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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

21 Mechanical Equipment Company

21 Mechanical Equipment Company

By the end of February the Tobruk water-supply installation at Wadi Sahal was well forward and a start had been made in excavating a site for the pumphouse; at Benghazi the provision by No. 3 Section of tarmac runways for the landing grounds at Berca was making some progress after more than a fair share of teething troubles. Repairs Section had to make an extensive overhaul of the tar pots and mixers before they would work satisfactorily. The Kiwi sapper is a prince of improvisers but detests having to put up with inefficient machinery.

The next difficulty was damp sand. The weather broke and the frequent winter showers raised the water content of the sand to a point beyond the margin where it would mix successfully with hot tar. Repairs Section overcame that problem with sand driers. Then the most suitable tar, F 70, ran out and a lower grade that came solid in drums took three hours to heat before it was ready for mixing, which meant starting an hour earlier for the tar-pot attendants. February had seen the end of these hold-ups, and the sealing work was accelerated when Repairs produced another amenity in the shape of a rubber-tyred wheelbarrow made from a large petrol drum and a small wheel stripped from an enemy plane. The barrows held one mix and were easy to push.

Berca No. 2 runway was finished by the end of March and No. 2 Section left immediately for Marble Arch. The standard of work performed by 21 Mechanical Equipment Company on the Benghazi airfields did not go unnoticed. Headquarters IX Bomber Command, Ninth US Air Force, wrote:

Colonel A. G. Bonn,

D.C.E. Aerodromes,


Dear Colonel Bonn,

Please allow me to express to you and the officers and men of your command, the sincere appreciation of all flying officers in this command, for the excellent job you have done in the page 473 construction of aerodromes in this area. I have heard nothing but praise from the pilots, which you will agree with me is exceptional and is certainly a tribute to the thoroughness of your work.

I have taken the liberty of writing of this to Major General Louis Brereton.


U. G. Ent,

Colonel, A.C.

No. 1 Section spent two months grading the several aerodromes in the Benghazi area before it was given a single task that could employ the whole section. An advance party left on 2 March for Savoia, where a large landing ground was to be built, and the balance of the sappers followed about three weeks later. Savoia was about five miles from Cyrene, midway between Benghazi and Tobruk, and the centre of an Italian farm colony but once the capital of the Roman province of Cyrenaica. Little beyond the enormous amphitheatre and extensive caves in the hills remain of the once-proud city. The sappers occupied the deserted houses of Italian colonists and made themselves thoroughly at home. The airfield was to consist of three runways, forming a capital A, the two landing strips to be 1600 yards by 50 yards and the third one 2000 yards by 50 yards respectively.

The work differed in no way from that of levelling the thousands of square yards of Middle East already undertaken by the Company over the previous two years and the first strip was handed over to the RAF on 1 April.

Repairs Section also had its hands full, for owing to the acute shortage of plant caused by urgent demands from the front and the necessity of maintaining landing strips in the Benghazi area, the section was asked to think up ways and means of constructing improvised graders. Three German tractors were brought in from the desert and two made serviceable with parts from the other. Graders were built on the pattern of one made from bits and pieces twelve months earlier.

Repairs Section and Company Headquarters joined No. 3 Section in new quarters near Tobruk for convenience in administration and maintenance.

No. 3 Section completed the pumping station towards the end of May, and after some small jobs such as grading the El Adem landing ground and adjacent roads, was assigned to the repairing of a slipway at Tobruk for the use of assault landing craft.

page 474

The project was somewhat different from that of 19 Army Troops Company in Benghazi, inasmuch as the slipway had actually been in use until it received a direct hit from an RAF bomber during the enemy occupation. The underwater section had been extensively damaged and there was a large amount of debris which had to be removed by a scoop and a tractor winch; snags were dislodged by naval divers and the sea bed graded by dredge, while crane barges were provided by salvaging three from the bottom of Tobruk harbour. They were christened nostalgically Waitemata, Tui and Hokanui, New Zealand beverages not unknown to thirsty civilian engineers.

The Company was not affected to any extent by the Ruapehu furlough draft and the work went on steadily until its completion on 30 October.

The reconstruction by No. 2 Section of the airfield at Marble Arch into an all-weather ‘drome prior to Eighth Army's resuming its advance on Tunis meant the provision of three temporary strips as the field was being used by aircraft ambulances. These were ready by the middle of April and an immediate start was made on No. 1 runway, 2000 yards long by 50 wide, which was to be covered with three inches of bitumen mix. Eight mixers were used and worked sixteen hours daily. The job was started on 15 April and handed over to the Air Force on the 30th—100,000 square yards of bitumen laid in sixteen days, less four half-days lost through shortage of bitumen supplies.

The war in North Africa ended but the aerodrome work went on in readiness for the invasion of Italy. Imagine then the consternation of the section when it was informed that it was to represent the Company at an inspection by a VIP at Tripoli on 21 June. It has been indicated in this history that non-divisional engineers had not been very successful at ceremonial parades, and No. 2 Section, according to its unofficial historian, ran true to form:

‘The writer will never forget the spectacle that No. 2 Section of the 21st Mech. Equip. Co. made on that parade at Tripoli. 38 men in all, wearing NZ Summer dress showing, despite creditable efforts at cleaning and pressing, much sign of the hard wear and grime it had been subject to…. When we arrived at the Tripoli Marine Parade lined with date palms and immaculately dressed and drilled troops from all parts of the Empire our officer called us to attention and commenced to career down the centre of the awe inspiring avenue bounding page 475 with his long legs and peculiar gait like a gazelle over thorn bushes. The leaders of the column made gallant attempts to keep at least within hearing distance… imagine the spectacle! Imagine the shame! However, we saw the King and the King saw us and after seven days we were back on the job again.’3

The New Zealand non-divisional engineers were definitely not parade-ground soldiers.

No. 1 Section carried on with the draining and grading of the second runway, which was ready at the end of May, and a start was made on the third, with sub-sections away on other like jobs at Barce and Tocra aerodromes. By the end of June the greater part of the earthwork on No. 3 runway was completed and an ‘aerodrome planer’, invented and built by Repairs Section, used crosswise and longitudinally on all three with excellent results. The marching in of an Indian labour unit and the setting up of two metal crushers for stockpiling material for tarsealing were the only events of note during this period.

The Marble Arch project was finished on the last day of June and No. 2 Section, which had watched with pride the fighting men of 2 NZ Division roll past Mussolini's edifice on 22 and 23 May and were thus the last New Zealanders in Tripolitania, began to move to Savoia where they were to work with No. 1 Section. The move with all the heavy equipment was completed on 9 July, when the sappers had moved into a batch of farmhouses near No. 1 Section.

Savoia aerodrome was a big construction job and an important one, for it was part of the Air Force base for the invasion of Italy. The crushing, spreading and rolling of metal, the heating and spraying of bitumen was done in double shifts and more labour was marched in to assist. Before the metalling began on No. 1 runway (10 August), two West African and one Palestinian Arab pioneer companies were working under the direction of the Kiwi sappers.

The job was going ahead at a satisfactory pace but faster progress was asked for, even though it might affect the quality of the work. September the 30th was given as the deadline for the completion of Nos. 1 and 3 runways, north and south taxiing tracks, dispersal and access roads. Extra plant was promised which, of course, never arrived, but the place was haunted by inspecting officials of high and low degree. No. 1 runway was page 476 completed at midday on 18 September and one aircraft took off and landed again. In the meantime the deadline for No. 3 had been extended to 15 October. The metalling was finished on 9 October but rain held up the sealing until the 17th, as the Company war diary, incidentally almost the last entry, describes:

‘Usual Sunday routine except for men assisting No. 1 Sec. All runways, taxi tracks, dispersal bays and roads are now complete. Only work remaining consists of small jobs for DCRE and RAF and cleaning and dispatching plant. Section won cricket match against BMA from Beda Littoria.’

Twenty-first Mechanical Equipment Company had finished its last construction job.

The sections concentrated at Tobruk and proceeded in convoy to Maadi Camp, whither Headquarters had preceded them. It was the first time in two years and nine months' campaigning that the whole Company was in the one place at the same time. Men were marched out to different units until the Company ceased to exist at midnight on 21 November 1943, when the remaining strength marched out to New Zealand Non-Divisional Engineer Details.