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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

The Railway Groups

The Railway Groups

During the months of April and May 1943, while 2 NZ Division was in Tunisia, there was no major variation in the activities of the New Zealand Railway Construction and Maintenance Group, which was spread along the HaifaBeirutTripoli railway track; 10 Company was still having trouble in the cotton-soil country, 9 Company was ballasting and doing maintenance and 13 Company was preoccupied with metal-crushing problems.

There was general recognition that the days of the Axis in North Africa were numbered, and the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’ was answered by rumours that were the distorted shadows of facts being anxiously considered in high places.

The core of the matter was that the manpower position in New Zealand made it impossible fully to maintain two divisions overseas indefinitely. Parliament, in secret session, had decided that 2 Division should stay in the Middle East, and that both divisions should be maintained as long as possible, if necessary with smaller establishments. In the case of 2 NZ Division, this foreshadowed the use of non-divisional units as a reinforcement pool. Consideration was also being given to a scheme whereby men of the first three echelons would have a period of furlough in New Zealand.

While these and other weighty decisions were being made, at sapper levels the Construction Group was practically on its way to England in readiness for the opening of the Second Front.

The surrender of the enemy in North Africa on 13 May, information on the 15th that an Indian unit was going to take over from the Group in the near future, and proposals on 21 May for the reorganisation of the Group in an operational role simply confirmed what was already accepted as a fact—service in another campaign.

But the really electric instructions were received the following day. According to the Group Headquarters diary:

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‘Received from HQ 2 NZEF details of proposed scheme for leave to New Zealand summarised as follows: All men of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Echelons married on embarkation were to have three clear months of leave on full pay in New Zealand; not less than 35% and not more than 65% of all single men of the first three Echelons to have similar leave. Signal received from HQ 2 NZEF instructing the CO to report to HQ 2 NZEF as soon as possible—by air if possible. Air passage booked accordingly.’

Colonel Smith phoned his headquarters on the 24th to advise that 349 men from the Group would go on leave to New Zealand, names to be advised later, and that arrangements for the operational groups, less the leave party, be pushed ahead.

Nearly everybody was completely happy; the married men were sure of a trip home, as were also about half the single men of the first three echelons. As for the rest, their turn must come, and until then they would move from the Middle East to fresh woods and pastures new. But Colonel Smith returned with heavy tidings of ill import—the Group would Not be going on operations. The New Zealand Government had instructed to that effect, and further, there would be no more reinforcements. The leave draft would depart from Syria and Palestine about 4 June and the rest of the Group would probably move to the Suez Canal area.

It was a stunning blow to the pride of the builders of the Western Desert Extension—no less than a sentence of lingering death, and in the meantime a condemnation to unimportant employment outside the field of active operations.

This point of view was advanced by Colonel Smith in a letter to Headquarters 2 NZEF wherein he suggested that surely, if the Division became involved in an attack on Axis-held territories, it would prefer to have its lines of communication maintained by the Group rather than by some less experienced and less adaptable railway troops.

No doubt a suitable reply was sent, but as the Administration was acting under instructions from New Zealand there was not much that could be done about it.

The list of men who were returning to New Zealand on three months' leave (Ruapehu draft) was received on the 29th, together with instructions that the draft was to be assembled in NZ Crowley Camp, Mena, Egypt, not later than 6 June.

A Group sports meeting being organised to mark the virtual end of construction work in Syria became a general reunion page 463 before the furlough party left for Egypt. The meeting was held in the American University grounds at Beirut on 1 June, the same day that the whole of the HaifaBeirutTripoli railway was opened for daylight operation.

The furlough group left on 3 June, but that was not quite the end of the non-stop administrative work of the Company and Group Headquarters staffs. Group Headquarters' war diary entry for 4 June is illuminating:

‘The main Ruapehu draft was safely despatched by train close on midnight the preceding night, but there has been little let up in administrative work on that account. Signals are still flowing in from 2 NZEF requesting the deletion from the draft of men who have already been despatched, and the inclusion of others who had not been balloted and were out on the job, while signals are originating from this HQ and Coys explaining that men who had been balloted could not be sent for a variety of reasons. One man was en route to Turkey for special survey work, another found himself in hospital after a fall from a third story balcony, another, on guard duty, tripped and removed a portion of his nose with his bayonet and others were incapacitated by less spectacular injuries and by sickness.

‘During this time too, we have been in almost daily communication with GHQ at Cairo who are continually making fresh demands for the release of Group plant and vehicles to be used on more important work elsewhere and it must be seen to that all such vehicles and plant—low-loaders, compressors, crushers, trucks, LAD and machinery, lorries and so on—are sent away in first class condition.’

Major W. F. Young (promoted lieutenant-colonel), who assumed command of the depleted Group, was advised that it would probably remain as an independent formation for another six months, which actually was the time expected to elapse before the return of the first furlough draft and the departure of the balance of the three echelons in the second draft (Wakatipu).

He was also informed that the new war establishment would be:

Group Headquarters: 2 officers, 1 Padre, 1 medical officer, 15 other ranks.

9 NZ Railway Survey Company: 3 officers, 37 other ranks (Captain G. Rushton).

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10 NZ Railway C and M Company: 4 officers, 156 other ranks (Major F. R. Askin1).

13 NZ Railway C and M Company: 4 officers, 156 other ranks (Major D. J. B. Halley).

The work of the Group was organised as follows:

Ninth Survey Company resumed its normal functions and moved to Beirut.

Tenth Company was to carry on with its marshalling yards and other jobs between Haifa and Beirut, as well as other depot work if needed.

Thirteenth Company was to complete its jobs between Beirut and Tripoli and also take over the clearing of a big slip on the Chekka headland, 40 miles north of Beirut, where a landslide threatened the safety of both the road and the railway. Company Headquarters would occupy the camp vacated by the Survey Company at Byblos.

Group Headquarters remained at Az Zib.

The slip on the Chekka headland, where the road and the railway clung to the face of a steep hillside, was inspected by geologists, Lebanese Public Works Department engineers and other officials having to do with earth movements, including the Commander, NZ Railway C and M Group, and the upshot was that on the last day of June the New Zealanders formally assumed responsibility for all work involved in the removal of the slip, or Job 901 as it was called officially.

The intention was to remove the slip; to rebuild approximately 150 feet of railway retaining wall; to rebuild in concrete crib the damaged support wall on the outside of the road; to build a new crib wall along the toe of the slip for the full length of the damaged road; to drain the slip; to maintain road and restricted rail traffic. For Job 901 the Group would have under its command 870 Mechanical Equipment Company, 112 Mechanical Workshops Company and 250 unskilled native labourers. Finally, a bypass road around the Chekka bluff was to be surveyed by 9 Survey Company and built by Royal Engineers.

The earthwork at the slip, 118,830 cubic yards solid measurement, was completed on 28 September.

In the meantime final decisions had been made regarding the fate of all non-divisional units in the Middle East. In effect the page 465 personnel of all ancillary units would be used as reinforcements for 2 NZ Division or returned to New Zealand and civilian life with the next furlough draft, irrespective of time of service overseas. In other words, the Railway Construction and Maintenance and Operating Groups, 18 and 19 Army Troops Companies, and 21 Mechanical Equipment Company would cease to exist. The probable departure date was advanced from December to the end of October, which left about three weeks for the restoration and rebuilding of the road and railway walls, drainage and general clearing up.

These jobs were also finished before the end of October, when 10 Company and all sappers at Az Zib moved to Chekka. Ninth Survey Company, spread as usual halfway across the Middle East, completed the plans for sheds at Tel el Kebir, exchange yards at El Shatt, a connecting line to Kad el Marakeb, an ammunition depot at Gilbane and a base planning project in Turkey.

The handing back of equipment and the cleaning-up of the camp area was finished by 23 October, and on the 28th a seventy-vehicle column assembled at the Beirut petrol supply point and moved off for Maadi Camp, which was reached without incident on the afternoon of 31 October 1943—the end of the war for the New Zealand Railway C and M Group.

The marching-out of men not affected by the repatriation scheme to training depots commenced forthwith, while those of the Wakatipu furlough draft, being the balance of those who missed the Ruapehu draft, marched into New Zealand Railway Operating Details Group on 2 November.

The New Zealand Railway Operating Group, after its return to Maadi in February and March, went on leave and then began to train for what was confidently expected to be a move to England. Non-commissioned officers departed en masse to Schools of Instruction, while infantry instructors took the sappers through training in rifle, Bren gun, Thompson sub-machine gun, grenade throwing, company drill, route-marching and organised sport. Rifles were examined by armourers from the Engineer Training Depot and respirators were adjusted and disinfected. Twenty-odd sappers departed most cheerfully to duties with 169 Railway Workshops Company and 182 Railway Operating Company, RE, respectively, the latter to drive diesel locos on the KantaraEl Shatt line. Towards the end of the month training emphasis was on mortars, enemy mines and page 466 booby traps, while an island began to be spoken of as the next sphere of operations. It would be interesting to know how close the rumours were to decisions being taken at the very highest levels. A move from Maadi to Mena Camp late in May confirmed everyone in his pet destination. Two days later (28th) information was released about the Ruapehu furlough scheme.

With the Japanese navy still in being, the Admiralty considered that there was more than an element of risk in the sea voyage of the furlough draft to New Zealand, which they felt, when spoken of, should be referred to by its code-name only. Inside a matter of hours every ‘Wog’ in Cairo knew all about the scheme, and if the enemy Intelligence was not fully informed it was not our fault. The usual greeting was ‘Draw a marble?’ or ‘Are you Ruapehu?’

The furlough draft marched out to Mena Camp on 15 June and the rest of the Group was organised into a composite unit, New Zealand Railway Operating Details, under command of Major R. O. Pearse.

This Group, into which marched the Wakatipu drafts of the other ancillary units as they became available, functioned until 21 November doing camp duties, supplying men for No. 1 Guards Company at Suez, and carrying on what was called, for want of a better name, ‘normal routine’—in other words a short route march in the mornings and leave in the afternoons.

New Zealand Non-Divisional Engineer Details was formed from the disbanded Details Group on 21 November and comprised the men who finally, after several delays, left for New Zealand on 9 January 1944 with the Wakatipu draft.