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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

5 Field Park Company

5 Field Park Company

Fifth Field Park Company had, together with Divisional Signals, 4 RMT and other specialist troops, been borrowed for Wavell's limited offensive, but beyond guarding the water pipeline and establishing water points and forward dumps at Charing Cross the Company was not much affected. The British Army seemed to do very well without its assistance. The Italian invasion force was driven out of Egypt by the middle of December, but the greater part of five divisions, with guns, tanks and other material to match, was inside the Bardia perimeter.

The 5 Field sappers moved to Sidi Barrani on 30 December and on to the Sollum area the next day. Bardia was still holding and the big gun, ‘Bardia Bill’, obligingly landed a few shells in the harbour. It was all very breathtaking. Bardia fell on 5 January and the Company occupied the Egyptian barracks on the top of the Sollum escarpment. Fort Capuzzo, just inside the Libyan border only a couple of miles farther west, was something that had to be seen to be believed. In the moonlight its white eagle statue in front of the entrance, its massive studded iron door and crenellated walls conjured up visions of Arab sheiks riding milk-white stallions and leading a charge of howling tribesmen in the best tradition of P. C. Wren or Hollywood.

Field Park moved to yet another barracks, at El Habboun just outside Bardia. They were very comfortable quarters— after the fleas were defeated. This was a major operation, for one sapper, with a flair for statistics, claimed two hundred dead in a pincer movement before he gave up counting. Victory was won by the copious spraying of blankets with kerosene or benzine.

The sappers found their first Italian town small but interesting. ‘Bardia is a very pretty little town, even after the RAF and the Navy have given it such a pasting,’ wrote Corporal McVeagh. ‘It is situated right over a high cliff which rises page 56 almost sheer for about 500 feet out of the sea. It has a tiny little harbour which is really a fiord or a sound as we know it. To get to the harbour you have to follow an extremely steep and circuitous road down the face of the cliff. One half of the town is bordered by the cliff face and the other is protected by a high stone wall. In olden times the place would be practically impregnable.’

Keeping the forward engineers supplied with stores meant operating a fleet of Italian diesel trucks in addition to the ordinary Company transport. The huge Lancia diesels, the ‘CRE Convoy’ as it was called, had no self-starters, and swinging the inertia starters was a terrific job needing the strength of a superman. The enormous cranking handle had to spin a heavy flywheel which roared like a giant cream separator. When the din reached a screaming crescendo a lever connected with the crankshaft was pulled and the impetus of the whirling flywheel was supposed to turn the motor over and start it. Generally it did nothing of the sort and the whole back-breaking business had to be repeated.

There were elaborate instructions on the care and maintenance of these trucks but the Italian language was not a New Zealand primary school subject. A worn-out sapper was scratching his head and wondering what all the writing was about when Sapper ‘Speed’ Humberstone36 came by.

‘Don't you know what it says?’ Speed asked.

‘No. Do you?’

‘Sure. It says, “Don't be a bloody fool—get a tow”.’

It was good advice even if it was not good Italian, and each morning thereafter a petrol-engined truck towed them all to a start. Once going they were most reliable and were about tentonners by our rating.

Another technical problem connected with water supplies is mentioned by Captain Morrison:

Bardia Pumps concerned me more than most. The water had to be pumped 1,000 ft up to the escarpment and we had quite a job finding out all the tricks of the very special pumps. We had some new pumps with V8 engines—no sand filters. Orders were to run the pumps no matter what and we did. After eight hours' running the engines were kaput.’

Besides operating the ‘CRE Convoy’, the water point and the pumping station in Bardia, the Company sought for and page 57 removed mines, booby traps and bombs. Field Workshops section was kept flat out putting salvaged equipment into going order again.

The fall of Tobruk meant that the clearance of Cyrenaica was not impossible even though only the same two divisions were available. Steps were taken to force the issue and the Kiwi sappers moved into Tobruk (25 January), but they were there only long enough to get the electrical power supply operating and begin an investigation of the water distillation plant before they were ordered to Derna.

Derna was a haven after the desert. Whereas Bardia and Tobruk were no more than military and naval outposts, Derna was a lovely little town, if a deserted one. The houses of the officials stood in gardens with trees and palms taking the edge off the tropic sun. Company Headquarters was established in a long low white villa until recently the residence of the local military governor; the sections selected houses with a water supply and chip heaters in the bathrooms. After settling in, the sappers gave themselves a celebration at the governor's expense. Another piano was carried in to supplement the one already in position, and with ‘Jitterbug’ Caldwell37 and ‘Urky’ Haswell38 supplying the music and the governor unknowingly providing the marsala and other liquid refreshment it was quite a party.

The Company, unhappily, did not stay long in Derna for 6 Australian and 7 Armoured Divisions had collected the last 20,000 Italians east of Benghazi and the sappers moved to the edge of the escarpment above Barce, where they were given the most glamorous job of the campaign.

The attack had struck inland across the desert plateau south of Benghazi, but Barce was on the coast in a country of green grass and running water; houses of Italian colonists dotted the plain below and a railway line wriggled out of sight towards Benghazi.

A concrete bridge across a gully had been blown by the departing enemy and 5 Field Park was given the task of rebuilding it. Captain Morrison accepted the assignment with alacrity because no real bridging practice had been obtainable in a country that did not run to rivers.

The Company had no proper bridging equipment nor was any readily available, but the ‘Skipper’ had a keen eye and a page 58 good memory; in very quick time trucks were racing back to Tobruk, a mere couple of hundred miles eastward, where there were abandoned seaplane hangars built with tubular steel scaffolding and bombed buildings which might supply planking timbers. The system of obtaining supplies was unorthodox but effective—truck No. 1 was told to get this and that and to check up with truck No. 2, which was met on the way back and which would alter its loading list accordingly. Truck No. 3 did likewise after conferring with truck No. 2 and so on. The 140-foot viaduct, according to the unit war diary, was completed in three days, a monument to Kiwi ingenuity. Officially that was the position, but actually, when 5 Field Park left for Helwan on 16 February, the OC plus a car and a 30-cwt Morris load of volunteers were missing. They finished the bridge in thirty-six hours non-stop and then caught the convoy at Baggush after another twenty hours' non-stop drive.

When the enemy returned to the attack they were no doubt profoundly grateful to the unknown bridge builders but that is how it is in war. General O'Connor was very nice about 5 Field Park Company in a letter he sent to General Freyberg, who passed the compliment on.


13 Corps

15th Feb. 1941.

Dear Freyberg,

The 5th Field Park Coy, New Zealand Engineers is leaving Barce tomorrow to rejoin you at Helwan. I want to let you know what good work the unit has done. We had no Corps Troops Field Park Company of our own, and your unit filled the bill most admirably.

‘At the start of the campaign, 5th Field Park Coy was at Maaten Bagush operating the water supply. For the attack on Nebeiwa etc, I needed water points further forward, along the Matruh-Siwa road. There was little enough time for the work, and the fact that two hundred tons of water a day was available at these points was due largely to the efforts of 5th Field Park Coy.

‘During the advance which followed the unit has had the task of keeping the forward engineers supplied with the stores they wanted. The distances to be covered were great, and both men and vehicles had a hard task. But the stores required invariably reached the job in time. It was essential to make page 59 fullest use of captured Engineer stores, plant and installations; only by so doing could delays be avoided. The 5th Field Park Company was conspicuous in its ability to adapt and run enemy plant and installations.

‘The unit's last task has been the building of a bridge east of Barce to replace the one blown by the Italians. Here again the Field Park Company has shown its ability to improvise speedily and effectively. Their bridge is made with tubular scaffolding obtained from a building in Tobruk.

‘My Chief Engineer has formed the highest opinion of Captain W. G. Morrison OC 5th Field Park Company and of his officers and men. Their assistance has been invaluable and I am most grateful that you were able to spare them.

Yours ever,

R. O';Connor.

The seven-day journey back to Cairo, with one day spent in vehicle maintenance at Burbeita oasis, was uneventful—until the convoy was halted by the MPs at the Daba check post.

All enemy weapons had been called in before departure and so the sappers were merely draped like walking arsenals, but the most difficult object to explain away would be the piano from the governor's residence at Derna. It was to be delivered to the sisters at 2 General Hospital and guile was called for.

Captain Morrison took the Redcap sergeant to the truck where the piano was hidden under a pile of anti-tank mines and the introduction went something like this.

‘See those mines there, sergeant? They are full of nitroglycerine and unless we get moving soon and get some fresh air around them, you and I and everyone else around here will be going up in a big bang.’

As a face-saver forty revolvers were confiscated and the convoy dismissed. Safely back in Helwan, the hardy sons of Mars who had helped General O'Connor to chase the Italians out of Cyrenaica were very patronising to all and sundry until Colonel Clifton knocked the conceit out of them. He inspected them and said he was very glad to have them back again. (Nearly as nice a bloke as Dick O'Connor.) Then he warned them that they would have to be ready for action again soon and ended:

‘This time it will be real war. The show you have been in is nothing more than comic opera compared to what you'll see next.’

Perhaps the CRE was a bit clairvoyant just then.

36 Spr L. H. Humberstone, m.i.d.; born NZ 1 Oct 1915; lorry driver.

37 Spr G. M. U. Caldwell; Dunedin; born NZ 15 Jan 1918; clerk.

38 Cpl D. A. Haswell; born NZ 27 Feb 1917; clerk; died 23 May 1960.