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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

19 Army Troops Company

19 Army Troops Company

Nineteenth Army Troops Company, being attached to the New Zealand Division, came under the direct control of Colonel Clifton, who prescribed sufficient rifle training to make them reasonable marksmen, in a course of instruction calculated to make them look like soldiers on parade. By 25 October it was considered that the Company—if not scrutinised too closely—might possibly pass inspection, with the result that it found itself parading with the other units of the Third Echelon before General Wavell and Mr Anthony Eden, British Foreign Secretary. Everybody from Major Langbein to the humblest sapper was anxious to make an impression, and in this laudable ambition they certainly succeeded. The CO gave the order to ‘Fix bayonets’ from the slope and the sappers endeavoured to comply; the devastating display was referred to in places where soldiers gather for months afterwards. Parade-ground brilliance was not 19 Army Troops Company's forte and they were not page 49 sorry to leave Maadi for Gebel Maryam, the ‘Hills of Mary’, on the west side of Lake Timsah where there was a salt-water lagoon, and where the Middle East School of Military En gineering had set up a Bridging Wing.

The Company was relieved by 6 Field Company at the end of December and then in turn boated, bridged and swam near Ismailia, until recalled for river-crossing training with 6 Brigade.

Nineteenth Army Troops Company returned to Maadi but left for Burbeita a fortnight later. No. 4 Section went ahead to build a camp but the ubiquitous Colonel Boddington found so much for them to do that the main body had to build its own camp. One party had a lucky break and was given a job about which it knew almost nothing but which was carried out in true Kiwi style. It was told off to go to Alexandria and drive back a convoy of twenty-two trucks, and the fact that few of the men could drive a truck hardly seemed worth mentioning with a few hours in Alex at stake. Several stowaways went to help with advice and they couldn't drive either.

The trucks were taken over at the vehicle depot and by dint of perseverance, plus much clashing of gears, finally rolled away. The hazards of the city streets provided a full measure of thrills but nothing more serious than dented mudguards and damaged bumpers until almost outside Alex, when the leading vehicle shore off the wheel of a Gippo cart piled high with oranges.

Starting a truck is a major operation when it is a matter of trial and error so nobody stopped to ascertain the damage. Vainly the half demented owner plucked at his ragged beard, calling on Allah to wreak vengeance or at least to hurry the Redcaps along. But the convoy was now on the main highway where there were fewer traps for young players. Maybe Allah saw to it that the orange merchant was compensated from some fund administered by BTE Headquarters.

The sappers had hardly settled in when a new and unnerving experience was supplied by Italian planes straddling the area with bombs. Scarcely anyone enjoys the noise of bursting bombs no matter how great the distance between them; the next lot might be closer. The cardinal rule if a reasonably long life is desired in desert warfare is to dig a slit trench before doing anything else, but the newcomers had omitted that precaution. Adequate steps were taken at first light to minimise the danger arising from a recurrence of unwelcome visitations.

The Company was called on for a multitude of duties, for with the Wavell offensive in full swing, Baggush was a hive of page 50 industry; one detachment was kept busy with the unloading and checking of supplies at Sidi Haneish, another was working on an aqueduct at Burbeita; another was helping Workshops Section to get established. Thirty sappers with diesel experience were sent to Sidi Barrani to salvage abandoned Italian vehicles; a second party was scouring the late battlefield for enemy water-carrying trucks. Sometimes the trucks were found in going order but generally they had to be towed to the repair shop that Bill Gourlick23 and Arthur Roberts24 had liberated.

Sergeant John Redpath25 piloted the convoys of repaired Italian water carts up to Sollum where Cypriot drivers, under command of an RASC Water Supply Company, took them over. The small one-jetty harbour at Sollum was already being used for the unloading of stores and water transported by sea from Alexandria.

There was nothing to keep the curious at the jetty, which was also the point where the road left the coast and climbed an escarpment that had now turned north to the coast. The few stone sheds and huts scattered around the jetty marked where Egypt, to all military intents and purposes, ended and the top of the escarpment was practically the beginning of Italian Libya. The Sollum-Bardia road snaked up the near precipice and passed the white buildings of the Egyptian frontier garrison barracks near the top. The whole area was pitted with caves, a fortunate circumstance because of the air raids and occasional heavy shells from a long-range gun in Bardia. Australian troops were squaring up for an assault on the 17-mile perimeter defences of Bardia about ten miles inside Libya—and 20,000 men use a lot of water.

While detachments of 19 Army Troops Company were scouring the late battlefield by day and housing themselves comfortably in deserted Italian ambulances by night, after first partaking from unlimited stores of wines, brandies, liquors and just plain ‘plonk’, Sappers A. B. Robinson26 and Tom Hick,27 with two crews of seagoing sappers, were operating a page 51 naval wing. They had left Matruh on 22 December as captains in a fleet of two water barges and arrived at Sollum the following morning, where they were met by an Italian reception committee which, from a very great height, although antiaircraft protection was non-existent, tore large holes in the water of Sollum harbour with bombs but without doing any material damage.

The job was to ferry water from the supply ships Eocene and Myriel and do other ship to shore work. The first assignment was to make a rendezvous east of Sollum and take on stores. The barges put to sea after last light, loaded up and, navigating by the stars, were returning slowly when the coast was lit up by gunfire. It was only a routine softening up of Bardia, but it was a fine sight from the sea and permitted a quicker landfall.

Two more barges had arrived during the night. They had seen service at Gallipoli in 1915, were manned by Cypriots under British seamen, and were loaded with oranges and Christmas stores for the troops investing Bardia. The newcomers were moored at the shore end of the wharf, so the Kiwi fleet tied up at the deepwater end and the first Christmas Eve away from home was spent in loading stores on trucks of 4 RMT Company, which had turned up just before midday.

It was a busy scene; creaking winches on the Gallipoli barges were delivering nets full of golden oranges to the trucks, the sappers were filling 44-gallon water drums and there was cheery banter between the bargees and the drivers. Nobody noticed seventeen specks in the sky.

An explosion on the deck of a Gallipoli barge killed a number of Cypriots and the British seaman in charge; five of the RMT drivers were killed and five wounded; a splinter fatally wounded Corporal Forsyth28 and killed outright Sapper Bill Burrel, an Australian attached to one of the water barges. A bomb fell on Sergeant Tom Hick's barge, tore through the decking, pierced a water tank but failed to explode.

The skipper of the Gallipoli barge managed to beach his craft; the dead and wounded were removed and the blood washed off the oranges, later to be thankfully received by the troops in the field who knew nothing of the tragedy behind the delivery of the festive season's delicacies.

In all there were fifty-two casualties. ‘Fluge’ Forsyth had known that he would not last long, for, before the barges had page 52 left Matruh, he had cut out and inscribed a sandstone tombstone for himself. It was taken up by his cobbers and placed on his grave at the foot of the Sollum escarpment.

The crews were badly shaken by the blast and by the sight of casualties being attended by an MO, who came from somewhere almost as soon as the bombs fell, but the pressure of work permitted no let-up; the dud bomb was fished out of the water tank and the water delivery resumed.

Some 1250 tons of water were put ashore daily until the capture of Bardia permitted the use of local supplies, but this did not mean the end of the Engineers' naval occasions—on the contrary, as added use was made of Sollum for the landing of stores, troops, and the embarking of captured Italians.

Reinforcements for the field force were carried in Egyptian owned ships, whose captains declined to sail beyond the Egyptian border. That meant the transhipping of troops at Sollum Bay into naval vessels for passage first to Bardia and later to Tobruk when it fell in Wavell's offensive. For the greater part of January the two crews, with Sergeant Tom Hick relieved by Sergeant John Redpath, ferried troops from ship to ship.

Meanwhile on 17 December the New Zealand Railway Operating Companies were delighted to read in ROs that, ‘Any member of the Company who is the holder of a Mate's or Master's certificate, or who considers he has a sound knowledge of marine navigation, is to submit details of his qualifications and experience to the Orderly Room.’

‘Considers’ was the operative word and both companies volunteered en masse. Thirty sappers were selected to operate six diesel tugs, and on arrival at Sollum some of the seafarers were hard put to it to back up the qualifications with which they had presented themselves but managed to bluff their way through. They towed barges around the Sollum roadstead and unloaded supplies from ships. The air-raid defences were mostly passive—a red warning flag was hoisted at Sollum and every-body near enough made a dash for the caves; if you were off shore you just hoped for the best. In addition to the seagoing sappers a further two dozen were sent to supervise parties of Palestinians and Cypriots loading and unloading boats and lighters.

General Freyberg was by now most anxious to train together the two echelons he had managed to get into the same country. Thirteenth Corps was equally anxious to retain the borrowed page 53 Kiwi units and there was much letter writing, in which a trace of exasperation is noticeable, before the New Zealanders were released. Nineteenth Army Troops Company, with the exception of the two barge crews, was marched out at the end of January,29 but before actually starting to move was involved in a situation not usually coming within the orbit of a lines-of-communication unit. German planes were then beginning to operate in North Africa and their tactics were directly opposite to those of the Italians—they came in at a low level preceded by machine-gun bullets and followed by bomb explosions.

The sappers were breaking camp, at Sidi Barrani on the last evening in January, when the Sollum with 800 Italian prisoners from Tobruk was strafed by two planes. From the escarpment above the beach the Company watched the terrified prisoners rush the lifeboats, all of which were swamped and the occupants drowned. The Captain tried to beach the Sollum but she grounded on a reef near the shore. An Italian swam through the choppy sea with a line but collapsed on a ledge at the foot of the escarpment. Sergeant Tom Cookson30 clambered down and dragged the man to safety. An Egyptian fireman brought another line ashore and the sappers were able to drag heavy ropes up the cliff and tie them to a truck braced between two rocks. The sappers toiled in relays waist deep in seething surf bringing the Italians ashore. Some were swept away in the backwash and others were injured on the rocks. The wounded were brought ashore on a Carley float and passed along a living ladder which was clinging precariously to the cliff. Finally the crew and sixteen guards came off. There were nearly 300 casualties, the majority in the first mad rush for the boats. Throughout the night trucks ferried the wounded to the RAP, where an MO from 215 Field Ambulance gave what attention was necessary. Detachments of Durham Light Infantry quartered nearby assisted at the cliff face and provided guards, though none of the Italians showed any inclination to wander. Finally blankets were brought from the DLI salvage dump and the shivering prisoners made comfortable. Then 19 Army Troops Company returned to the new camp at Helwan—all except the two barge crews. Special representations had been made for their retention until relief crews could be trained.

Some of Hitler's secret weapons—magnetic mines—were being page 54 dropped in the Suez Canal at this time and some were also laid by German planes in Sollum Bay. Minesweepers were sent for but work had to go on until they arrived. Sergeant Redpath was ordered to take a Jaffa tug in tow and proceed to Tobruk31 for water and lightering duties, while Sergeant Robinson continued ferrying Italian prisoners from Sollum to the transport Farida.

Robinson had a capacity load of 300 aboard when a mine exploded under the barge. The crew of four were killed and only a handful of Italians escaped. The bodies of Robbie and Johnny Sharpe32 were recovered and buried at Sollum, but no trace was found of ‘Steak’ Dorset33 or Jim O'Connell34 who were probably in the engine room at the time.

No. 1 barge reached Tobruk safely on 3 February, although the sole navigating aid Redpath had was an army ordnance map. Tobruk harbour was working again, but waves of planes were hourly strafing the shipping at the jetties and at anchor inside the boom and bombers dropped the new ‘Tick-tock’ mines in the harbour. Tobruk was not then the most heavily protected port on the North African coast.

On 5 February, at the height of a blinding sandstorm, No. 1 barge was instructed to co-operate with a Navy vessel in lightering prisoners to the SS Singhalese Prince. At the end of the day, with the job completed, it was noticed that the Navy boat was missing. In the morning a few scraps of wreckage told the tale. There was no trace of the crew or of the prisoners.

The next few days were reasonably calm until the Rhoda took the berth vacated by the Singhalese Prince. The French tanker Idina, about to anchor, went up on a mine and the petrol cargo caught fire; the Idina struck the Rhoda amidships and a wave of burning petrol gushed over the deck. Troops had been discharged from the Rhoda during the night but gangs of Australians and Cypriots were working the cargo. Their lighters were capsized and the men thrown into the sea of burning petrol. The New Zealanders helped with the rescue but forty-seven were posted missing or dead.

The railway sappers also took their tugs to Tobruk and page 55 carried on with the same routine as at Sollum, and as at Sollum they were assisted by the shore party.

The relief crew for Sergeant Redpath's barge arrived during the last week in February but the railway details remained there until the end of May.35

23 Spr W. P. Gourlick, MM; Mosgiel Junction; born NZ 11 Mar 1905; engineer; p.w. 29 Apr 1941.

24 L-Cpl A. T. Roberts; Christchurch; born Woodville, 9 May 1919; apprentice electrical engineer.

25 Capt J. A. Redpath, DCM, MM; Kerikeri; born Christchurch, 2 Feb 1904; company manager; p.w. Jun 1941; escaped Jul 1941; returned to Egypt Oct 1941; wounded and p.w., Antiparos, 17 Feb 1942; escaped, Italy, Sep 1943; served in ‘A’ Force (MI 9) in Middle East, 1941–45.

26 Sgt A. B. Robinson, m.i.d.; born NZ 14 Sep 1904; bridge constructor; killed in action 3 Feb 1941.

27 Sgt T. Hick; London; born England, 3 Jan 1914; miner.

28 Cpl A. H. Forsyth; born Hooper's Inlet, 15 Jan 1908; enginedriver; killed in action 24 Dec 1940.

29 The Railway Operating Companies were non-divisional and were not affected.

30 Sgt T. N. Cookson; born England, 26 Oct 1905; road engineer.

31 Captured on 22 Jan 1941.

32 Spr J. N. Sharpe; born England, 9 Jun 1913; carpenter; killed in action 3 Feb 1941.

33 Spr R. F. Dorset; born NZ 6 Aug 1913; carpenter; killed in action 3 Feb 1941.

34 Spr J. E. O'Connell; born NZ 1 Aug 1916; enginedriver; killed in action 3 Feb 1941.

35 Sapper A. G. Figgins was killed and Sapper M. J. Crosby lost at sea in these barge operations.