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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

CHAPTER 24 — ‘Battled Fields no More’

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‘Battled Fields no More’

The ringing down of the curtain in Italy did not go unnoticed in sapper circles, but for the most part the opportunity of a good night's sleep was what appealed most. Three weeks of continuous work and movement, with scarcely time to wash or change, is not the best preparation for a victory celebration.

The unconditional surrender in North Africa had been followed by the Italian campaign; now the unconditional surrender in Italy meant what? Europe was still fighting and the war against Japan was far from ended. Let's have a decent night's sleep!

The Yugoslav Army, or rather the dominant Communist faction under Marshal Tito, for there were two bitterly opposed Yugoslav armies who fought each other when there were no Germans handy, claimed all Italy east of the Isonzo River, by right of conquest, as now part of Yugoslavia.

The suggestion that the Peace Conference table was the proper place to advance such claims was not well received by Marshal Tito; from Monfalcone to Trieste belonged to Yugoslavia and the New Zealand Division must withdraw west of the Isonzo River or be responsible for the consequences. In reply, 9 Brigade had elbowed its way into Trieste.

No. 1 Platoon of 6 Field Company returned to Ronchi the morning after the entry of 22 Battalion into Trieste, but before leaving the sappers held a ‘sale of work’ from the rear of their trucks which were parked along the waterfront. The ‘work’ consisted of items of enemy equipment that farsighted Kiwis had gathered up over the preceding few days and it was soon sold at satisfactory prices.

Meanwhile the situation had not improved. Lieutenant Begbie made this entry in his private diary:

3 May. Rested all day. Many rumours are rife. Yugoslav partisan women are in town now. Tough looking eggs if ever there were any. More Teds rolled in. Adolph and Goebbels are said to have committed suicide! Musso has had it. Church bells and sirens were going full bore today.

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4 May. We are under special orders of no fraternisation; Tito is giving trouble. The people are friendly enough but Tito is conscripting them all as his patriots. Those who don't join are shot. Our tanks are patrolling the streets and we carry arms wherever we go.

5 May. The situation is critical. We have removed all our ammo and grenades to the second floor of our school in readiness for a siege…. Churchill is supposed to have been seen going towards Monfalcone and Trieste. Any little incident will set the match to the flames. Kiwis should not be mixed up in such an argument. We are too easy going.’

It was possibly because the Kiwis were ‘too easy going’ that day passed after day without the expected explosion, and incidents remained only incidents.

The sappers carried on cleaning up and reorganising with an eye to their defensive positions.

‘Sticking around awaiting the story of what's to do. CO at conference. Company resting.’ Seventh Field Company's war diary described the engineer position exactly.

Routine orders made lengthy reading for it was naturally a period of congratulatory messages. They ranged from Company Commanders to His Majesty King George VI, and included one from CO 6 Royal Tank Regiment which is certain to have been read most carefully:

Dear CRE,

I am enclosing a small gift from the Regiment. We used your bridges constantly in the first part of the battle; first when working with the Poles over the Senio, next when working with the 10 Indian Div. over the Sillaro and one or two small ones between that and the Idice. We used the Idice one for light traffic. Thank you very much indeed. Let's hope we operate alongside your grand Division again, if it is necessary.

Yours Truly,
A. C. Jackson

During the period mentioned 5 Field Park Company had supplied the components for, and the field companies had erected, forty-two bridges over wet gaps ranging from culverts to major rivers. No account is taken of enemy rafts, etc., that were salvaged and put to use.

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Bridging supplied by 5 Field Park Company over the period 9 April to 2 May 1945 was:

Number Weight Length
Bailey 39 980 tons 2840 feet
FBE 3 130 tons 1280 feet
Pontoons 30 tons
Class 40 Bailey rafts 3
Close-support raft 1

In addition, some 300 tons of corduroy were cut, delivered and later laid by the field companies.

The earth-shifting work was no less impressive. Apart from making approaches to the major bridging, much bulldozing was required on the maze of canals and ditches along the axis of advance. It has been estimated that in the period under review a total of 50,000 cubic yards of soil were moved in the construction of bridge approaches, much of the work being done under fire, and a further 20,000 yards in filling bomb and shell craters and dozing crossings over small canals. Of this total of 70,000 cubic yards, some 12,000 yards were moved under fire on the first night on the banks of the Senio River.

Wireless broadcasts announcing that the war in Europe would end at 1 a.m. on 8 May produced some fancy effects with enemy flares, but the local situation was still too explosive to admit of real celebrations.

The decoration of a statue in the grounds of the Duke of Aosta's palace at Miramare, now General Freyberg's headquarters, with a civilian hat and a suitcase bearing the inscription ‘Going home?’ expressed the attitude of the rank and file Kiwi more clearly than any introspective analysis of an end-of-the-war complex could do.

The situation remained more or less the same throughout May: traffic blocks in the road tunnels skirting the coast were quietly and systematically removed, there was a small quota of daily leave to Venice, some swimming under the protection of armed guards, inter-unit sports and local dances. Finally, there was the departure and the celebrations coincidental thereto of men, particularly from 5 Field Park Company, who had missed the earlier repatriation drafts.

Twenty-eighth Assault Squadron ended the month's diary thus:

‘“Nothing ever happens any more”, that is our desolate cry right now. The rumours of what the Div will do and when page 720 we'll do it are rife at the moment. Some of the boys picked up a programme from NZ last night. It seems the future plans for the Div. were expounded. Today all talk centres round China and a possible trip to England. It would seem that a time like this is the ideal one for some of these politicians to visit their “boys” and find out for the “Pipple” what these “boys” are thinking. Weather still beautiful and we continue to swim and play.’

The programme referred to was the report of a debate in the House of Representatives wherein it was suggested that the Division be withdrawn forthwith and the New Zealand war effort be devoted henceforth to the production of food. The Prime Minister in reply stated that the present plans provided for the return of up to the 10th Reinforcements at the earliest possible moment at which shipping could be made available without interference with the deployment of forces against Japan. And there for the time being the matter ended.

The Yugoslav Government accepted the inevitable and on 9 June 1945 signed an agreement to withdraw from Trieste city forthwith. A trotting meeting was held the same day with the Trieste Trotting Club supplying the course, Italians the trotters, and the New Zealand Division some twenty drivers. As the course could accommodate comfortably only five thousand, admission tickets had to be rationed, and the twenty thousand armed Kiwi spectators had a typical New Zealand day out. The tote ran win, place, twin and double pools, and handled nearly three times as much as the Trieste Club's record total.

The evacuation by the Yugoslavs was closely attended by the New Zealand infantry battalions as far as the agreed boundary, where check posts were erected by the sappers on all roads leading eastwards. Seventh Field Company's diarist noted the difference: ‘12 June. Tito's forces withdrew from Trieste area and now there are not so many desperate looking gentlemen with guns of all kinds wandering around the place.’

All danger having been finally removed, the sappers took the business of enjoying themselves very seriously indeed; sight-seeing parties travelled over North Italy, through the alpine passes and into Austria. Happy sappers raced along the Grand Canal in Venice in fast Navy launches that set the light gondolas dancing like corks in a stream from their wakes; Trieste was in bounds and there were sculling, yachting and speedboat page 721 facilities on the waterfront. On land by day there were athletics, cricket matches and rest camps, and by night dancing, the opera, or just sitting in cafés and watching the crowds.

There was of course a certain amount of work done repairing communications, but perhaps the most specular engineer achievement of the month was the demonstration of yet another use for Bailey bridging components. A grandstand was required at Cervignano for the Divisional swimming sports and was to have a capacity of approximately 200 seats. Twenty sappers from 8 Field Company, under the direction of Lieutenant Harvey, did the job; starting work at 11 a.m., they finished it at 4 p.m. the next day. The time included several longish swimming breaks.

July followed much the same pattern, with occasions more social than military. Probably the most intimate sapper celebration took place at 8 p.m. on 4 July, when practically all Engineer officers paid a surprise visit to Colonel Hanson to ‘wet’ the award of a bar to his DSO.

There was, however, more than social activity to be considered, and the following extract from the 28 Assault Squadron war diary, the compiler of which could lay some claims to being a philosopher, gives a background picture difficult to equal:

‘What a life is war when there is no war. We all understand of course that the morale and discipline of Troops must be kept up at all times, but the pain of it is something shocking. The 2 I/C, Heaven bless him, has a brain child he simply dotes on. This he calls the “details book”. I could almost write up a war diary from his book alone, it is so full of the stuff soldiers die of. It appears we must fight something, so as there is no enemy in sight, go into action against inertia of mind and body. The latrine men and Malaria Squads are thrust into action digging deeper and better holes and relentlessly pursuing mosquitos which do not exist. The Squadron runner is dashing frantically back and forth between Troops and HQ with this precious “details book” full of words for Troop Commanders while even the holy of holies, the Orderly Room staff is requested to produce on paper a list of their duties and which of the two of these poor creatures performs which duty. This all goes on in all units no doubt but some days are just too much for a bloke and though we try to keep these diaries from the too personal, it is difficult to write on anything than the petty things when we are so inactive.’

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Towards the middle of July the Division began to pack up and make its farewells, and on the 22nd it marched out from the Eighth Army en route to a new area where it would reorganise and train for the war in Japan. The Engineer Groups departed on the 24th via Mestre, Padua, Ferrara, Bologna and Rimini, then once more across Italy to the concentration area on the shores of Lake Trasimene, near Perugia.

On 6 August, shortly after 8 a.m., an American Super-Fortress flying at 30,000 feet dropped a small bomb on the seaport city of Hiroshima in Japan. It heralded the entry of the Atomic Age; compared with this explosion, the total fire power of 2 New Zealand Division was about the equivalent of a child's popgun. The bomb blotted out the city of Hiroshima, for of its quarter of a million inhabitants, 80,000 were killed outright and, including the number who suffered from radioactivity and died within a year, the total casualties were 140,000.

On the same day the Engineer draft of the 8th Reinforcements, 160-odd all ranks, after suitable farewells, marched out for Advanced Base on the first leg of their journey homewards. Three days later (on 9 August) a second atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

A little desultory work was done on sports grounds and roads in the area and small leave quotas left for Rome and Florence, but guarded statements in high places made everyone jittery. The 28 Assault Squadron diarist captured the sense of expectancy:

12 August. Today everyone is highly excited at the repeated rumours and radio statements on the likely peace with Japan. Hourly we wait to hear that all is finally settled. The Sqn wet canteen which is now a well established fact is making full preparations….

14 August. Still nothing definite about peace. No one is sufficiently interested in anything else to do any work so we just wait for the expected news.

15 August. the news is here. vj day!!! all camp is gone mad. The weather is great, the news is great, drinking is great and in all ways it's a great world.

The balance of August and the following September were spent in cleaning, painting and reconditioning equipment in readiness for handing back to store or for shipment to New page 723 Zealand. In passing it might be mentioned that the Engineers were luckier than the infantry battalions inasmuch as, besides the little jobs that were always on the agenda of a technical unit, there was all the other work referred to. There was not the same amount of idle time to be filled in by exercises that, with the breath of civilian employment in their nostrils, now had little meaning.

During the first week of October the Engineers moved to winter quarters in the Florence area. About the same time it was announced that an occupation force would go to Japan and that the sapper component would be a Field Engineer Company of approximately 9 officers and 200 other ranks. On 10 October Captain Farnell (acting OC), Sergeant Neilson1 and Sapper Ellison,2 all original members of 28 Assault Squadron, moved into Villa Aurora, the focal point of the J Force Engineers, officially 5 NZ Field Engineer Company.

Leave to England was announced for men who could finance the trip and who were prepared to take the chance of missing their turn for repatriation.

On 17 October 28 Assault Squadron marched in to 27 Mechanical Equipment Company; a week later 29 sappers marched in from that unit to 5 NZ Field Engineer Company and the balance of 5 Field Park Company marched in to 27 Mechanical Equipment Company. On 31 October 7 and 8 Field Companies marched in to 6 Field Company.

Fifth NZ Field Engineer Company (Major Hudson) was formed on 23 October 1945, mainly from single men of the 13th and 14th Reinforcements who were transferred from the existing Engineer companies, and later completed by the 15th Reinforcements from Advanced Base and Maadi. Initially the Company was camped in tents along the Arno River, and on 23 November it moved into the Aeronautical Academy buildings with the rest of J Force. It took part in the GOC's parade and the men were later inspected and addressed by Colonel Hanson, who spoke of the sapper activities of the past campaigns and asked that they maintain a high standard as ambassadors for New Zealand.

The organisation of the Company, effective from 28 December page 724 1945,3 was Company Headquarters, a Works Platoon, Stores and Water Platoon and a Mechanical Equipment and Pioneer Platoon, with an establishment of 10 officers and 208 other ranks.

The main body of the Company remained in the Aeronautical Academy until 11 February 1946, while a detachment some seventy strong was attached to J Force Advanced Administrative Post at Bari, where vehicles were being loaded on cargo ships. On 11 February the main body, with ASC, Signals and provosts, left Florence by train for Lammie Transit Camp, Naples. They embarked on 19 February on the Strathmore and sailed on the 21st for Japan. The New Zealand section of the 40,000 strong British Commonwealth Occupation Force arrived at the Japanese naval base of Kure on 19 March.

The description of the arrival is taken from the Company Intelligence Summary:

‘March 19. Land visible at daylight. In the morning we travel up the inland Sea between Shikoku and Honshu. The sea is dotted with islands and our ship slowly makes a tortuous passage. All gaze at Japanese soil with interest. The land form is rugged and angular. Though the country is steep and bush clad the many hills are small and of uniform height. The land appears to be 80% clad in unnaturally placed patches of uniformly stunted trees. In the bays are villages of closely packed timber dwellings. At 1400 hrs Hiroshima city is visible about five miles distant on the port bow. By 1500 hrs we have dropped anchor in Kure. The portion of the Inland Sea by Kure port is like a big lake some two miles across and on the northern side is the town of Kure. A half a dozen small commandeered Japanese boats, each with a few Kiwis aboard ply around our ship. The N Zers are members of the 9 NZ Bde Adv Party who reached here on Mar 1st.’

On the 23rd the sappers were taken ashore by LST and driven in Australian trucks to the railway station; they travelled the 120 miles to Yamaguchi under better conditions than they had page 725 been led to expect. The Japanese third-class carriages were considered the equal of New Zealand second class in design and layout.

Yamaguchi, the destination of the sappers, had at that time a population of 60,000 and was the ‘Ken’ or seat of government of the Yamaguchi prefecture. The barracks the Company occupied were on the outskirts of the town. They had been built in the first place for Japanese troops and were previously occupied by Americans, who had made a start with the provision of electric light, some shower stands and a chlorinated water supply. The eight large barrack buildings fringed the parade ground and were occupied by 27 NZ Battalion, 25 NZ Field Battery and the Camp Hospital in addition to the Engineers.

The American troops had not got around to doing much in the way of drainage and sanitation, words that did not seem to be in the Japanese vocabulary, and there was no lack of work for the engineers in bringing these amenities up to modern standards.

It had been indicated to the members of J Force before leaving Italy that the New Zealand Government was endeavouring to arrange for the first relief to arrive in Japan early in July and the second as soon after as was possible, depending on the allocation of shipping. The reliefs arrived as promised; they were volunteers, many curiously young for their alleged years, and the occupation duties were carried out by these men until September 1948.

1 L-Sgt T. Neilson; Timaru; born Timaru, 15 Dec 1919; clerk.

2 Spr G. Ellison; born Napier, 24 Oct 1919; mechanic.

3 6 Fd Coy and 28 Assault Sqn were officially disbanded as per 2 NZEF Orders on the same day. The official dates of the disbandment of all Engineer units in being were:

20 Oct 1945:5 Fd Pk Coy (became 5 NZ Fd Engr Coy)
8 Dec 1945:28 Assault Sqn
15 Dec 1945:7 Fd Coy
8 Fd Coy
28 Jan 1946:6 Fd Coy
27 Mech Equip Coy