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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

14 Forestry Company in Algiers

14 Forestry Company in Algiers

The Forestry sappers were informed four days after sailing that their destination was Algiers. Algiers was just a name to most of them but the dictionaries, both French and Italian, with which they were issued were real enough.

They disembarked on 25 August and marched to ‘P’ Reception Area, a camp outside the city, and passed a busy two days unloading and collecting their equipment.

Major Thomas reported to the Director of Works, Africa Force Headquarters, and was informed that the unit had been called to the Mediterranean at his request; that the intention had been for the unit to operate in Italy; that Sicily was being considered and that the OC might be sent there to reconnoitre; that the timber position in North Africa was very acute; that the unit would therefore most likely be called on for the first few months to help alleviate it. The portable mills were living up to their names for they were still on the high seas somewhere, nobody knew quite where, and in the meantime the Company took over hygiene and anti-malaria duties in the camp, as well as providing 100 men daily for work on the docks while the Arab watersiders were on strike. In between times they explored Algiers.

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Major Thomas and Captain Tunnicliffe left on 1 September to make an appraisal of the milling possibilities of Bugeaud forest, a national reserve under the Administration des Eaux et Forêts near Bone, some 250 miles east of Algiers and about the same distance by road from Tunis.

The Bugeaud forest consisted of 1000 cubic metres of oak and 300 cubic metres of maritime pine in lengths of from 7 to 14 metres containing approximately 10 cubic feet log measurement; two crawler tractors with winches and two 3-ton trucks would be needed for getting the logs out; the roads were of earth and were serviceable in fine weather; over-all there was nothing particularly difficult about the area except that, the logs being small and the terrain rough, there was a likelihood of delays at the mill end.

Authority approved of the area being milled; equipment and baggage were loaded on the train for Bone, which was reached on 11 September. The move to Bugeaud was completed the same day and work on the camp site and mills began immediately; a party accompanied by French forestry officials started to measure the standing timber.

Four tractors that were supposed to be awaiting the Company's arrival in Algiers had still not been located, but the CRE Bone, under whose directions the sappers were working, made available a D7 tractor and driver from an RE formation. A start had been made with felling and it was now possible at least to bring the logs in to the roadside. A day or so later authority was received to draw a pick-up, a water cart and three three-tonners; one of the latter was converted for logging and the first load of logs was delivered to the mill on 20 September. No. 2 mill began cutting the next day but owing to teething troubles did not get into full production until the 27th, by which date No. 1 mill was also ready for work. The combined output was 10,092 board feet, and the first load of sawn timber was also delivered that day.

October was a month that went according to routine. Advice was received that a third mill was being shipped to Bone from the United Kingdom during the month, but the continued non-arrival of the tractors caused concern. Major Thomas took the matter up at a conference he attended in Algiers and it was agreed to cable the War Office, but he was warned that if in fact the tractors had arrived they had probably gone into the common pool, and that 14 Forestry Company was No. 7 on the page 528 priority list. Production for October, the first full working month, was 173,464 superficial feet of sawn timber and 292 tons of slabs.

The Company war diary for November contains little beyond predictions concerning the arrival of tractors and trucks, the taking on loan of substitutes, the delivery of types of equipment different from that expected, and stoppages because of rain. Finality was reached on 26 November when authority was received for the exchange of four standard narrow-track tractors, which had eventually turned up, for four standard track widegauge D4s. The unit thus lost its new plant but obtained a type more suitable for its operations.

Meanwhile Major Thomas had left for Italy early in the month to report on the timber situation there, both as regards sawn stocks and standing timber areas. In his absence Captain Tunnicliffe, in company with the Deputy Assistant Director of Works (DADW for short), explored around for further pine stands and was assured that there was no possibility of the company following its commanding officer, at least not in the foreseeable future. Timber in Algeria was in such short supply and the shipping position so difficult that the Kiwis were to maintain production as long as the weather permitted the use of the unmetalled roads. Such was the position on 29 November; but on 1 December 14 NZ Forestry Company was warned to be equipped and ready to move to Italy on 4 December. It was clearly not possible to work the mills and pack them up at the same time, so cutting was continued while confirmation of the warning order was sought from the Assistant Director of Works, Headquarters Africa Force.

The reply, when it came, was that the instructions were to be carried out, but as there would be considerable delay before the move could take place, and in view of the acute shortage of timber, the mills should keep on cutting as long as possible.

To make the confusion a little more complete, the third portable mill arrived from England. The fine weather, contrary to expectations, continued to hold and the third mill was put down near the other two and given a trial run. The production records show that on 9 December half a million superficial feet of timber had been sawn by the Company in Algiers.

Major Thomas's report on the timber situation in Allied-occupied Italy stated that in the Calabria, where the Apennine Mountains spread like open fingers across the toe of Italy, there were considerable areas of forest and a number of mills being page 529 worked by civilians, but there was urgent need for organisation and supervision. Farther north there was a large mill in the Bosco d'Umbra, situated on the Gargano Peninsula, which could supply the immediate needs of Eighth Army if it was worked to capacity; there was also sufficient timber available to work another mill.

Major Thomas returned to North Africa on 18 December with instructions to send two detachments of one officer and twelve sappers to Italy immediately, one for organisation work in the Calabria and the other to speed up production in the Bosco d'Umbra.

Lieutenant Sexton39 and party were detailed for Calabria and Captain Tunnicliffe and party for the mill in the Bosco d'Umbra. Both were to move out on 20 December, which meant that three mills would have to be worked with twenty-four fewer men than had operated two; and at the same time they were crating up non-essential equipment and fitting winches to the tractors to cope with the hilly country and climatic conditions in which they were likely to be operating.

It was not until 30 January 1944 that orders were received to concentrate unit stores, equipment and transport at Bone on 2 February for movement overseas. Loading was completed on the 4th and a clearance obtained for ordnance, barracks and engineer stores with an ease out of all proportion to its value and discrepancies—for the consideration of one pint of rum. The sappers embarked on the 10th and the Company's last entry in its African war diary ends:

‘Company cooks and fatigues took over all messing arrangements with unchecked rations, extremely inadequate cooking facilities and two hours to prepare the first meal.’

39 Lt A. N. Sexton, MBE; Auckland; born NZ; forester; Conservator of Forests, Auckland.