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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

CHAPTER 3 — In the Lee of the Storm

page 60

In the Lee of the Storm

Coincident with the losing of provinces and divisions in Libya, II Duce's troops were being very roughly handled by the Greeks, who were not without hopes of as complete a victory as had been won in North Africa.

Hitler at this period was moving diplomatically in the Balkans —the kind of diplomacy that is backed by armies. Roumania soon saw Teutonic reason and Bulgaria gave no signs of defiance, so that the situation speedily arose where Germany was in a position to march against Greece or Turkey or Yugoslavia.

Our counter was to offer the Greeks some armoured troops, field artillery and anti-aircraft batteries for the defence of their Bulgarian border, but this was declined on the grounds that such a gesture was more likely to provoke than restrain aggression. Later the Greeks altered their opinion and asked what assistance could be sent in the event of a German attack. General Wavell was ordered to send every available unit to Greece, for early and substantial help could come only from North Africa, where any danger of an enemy counter-offensive, it was thought, could be disregarded. But while this decision was being implemented a German light division was landing in Tripoli.

In spite of having to denude his western front, the completeness of the victory in Cyrenaica decided General Wavell to allow the operations against Italian East Africa to proceed.

In the meantime there was no lack of employment for the Engineers; there were kit and equipment deficiencies to be made good, some accumulated pay to be disposed of and an infinity of small jobs to be done around the camps. There was also routine training, shifting battalions across the Nile in night exercises with assault boats and rafts, and the breaking down of infantry prejudices concerning a close acquaintanceship with anti-tank mines.

About the middle of February the tempo began to quicken and stores up to G1098 scale—the war equipment of a unit—became freely available. The issue of tropical kit was proof page 61 that wherever the Division was going, and it was clearly going there soon, the potential battleground was likely to be, climatically at least, very hot. As Lieutenant Wheeler1 saw it:

‘Orders for equipment and movement came rolling in, cancelling and contradicting each other. Much paper and time might have been saved if a composite order could have been sent us somewhat on these lines—

“At 1600 hours all ranks will be issued with battledress to make them think they are going to a cooler climate.

“At 1800 hours all ranks will be re-issued with shorts to make them think they are going to a hotter climate.

“At 2000 hours all ranks will be issued with solar topees to prove to them that they are going to Hell.”

‘By 2000 hours all ranks didn't care if they were going to Hell. As a courtesy gesture from Peter Fraser or the King or someone, we had been issued with a bottle of beer per man. This barely touched the sides as it sizzled down our parched throats but it started a fashion and set us on the way to a practical expression of the jubilation that was seething through the camp.’2

Pursuant to a directive from Headquarters New Zealand Division, the Engineer units departed from Cairo and its environs.

‘Divisional training will be held in March. The Div. Comd. directs that the exercise be carried out with as much realism as possible. Security measures such as would be adopted for a real Op will be put into effect at once. For instance, orders for the move will be delayed until the last possible moment. Units are being supplied up to G 1098 scale, and will be brought up to WE immediately. Existing camp areas will be completely evacuated. Base kits will be left behind. Only Fd Service kits will be taken. In short the Div. trg is to be regarded as a full rehearsal for active service.’

The Second Echelon, en route from England, arrived at Port Tewfik on 3 March and entrained for Helwan, where the ‘Glamour Boys’ of 7 Field Company had about three weeks seeing the sights and tasting the ‘juice of Egypt's grape’ before they followed the rest of the Division to Amiriya transit camp.

Eleven days after 7 Field Company had marched into Helwan, page 62 8 Field Company (Major A. R. Currie3), re-embodied after turning itself into 18 and 19 Army Troops Companies, also marched eagerly into Maadi.

It was to take its place as the Division's third field company in the ‘exercises’ and its rate of equipment up to G1098 was a miracle of ease and celerity. On 5 April the company moved to Amiriya and loaded its vehicles and equipment on the transport; the following dawn the German troops in Bulgaria crossed the frontier into Greece; 8 Field Company unloaded its gear and returned profanely to Cairo, this time to Mena Camp, where it remained for the next few months.

Nineteenth Army Troops Company, which was already in Greece, took over the role of 8 Field Company although it was neither equipped nor trained as a field company. The position then was that Lieutenant-Colonel Clifton had under his command in Greece a Headquarters, 5 Field Park Company, 6 and 7 Field Companies, and 19 Army Troops Company acting as a field 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.

18 Army Troops Company

Eighteenth Army Troops Company (Major L. A. Lincoln), with its job in Fiji under its military belt, left New Zealand page 67 with 21 Mechanical Equipment Company and endured stoically the Forget-all-you-learnt-in-New-Zealand-this-is-the-way-you-do-it of the Maadi instructors on account of the exciting new surroundings.

Their sphere of operations had already been defined as the care and operation of the Western Desert water-supply system. As has already been outlined, the provision of water into bulk storage in the Western Desert was partly:


From wells or aqueducts,


By pipeline,


By railway tank car,


By sea.

A number of different authorities overlapped in this organisation and steps were being taken to simplify the administration so that the Royal Engineers would be responsible for the bulk supply of water to the Western Desert. The RE would be responsible for the quantity moved and for supervising the equipment so that pumps, hoses, water barges, lighters, water ships, and tankage on shore could be interconnected as necessary.

Formations and detachments, including the RAF, were to place their demands for bulk supply on the local RE representative. This officer, if he could not supply from local resources or by pipeline, was to place his demand, in tons, on GHQ, having obtained the agreement of the local commander. If any special type of container was required this was to be stated in the demand.

Those arrangements were, substantially, unaltered at the conclusion of the campaign in North Africa.

After a month's training and the procuring of G1098 stores the Company spread, section by section, over the Western Desert, until by the end of April their locations and duties were:

In Alexandria E and M Section and Company Headquarters were located at Mex Camp. An idle Italian-owned workshop equipped with the lathes and machinery necessary for the repair of water pumping plants had been taken over and put into operation.

No. 2 Section (Lieutenant Goodsir12) worked from Amiriya with a detachment at Burg el Arab. They operated and maintained the pipeline and stations from Gabbary (inclusive) to Hammam (exclusive) and from Nubariya filtration plant to Abd page 68 el Qadir. There were 19 miles of line to patrol on account of the Bedouin practice of driving spikes into the lead joints whenever they wanted water. The Burg el Arab detachment found consolation for its isolation through the fact that trains were often diverted to a siding there and it was possible to ‘liberate’ quantities of Naafi beer. When the survivors of 19 Army Troops Company returned from Crete some really satisfying reunions were staged through this circumstance.

No. 1 Section (Lieutenant Mackersey13) detrained at Daba, met up with 16 Railway Operating Company, who gave them a hot meal and some buckets of the precious water they had come to control, and to whom they passed on the latest news from home before moving into three army huts that were to be home for them for the next fourteen months. Their main jobs were the pipeline from Hammam to Daba, the pumping station at El Alamein and the water point at Fuka, which was supplied by railborne water. Their lack of transport was eased by smart repair work. An Australian truck left unattended after an accident was quickly got into running order, its distinguishing signs obliterated with a new coat of paint suitably embellished with fern leaves. It was recovered through a mischance by its rightful owners many months afterwards.

From the Burbeita oasis No. 3 Section (Lieutenant Concher14) maintained the aqueducts between there and Baggush, likewise the pipeline from there to Sidi Haneish. They also carried the water supply westward from Fuka to Matruh.

No. 4 Section (Lieutenant Wallace15) detrained at Matruh where No. 4 Section, 21 Mechanical Equipment Company, met them with hot bully beef stew before ferrying them in its only truck to their camp about two miles away. They operated the water supply in the area and maintained the pipeline from Matruh to Charing Cross.

In addition to these pipeline jobs a number of 18 Army Troops Company men, like the 19th, had taken to the sea and were operating water barges about the same time as some of the 19th were driving a railway train in Greece over a line without a signal system, in the dark without lights, and with an engine whose brakes were not so good; but that is another story.

page 69

Major Lincoln was directed to take over two water barges, including the provision of crews and maintenance. They were lying in Alexandria harbour, stank exceedingly of Egyptian crew and had engines that would not go. Sufficient sappers were found in the Company who had marine diesel experience to operate the fleet and recondition the engines. The seagoing sappers were then given a short training course in compass work, coastal navigation and signalling, whereupon they fulfilled the same functions as 19 Army Troops Company had done earlier in the year.

Railway Units

Tenth Railway Construction Company, which, it will be remembered, left the Western Desert in February for Qassassin16 (where, following surveys by 9 Railway Survey Company, there was platelaying and formation work at El Firdan, Tel el Kebir and El Kirsh) did not remain undisturbed for long.

No. 2 Section was warned to stand by on a day's notice to move to the Sudan, where Lieutenant Marchbanks was to build a bridge across the Gash River which divides the Sudan from Eritrea. The Italians had got as far as putting in the concrete foundations for the piers of a bridge at Tessenei and the job was to finish what the Italians had begun.

The campaign against the Italian East African army was going according to plan; the South Africans had captured Addis Ababa, the capital of Abyssinia, and two Indian divisions were attacking the natural stronghold of Keren, protecting Asmara, the enemy capital of Eritrea. The troops were supplied through Kassala and the Sudan Railway Department had, with civilian labour, built a line from Kassala to Tessenei, a distance of about 40 miles. The Gash was dry until the rainy season, June to December, and a temporary line crossed the dry riverbed, then trucks hauled supplies along an Italian built road from the river to Agordat, which was the beginning of another enemy railway line to Asmara.

The Army was to build the bridge across the Gash and extend the line from the river to Agordat—before the rainy season.

The fifty-strong section left Qassassin on 6 March by train through the Nile valley to Upper Egypt. At Shallal, the southern terminus, they changed to river boat and ploughed along the lake formed by the Aswan dam. Two days of stewing in an page 70 oppressive heat brought them to Wadi Halfa, the northern terminal of the Sudan railway system and the home of Kipling's Fuzzy Wuzzy who ‘broke a British square’.

Another two days of train travel across the searing Nubian desert, a smooth grey ocean dotted with islands of crumbling rock, landed the sappers in Kassala.

Major Halley and twenty sappers of the ubiquitous 9 Railway Survey Company17 had preceded the new arrivals by about a fortnight and were surveying the proposed line from the Tessenei bridge site to Agordat. They were doing themselves fairly well and had taken over stone houses previously occupied by Italian public works engineers. They started work at 5 a.m. with Dinka natives cutting their lines with wicked long swords which appeared as dear to them as the kukri to the Gurkha. Other characteristics of the Dinkas were the great crops of fuzzy black tresses, which hung in ringlets down their shoulders, and the long wooden forks carried like a comb so that they could have a scratch every now and then. Work ceased at midday when the heat was unbearable, and lunch was followed by an Eritrean siesta, long hours of wakeful, restless sweating. Late in the afternoon the more energetic went shooting gazelle, buck or guineafowl, while the others persevered with the siesta. In the evenings the sappers sat on the steps of their stone house and watched the lights of convoys threading through the mountain passes with supplies for the troops preparing to storm Keren. When it was quite dark they made themselves homesick by looking across the mountain tops, where low in the sky hung the Southern Cross.

The bridge builders went on to Tessenei and looked the job over. They saw an empty riverbed with heavy scrub along its banks, hundreds of bright-coloured birds above the trees and monkeys in untold numbers in their branches.

From the Kassala end the bridge spans were one 55 ft, five 50 ft and two 40 ft, a total length of 385 ft. These spans were fixed by the concrete foundations already put in position by the Italians, but the steel built-up girders sent down from Egypt would not fit these measurements and had to be adapted on the job.

Lieutenant Marchbanks wrote later:

‘We were always short of Equipment but managed to get page 71 hold of an Italian electric welding set, gas cutting torches and compressors. About 1000 cubic yards of concrete was poured and for this we had only two ? c. yd mixers. Total weight of steel handled was about 1000 tons with a heaviest lift of 10 tons. We were fortunate in being able to borrow two caterpillar drag lines from the Sudan Rlys for handling the girders.

‘As an example of the way we had to improvise, 1200 ½ and ? [in.] dia. holes had to be drilled in the steel by hand ratchet drills and over 1000 hook bolts for holding the sleepers to the girders had to be forged and threaded.’

The party worked for a month on formation and culverting until material came down from Egypt. The first concrete was poured on 14 April and the first train ran over the bridge on 28 May. Lieutenant Marchbanks was evacuated to hospital a fortnight before the bridge was completed, leaving Sergeant Keller18 in charge. The sappers did not rejoin their unit until the end of June.

Tenth Railway Construction Company lost another 65 all ranks to a composite Operating and Construction Company being assembled to proceed, under the command of Major Smith, to Greece. The rest of the men were provided by 13 Company (132 all ranks) and 16 Company (77 all ranks).19

The selected sappers assembled at El Firdan, where they were issued with tropical kit and began a concentrated course of infantry training. It did not last long.

Further instructions arrived that administration would be simplified if all constructional people were drawn from one unit, and as 10 Company already had one section detached, 13 Company would be withdrawn and 10 Company would supply all the construction element. And the new company would assemble at Qassassin.

Under the new plan 7 officers, 262 other ranks, 11 lorries, 4 motor-cycles and 57 tons of equipment were assembled, with orders to be ready to move within twenty-four hours as from 25 March. An advanced guard of eleven drivers commanded by Sergeant Jack Molloy20 left with the gear on the 29th and the sappers were to follow the next day; they route-marched and machine-gun drilled until 3 April, when they were told that page 72 they were beyond doubt leaving within forty-eight hours; in the morning the departure was postponed indefinitely.

Tenth Company detail was to stand by and 16 Company detail was to go to Amiriya and work on the extensive military sidings there. On 14 April 10 Company detail was ‘definitely embarking’ the next day—it got as far as loading rations on a train and striking camp before the order was countermanded and camp was unstruck.

The sappers really left Qassassin a couple of evenings later, this time in trucks, but a Don R caught them within two hours and the column halted at Tahag. It stayed halted there for a week, when the now thoroughly demoralised detail was told that it was really and truly on its way—back to the Western Desert. But there was one more blow to come: new equipment had been drawn to replace that loaded on the transport and shipped to Greece, but it had come back again and was found lying on a wharf at Port Said.21 The new equipment was to be handed back forthwith and the old gear taken on charge again. New words were added to the English language and the sappers' vocabulary grew in strength and vigour.

This apparently irresponsible conduct was of course partly on account of the situation in Greece, where the campaign was going far from well, and partly because of the enemy counter-attack in the Western Desert.

In the meantime the balance of 16 Railway Operating Company had arrived at El Kirsh to take over the duties of 17 Company, who unknown to themselves were shortly to move to Palestine; on 7 April they were hotfooting it back to Daba. Major Aickin had been informed that if the enemy attack in Cyrenaica was not stopped he might have to operate the whole 200 miles of railway from Amiriya to Matruh; he was to make his headquarters at Daba and to plan on the assumption that communications would fail and that he would be out of touch with his section at Amiriya. Major Aickin could muster only 116 men at the time so he had received a fair-sized job; it was added to materially, as he explains:

‘That night (8th) about 6.30 o'clock, a British Major who held the high-sounding title of Town Major (though his domain page 73 was merely a large chunk of desert, a few water wells and numerous latrines for the cleanliness of which he was held responsible) came into our mess and read us a signal. It appeared that the tiny force representing the then strength of the 16th, a few bakers of the RASC field bakery and less than a dozen men of the Movement Control staff were the garrison of Daba. There were no troops behind us all the way to Alexandria while up forward there was only a small garrison at Mersa Matruh and nothing much in the way of troops or armour in the desert west of there…. We had no wire, no minefields, no artillery and we had not had a tremendous amount of practice with our rifles. We had an anti-tank rifle which temporarily incapacitated the firer at every shot, plus three brens and a lewis gun.

‘The Town Major described our role in terms that gave us freedom of movement and freedom of decision. What he said was, “You'd better put some men over at the cross roads or somewhere. Send out a patrol or two on a truck or something, with bren guns or something of that sort; anyhow you are supposed to do something.” The Town Major was in too much of a hurry to have a whiskey or something as he had to go and organise the bakehouse in depth or something.’

Without more ado 16 Railway Operating Company, the whole 116 of them, set about preparing to receive General Rommel, his two Italian divisions and his 5 German Light Armoured Division, either one at a time or all together. They dug trenches and built field works; they acquired a distaste for sleep in order to complete their defences and carry out their train-running shifts more or less continuously. They were assisted in staying awake by the weight and frequency of enemy air raids.

The Company strength was increased by the return of men from leave, and of another party that had been detailed but which did not go to Eritrea, and the defence works grew in complexity.

Little by little the flap died down. The Australian and British force in Tobruk was a thorn in the side of the enemy communication system and there was no invasion of Egypt.

Tenth Company returned to the Western Desert on 2 May and spread from Daba to Matruh on emergency repair work; by night they endured air raids and by day they repaired the damage.

Thirteenth Company remained in the Canal Zone, where its page 74 main work was at Abu Sultan constructing new spurs in the Ammunition Depot, the laying of depot tracks at Geneifa and Amiriya, and a bridge over the Sweetwater Canal to the wharf. By and large it was a pretty poor show; the food was not good and meal hours did not suit; the heat was trying, for at 116 in the shade steel rails could not be touched with bare hands; furthermore the work was rushed and the native labour more than usually poor.

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.

page 75

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:

page 76

‘… 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.’

page 79

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.’

1 Lt C. M. Wheeler; Singapore; born NZ 28 Dec 1914; civil engineer; wounded 25 Jun 1942.

2 Kalimera Kiwi, p. 28.

3 Lt-Col A. R. Currie, DSO, OBE; Wellington; born Napier, 12 Nov 1910; military engineer; OC 8 Fd Coy Oct 1940-Jul 1942; CO NZ Engr Trg Depot Apr-Jul 1943; OC 7 Fd Coy Jul-Nov 1943; three times wounded; Director, Fortifications and Works, Army HQ, 1946–49; Chief Engineer, NZ Army, 1951–60.

4 Maj J. H. Tiffen, m.i.d.; Wanganui; born Gisborne, 15 Mar 1903; civil engineer (British Colonial Service, Fiji); OC 21 Mech Equip Coy Nov 1940–Nov 1943.

5 Capt K. A. Bryant; Lower Hutt; born Petone, 30 Dec 1916; mechanical draughtsman.

6 Including the detachment of 16 Ry Op Coy sappers working the Benghazi-Barce trains.

7 Royal Australian Engineers.

8 Capt E. L. Hendry; Wellington; born NSW 1 Feb 1901; engineer.

9 Capt A. F. Allen, m.i.d.; born NZ 19 Nov 1909; civil engineer; killed in action 18 Feb 1944.

10 Capt C. B. Hornig; born NZ 22 Nov 1913; civil engineer; wounded 28 Mar 1942; killed in action 6 Mar 1944.

11 Capt E. Hazledine-Barber, m.i.d.; Melville, Hamilton; born England, 3 Jul 1903; county engineer.

12 Maj J. A. Goodsir, MC; born NZ 10 Oct 1907; civil engineer; wounded 20 Nov 1943.

13 Lt C. A. Mackersey; Havelock North; born Masterton, 2 May 1900; electrical engineer, NZR.

14 Maj J. R. Concher; Wellington; born NZ 14 Jul 1908; civil engineer.

15 Maj J. B. Wallace, MBE; Papatoetoe; born NZ 28 Jan 1914; civil engineer.

17 At that period 9 Ry Svy Coy was spread along a 2000-mile front with one third of its strength in Eritrea, one third on the Suez Canal and one third in Greece.

18 Capt A. A. Keller, MC; born NZ 8 Oct 1917; engineer cadet; wounded 19 Apr 1945; died Rotorua, 24 May 1956.

19 In addition No. 3 Section was away for some weeks at Haifa working on locomotives and rolling stock.

20 Sgt B. J. Molloy; born Ireland, 11 Sep 1905; plant foreman.

21 Sgt Molloy's party landed and reached Athens in its own trucks on 11 April and was employed carrying troops from the docks to their camps, and then in the transport of wounded from train to hospital ship. It was evacuated to Crete on 27–28 April and on 16 May was again evacuated to Egypt. Sapper L. E. Fischer went missing in Greece and was later reported PW, the Company's first casualty.

22 Maj K. O. Tunnicliffe, MBE; Edgecumbe, Bay of Plenty; born Hukanui, 22 Jul 1904; sawmill owner; OC 14 Forestry Coy Jul-Aug 1944.

23 Capt K. W. King; Whangarei; born NZ 12 May 1913; civil engineer.

24 Lt C. H. Chandler; Reefton; born Reefton, 14 Nov 1910; logging contractor and sawmiller.

25 Maj D. V. Thomas, OBE; Wairoa; born Ashburton, 19 Jun 1897; farmer and sawmiller; 1 NZEF, 1917 (Cpl); Lt 2/34 Sikh Pioneers, 1919; OC 14 Forestry Coy 1941–44.

26 Lady-in-waiting to Her Majesty.

27 Capt W. Austin; Christchurch; born NZ 12 May 1893; forest foreman.

28 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d., MC (Gk); Hamilton; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde and MG Bn 1915–19; CO 27 (MG) Bn Jan-Aug 1940; comd 4 Inf Bde 1941–42, and 4 Armd Bde 1942–44; GOC 2 NZ Div 27 Jun–16 Aug 1942, 6 Jun-31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947–50; Stipendiary Magistrate.