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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

21 Mechanical Equipment Company

21 Mechanical Equipment Company

On 30 October 1940 the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom wrote to the Prime Minister of New Zealand to the effect that, following earlier communications, he had received a letter from the United Kingdom Government stating that as there was not the same experience in England of earthmoving machines as there was in New Zealand, it would be of the greatest assistance if New Zealand could provide the personnel for a mechanical equipment company.

New Zealand was indeed well situated to supply men experienced in the operation of bulldozers, graders, ditchers and draglines, for the Government had been roading large areas of broken country and the use of mechanical equipment had been a big factor in the progress of the development plan. Britain, on the other hand, was a country where highways had been levelled for centuries and where earthmoving machinery was a rarity.

Immediate steps were taken to raise a mechanical equipment company with an authorised strength of a headquarters (3 page 63 officers and 8 other ranks), a repair section (1 officer and 22 other ranks) and four working sections (1 officer and 51 other ranks), in all 8 officers and 234 other ranks.

As with other specialist non-divisional units, military prowess was a secondary consideration; officers were chosen for their engineering qualifications and non-commissioned officers for their all-round experience. The rank and file were quite in accord with the method of choosing their military betters for they were themselves thoroughly of the opinion that soldier training was totally unnecessary for a sapper of 21 Mechanical Equipment Company.

Drill instructors, that hardy race, were broken-hearted after a few turns on the training circuit and ‘Bob Semple's Wild Cats' left New Zealand full of good intentions and without much military erudition.

It was not that they did not want to learn; they were just too full of the importance of the gears, levers and lubricants of this or that machine to absorb anything else. That they tried to do the right thing is proved by a story which became a standing joke in 2 NZ Division—a sapper on sentry duty one night in Trentham recognised another member of the Company approaching a forbidden area and challenged him, ‘Halt Higgens! Who goes there?’

Twenty-first Mechanical Equipment Company (Major Tiffen4) left New Zealand with the third section of the 4th Reinforcements on 1 February 1941 in the Nieuw Amsterdam, together with 8 Field Company, 18 Army Troops Company and a party of divisional and non-divisional Engineer reinforcements. On arrival at Bombay, because of the situation in the Red SeaEritrea and Somaliland were still in enemy hands—it was necessary to change into smaller ships which maintained a shuttle service to Suez. Those units not going on straight away went to a transit camp at Deolali outside Bombay. After six weeks in the transit camp 21 Mechanical Equipment Company arrived at Port Tewfik on 23 March. The next day the unit marched in to Maadi. The term ‘marched in’ is military jargon for being taken on strength, but in the most literal meaning of the word the sappers marched in to Maadi with all their gear on their backs. It was about three miles to their quarters and a soldierly bearing was something they had not acquired. ‘Keep up with page 64 your three’, one, bent like an ambulatory hairpin, was urged.

‘I am keeping up with my three,’ he answered indignantly.

‘Your head might be,’ he was told, ‘but your backside is here three files behind.’

March and April were busy months in North Africa; they were also busy months in Greece but our immediate concern is with 21 Mechanical Equipment Company. The new arrivals were going through the usual routine of drawing stores when a party of five sappers under Lieutenant Bryant5 was detailed to deliver to and assemble at Barce several 10 RB shovels and a Le Tourneau rooter required urgently for digging anti-tank defences.

The situation in late March was that the frontier in Cyrenaica was held by bits and pieces of armoured formations, some mounted in Italian tanks which were scarcely mobile owing to the lack of replacements. Ninth Australian Division, less one brigade in Tobruk without transport, was supporting the armour.

Enemy strength was then known to be building up but no serious movement was expected for at least another month, when Imperial troops and transport would have replaced the formations and the 8000 vehicles that had been sent to Greece.

The enemy did not keep to our timetable and a counter-attack was mounted on 31 March by 5 German Light Armoured Division and two Italian divisions, one armoured and one motorised. It must be admitted that they made a very work-manlike job of restoring Libya to the Italian Empire, for by 11 April, with the exception of the Aussies and others in Tobruk, we were back again in Egypt.6

The equipment was loaded on White 10-ton transporters driven by RASC drivers, and after trouble with the Cairo overhead tramway wires a routine stop was made at Matruh for orders and petrol. Lieutenant Bryant takes the tale on:

‘The convoy then proceeded towards Solum against a steadily increasing eastward bound stream of traffic which even to the somewhat uninitiated eyes of 21 Mech. Equip. Coy. Section appeared a little odd to say the least, in so far as Air Force, Army and even Navy Detachments were mixed together with such abandon that the men were heard to remark that even the Army couldn't intentionally organise such a conglomeration. page 65 … In view of the original B.T.E. orders the section officer decided to push on to Bardia which was reached at dusk and on reporting to the Officer Commanding was informed that the equipment was [now] urgently required in Tobruk and that the convoy must push on without delay.

‘Consequently, having fed and refuelled and issued 5 rounds per man the convoy moved westwards at night without lights on the now empty road, arriving at the defences of Tobruk to meet a “Halt! Who goes there?” in the early hours of the morning and to be informed that we were either bloody heroes or bloody fools as the road was now cut, which accounted for the rumbling sounds, crossing laterally to the route heard during the night run; on reflection the sentry was right. We were bloody fools.

‘Having reached Tobruk and in view of the Bardia Commander's orders re extreme urgency a report was made to Tobruk Fortress Headquarters at 0230 hours to be met with a most encouraging reception and admonition “Go jump in the sea and let a man sleep.”

‘So, having fulfilled orders the section selected a piece of real estate and settled down for the remainder of the night. The equipment was unloaded and assembled to a background of dive and high level bombing attacks on the Fortress and harbour and subsequently handed over to an RAE7 Coy for operation.’

The work of assembly took a fortnight whereupon they embarked with Indian troops on the SS Bankura, but air-raid warning signals changed from white to red before they had settled down. It was soon painfully clear that the Bankura was on the target list, for near misses gave her such a list that she had to be beached. The shipwrecked sappers re-embarked on the corvette Southern Cross, survived another attack and reached Alexandria on 25 April. The engineers with 5 Brigade were having similar experiences between Greece and Crete about the same time.

While Lieutenant Bryant's party was undergoing its baptism of fire No. 4 Section (Lieutenant Hendry8) had departed to Matruh with shovels, ‘dozers and carry-alls to work on tank traps in case the enemy might venture farther east than the Egyptian border. Another job was the provision of berthage to replace the destroyed Matruh jetty. A wall of sandbags was built, then, with shovel and dragline, the seaward side of the page 66 wall was dredged and the spoil used to provide storage space. Destroyers slipped in after dark, discharged at the improvised wharf and were gone before daybreak.

Lieutenant Allen9 moved up to Sidi Haneish with No. 1 Section which, after learning to share the desert with the asps, chameleons and scorpions, also worked on tank traps.

No. 3 Section (Lieutenant Hornig10) endured a few weeks in the ‘bullring’ but were rewarded for their sufferings. They went to help on the outer defences of Alexandria and levelled the far bank of the Nubariya canal to provide a field of fire for pillboxes being constructed on the near side. They were quartered in Gianaclis, a small Greek community situated in the middle of acres of grapes. The sappers first ate the fruit for breakfast, dinner and tea, and then proceeded to distil the juice thereof. The results varied from awful to hellish.

No. 2 Section (Lieutenant Hazledine-Barber11) did not work as a unit but reinforced the other sections from time to time as well as doing sundry small jobs of their own. Not typical, but true none the less, was the experience of a detachment who were ordered to report to an RE command in Alexandria. Nobody knew why they had come or what to do with them so they lived in Mustapha Barracks for three happy, uncomplaining weeks, during which time they were reinforced by another party, who also indulged with enthusiasm in the sea bathing and other pleasures that Alex provides so abundantly.

When Nemesis caught up with them they were sent to operate a dragline at Amiriya, where a defensive ditch was being excavated. The sappers claimed that the dragline had originally been offered to Noah during his flood troubles but that he rejected it on the ground that it was out of date. They had dug about half a mile of ditch with their prehistoric implement when new orders came that the ditch wasn't wanted any more and that they were to go on road repair work at El Alamein. Nobody knew where the place was—then.