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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

21 Mechanical Equipment Company

21 Mechanical Equipment Company

The Company, with the exceptions mentioned in Chapter 11, page 412 worked as a unit for a couple of months at Adabiya Bay until No. 2 Section, with another assignment pending, packed up once more. It left on 10 October 1942 for Fanara, some 30 miles up the Suez Canal, and spent a dry and dusty week in the khamseen levelling building sites for tank and vehicle workshops.

The levelling completed, the section travelled the Ismailia-El Auja road until it reached Kilo 108 in the heart of the Sinai Desert, made camp and prepared to shift encroaching sand dunes off the bitumen roadway. From the 108 peg to the Palestinian border the road was partially blocked by a succession of drifts, some up to twelve feet high, but with a bulldozer and the carry-alls filled to the brim up to 4000 cubic yards were shifted daily. The job took two months, during which time the sappers celebrated the second anniversary of the Company's formation at Trentham on 15 November 1940. Captain Tustin produced a monster cake recently arrived from home, and some heavy self-control regarding the beer ration ensured a memorable birthday party. It was estimated that 153,300 cubic yards of sand had been shifted before the return to Adabiya on 22 December.

Four days after the departure of No. 2 Section (14 October 1942) a detachment from No. 1 Section of 25 other ranks (Lieutenant Tassell12) moved to Ikingi Maryut and relieved 18 Army Troops Company of the responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the pipeline mechanical equipment between Alexandria and El Hammam. The stockpiling of water-pipes at El Hammam, at the terminus of the water supply and the distribution point for the Alamein line, was a hint of what was to come. It was at Ikingi Maryut that they heard at 10 p.m. on the night of 23 October the reverberating thunder of the barrage opening the Battle of Alamein.

They arrived at Daba hard on the heels of 18 Army Troops Company and were renewing pipe junctions and valves when two staff cars and a truck full of assorted German officers and other ranks drove up and tried to surrender to them. The sappers, busily intent on their work and armed only with spanners and concrete pipes, said in effect, ‘Why pick on us?’ and indicated that the enemy should go away and find somebody with more time available to surrender to.

page 413

The section worked along the pipeline as far as Charing Cross and on 27 November reported back to the Company, which at that date had its headquarters in Tobruk.

In consequence of the arrival of No. 2 Section, 19 Army Troops Company, at Adabiya Bay during the first week of November and of a warning order for 21 Mechanical Equipment Company concerning an early move to the Western Desert, Repairs Section started to build a mobile cookhouse. It was painted a violent yellow and mounted on an 8-ton trailer. A 10-ton semi-articulated International truck was also converted into a mobile technical store.

Company Headquarters, Repairs Section and sappers from the other sections, in all 4 officers and 100 other ranks (Major Tiffen), left Adabiya Bay in convoy on 8 November, did a few small jobs en route and arrived at Tobruk on the 24th.

Repairs Section immediately started on the construction of a deep-sea wharf, utilising a sunken ship that lay about twenty-five feet off shore in a position eminently suitable for such a wharf. The ship's superstructure was removed and a portion of the hull cut out with oxy-acetylene burners, the gap between ship and shore was bridged and an admirable amenity was ready for use. The field section sappers began metalling and sealing the main harbour road and repairing bomb craters in other roads about the derelict town.

The water supply of Tobruk, once a considerable town of some 70,000 inhabitants, was drawn from underground sources, chiefly at El Auda. A pumping station was situated at Wadi Sahal about 12 miles to the west, but a South African unit had put it out of action so effectively with bone oil and demolitions that a new system of collecting water was to be constructed.

The specifications called for an aqueduct 500 feet in length, 34 feet deep, of which 14 feet were through solid rock, and 60 feet wide at the top. It was to be excavated across the junction of two wadis, and a system of concrete pipes with a margin of half an inch between joins was to be laid and the whole then filled with crushed metal. The conduit was two feet below water level and the water thus tapped was to seep through the metal and lodge in the aqueduct at the rate of 200 tons per day.

Of the sections in the advance party No. 3 was the most numerous and, under Lieutenant Hazledine-Barber, was detailed to carry out the project.

Preparatory work was commenced on 3 December. There was, of course, no materials or equipment on the site and before it page 414 could be collected half a mile of road had to be built. Scrounging expeditions collected material from which was built a portable stone-crusher, a concrete mixer and a steel bending machine; timber shutters for the casting of concrete pipes were built, a quarry was cut from which a Decauville line was laid to the crusher, while sand was brought from the beach by tip-truck. Cement was carted from Tobruk.

These tasks were completed by the middle of December and the casting of the pipes and the excavations for their laying began. The surface soil was removed by bulldozer and carry-all until the rock was encountered, whereupon pneumatic drills and explosives were used and a back-actor removed the rubble.

On 9 January 1943 a convoy containing the balance of the company, 102 all ranks (Captain A. F. Allen) up until then engaged on the various projects in Egypt and Transjordan, arrived at Tobruk. No. 3 Section men went on to Wadi Sahal while the Company, less No. 3 Section, set out the next morning for Benghazi. Hazledine-Barber's augmented team, split into separate gangs quarrying metal, crushing, mixing, casting pipes and excavating, made such good progress that by the middle of February excavation began for the foundations of the pump-house; by the end of the month the floor had been cast, the reinforced walls were in place, and two pumping sets were installed and ready to pump at short notice if required.

Twenty-first Mechanical Equipment Company took the coastal route to Benghazi, which was reached on the 13th, and after passing through streets of native hovels, under an archway of imposing dimensions which proclaimed that they had entered the Benghazi of the Fascists, past a two-domed cathedral, they travelled four miles along a beautiful tree-lined avenue to Berca, which consisted of a main aerodrome and nine satellites. No. 2 Section stayed there while Headquarters, Repairs and No. 1 moved the next day to Gasr el Mescia, another 11 miles farther west.

Since 3 January the Company had been under Command Engineers Aerodromes, a new engineering unit created for the purpose of constructing or reconstructing runways. The majority of aerodromes captured in Cyrenaica were merely levelled and graded and suitable only for the restricted use the enemy had been able to put them to during the recent fighting. The Allied Air Force needed runways that could stand up to constant use and it was the job of Command Engineers Aerodromes to see that they were so provided.

page 415

To this end 21 Mechanical Equipment Company had turned its back on harbours and for the rest of its active life worked on landing grounds. Typical of this was the job at Berca 2 aerodrome, where a runway 2000 yards long by 50 yards wide was sealed by sappers using 13 mixers placed at 100-yard intervals on alternate sides of the runway, which gave each group engaged 5000 square yards to tarmac. The work was apportioned among the men; some scooped sand from the hills by carry-alls and carted it to the mixers, others operated the tar-pots and the mixers, others spread the mix, screeded and rolled it.

A pneumatic roller, invented and built by Repairs Section, proved its worth and received official recognition. The steel-tyred rollers hitherto used on clay or mix-in-place runways, besides being slow to move and unwieldy to operate, tended to form a surface crust through the sudden application of their weight on the wet clay or bitumen, whereas the sappers' invention produced a three-inch solid mat. It was built entirely out of salvaged enemy material and consisted of a tray supported by eleven aircraft wheels and tyres. A 3½-inch waterpipe supported five wheels in front and six behind mounted on a similar axle, so placed in echelon that the rear wheels covered the space missed by those in front. Two tons of filled sandbags on the tray provided the weight.

The demand for the Kiwi rollers became so great that eight sappers scoured the battlefields as far as Tripoli in search of wheels and tyres of enemy aircraft. In the ensuing six months the Repairs Section built seventy such rollers.

12 Capt A. W. Tassell; Whakatane; born NZ 21 Nov 1909; county engineer.