Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

New Zealand Engineers, Middle East


page 30

The Third Echelon, of which 8 Field Company was a component, began training in New Zealand in May 1940. The Engineers' teething troubles were much the same as those of previous units except for an epidemic of influenza which interrupted the training.

The official intimation that the King of Italy would consider himself at war with Great Britain and France from midnight on 10 June 1940 provoked the reply, transmitted by the United States Ambassador in Rome to the Italian Government, that His Majesty's Government in New Zealand associated themselves in that matter with His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom and with the Government of France—which was a long-winded way of saying we would be in too.

The excitement occasioned by the Italian declaration was increased by rumours. Eighth Field Company, and as many others as could be packed aboard, were said to be sailing almost immediately in the Awatea, which was at that moment in port at Wellington. Training, however, went on until Friday, 19 June, when the Company was paraded and informed that following representations from the War Office, Army Headquarters was applying the present strength of 8 Field to form two other units, 18 and 19 Army Troops Companies. They were to depart on final leave forthwith, and during their absence more men would be called up to bring the new companies up to establishment.

The transformation of 8 Field into two Army Troops Companies (18 under Major Lincoln1 and 19 under Major Langbein2) was the result of a message to the United Kingdom Government to the effect that if the New Zealand Government could do anything more to disabuse the Italian Government of the idea that the war was all over bar the Victory Parade, the Imperial Government only had to mention it.

page 31

The Imperial Government did mention it: could the New Zealand Government consider providing, in addition to the Forestry, Railway Survey3 and transportation units already being despatched, another Railway Construction, two Railway Operating and another two Forestry companies? The Army Council would also be glad if the New Zealand Government would consider the provision of two Army Troops companies of Engineers.

The establishment of an Army Troops Company—288 all ranks—was higher than that of a Field Company and the organisation was different, with a Company Headquarters, which included a workshop, an electrical and mechanical section and four sections for general engineer work.

The function of an Army Troops Company is to carry out engineering projects along the lines of communication. It normally has no connection with divisional formations and is under command of CRE, Base, or CRE, L of C Sub-Area. The work is prosaic and there is no seeking ‘the bubble reputation at the cannon's mouth’; no glory; just tradesmen and civil engineers in uniform.

It did not turn out that way with 19 Army Troops Company, but let us not anticipate.

Back from final leave and ready—as they thought—to sail to Vancouver, thence across Canada to Montreal and finally to England, the sappers found instead an extensive programme of instruction waiting them on the Trentham training circuits and in the Trentham lecture rooms.

The rumour of an early departure had been no rumour, but difficulties in providing an escort, plus the reluctance of the Government to sanction the voyage without one, ended in the cancellation of the project. A reappraisal of the situation resulted in the Imperial authorities suggesting, and the New Zealand Government agreeing, that 14 Forestry Company (Captain O. Jones) and 15 Forestry Company (Captain C. Biggs) be sent to join 11 Forestry Company in England, and that Headquarters Railway Operating Group (Lieutenant-Colonel Sage4), page 32 13 Railway Construction Company (Major R. T. Smith5), 16 Railway Operating Company (Major Aickin6), 17 Railway Operating Company (Major Poole7) and the Army Troops Companies go to the Egyptian theatre. Transportation units, to use the technical term, would be GHQ troops and would work under the direct supervision of the Director-General of Transportation, General Headquarters, Middle East.

The intention at that date was to re-form 8 Field Company and despatch it as soon as possible so that each infantry brigade might have its correct engineer complement. In the meantime, one of the Army Troops Companies, although not trained or organised for the role, was to be at the disposal of General Freyberg and attached to 2 New Zealand Division.

Fresh complications ensued with the end of the French resistance; the defence of the Pacific became the sole responsibility of the over-stretched British Navy and Japan began to make far-reaching demands. It was time for New Zealand to look to its outer defences along the line Tonga, Fiji, the New Hebrides; 18 Army Troops Company was earmarked for essential preparatory work in Fiji and only the 19th sailed with the Railway and Forestry Groups in the Third Echelon.

They departed on 28 August 1940 and left 18 Army Troops Company gloomy in Trentham; 6 Field Company was digging dugouts and building pillboxes at Agamy Beach, Alexandria; 5 Field Park was preparing to move to Railhead at Sidi Haneish; 9 Survey, 10 Construction and Headquarters Railway Construction and Maintenance Group were stretching their legs in Capetown en route from England to Egypt; 11 Forestry was building road blocks in the south of England; 7 Field Company was working with the Second Echelon, now organised as 2 NZ (UK) Division and standing by to move into the danger area between Maidstone and Dover.

With one third of the New Zealand Division in Egypt, one third in England and one third in New Zealand, the question of its ultimate concentration posed some problems. The im- page 33 mediate threat was to the United Kingdom, the security of which was vital, but the shortness of the time left to the enemy before the winter storms made a water-borne invasion unlikely also made it impossible for the Third Echelon to reach England in time.

On the other hand, the retention of our position in the Middle East was also vital, for on it hinged the defence of the Suez Canal, the oilfields of Iran and Iraq and the Red Sea lines of communication.

As to the Italian naval danger, two convoys had lately been passed through the Red Sea without loss. The Third Echelon therefore would go to Egypt and the Second would follow as soon as the German invasion threat was resolved.

Besides Fremantle, the route to Egypt took in Bombay, the first eastern city for the great majority. For two days the sappers went sightseeing, by taxi or, according to the finances, on foot. Shawl and brassware souvenir vendors did a good trade, but the strangest bargain was made by a sapper who thought he was giving alms and found to his horror that he had purchased a baby. The mother was so insistent on handing over her unwanted and unwashed infant that it was necessary to make a hurried retreat to the safety of the dock picket line.

The Third Echelon engineers disembarked at Port Tewfik on 29 September, twelve days after 9 Railway Survey and 10 Railway Construction Companies had arrived in Maadi from England. The ‘Glamour Boys’ had pitched tents for the newcomers, collected their own equipment and departed into the ‘blue’ towards the work for which they had been sent from England.

Before the formal moves took place, however, a small party had been sent forward to Daba. Corporal Farrell,8 who was in charge, wrote a racy description of their adventures. After describing how the driver taking them to the Cairo railway got lost and landed back in Maadi with his passengers, and how he himself was then supplied with a truck and a guide as far as the Pyramids so that he could not again get lost, because from there there was only one road, he continues:

‘Just at dusk, weary, cramped and hungry, we ran into a large CCS and tried to persuade them to take us in as patients suffering from anxiety neurosis and inanition. They declined, politely but quite firmly but cheered us up by saying that the apparently mythical Daba was only four miles ahead…. our page 34 hearts leapt high within us when we perceived, standing in the middle of the road, a Kiwil Never was a member of the Div. Cav. as welcome as was this solitary representative of theirs at this hour. He led us to his orderly room, where a ring was put through to the only REs in the place and therefore the only British Army Engineers who could have had anything to do with the “running of trains”. But no! When they were asked if they knew anything about some fellows who had come along to help them in the running of their trains they replied that they didn't; and furthermore they showed not the slightest anxiety to be saddled with the feeding of sixteen hungry Sappers from a strange land.

‘The good old CO of the Div Cav was made of different stuff. He bellowed for his Quartermaster and demanded “beds for all who come”. He bellowed to the cooks “Bring wine for them and food”. I think he'd have got us dancing girls if we'd asked for them. Well, we dined, we talked, we rested and we drank beer with our newfound friends, and then we staggered off to bed, good pals all, determined that henceforth the blasted railways could run themselves. We were going to be Cavalrymen.

‘But it was not to be. A wave of inspiration had struck those Tommy engineers during the night and they rang some headquarters somewhere and had been struck with a squall of knowledge. Before dawn broke there was a suppliant knocking at our door and begging our attendance at their camp. Regretfully we said goodbye to the brilliant careers we had envisaged for ourselves as cavalrymen….

‘The Tommies received us with open arms. The Major said, “By Jove, you've no idea how pleased we are to receive you fellas. You see, the position is that the Wogs are afraid of the bombing. They've refused to work today, and in a couple of days we're having a big conference here between representatives of the Egyptian Government and the Army, and then we'll be taking over the running of this line from Daba to Matruh. Some Aussies are coming up too, and between you fellas and our fellas we'll have just about enough chaps to run this show. You just rest yourselves a couple of days and think the job over.”’

The sappers rested and thought, but the Egyptian Government did not hand over the line and the Wogs returned to the job. The party stayed near the military sidings in case the return was only temporary and waited until their unit arrived.

page 35

On 1 October Colonel Anderson's headquarters and 10 Railway Construction Company were settling in at Maaten Burbeita, a couple of miles from Baggush, while 9 Railway Survey Company was making itself comfortable at Garawla, eight miles east. A previously detailed party from 9 Railway Survey Company commanded by Lieutenant D. S. G. Marchbanks (10 Railway Construction Company) left Cairo the same day to make an inspection of all railway bridges in the Sudan and survey sites for deviations in case they were bombed by the Italians. At this date Kassala had been captured by the enemy and the south-eastern railway system disrupted. The party was given, when it reached Khartoum, a carriage with sleeping quarters, cooking facilities and an attendant, and covered the whole Sudan railway system.9 Within forty-eight hours of making themselves comfortable at Garawla No. 3 Section (Captain Nevins10) was on its way to Palestine on a depot survey job.

Before he had moved into the desert Colonel Anderson had been warned to hold himself in readiness to find and map a route for the extension of the railway system as far west as the military situation would permit. The actual fixing of the path of a new line is the most important, difficult and interesting part of railway construction. First there is a reconnaissance of the area between the two terminals, then a preliminary survey of a general route that has been thus disclosed, and finally the paper location or marking in of the actual route decided upon. The route is finally pegged out on the ground for the construction units, but if an Army Commander is waiting on your railway line you make quick decisions, try to solve your problems as you go and hope you have found the right answers.

The only considerable engineering difficulty in the initial stages was the climbing of the escarpment mentioned earlier, because the actual point of departure from the main line had already been decided by the engineers of the Egyptian State Railways. The junction, later called Similla, was approximately eight miles east of Matruh. From Matruh to Sidi Barrani the ground rises in a series of terraces for about 25 miles inland, then swings to the coast at Sollum where it is extremely precipitous. It was to avoid this coast area that the line was to be taken inland south of Sidi Barrani.

page 36
map of railway route

western desert railway and extension

page 37

The first section to Charing Cross on the road to Siwa was begun on 4 October, when a party commanded by Captain Halley11 commenced the examination of possible routes. This date, 4 October 1940, may be taken as the start of the most important task of the New Zealand Railway Engineers in the Middle East.

Lieutenant Macky12 and party had the task of laying out the traffic handling facilities, including shunting yards, loops and stations giving access both towards Matruh and Alexandria. There was also an exchange station consisting of five 600 metre loops and two 600 metre shunting necks, with provision for doubling the whole layout if necessary; and following the usual military practice there had to be exchange stations with 600 metre loops every seven and a half miles along the new line.

Meanwhile 10 Railway Construction Company, placed under command of 4 Indian Division, was put on a job of building defences on the eastern face of the Baggush Box. Amongst other amenities were 48 concrete pillboxes and 18 machine-gun emplacements; the sappers called it the ‘Rabone Line’ and endured desert sores, sandstorms and dysentery in its making.

Nights were enlivened for all in Baggush area by the Italians, who periodically dropped bombs from a very great height and with agreeably poor aim, and the pillboxes continued to sprout in the desert; the only use they were ever put to was to protect the Jerry rear troops from our bombs during July to October 1942.

While 10 Company was building its ‘Rabone Line’, 13, 16 and 17 Companies were parade-ground pounding at Maadi, but by the middle of October Anderson's Construction Group was completed by the arrival of 13 Construction Company, which settled in at Qasaba, 15 miles east of Matruh. Qasaba was one of those spots you didn't know existed until you saw the name on a map; you passed a little sandbagged railway halt and you had passed Qasaba. Nevertheless the camp, hidden among sandhills and right on the beach, was to have pleasant associations for its inhabitants in the ensuing months.

There was work waiting in the laying of a track on a coal siding, so for the first time since they walked into camp ex- page 38 perienced railway construction men came into their own while the drill hounds faded into the background.

Colonel Anderson was planning a tight schedule for the rail extension, predicted on the assumption that equipment, labour and material would be available as required. Actually he got very little. The first early promise of all these things ended in a memo hoping that the Group would be able to handle the job with what machinery it owned plus some native labour.

A certain amount of equipment, about one-tenth of what was needed, did in fact arrive, plus 1200 native labourers, and 13 Company started work on 16 December; two days later 10 Company, less a detachment left to finish the ‘Rabone Line’, came on to the job and the New Zealand Railway Construction Group began its work as a unified formation.

The first two miles included a large rock embankment that had been pegged out by 9 Company before it was recalled for depot survey work in the Nile Delta, leaving only a handful of sappers working forward of Charing Cross.

The intention was that the attached native labour would be dispensed with as soon as the rock embankment was finished. In practice the performance of the auxiliary labour fell very short of expectations; the Saidi from Upper Egypt, dressed in blue gallabiahs and brown felt skull caps were, by New Zealand standards, very lazy and by any standards very lousy; the Bedewi, wrapped in dingy white wool nightshirts, were neither so lazy nor so lousy but did not like their countrymen from Upper Egypt. Day labour was a definite failure; the introduction of Palestinians to overcome the language difficulty effected little improvement; solid New Zealand cursing did no good either.

Finally the task system was tried—a day's work was laid out for each party under its Rais13 and when the job was finished that party could return to camp. Results were immediate; when the first party completed its task everybody downed tools and headed back to camp. The sappers just stood and tore their hair.

The ancient rivalries of the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt reached a crisis on Christmas Eve with a pitched battle between north and south. Tenth Company, called out to restore order, charged into the tumult with trucks and the success of the mechanical assault earned them the title of ‘The Fighting Tenth’. The warring tribes were then moved apart and rationed separately.

page 39

Progress continued to be a disappointment to men who had planned a spectacular line-laying programme; shortage of transport and the non-arrival of culverting prevented the completion of even the first two miles of formation.

What little tolerance the Saidi had for work had completely evaporated and they were replaced by Bedewi who, although they moved but three-quarters of a cubic yard per day when a sapper would have been loafing if he shifted only four times that amount, at least did stay on the job in spite of some very nasty dust-storms.

The final blow came on 8 January 1941 when work on the Western Desert extension was virtually stopped; no track laying was to be done and only the first eight miles of formation was to be completed.

It was of course the success of the Wavell offensive in driving the Italians some hundreds of miles to the west that had altered the lines-of-communication requirements, for with the ports of Tobruk and Benghazi in our possession it was thought that there was no need to build a railway across a desert.

As many men as possible were got away to a change-of-air camp and by 5 February 13 Company and Group Headquarters had put the Western Desert behind them and were located at Geneifa and Moascar respectively. Tenth Company finished the formation to the eight-mile peg and had moved back to Qassassin by 18 February.

The Operating Companies soon followed the construction sappers into the ‘blue’. On 22 October 1940 16 Company, which on the 11th had sent forward the second-in-command, Captain Pearse,14 with a detachment of 100 all ranks, moved to Daba, about 80 miles east of Matruh, where it took over from a small composite railway unit, 10 Company, RE, which then went to the Sudan.

To railwaymen who less than four months earlier were working in New Zealand, Daba was no oriental paradise; it was not even a village, merely a sub-terminal station serving a military post and the scattered natives. A mosque, a handful of dwellings and a barracks for the employees of the Egyptian State Railways constituted the permanent part of Daba. Less substantial was a shanty town of about fifty petrol-tin shelters inhabited by Bedouin, their fowls, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys. It stank.

The importance of Daba, and the place was important, lay page 40 partly in the fact that almost all train engines were changed and watered there. It was necessary therefore to ensure that the underground reservoir (capacity 100,000 gallons) was kept filled by railway tank wagons hauling water from Alexandria.15 Nile water in its unadulterated state is quite poisonous to European troops but eminently suitable for locomotives, consequently the tank wagons carrying loco water had a red flash painted on them and the filtered water-carrying wagons were marked, appropriately enough, with a blue band. With the build-up of force to meet the Italian aggression there were insufficient wagons of either colour.16 The position deteriorated to such an extent that water was sometimes pumped out of one or more locos in order to fill the tank of another. And sometimes it was necessary to rob the troops of their drinking water.

The railway between Alexandria and Daba was ill enough managed, but the section between Daba and Matruh was being run with singular inefficiency and nobody was quite certain when a train did arrive if it was yesterday's, today's or even tomorrow's. Reports to the Egyptian Railways headquarters may have occasioned mild amusement there but brought no action. The East did not want to be reformed. Furthermore, the Egyptian Government had no intention of surrendering control of a line that, while permitting someone else to restrain the invader, was also earning countless millions of ‘akkers’ in freight and other charges.

Something had to be done about it, and a delicate situation was relieved by the diplomatic device of the newcomers operating as ‘learners’, and as ‘learners’ they staffed every station and every train with a shadow crew. The next step was to take charge of military sidings and use locomotives hired from the ESR; after that the shunters began to deal with the trains on arrival, although not technically entitled to do so until the wagons had been detached.

Steadily the infiltration went on until the locos were coaled, watered and kept in running order by the ‘learners’. The Kiwi shadow crews made friends with the Egyptian crews, who were not bad fellows when you got to know them and made allowances for the fact that East is East and West is West. They on their side wouldn't run their trains or be shunted unless the page 41 ‘learner’ was present. A train with flags waving and whistles blowing and the stationmaster screaming his head off might be ready to pull out, but the driver, having delivered his ukase ‘Wait Kiwi’, just waited until his Kiwi offsider arrived.

Major Aickin explains the risks that were taken by Gippo and Kiwi crews: ‘At night the whole of the eighty mile run between Daba and Mersa Matruh was done without engine headlights. No signal lamps were lighted at wayside stations and vans carried no tail lights. Engine driving for the Egyptian crews and the 16th men was a nerve racking experience. For security against attack from the air, the cab and tender were covered in by a heavy black-out cover, but while it obscured the glare from the fire box it gave the crew a hemmed in feeling. Steaming along at night time these men never knew whether the line ahead was intact. They would often see that bombs were being dropped somewhere ahead of them and trusted that the railway ground staff would see that they did not run into a hole. The trains simply went on as a matter of course, the crews hoping for the best even when they feared the worst.

‘Nor was the enemy always the most dangerous foe, as the constant menace of the sand drift had to be faced and this was present even at times other than during the khamseens. Wherever an obstruction to the path of the wind borne sand and dust was encountered, a drift would form on the side of the obstruction opposite to the direction of the wind, and even the rails were a sufficient obstacle; similarly where the ground fell away, as in a cutting or where there was an escarpment or an embankment. The result was that the rails, at times, were completely buried but the trains still ran in spite of all hazards.’

The work of pushing more and more trains along a track not organised to handle such traffic went on with increasing urgency until the December offensive opened. Conversely, fewer and fewer trains then passed through Daba as the success of the offensive made it possible to use the sea-ways and carry supplies to the captured ports.

From early February (1941) troops of all arms came streaming back from the Western Desert on their urgent way to another campaign in Greece, while the western traffic was mostly governors, town majors, military magistrates, interpreters and their entourages en route to administer the late Italian provinces.

A party of 16 Railway Operating Company, Lieutenant page 42 Bishop17 and 18 other ranks, who had been detailed to operate the Italian narrow gauge rail system between Benghazi east to Barce (65 miles) and west to Soluk (35 miles), did not use their own system but travelled by sea to Tobruk and then by motor transport to a warm reception by the Aussie CRE at Benghazi, who had repaired the damage to the line that the departing Italian Army had inflicted.

The Kiwis took over three steam locos, two diesel locos, sundry carriages and four-wheeled wagons, one Italian station-master and several Arab enginedrivers and brakesmen.

Their main work was transporting prisoners of war—about 850 per day—to Barce and backload with petrol. Two trips daily were made. The first run was regarded as something of an event by the troops in Barce, who had almost forgotten what a train looked like. As Lieutenant Bishop recalls the event:

‘On the first day's run of the first train from Benghazi to Barce great excitement prevailed. We were asked to estimate our arrival time at Barce and this was given as 12.30 p.m. Incredulously enough, on the tick of 12.30 p.m. the first train, hauled by a steam loco approached the Barce station platform. From the loco the platform seemed to be alive with about every British soldier in the town, all waving and cheering wildly and shouting greetings to a very surprised railway crew.’

After establishing the Benghazi-Barce rail traffic an endeavour was made to work the Benghazi-Soluk section. On the first run, however, the train, while standing at the unloading platform, was attacked by an Italian aircraft, and drums of petrol under discharge were set on fire. Seeing this, Sergeant Johnston,18 enlisting the aid of the Arab enginedriver, quickly ran the diesal loco clear, this operation being rendered the more hazardous by the fact that the wagon attached immediately to the engine was loaded with heavy bombs. For this courageous action Sergeant Johnston received a letter of commendation from General Wavell.

Major Poole, who had established 17 Railway Operating Company headquarters at Burg el Arab, about 40 miles west of Alexandria, handed the place back to the Bedouin and the railway to the Egyptians. The Company moved to Geneifa to run the Fanara shunt from the docks on the Bitter Lake to the RE depots, and such-like jobs along the Canal.

page 43

Shunting in those early days had its moments, as Corporal Dangerfield19 remembers:

‘The Wogs while working for BTE were not adverse to a little fifth column in off duty hours. Brake slippers, those gadgets which stopped wagons from running away (ESR wagons have no handbrakes) somehow moved from siding roads onto the running lines. When hit with some speed they usually caused a disrailment. In the soft sand a derailed wagon or two required considerable time to restore to the track. For this, massive re-railing shoes were used to form platforms for the wagons to ride up until reaching rail level. These also found their way onto the running lines and when acting in reverse the result was disastrous and time-consuming. In the blackout “Where are we” was also a problem. The desert darkness is really dark as you know. Leaving the RE sidings for the docks went something like this. Proceed cautiously until round a curve and going slightly uphill expect to find the trailing points where shunt reversed direction. Proceed quietly down the line counting nearby date palms as you go. Past eleven unevenly spaced trees prepare to stop. Past two more STOP and proceed on foot to facing points approx 20 yards ahead. Facing points left “half cocked” were always good for a derailment as the wily wogs well knew. Proceed cautiously once more with shunters using hand lamps to examine track for wrongly placed brake slippers and rerailing shoes. And onwards to the jettys where irate pongos usually made pointed comment on KIWI slowness.’

Sixteenth Company, still at Daba, watched the Long Range Desert Group, bewhiskered like pirates and flying several kinds of Italian flags, vanish towards Cairo in a cloud of dust, whereupon they waited lonely and dejected, the last New Zealand formation in the Western Desert, for somebody to remember them. Somebody did remember them eventually and on 28 March they moved to El Kirsh, on the Canal near Ismailia.

At this point mention must be made of Major Packwood's command, 9 Railway Survey Company. The authorised strength, 7 officers and 62 other ranks, was the smallest in the Railway Groups but as surveyors they were the travellers. The difficulty of keeping track of their movements was appreciated by Major Nevins, who answered a query thus:

page 44
map of Nile delta

surveys made in the nile delta

‘You will find 9 Rly. Svy. Coy. rather a difficult unit to deal with as there was only one occasion when the whole company was together from our arrival in Egypt until we went to Palestine in June'42 and then we quickly split up again.’

page 45

There were times when the Survey Company was stretched along a two thousand mile line and seldom were they in fewer than three different countries at any one time; sometimes they were in more and a sapper could be writing home from Eritrea, Sudan, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Greece, Transjordan, Syria, or Turkey, describing his desert oven at the same time as his cobber would also be writing home telling of the snow on the mountains.

At that period the development of the various railway systems for military use had scarcely begun, but the Army demands were already quite beyond civilian resources; and as the New Zealand unit was the only Railway Survey Company in the Middle East, it had, until the arrival of Australian and South African units, to explore for, then map and survey nearly all the projects for supplying rail access to the desert depots. This aspect of survey work assumed colossal proportions as enemy ports were captured, lost and recaptured.

It will be recalled that Captain Nevins with 3 Section, 9 Survey Company, had pushed off to Palestine early in October to survey an ammunition depot at Wadi Serar on the line to Jerusalem. An Australian company relieved them a month later, whereupon they made a quick return to Cairo where another job awaited them.

This time it was in Greece, where the surprised but far from despondent Greeks were mobilising their resources against the Italian invasion and where a small force, code-name Barbarity Force, of RAF and ancillary troops was preparing to move; 9 Survey Company, the only tried unit available, was to send a section there.

‘Before embarking on 13 November 1940, I was briefed by D.D.Tn at G.H.Q.,’ writes Captain Nevins. ‘The role of the section was to locate, and if necessary construct, the railways to serve as a base depot in the vicinity of Athens. I was told to recce further afield for other suitable depot sites. On arriving in Athens I was ordered to proceed with location of railways to serve a depot in the Liossia-Menidi area. I was also told to see what I could of other plains in Attica and also to note any reasonably accessible beaches capable of being worked by barges.

‘At that time military assistance to Greece was confined to the air and army units were only admitted to service the R.A.F. bomber squadrons; RAMC, RASC, RAOC and a small RE component. Troops were to remain in the immediate neighbourhood of Athens and the German embassy (which flew a flag in page 46 company with every other building in Athens to celebrate each Italian defeat) took considerable interest in our doings.

‘Because of the Greeks' fear of offending Germany my recces had to be done unofficially and with circumspection. I was able to achieve this by an interest in archaeology and examined most of the coast from the vicinity of Chalkis to some 20 miles west of Corinth, and all the plains of Attica and Boetia.’

Lieutenant Rushton20 and five sappers loaded the section transport, one 30-cwt truck, two cars and a motor-bike, on a transport and themselves on HMAS Sydney. They made a fast trip, twenty-two hours, thereby beating Captain Nevins and the main body by some hours, making history by being the first New Zealand troops in Greece, and starting a ‘flap’ in New Zealand.

Daventry short-wave station announced that some New Zealand troops were in the British force in Greece, but when the home papers asked the Minister of Defence for details they were told that the report was incorrect and that no New Zealanders were in Greece. By this time the cables were running hot with messages, because, being Army troops, 2 NZEF Headquarters knew nothing about 9 Survey Company's tasks or location but was quite definite that no divisional troops were in that country. Eventually it was announced that fifty-six all ranks of 9 Survey Company were in Greece. Actually there were Captain Nevins, Lieutenant Rushton and 17 sappers.

The advance party was provided by the Greek authorities with a bus which, before it arrived at its destination, a school in Nicopoleos Street, had been completely filled with flowers thrown by a welcoming populace. Nothing happened for a week beyond moving to the New Phaleron Railway hotel, where the sappers had a grand view of the marine parade, took innumerable photos of ancient temples and contrived a lingua franca of Greek and English.

At this time Germany was not at war with Greece and the German military attaché and his staff moved freely about the city. So did the Allied troops, who had stringent orders as to the non-belligerent attitude they were to adopt in such bizarre circumstances.

The situation was something like the problems in algebra one used to wrestle with at school:

A is at war with B but not with C; page 47 D, who is A's ally against B, is also at war with C; What does D do?


D continues the war with B and tries to restrain his language when C passes him in A's streets, D knowing well that C is spying on the movements of both A and D and reporting them to B.

The section, after guessing at what the Greek symbols on the maps might possibly mean, was surveying service sidings for the RAF at Athenian aerodromes. It was so occupied when Germany declared war on the little country that was treating the Italian invaders with such disrespect.

1 Lt-Col L. A. Lincoln, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 14 Sep 1902; civil engineer; OC 18 Army Tps Coy Jul 1940-Jan 1942; 7 Fd Coy Jan-Sep 1942; DCRE No. 8 Works, RE, Sep 1942-Aug 1943; CRE No. 56 Works, RE, Aug 1943-Nov 1944.

2 Maj C. Langbein, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Nelson, 12 Oct 1894; Public Works Dept engineer; 1 NZEF 1914–19; OC 19 A Tps Coy Aug 1940-Jul 1942; OC NZ Engr Trg Depot 1942–43.

3 This Survey Company was transferred, before embarkation, to the Artillery as an Artillery Survey Company and changed its title from 12 Railway Survey Company, NZE, to 36 Survey Battery, NZA.

4 Lt-Col A. H. Sage, OBE, MM, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 1 Dec 1893; railway officer; Auck Regt, 1915–19 (Lt); CO NZ Ry Op Gp Aug 1940-Jun 1943.

5 Lt-Col R. T. Smith, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Thames, 4 Jul 1895; civil engineer; 1 NZEF, 1915–18; OC 13 Ry Constr Coy Jun 1940-Dec 1942; CO NZ Ry Const Gp Dec 1942-Jun 1943; CRE Indian Works Unit in India, Burma and Malaya 1944–46.

6 Maj F. W. Aickin, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Onehunga, 7 Jul 1894; barrister and solicitor (Law Officer, NZ Govt Rlys); NZE, Sigs Coy, 1914–19 (2 Lt, 1918); OC 16 Ry Op Coy Aug 1940-Jun 1943; past General Manager, NZ Govt Rlys.

7 Maj G. T. Poole; born NZ 3 Jul 1896; railway clerk; NZ Rifle Bde, 1915–19 (2 Lt, 1919); OC 17 Ry Op Coy 1940–42.

8 Sgt H. R. Farrell; Taumarunui; born NZ 6 Mar 1911; clerk, NZR.

9 This party was Lt Marchbanks, Lt D. White (9 Svy Coy), Cpl St. George, L-Cpl Fagan and Spr Wylie. They returned to Cairo on 31 October.

10 Maj T. H. F. Nevins; Wellington; born NZ 23 Nov 1903; civil engineer.

11 Maj D. J. B. Halley; Wellington; born Christchurch, 24 May 1906; civil engineer, PWD; OC 9 Ry Svy Coy Apr 1942-Jun 1943; 13 Ry Constr Coy Jun-Nov 1943.

12 Capt J. H. Macky, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 29 Aug 1913; civil engineer.

13 Rais, meaning commander, was an accepted term in the command organisation of Egyptian labour and was the equivalent of the term foreman.

14 Maj R. O. Pearse, MBE; born Levin, 26 Nov 1909; clerk; died 12 Sep 1950.

15 Similar facilities existed at Mersa Matruh.

16 Water via the pipeline did not reach Daba until 21 Jan 1941. The line was in limited operation as far as Hammam, 60 miles east, in December 1940.

17 Capt C. H. B. Bishop; Wellington; born Christchurch, 26 Nov 1908; assistant locomotive engineer.

18 Not traced.

19 L-Sgt J. A. Dangerfield, m.i.d.; Upper Hutt; born Christchurch, 3 Dec 1915; railway porter.

20 Capt G. Rushton; born England, 24 Aug 1907; civil engineer.