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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

2 NZ Division

2 NZ Division

On its return journey from Tunisia the Division rolled peacefully back over the thousand-odd miles of desert, semi-desert page 480 and cultivated land of North Africa where it had made New Zealand history over the past three years. Between Benghazi and Derna advance parties from the Field Companies peeled off and headed straight for Maadi to organise the camp for the Division. The sappers stopped not for break and stayed not for stone, but drove for twenty-four hours flat out to arrive at the New Zealand Forces Club unwashed and unshaven, in time for breakfast and a heroes' welcome from everybody in the building. Wherever the Division had halted for replenishment, indents for beer and other soldierly comforts were drawn for engineer units whose existence was purely imaginary but helpful in alleviating the desert-induced aridity.

The Division settled into Maadi on the last day of May and the first day of June. Fantastic stories that had filtered through the security net were forgotten when the details of the furlough scheme were announced.

The fitting-out of the lucky ones who drew a marble, the administration of the Ruapehu scheme instructions, the warrants for leave travel and such matters kept the orderly rooms too busy to notice the passage of time. The drawers of marbles were too excited and the others too unsettled to care. The Ruapehu draft marched out of Maadi on 15 June and the rest of the month was taken up with leave, fatigues and camp duties.

July was a month of absorbing reinforcements and filling the gaps left by the Ruapehu draft specialists. Radio sets had at long last become engineer equipment, and sappers attended schools of instruction in their use and upkeep. General training began at recruit level, mixed with route marches and smartening-up drill, and progressed through August and September in what might be termed graduate military engineering theory and practice, ending in attachment to the infantry brigades for manoeuvres.

During this period the Eighth and United States armies invaded and overran Sicily, leapt the Straits of Messina and carried the war on to the mainland of Europe. The Italian Government asked for an armistice, changed sides and became our co-belligerents. Germany countered by taking over the defence of Italy, and before the Eighth Army had cleared the toe of Italy and the American Fifth Army, which included a British corps, had advanced from its beach-head at Salerno, the page 481 Germans had disarmed the Italian Army and rushed enough strength to the danger points to prevent a quick Allied advance on Rome.

September saw the end of training and make-believe attacks, real enough to the reinforcements but a crashing bore to the battle hardened types who knew all there was to know about mines and mine lifting from bitter experience.

One bright spot in this period was a couple of weeks on the Suez Canal near the pleasant town of Ismailia, where each company in turn did some training on American pontoon bridge equipment. The equipment was completely foreign to the Kiwis and the value of the training negligible as they were not likely to use American Army bridging, but it was an excellent excuse for a change from Maadi and the sappers made the most of it.

October opened with the field companies preparing transport and equipment for embarkation. Their destination was unknown but not very difficult to guess.

Burg el Arab was the assembly area for the Division. It is about one hundred miles from Maadi, and as a final tougheningup exercise everyone had to march like the infantry of an earlier war: everyone but the engineers, who were excused on the understanding that they did the same mileage in route marches after arrival. They were at Burg el Arab about a fortnight, a period of short route marches followed by swims in the Mediterranean.

Advance parties packed up and disappeared; rear parties were told off to travel with the vehicles when instructed. Fifth Field Park and 8 Field Company were divided into two parties which would embark on different transports as a safety measure; 6 and 7 Field Companies would follow in due course. On 3 September the first embarking units, plus advance parties from 6 and 7 Field Companies, moved by MT to Ikingi Maryut transit camp. It was just as well that they were taken by transport for each sapper had fastened to his person his web equipment, full-scale summer and winter clothing, four blankets and one empty water can plus one bivouac tent to two men. There was probably a reason for this exercise in weight-lifting but it was kept a deep military secret. It could have been poor staff work by the embarkation people.

The engineers moved on to Alexandria, embarked, and sailed on 6 October to campaign anew in a new country, now officially known to be Italy.

page 482

Engineer officers, including those attached, who sailed with the Division to Italy were:

HQ NZ Divisional Engineers

5 Field Park Company

6 Field Company

7 Field Company

8 Field Company

Divisional Postal Uuit