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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

19 Army Troops Company

19 Army Troops Company

By the end of July 19 Army Troops Company was again ready to operate as a specialist unit—it had spent all its accumulated pay, overstayed its leave and paid the appropriate penalty, been re-equipped and brought up to strength. On 15 August it left the New Zealand Division to come under command of British Troops Egypt, and four days later had taken over duties from 8 Field Company in Mena Camp at the foot of the Giza pyramid. The command at that date was: Major C. Langbein, OC; Captain J. N. Anderson,32 second-in-command; Second-Lieutenants H. C. Gayford, R. A. Nicol, R. N. Thomas, J. S. Berry (attached). In addition Lieutenant Malt,33 from 13 Railway Construction Company, and Lieutenant H. C. Page, ex-Training Depot, Maadi, were taken on strength on 28 August.

The bombing of Alexandria, the fact that the Mediterranean Fleet was so crippled after Crete that it had difficulty in protecting the sea communications with Tobruk, and the virtual closing of the Mediterranean to British convoys meant that the only way to reinforce Egypt was by the three or four weeks' extra travel ‘the long way round’ via the Cape of Good Hope. Supplies from India, New Zealand and Australia kept Port Suez fully occupied without the extra traffic, and the possibility of the enemy sinking a vessel in the Canal itself was a recurrent nightmare.

A General Headquarters memorandum of 30 May 1941 stated the position and the remedy: ‘The possibility of the Suez Canal being permanently closed to ships has made it necessary for us to be prepared to receive all Middle East supplies at ports south of the Canal.’

A conference at General Headquarters on 19 August confirmed that Safaga should be developed, that it should be regarded as an insurance against the partial or complete closing page 181 of the Suez Canal, but that it would not be used to maximum capacity while other Egyptian ports could handle the traffic now diverted to the Red Sea route.

Major Langbein was advised that 19 Army Troops Company was to work on the project, that it would supervise the contracts and manage the native labour, and that it would be entrusted with the more difficult work requiring a high technical skill. The full strength of the company would not be required immediately as a great deal of preliminary work would have to be done before a real start could be made on the port construction projects.

No. 4 Section (Lieutenant Gayford34) was the first to move out (25 August). Six sappers and two trucks went by road and the others by rail to Qena and thence by MT to Safaga, arriving two days later.

No. 2 Section (Lieutenant Page) left Mena on 5 September for Aqaba in Transjordan, 160 miles south-east across the Sinai Desert, where 21 Mechanical Equipment Company was opening up a somewhat similar project. E and M Section (Lieutenant Thomas35) joined No. 2 at Safaga during September. By the end of October the Company, less No. 2 Section, was located at Safaga.

Company Headquarters and No. 1 Section (Lieutenant Berry36) had been retained in camp supervising the contractors, but No. 3 Section (Lieutenant Nicol37) and, until they left for Aqaba, No. 2, had been caught up in the ‘flap’ that the return of the enemy to the Egyptian border, followed by the defeats in Greece and Crete, had precipitated among the holders of offices surrounding General Headquarters. A defence scheme for Cairo was thought up but no machinery was made available, and the sappers, besides supervising the native workers, had many hours of hand-mixing concrete to finish lines of trenches that the Egyptians immediately took over as dwellings. Eighth Field Company had built pillboxes covering the roads entering Cairo and all these had to be camouflaged.

No sooner was the end of the work in sight than somebody with real authority must have heard about it for the sappers page 182 got orders to fill in the trenches and remove the sandbagging from the pillboxes. They carried out the orders so effectively that when the real flap in June-July 1942 came along, the extensive and expensive preparations for defending Cairo could not be located.

The first jobs at Safaga were the building of a camp and the unloading of bulldozers, carry-alls, rollers and other heavy gear needed for the projected work on the new harbour. Use was made of the Phosphate Company's jetty for the landing and assembly of the plant. The better part of six weeks was occupied in this and in setting up camp, during which period rations were very hard in quality and very light in quantity. Other troops and labour units were also moving in, together with the usual services such as a mobile bakery unit and a NAAFI, so that when the main body of the Company arrived in October conditions were as reasonable as could be expected.

The sappers were settling in to the new camp when it was discovered that the site was needed for port works. Another camp was built nearer the escarpment where, with dug-in tents, concreted floors and walls the Company made its home for more than a year.

Water was the biggest worry in those early weeks for every drop had to be brought by tender from Suez, and with the steady influx of Imperial troops and native labourers it was soon necessary to make other arrangements.

In November a Merrylees Watson water distillation unit with a capacity of 25 tons per day was sent down by steamer and lightered ashore. No assembly instructions accompanied the plant, and to complicate matters further the engine slipped out of the ship's slings into deep water and could not be recovered. Nineteenth Army Troops Company thus possessed a water distillation plant minus an engine and minus directions for assembling it. By the time a replacement engine arrived Sergeant Adamson38 had unscrambled the omelette. A second water plant was in operation by the end of the year, when it was possible to install ablution benches and the other amenities usual in a standing camp.

Another project that the sappers found themselves working on was the 106-mile-long road from Qena to Safaga being formed by REs and native labour. Instructors were detached to teach the operation and maintenance of the 'dozers and other heavy equipment used in roadmaking, for the Royal page 183 Engineers' skills did not lie in that direction. There were New Zealanders working on the road for the full eleven months it took to form and seal its length.

black and white photograph of parade of soldiers

Mess parade at Hopu Hopu, 1939

black and white photograph of troop ship

The Strathaird leaves Wellington, 5 January 1940

black and white photograph of road construction

19 Army Troops building a road in the Olympus Pass

black and white photograph of collapsed bridge

The railway bridge across the Pinios River demolished by 19 Army Troops Company

black and white photograph of resting soldiers

Sappers rest by the roadside in Crete

black and white photograph of resting soldiers

Exhausted sappers await evacuation at Sfakia

black and white photograph of a soldier surveyor

Surveying in the Western Desert

black and white photograph of survey for railway

9 Railway Survey Company in Fritrea

black and white photograph of truck repairs

Field Park men change an engine in the Western Desert

black and white photograph of pipe laying

Laying the oil pipeline to Lake Timsah

black and white photograph of railway construction

Dragging rails from the railhead for the Western Desert railway extension

black and white photograph of railway construction

Indians lift a rail on to the sleepers

black and white photograph of railway construction

At work on the new line

black and white photograph of soldiers taking lunch


black and white photograph of construction site

Langrish Mill, near Portsmouth

black and white photograph of logging

Loading spruce near Petersfield, September 1941

black and white photograph of port construction

Port Sataga in the early stages of construction

black and white photograph of pile driver

Stoking the boiler for the pile-driver at Aqabasee p. 190

black and white photograph of ambulance train

An ambulance train operated by New Zealand engineers

black and white photograph of water tank

A Braithwaite tank reservoir at Umm er Rzem, near Derna

black and white photograph of digging machine

‘Buckeye’ ditcher and, below, ‘Side-boom crane’ tractor used by 18 Army Troops Company for laying the water pipeline in the Western Desert

black and white photograph of pipe laying

black and white photograph of HQ construction

Constructing a headquarters on the Alamein front, August 1942

black and white photograph of steam train

The first train to go forward after the November 1942 breakthrough arrives at El Alamein station

black and white photograph of mail delivery

Christmas mail at the Maadi Camp Post Office, December 1942

black and white photograph of dinner in the desert

Christmas dinner, Nofilia, 1942

black and white photograph of desert bridge

Bridge near Nofilia, built by New Zealand engineers

black and white photograph of mine sweepers

Sweeping the roadside for mines

black and white photograph of mine sweeper

After removing a Teller mine, a sapper probes with his bayonet for a possible second mine beneath

black and white photograph of construction work

The Spanish Mole at Tripoli under repair, January 1943

black and white photograph of road construction

Sappers work on the road between Tarhuna and Azizia

black and white photograph of topographical model

Model of the Enfidaville line made for General Freyberg

Among other preliminary jobs was the straightening of 500 tons of reinforcing steel which had been salvaged from a wreck and was badly tangled. The sappers rigged up bending benches and taught Egyptian labourers the knack of using them while another urgent job, building beds and wooden shuttering for pouring concrete piles, was got on with.

Ten beds each with a capacity of six piles were constructed, the number considered necessary for the production of a continuous supply of piles and their ‘curing’ in the sea before use without holding up operations once pile-driving commenced.

A concomitant to the pile making was the laying down of a Decauville rail track for the operation of two Goliath cranes. These were designed by Lieutenant Nicol and constructed by E and M Section for lifting the piles and moving the reinforcing fabrications into position before pouring the concrete.

Prior to Christmas the Company learnt that it was urgently necessary to manufacture twelve 47-foot reinforced piles for a temporary jetty. The beds had been laid and the first batch of fabrications was ready before the order came, but a difficulty was the shortage of fresh water, for only Portland cement was available and the second distillation plant was not yet working. The use of salt water with Portland cement was frowned on in Army specifications, but if the piles were to be ready on time there was no alternative. They were completed and cured by 27 December and proved to be entirely satisfactory.

32 Capt Anderson marched out to command 5 Fd Pk Coy on 7 Sep.

33 Maj L. C. E. Malt, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born England, 22 Feb 1904; civil engineer; OC 5 Fd Pk Coy 1944–45.

34 Capt H. C. Gayford; Tokoroa; born Christchurch, 30 Dec 1913; building supervisor.

35 Lt R. N. Thomas, m.i.d.; Palmerston North; born Christchurch, 6 Oct 1900; civil engineer.

36 Maj J. S. Berry, m.i.d.; born NZ 20 Sep 1915; civil engineer; wounded 23 Mar 1943.

37 Lt R. A. Nicol, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Waimate, 3 Apr 1911; structural engineer.

38 Sgt F. Adamson; Wellington; born NZ 1890; NZR platelayer.