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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

CHAPTER 16 — Reorganisation

page 461


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).

page 464

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.

The Army Troops Companies

Repair and salvage jobs kept 19 Army Troops Company busy in Benghazi throughout March, with sixty different works orders in varying stages of completion from not started to almost finished. They ranged in complexity from the removal of petrol installations from a derelict ship and the raising of sunken tugs to Job 109/112, which was—‘Construct one 6 hole squatter native latrine for 209 Z Craft Co. and one similar 3 holer at Ceremonial Landing’.

The storm-wrecked port was now of little consequence as a supply point for the Eighth Army but was assuming importance for another project scarcely dreamed of in sapper circles outside the Directorate of Works at General Headquarters, Middle East page 467 Force; Benghazi was, even then, being prepared for use in the contemplated invasion of Italy that was to follow the end of the fighting in North Africa. In addition, the vast Benina airfield where 21 Mechanical Equipment Company was working needed water for the growing RAF and USA bombing forces which were to precede and accompany the landing in Sicily.

Many months of work lay ahead for the New Zealand sappers, but since the concentration of the unit, billets were overcrowded and the offer of the White Barracks was gladly accepted. Some scope for renovators existed, for after being bombed by both armies, much of the barracks' roofing needed repairs and all the windows were without glass. There was also a complete absence of furnishings and the water supply had been demolished.

The reconstruction of the barracks was entrusted to No. 4 Section, which had previously shown marked acquisitive ability, and Major Marchbanks co-operated by not finding any reason to be in the vicinity. Sergeant Bert Adamson,2 who was in charge of the job, held an Army Headquarters salvaging authority which he used to good effect in collecting doors, windows, beds and furnishings for the new home, an activity certainly not envisaged when the authority was issued. A clean sweep was made of a recently renovated building, and Adamson found his detachment under close arrest for despoiling the new quarters of the Provost Corps.

The Kiwi sergeant had to disclose considerable ability as a bush lawyer and listen to a crisp address on the predatory instincts of New Zealanders in general, and 19 Army Troops Company in particular, before his men were released.

The Electrical and Mechanical Section had by this time linked up and was operating all the powerhouses in Benghazi, and favourable comment was made by Army and Navy authorities on the freedom from faults and power failures.

The port was to be a fuel-oil base for light craft, and probably as a result of the successful commissioning of the Kiwi referred to in a previous chapter the Company was found another ship, the sunken oil tanker Speranzo, which the Navy considered could be salvaged for use in the operation of the base.

The Speranzo was an entirely different problem from the wooden Kiwi. She was steel-built and had a hole in her side 15 feet wide by 25 feet deep which called for extensive welding. It was really a shipyard job—but there was no shipyard.

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When the Company took over in the middle of April the wreck had been beached near Customhouse Quay, together with a number of other derelicts cleared from the channels adjacent to the berths. She was winched into shallower water, a section cut out of the steel deck and a start made on burning off the jagged plates with oxy-acetylene torches. The problem of welding 16 ft by 4 ft straight steel plates on to a curving bow was solved by overlapping each plate, and by the end of May, with improvisations of concrete, steel mesh and a two-inch seal of plaster, the Speranzo was made watertight and handed over to the naval people as an oil supply ship.

Concurrent with the ship-repairing operations was the building of a 1000-ton oil reservoir and the construction of floating pipelines of alternate lengths of steel pipe and rubber hosing. Permanent submarine pipelines posed more problems, for steel piping was in very short supply. Salvaged 100 ft lengths of pipe joined with rubber hose were not satisfactory and an original procedure was adopted in the laying of a second oil pipeline. Some 250 yards of pipe were welded into a unit, floated into position along a line cleared of sunken obstacles and, after some trouble, securely anchored and connected to the shore by flexible armoured hose—an unorthodox solution but a complete success.

The responsibility for the supply of water to Benghazi and Benina was another major project entrusted to the Company. A South African unit had maintained the existing water points but an extensive programme of works to meet the growing demands included reservoirs, booster stations and pumphouses, all of which were built by the New Zealand engineers.

Work had not been long started when the Company was called on to supply water for a welcome customer. The Division was passing en route to Cairo and needed hot showers. On no other occasion had the sappers to meet such a demand and on no other occasion did they work with greater enthusiasm; the boosters went flat out for twenty-four hours non-stop, and the supply somehow survived the demand without a breakdown.

Further evidence of the port's new importance was provided by the arrival of specialist engineers on 12 May—the day before hostilities ceased in North Africa—to select Fairmile slipway sites for the shipping repairs which might reasonably be anticipated by an invasion force.

The western end of Cathedral Mole was chosen and the construction of two slipways entrusted to 19 Army Troops Company, page 469 but apparently the specialists were not in complete accord for amendments and a stream of correspondence seeking additional data held the project up until the strength of the Company had been depleted by the departure on 3 June of the Ruapehu draft.

At that period No. 2 Section was employed on Benghazi water supply; No. 3 Section on the construction of the concrete reservoir for Navy fuel oil; No. 4 Section on the Fairmile slipways and timber fenders for underwater fuel pipes; E and M Section on fuel pipelines, electrical supply, welding jobs on tank landing craft and on various shop jobs.

The revised design for the Fairmile slipways meant, for each one, the precasting of fourteen 25 feet concrete sleepers weighing approximately ten tons each, which were to be laid for 250 feet underwater. There was, in addition, the dredging, underwater filling and grading before the concrete sleepers could be lifted by the Kiwi and laid in position—a heavy engineering project of some complexity. Work on this and the other assignments went on steadily until the middle of August, during which time (on 9 August) Major Marchbanks left to take command of 5 Field Park Company and Major Learmonth became OC 19 Army Troops Company. A couple of days later the Company was instructed that the Fairmile slipways were a No. 1 priority job and that every endeavour should be made to assure the completion of the first one before the end of September. Despite interruptions through the diversion of the dredge and lighters to presumably even more important work, the first slipway was practically finished a week before the deadline.

The fuel-oil installation—reservoirs, pumphouse and pipelines—was ready, 700 tons of fuel oil discharged into the reservoir and the job handed over to the Navy on 29 September.

Arrangements were now being made for the return of the Company to Maadi and an extra effort was put into finishing the second slipway. On 7 October, when a week of fine weather would have seen it ready, OC 19 Army Troops Company received a signal from No. 109 RE Works Section, Middle East Forces, ‘As second slipway Benghazi not required stop work on this’.

Such a blow would have broken the hearts of ordinary men, but the sappers of 19 Army Troops Company were used to it. Had they not helped to build a complete harbour at Safaga which was never used? The upsets that happen in long-range planning were no concern of theirs, and the second leave draft page 470 would soon be leaving for home. But a stack of a hundred tons of cast concrete frames was a testimony to the vagaries of wartime engineering.

On 8 October a Palestinian Army Troops Company began to take over the water-supply installations, and two days later the Company was told to be ready to move out at an early date.

Equipment was handed over and gear packed, and on 17 October 19 Army Troops Company left Benghazi and marched into NZ Railway Operating Details; four days later those not eligible for the second leave draft were posted to other units and 19 Army Troops Company was disbanded.

The possibility of a change in location implied in the instructions received by 18 Army Troops Company at the end of January became a probability in February and a fact in March, during which period the drop in the amount of water pumped into the Western Desert pipeline and the diminished maintenance consequent thereon permitted Headquarters to get rid of non-essential material and have a general clean-up. No. 4 Detachment at Burbeita was the first to move out. It completed the handing over of all duties west of Daba, exclusive, to 44 Water Maintenance Company, SAEC, on 10 March, spent a few days in smartening-up drill, proceeded to Ismailia, found the orders to join No. 2 Detachment cancelled, and by the end of the month had settled into a camp built for the Company at Adabiya Bay.

No. 1 carried on at Alamein with normal pumping duties. The highlights of the month, according to the Detachment diary, were the accouchement on 7 February of Farida, the family cat, in the cook's bed, and the mixture of gale force wind, sand, rain and cold that raged for three days (22nd–24th), considered the worst yet experienced. March was a succession of sandstorms, in between which 44 Water Maintenance Company was shown over the area. The Detachment diary sketches the scene:

‘March 30—Morning spent winding up the estate—tidying up the area, disposing with poultry, dogs, cats etc., and placing the house in order. Saw Signals and returned telephones and gave new address.’

No. 2 Detachment at Chevalier Island, which, it will be remembered, consisted of any sappers sent down from the ‘Blue’ for a change of air, had been pile-driving and siting and tying in fuel pipelines, a job very similar to that done by 19 Army page 471 Troops Company at Benghazi, when it was told to get its works orders cleaned up as soon as possible as it would probably be leaving some time in March. The convoy left Ismailia on 1 April and, together with Headquarters and No. 1 Detachment, settled into the new camp at Adabiya Bay that evening.

No. 3 Detachment sappers at Amiriya were not relieved of Western Desert water-supply duties by 44 Company until 9 April, when they joined the rest of the company at Adabiya Bay. The crew of Water Barge No. 4 from Tobruk had already marched in, No. 3 came in from Alexandria a fortnight later, and No. 5 from Benghazi rejoined on 5 May.

Eighteenth Army Troops Company re-formed into sections and spent three weeks training with American pontoon bridging, tubular scaffolding, bridging cribs, sheetpiling and light standard steel trestlework. It did not escape the notice of the trainees that an ability with such materials would be very handy when forcing a landing on a hostile coast. Morale rose to a pitch indicated by an entry in the war diary when the Company, after its tour of training at Adabiya, moved on to the RE Training Depot at Moascar for its post-graduate course in assault landing technique. The single entry for the afternoon 21 April, while the Company was en route for Moascar, read: ‘Tally Ho!’

The whole of May was spent in general field engineer training, and the Company was spreading along the Canal area in various stand-by jobs on 4 June when the blow fell. Eighteenth Army Troops Company was not eligible under the furlough scheme, but its fate was to provide reinforcements for 2 NZ Division. Even the GOC's letter to Major Learmonth did not help much:

My Dear Major Learmonth,

I would like to write and express my regret that circumstances have made it necessary to disband 18 Army Tps Coy. It is doubly hard as I have heard from all quarters high praise of the work done by the Company, and I am well aware that their work, while not as spectacular as that of the Division, contributes in full measure to the common cause. The reputation of NZ Engineers stands very high.

Would you please explain the situation to the men and give my sincere thanks to the Unit for good and faithful service.

Yours Truly,

B. C. Freyberg

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In accordance with a signal from Chief Engineer, British Troops in Egypt, the Company handed back the jobs it had taken over and on 4 July marched in to New Zealand Engineer Training Depot, Maadi, gave itself a ‘break-up’ party, handed in its equipment, and ceased to be a unit of the New Zealand armed forces on 24 July 1943.

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.

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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.

Forestry Group

The strengths and locations of the units of the Forestry Group, NZE, as at 1 March 1943 were:

Company Location Strength
Offrs Other ranks
Headquarters Chippenham, Wilts. 6 17
11 Company Cirencester, Glos. 7 159
14 Company Chippenham, Wilts. 4 98
Burbage, Wilts. 2 58
Charfield, Glos. 1 14
15 Company Langrish, Hants. 2 54
Arundel, Sussex 3 80
Woolmer, Hants. 2 29
27 509

A weekly average of 326 Pioneers worked under the direction of the Group, 95 with 11 Company, 147 with 14 Company and 84 with 15 Company.

It was announced that owing to the considerable variation in the weekly hours worked by forestry units, the War Office, on page 477 request, had regularised the position. Commencing on Monday, 15 March, the weekly working hours were increased from 40 to 45, which meant a nine-hour day, but the actual times for starting and stopping were left to company commanders. Saturday mornings were to be devoted to training, while the days of collective training were increased from ten to fourteen every six months. Attention was also drawn to the fact that frequent attacks by low-flying enemy planes had been made in the Southern Command recently and that all troops had to be prepared to take retaliatory action.

map of southern Italy

Production continued to run at a satisfactory level until new specifications were received from the Ministry of Supply in April. Concern was expressed over the high proportion of the thicker sizes of square hardwood planks and boards which military mills continued to produce for the National Stock. The greatest demand was for 1½ in. and 2 in. thicknesses and the largest single item was timber for ammunition boxes. It was admitted that the cutting of such small sizes would curtail the output of mills employing circular saws, but this loss, it was suggested, would be more than counter-balanced by the saving in labour and transport during later handling and conversion.

Little of note occurred during the period April to July; there was a drop in production through major breakdowns in the hauling equipment and the Arundel East mill was closed down for lack of timber.

The furlough scheme in 2 NZ Division was not considered as being applicable to the Forestry and other New Zealand personnel in the United Kingdom, and consequently the reorganisation and elimination of non-divisional units that took place in Egypt had no counterpart in England.

The later policy of returning specialist groups to civilian life was in due course extended to include the New Zealand Forestry Group. This was mentioned when the decision was communicated by the New Zealand Government to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs:

‘Because of the very heavy demands for timber construction work for the United States Forces in New Zealand and the Pacific, consideration is also being given to the withdrawal of one or more of the New Zealand Forestry companies, which since 1940 have been stationed in the United Kingdom. This matter will be the subject of a later message.’4

page 478

Lieutenant-Colonel Eliott relinquished command of the Group on 1 July 1943 and Lieutenant-Colonel H. M. Reid, last mentioned as having been recaptured in a hospital in Tripoli, became CO NZ Forestry Group the same day.

The sappers were doing their half-yearly training in field works at this time, and before timber production was resumed Colonel Reid was instructed to assemble at Cirencester all Grade III men and all men married in New Zealand in preparation for their return about mid-August.

Hard on the heels of this instruction came the news that Allied Force Headquarters in North Africa had asked for the early despatch of a forestry company for operations in that theatre, and that the New Zealand Government had agreed to form one company for service under Allied Force Headquarters. The remaining men would return to New Zealand.

Fourteenth Company was selected to proceed to a tropical destination at an early date, but not as then constituted. The Group was to be reorganised on a medical grading basis with all Grade I men transferred to 14 Company; men married in New Zealand and all single Grade III men went to 11 Company, and men married in England and all single Grade II men to 15 Company.

Fourteenth Company handed over its equipment and plant to the appropriate authorities and thanked 1 Spanish Pioneer Company for its goodwill and efforts over the two years they had been together, efforts that had helped materially in the creditable showing made in competition with all the forestry companies in England.

The new 14 Company was assembled for the first time on 28 July and went on embarkation leave the next day. On return it crated two portable mills, entrained on 11 August and sailed on 16 August 1943 for a tropical, but officially unknown, destination.

The command of 14 Forestry Company at the date of sailing was:

  • Major D. V. Thomas

  • Captain K. O. Tunnicliffe

  • Lieutenant A. P. Thomson

  • Lieutenant L. J. McKenzie

  • Lieutenant W. L. Cook

  • Lieutenant A. N. Sexton

  • Lieutenant J. T. Pasco

page 479

The day after 14 Company entrained, 11 Company was warned to be ready to move overseas on 4 September and went on embarkation leave forthwith. This left the reorganised 15 Company the only New Zealand unit working in England. It was during this period that the following appeared in Southern Command orders:

Act Of Gallantry

On July 1st 1943 an aircraft crashed and burst into flames. No. 12887 Sapper O. N. Stokes5 and No. 35563 Sapper B. Leydon,6 14 Forestry Company, New Zealand Engineers, showing complete disregard for their own personal safety, immediately ran towards the aircraft and, in spite of exploding ammunition, burst petrol tanks and flames, made a gallant effort to rescue the crew.

The G.O.C.-in-C. wishes that a record of this act be made in the documents of Sappers Stokes and Leydon.

There was not a great deal of cutting done in August because of cleaning up and reorganisation. Langrish and Woolmer were short of labour and Arundel had trouble with large logs that had to be blasted open, and with dry logs requiring the frequent changing of saws. Fifteenth Company's troubles came to an abrupt end on 30 August when a telephone message ordered the Company to prepare for embarkation with 11 Company, whose sailing date had been altered to 18 September.

The Company ceased operations on 2 September with a tally of 3888 cubic feet of sawn timber, bringing the grand total of sawn timber produced by the New Zealand Forestry Group in the United Kingdom to 3,255,339 cubic feet.

New Zealand bushmen had been felling timber in the south and west of England for three years. During that time the output of the Group was consistently higher than that of like formations from Canada, Australia, Newfoundland and the United Kingdom. As with the sappers of the other non-divisional units, the Kiwi bushman stood in no man's shadow.

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

1 Maj F. R. Askin; Wellington; born Timaru, 8 Mar 1909; civil engineer; wounded 18 Mar 1944.

2 WO II A. Adamson; born NZ 10 Nov 1900; carpenter.

3 D. D. Alderton, Unofficial History of No. 2 Section, 21 Mechanical Equipment Company.

4 Documents, Vol. II, p. 247.

5 Spr O. N. Stokes; Westport; born Granity, 12 Apr 1901; forestry department, NZR.

6 S-Sgt B. McM. Leydon; Wellington; born Palmerston North, 7 Apr 1916; customs clerk.