repaired by the enemy and used. He had effectively blown them again before leaving. The Railway reservoirs were not demolished but bone oil was liberally spilled about the place. Many pipe junctions and valves were blown in the compound.’

Ghazal, in the centre of the recent Tell el EisaDaba battleground, was found to be in a like state; nevertheless by the time the new Caterpillar-Gould pumping sets arrived, all damaged machinery had been removed. The sets were installed and water was running into the railway reservoirs at noon on 10 November and another detail from No. 1 Section had taken over operation duties at Ghazal and Daba. Back at Alexandria water-drum filling went on by day and by night, and the same day as the water reached Daba two 18 Army Troop barges sailed for Matruh to transfer water from ships to shore.

At Fuka the new set was bedded down and working on the 11th. A water point from local supplies was operating that afternoon and four days later (15th) pipeline water arrived at Fuka. Meanwhile restoration work was being carried out at Garawla, where water arrived on the 19th; the next day water was pumped from Garawla to Similla. Charing Cross received pipeline water on the 25th. By the end of the month the Company was patrolling the pipeline from Alamein to Garawla, repairing leaks and blowouts, replacing damaged pipes and valves in compounds and generally undoing what they and the enemy had done in their successive demolition efforts.

Little mention has been made of Headquarters Detachment and of the long hours worked by the workshops staff in getting pumping sets back into commission. Cracked sumps, broken flywheels and the like were removed and replaced; sets were cannibalised to get others working; where a spare was not obtainable some compromise solution was thought out as a temporary measure.

While Eighth Army was being deployed for the operations against the Agheila line all possible steps were taken to get page 405 water forward to build up reserves. Major Learmonth was instructed that the boosters at Alamein and Ghazal must operate full-out and push the last ounce of water forward. To make sure there was no avoidable delay through breakdowns, the two company mobile workshops were released from Base and made responsible for the periodic checking and overhauls of the main Western Desert Caterpillar-Gould pumping plants.

The naval wing of 18 Army Troops Company, water barges Nos. 4 and 5 (No. 3 was out of service with engine trouble), arrived at Tobruk from Matruh on 2 January 1943 after seventy-two hours' buffeting by a head sea and gale force wind. Sergeant T. G. Smith,4 reporting his safe arrival to Major Learmonth, concluded:

‘I am kept busy watering ships and we enjoy doing the job. I am pretty sure we will stay here as we are badly needed by the Naval here. All the health is OK and mail is urgently wanted. Please accept all our greetings for the New Year.’

According to an entry in the war diary the quantity of water pumped into the Western Desert system, and excluding water sent forward in containers, water ships and trains from Alexandria, was 268,352,000 gallons for the year ending 31 December 1942, while 80,000 hours were run by pumping sets during the same period.

As with the Railway Group, the occupation of Tripoli took the pressure off the Western Desert pipeline and its guardians. A memorandum dated 4 January 1943 instructed Major Learmonth to submit an estimate for an establishment of civilian labour to take over his tasks in the area for which he was responsible.

2 Twenty-five sappers commanded by Lt A. W. Tassell.

3 Capt F. E. N. Tuck; born Auckland, 27 Jan 1914; mechanical engineer.

4 Not traced.