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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

The Forestry Group

The Forestry Group

Fourteenth Forestry Company found that its billets in the stables of Grittleton House, Grittleton, Wilts., although a very imposing postal address, were without heat or light, and a stable without heat or light in the middle of an English winter is not the acme of comfort. There were other drawbacks; the cookhouse lacked a stove, there were no showers, drying rooms, telephone or bathing facilities; the latrines were located in the main stable yard next to the sergeants' mess. The men's mess-room, lately the coach house, was cold and dark—there were radiators but the boiler was useless and endeavours to procure another one were quite fruitless.

The remedying of these inadequacies was a slow and tedious business, for munitions and military equipment were being manufactured to the exclusion of everything else and hundreds of thousands of men were being brought from under canvas into winter quarters.

Improvements were gradual and sporadic. Early in December twenty coal-burning stoves arrived and were installed, then nine bedrooms and the servants' hall at Grittleton House were requisitioned, permitting sixty-two sappers to move out of the stables. Other amenities had to wait the passing to and fro of sundry letters to and from sundry authorities, who first refused permission to carry out repairs unless they were done by civilian contractors. Eventually the sappers were permitted to do sufficient plumbing and electrical work themselves to make their stables tolerably comfortable. The officers, for whom there was no provision whatever, were billeted at the Rectory and had their meals at the Red Lion Inn close by. Civilian kindness and hospitality were immediate and widespread and helped to take the edge off the acute discomfort of life in the Grittleton House stables.

Fifteenth Forestry Company had more luck and was billeted in Langrish House, Langrish, Hants.

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Both units after disembarkation leave did a month's solid training under instructors lent by Southern Command. The sappers got on very well with their instructors, though one of the favourite indoor pastimes was wondering what a nice quiet day's work would feel like.

The intention was for each company, with the help of labour supplied by civilian pioneer units, to operate three mills. Eleventh Company was operating Hailey Wood and Overley Wood and was building, as fast as the erratic supply of parts would permit, its third mill at Bowood. Unlike the English-type mills, Bowood and the others to be erected by the Forestry Group were of New Zealand design and in accordance with plans drawn up by Lieutenants Tunnicliffe22 and King.23 Standard New Zealand features absent from the English mills were power feeds for the breaking-down bench, sawdust conveyors and a power goose saw, while the unsatisfactory push bench was discarded for a return-feed breast bench.

Fifteenth Company moved half its strength to Arundel in Sussex, where two mills known as East and West Arundel were taken over from civilians. The rest of the Company built its third mill at Basing Park forest, Langrish, and commenced cutting on 10 February.

Fourteenth Company built a mill at Grittleton which put its first log through on 31 January, relieved 11 Company for its ten-day drill period, detailed groups of men for urgent felling jobs around landing grounds and detached other parties for felling beech urgently needed for rifle butts. The War Office had approached the Ministry of Supply for a nation-wide effort to ensure the cutting of this timber before April when the sap began to rise. When cutting was discontinued over 2500 beech trees had been felled by New Zealand detachments in five weeks.

Reference has been made to the fact that the Forestry Group was subject to control by both the Forestry Division of the War Office and the Ministry of Supply, which did not make for smooth running and was discontinued in February, when home-grown timber came under direct control of the Ministry of Supply.

Colonel Eliott's letter to the Military Secretary sent on 21 February is revealing:

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‘… The supply of equipment has recently rather improved but remains far from plentiful. The location of operations is widespread and administration, from the military point of view, made rather difficult, in that whenever a unit is divided effective operative personnel tend to become more and more involved in administrative duties. Positions of strange contradictions occasionally arise when the requirements of the Army vary from the requirements of the Ministry of Supply. I more than once on such occasions have sat back and refused to move until I have an order from the Army, pointing out at the same time, politely I trust, but very definitely that I am primarily a soldier and will obey orders from one place only—that place being the Army.’

Throughout February and March felling and cutting beech was first priority: 11 Company had a party felling at Winchester and 15 Company's Langrish mill was cutting beechwood; 15th was felling at Castle Combe, also at Gatcombe Hill, Whitegate and Parsonage Wood plantations, and in addition one officer and thirty other ranks were operating in Dropmore Wood. Bucks.

Throughout the winter sappers had been inclined to be critical at the apparent uselessness of working at great discomfort and against time to produce timber which nobody seemed to want, but this matter was brought into correct perspective by a memo from the Director of the Home Grown Timber Production Department pointing out the urgent necessity of the work on which the Forestry companies were engaged and the reasons for the large stocks being accumulated at the mills. In the Battle of the Atlantic one of the largest items imported was timber; and the reduction of the demands on shipping space was of vital importance. A certain amount of stock had to be reserved for national emergencies at home or where the armies were operating abroad. To date stock, largely imported, had been stacked at the various docks, but owing to the air raids it had been necessary to remove those stocks and use them. It was necessary to replace them with home-grown timber for just such another emergency. It was a reasonable explanation and henceforth the output grew appreciably.

March also saw the bushmen given an operational role in the event of invasion, still considered a possibility with the German military machine stalled for want of opponents not separated by a sea lane.

The decision was taken by the CRE, South Midland Area and page 77 Southern Command, that if the occasion demanded 11 and 14 Companies would form a mobile column for the defence of Gloucestershire airfields and would deal with parachute landings inside the area bounded by Northleach, Cirencester, Stroud and Andoversford. As 15 Company was in a different military area and the Arundel detachment in a different Command, they were integrated into the local defence plans. Rifles, of which only twenty were held by each company for guards and pickets, were to be made a 100 per cent issue. The sappers were enthusiastic about a scheme which converted them, in case of necessity, into fighting troops, although they were quick to point out that until the rifles arrived Hitler would have to give reasonable notice of his intention to attack in their area.

During this period, which might be called the running-in of the New Zealand Forestry Group, there were some changes in command. Captain O. Jones asked to be relieved of command of 14 Company on transfer to the RAF; Sergeant Chandler24 of 11 Company was commissioned and transferred to 15 Company and most of the junior officers were changed from their original commands; Captain Thomas25 took command of 14 Company. Rugby footballers were withdrawn from circulation to train for a projected tour of Wales. Hailey Wood mill's output for the month was a United Kingdom record (95,244 super. feet); Grittleton mill broke the record for a week's production; Langrish mill, still lacking a yard tramway, put up impressive figures. Both Arundel mills lost time through floods, but in spite of these and more technical hitches the seven New Zealand mills produced 67,000 cubic feet of timber and the total output passed the million cubic feet mark.

Spring passed into summer. Canteens were established and gardens, tended by sappers, provided more than adequate supplies of fresh vegetables. Guards of honour were supplied for War Weapons Week at Salisbury, Chippenham, Arundel and Littlehampton, and for Mr Jordan at Calne. The 14th Company detachment that was to operate a mill being built by civilians at Savernake forest, near Marlborough, moved into quarters at Burbage and commenced felling a backlog of timber. Eventually the company was asked to finish the building itself. The erection of this mill had been a classic in delay and muddle until the page 78 Kiwis took over, when it was reduced to delay waiting for essential parts. Savernake began cutting on 23 July.

Bowood mill, changing from beech to Douglas fir, one week turned out 4000 cubic feet, a record, then went on to better it the next week by another 580 cubic feet. The Bowood average of 3800 cubic feet for the four-weekly period of April was a complete answer to the English critics of the New Zealand type mill. At its peak in supply and operation this mill was cutting 117 cubic feet an hour, a figure never before approached by civilian or service timber men in the United Kingdom.

The withdrawal of 93 Alien Pioneer Company from 11 Company meant that without this unskilled labour, even if its quality was poor, the Company could not operate three mills. The Calne detachment was accordingly moved to Cirencester and a detachment of 14 Company moved to Grittleton to work Bowood.

The outstanding features of June were not mill work or forestry. Her Majesty the Queen Mother (Queen Mary) visited 14 Company at Grittleton and took tea with the officers and representatives of the rank and file. There was a sequel which the diarist of 14 Company describes:

‘The Queen Mother returned the compliment and the Duchess of Beaufort26 gave tea to the men and the Queen Mother gave tea to Maj Thomas and Lt Austin.27 The Queen allowed the men to attend the show with their coats off. Only some availed themselves of this favour and after the show the Queen was amused to hear that the others couldn't because had they done so they would have been down to the buff.’

A mobile column formed by 11 and 14 Companies performed an exercise on 15 June which included the defence of an airfield. Further recourse to the 14 Company diarist provides the real flavour of the event:

‘An exercise was carried out at Aston Downs aerodrome, the 14th and 11th Coys being given the job of attacking and retaking the aerodrome in the hands of the enemy. Dive bombers took part and a very realistic show took place and it should have been of immense help in showing to our troops their complete lack of training and knowledge in modern warfare. The objective was reached only because blanks were used.’

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All troops, except essential guards, of the New Zealand Forestry Group were concentrated at Barton Stacy camp, Hants., on 19 June for the ten-day training period. During the training they were inspected by Brigadier Inglis,28 who gave a short talk on the Crete campaign. Even before the Brigadier had told them something of the fighting and evacuation of Crete, sufficient news had been released about both Greece and Crete to start a stream of applications for transfers to a first-line unit. Colonel Eliott wrote (9 June) to the Military Secretary, 2 NZEF, thus:

‘Work continues here much on the same lines working through War Office with the Ministry of Supply. Our work appears to give satisfaction…. Discipline is difficult. 99 percent of the men and officers too wish to rejoin—or should I say join?—the Division and I can only hope that my personal note to the GOC asking him to call for us will bear some fruit. England may be attacked of course and we may have our chance but wish to get out with the New Zealand troops and be with the Division and more directly controlled operationally by the GOC. Applications to me for transfer to Middle East to other units are innumerable.’