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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

21 Mechanical Equipment Company

21 Mechanical Equipment Company

The end of the rebellion in Iraq and the occupation of Syria lessened the danger of German domination of the Middle East oilfields and of yet another threat to the Suez Canal.

The hazard of an enemy thrust at Egypt through Turkey or through the Caucasus into Persia would not become acute until a decisive German victory was won against the Russians, who were proving no easy opponents, and it was decided that the best defence against the first contingency would be the construction of a series of fortresses astride the main routes through Syria. (The Kiwis were to know one of them, Djedeide, very well indeed.)

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The work was begun by troops already there, but the vulnerable position of the Canal as a supply route to the ports of Jaffa and Haifa and the menace of Crete-based aircraft made it important that an alternative to the present rail and sea communication from Egypt be provided for the Ninth Army, with its headquarters in Jerusalem.

The possibilities of Aqaba, at the head of the gulf of that name, were apparent. Within striking distance of the Hejaz railway, Colonel Lawrence had built a jetty there and used the locality as a base for his operations against the Turkish line of communications in the 1914–18 war. Aqaba is on or near the site of the Old Testament city of Eloth, with nearby its twin city of Ezion-geber, both of which places are mentioned in the sojourn of the Jews in the Wilderness. The rulers of Edom, which was part of Transjordan, were even in those days either pro-Egypt or anti-Israel, for they refused the Jews passage and the Chosen People had to move south of the Dead Sea, thence eastward of the ranges bordering Transjordan.39

Aqaba must have been quite a place nearly three thousand years ago because King Solomon ‘made a navy of ships in Ezion-geber, which is beside Eloth, on the shore of the Red sea, in the land of Edom.’40

Aqaba's glory had faded since those far-off days and it was now only a fishing village. Even the caravans that for a thousand years had carried Moslems from Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco to the tomb of the Prophet at Mecca had forsaken it. Aqaba village was sufficiently important, however, to have one street lamp which was lit only when important visitors were expected. The globe had been painted blue for blackout purposes.

Headquarters 21 Mechanical Equipment Company and Repairs Section left Maadi and established themselves on 3 July at El Hamma, where Major Tiffin was in closer touch with his field sections which were scattered in small parties from Port Said to Sidi Barrani. The policy of splitting sections into penny packets made administration difficult, but it was recognised that mechanical equipment companies were of recent origin and that experience would indicate where changes might well be made.

While the Aqaba project is taking shape, this is a convenient time to bring the sections into prospect again.

No. 4 Section, after completing its jobs around Matruh, had page 185 taken over from No. 1 the blasting of a 25-mile line of anti-tank ditch out of the rocky desert at Baggush. The dimensions were 18 feet wide tapering to 6 feet at a depth of 6 feet, with a perpendicular face on the enemy side. By the time it was finished somebody discovered that the work of days could be undone in an hour by a sandstorm and that mines were more effective. Early in October the section returned to Maadi, ostensibly to undergo the two months' basic training it had missed on arrival in Egypt, but actually the Company was to be organised on a three working-section basis and No. 4 Section was to be disbanded. On 3 December the sappers were sent to RE base depot at the Delta Barrage, where they were employed until 7 February when disbandment took place. Lieutenant Bryant remained at the workshops as second-in-command.

No. 1 Section (Lieutenant A. F. Allen) were the next to move off. They were to be marched out to Palestine, destination unknown, and were to leave on 27 September. They detrained at Haifa, and after their months in the desert were sizing up the feminine section of the population of that modern city with some interest when they were informed that they were bound for GE1. GE1 could have been a Palestinian town or an army inoculation like TAB1, but further inquiries disclosed it to be a pumping station of the Kirkuk-Haifa oil pipeline situated in Iraq, 450 miles due east.

They left by bus the next morning and all went well until they crossed the Jordan, a muddy creek that an Aucklander likened to the Avon and almost started a free-for-all. Late afternoon found them near the broken country of the Jebel Druse, and the Palestinian drivers who knew what a simple pleasure it was for the inhabitants of the Jebel Druse to cut an unwary throat could be induced to proceed only by threats that they would die even more horribly if they didn't step on it and get smartly to the transit camp at Mafraq.

In the morning they carried on through valleys strewn with large boulders, the road being where the boulders weren't, then through an Iraqi frontier post into the Arabian desert and finally to GE1, which was as uninspiring as its name implied.

The Area CRE gave Lieutenant Allen his instructions next morning. He was to take over immediately from 138 Mechanical Equipment Company, RE, and to maintain all road plant and machines, including MT. In addition he was to arrange with the OC 121 Road Construction Company for spare sappers to be employed on road work. Further instructions sent a party page 186 to H3, another pumping station 30 miles farther east, to take over a crushing plant there and work it with native labour.

Administrative headquarters were at Rutbah, still another 30 miles deeper in the Arabian desert, and consisted mostly of a well which was guarded by Iraqi troops to prevent the indiscriminate use of its water by the nomad Arabs of the district.

The Baghdad-Damascus road, pioneered as a trans-desert bus service by the New Zealand brothers Nairn after World War I, passes through Rutbah, and the main project was to build a good road from Rutbah to Palestine and so improve communications between Ninth Army Headquarters at Jerusalem and Tenth Army at Baghdad.

The sappers built themselves a workshop to house their plant and thereafter commenced a busy period, for the machinery was in a deplorable state through lack of understanding and care. One truck was brought in with a cylinder head cracked through being run without water.

By the end of November the plant was in good order, the quarries were delivering reasonable quantities of metal, and a start was made on surfacing the road to Rutbah. The month was notable for the number and severity of its dust-storms and for the lesson that in the Arabian desert summer ceases one day and winter starts the next. Within four days work ceased twice, first for a dust-storm, then a snowstorm. On 20 February the section was withdrawn for more urgent work in Egypt.

No. 2 Section did not move out of the Western Desert. Chapter 3 relates that they were on road repairs at El Alamein. It would be more accurate to say that most of the sappers were at Alamein with the balance spread over a large part of the Canal Zone, but by August the section was practically complete and located 20 miles inland from Alamein, working on tank traps around the top of the escarpment that was part of Fortress A. Fifth Brigade and 7 Field Company of the Division were also engaged in work on the Fortress and many old friends and acquaintances were met. It was with regret that the sappers, from their vantage points, watched the brigade move out in desert formation and fade impressively westwards in a billowing haze of dust, while the throb of a thousand truck engines was like the roar of a distant sea.

The same afternoon there was the clearest proof that infantry battalions had been in residence, for enough empty beer bottles worth a piastre a time were collected to keep the thirsty sappers in that soldierly beverage for many days.

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In October a detachment took over from No. 3 Section the preparation of an emergency landing ground. There was great excitement when a plane circled over the ground several times before landing. The pilot had lost his course on the way from Malta and was almost out of petrol when he noticed the landing ground.

Another job that took some time was the laying of a water pipeline to Fortress A. The detachment's part of the project was to cut the trench line with a rooter, no easy task in hard rock country. Many other such rooter lines were made in the area, some as dummies, while others were for communication cables.

Directly south from El Alamein station along Springbok Road, four large metal crushers, which became the responsibility of the section, were situated at different points. The metal was spread on Springbok Road by Egyptian labour.

At the beginning of December the sappers were patching up the verges and filling the potholes on the Western Desert road. Nobody was sorry when word came of a new job far to the west of Matruh, perhaps near the border of Libya itself, and that they were to leave on 29 December.

Aqaba became the affair of No. 3 Section, plus a section from 19 Army Troops Company. As early as 10 August an advance party (Lieutenant Barnes41 and 11 sappers) left for that locality, 160 miles across the Sinai Desert. Deserts, like watered country, differ widely in their topography. The Western Desert that the sappers had previously known was largely flat, featureless wastes; stony stretches dotted with foot-high camel scrub alternating with patches of soft sand; shallow depressions and steep escarpments with wind eroded wadis that are watercourses maybe once or twice a year. On the contrary the Sinai Desert over which they were passing, once they had crossed the sand dune area along the Canal, was an elevated limestone plateau with nearly 9000-feet-high peaks and not much sand. About 21,000 nomad Arabs subsist on its 23,000 square miles that contain the traditional site of the Giving of the Law by Moses.

It was not until they came to the descent from the 4000 or more feet high country to the Aqaba coast that they met anything unusual, and here the unit diarist waxes eloquent:

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‘The road goes up and down for a couple of miles and then turns downwards. Not quite straight down, but that road is nearer to the vertical plane than most motorists would like to find themselves. The rugged granite42 peaks tower round us, the truck in low gear strains against compression, backfiring violently. Far, far below we see a blue sheet, the sea. Down and down we wind round hairpin bends. At last the grade becomes easier, the driver moves up a couple of gears and we roll out of the hills and the bay of Aqaba is before us and a typical journey from Egypt is complete.’

More particularly, Aqaba is a mile-long oasis at the mouth of the Wadi Araba, a corridor through limestone and sandstone ranges to the Dead Sea and situated on the northernmost point of the Red Sea. Scattered groves of date palms, a strip of white sand, a village of mud huts and a little mud-brick fort garrisoned by a detachment of the Transjordanian Army formed the permanent part of Aqaba. The temporary part was a collection of ‘odds and sods’ of various units preparing for other units that have to do with building harbours and making roads. Camp was pitched in a date grove right on the beach and hard by a well of good drinking water. In front of them was the Red Sea, around them a dead, dusty, desolate plain containing (as the troops had it) ‘Miles and bloody miles of sweet damn all’, behind them the towering range down which the road spiralled and coiled at a hair-raising grade—and a temperature that hovered for months around 130 degrees.

‘I took the main convoy across the Sinai desert, comprising 28 overloaded lorries. I was so appalled at the road down into Aqaba that I wasn't game to watch the convoy come down the hill and drove on a few miles to wait for them hoping that they would all get down safely—they did. The grade for quite a distance averaged 1 in 41/2.’43

Originally a well watered and fertile country, the Prophet Jeremiah foretold its fate when he put on record, ‘Edom shall be a desolation; everyone that goeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss at all the plagues thereof.’44

Jeremiah wasn't exaggerating for the number of snakes, scorpions, tarantulas and man-eating flies that crawled into the sappers' food and belongings was truly phenomenal. Verily the sappers ‘hissed at the plagues thereof.’

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Urgent work was waiting, for a temporary trestle pier had to be built to unload plant that was to come by sea. Lieutenant Barnes and party had almost finished thirty yards of concrete rubble-filled jetty that was to be the base of the pier, and on the arrival by road of timber cut to measurement according to soundings taken previously, the sappers set about building the wharf extension.

The Lapeski with bulldozers, carry-alls, graders, bridging timbers, sheet piles and steel girders arrived from Suez on 20 September. It was a memorable day because the Lapeski was the first ship of any size to visit Aqaba for twenty-one years and the local Arabs turned out in force to watch the proceedings.

After the ship was unloaded the concreting of the Victoria pier, as the structure had been named, was pushed on. Two power operated concrete mixers were used and native labour employed. The sappers considered the Arabs better types all round than the Egyptians and Bedouin for they worked willingly. The job was finished on 16 October, the same day as Major Tiffin arrived with the balance of No. 3 Section, Repairs and Company Headquarters.

The main project at Aqaba and the responsibility of the New Zealand sappers was the building of a lighter wharf and basin 200 yards west of Victoria pier, with one wall 218 feet long, then parallel with the shore for 426 feet, then turning at right angles back to the beach again with an outlet in the west wall. The eastward wall was to form a 78-feet-wide wharf while the south and west walls were to be 45 feet wide, thus giving all-weather protection to tugs and lighters.

As all unloading would have to be done by lighters a small squat diesel-driven vessel, called by the sappers ‘The Tug’ and captained by a Maori, Johnny Tatana,45 was delivered to the Company. As was usually the case, it was in a state of dilapidation and Repairs had to do a considerable overhaul before it was really serviceable.

Prior to the wharf being started it was necessary to assemble a pile-driver, which had to be based on a staging and moved along the line of piles as they were driven. Work was to begin on 4 November, and before commencing such an important undertaking the Arab labourers asked if they might invoke Allah's blessing on the project. Permission was gracefully granted by Major Tiffin for the ceremony to be performed in page 190 the Army's time. The Arabs were not at all certain what was the purpose of the Infidels in bringing all the material and men together. Maybe they would build a jetty like the great Lawrence did a generation ago and then leave it to be taken away piecemeal by themselves. Allah was great and his ways beyond knowing. These strangers were a stupid people but they paid well and regularly and, Allah be praised, they were lenient taskmasters. And had not the village recalled its sons who were tending sheep in far off Hejaz and Yemen to come home and earn more money? Clearly it was a matter of great moment and Allah's mercy must be supplicated by sacrifice. The local sheik produced his oldest and most useless camel, which was led to the waterfront and made to kneel while the sacrificial butcher poised his knife to strike. Upon a signal the pile-driver dropped the weight on the first pile and simultaneously the butcher slew the camel. The carcase was divided up amongst the villagers, and Allah was now presumably wholeheartedly in favour of the project.

From September until the end of the year the Army Troops section was employed on operating a quarry to supply spoil for the lighter wharf, supervising Arabs in the sinking of wells, constructing a breakwater to protect the Victoria jetty from the heavy seas that frequently swept up the Gulf of Aqaba, and building a temporary lighter jetty in a sheltered cove a mile or so down the coast. About this time a detachment of the New Zealand Mobile Dental Unit arrived, and not only did it work on the sappers' teeth but it was instrumental in obtaining a nice set of chromium-plated roses for the hot showers. It had long been known that these items were held in the RE stores, but nothing could induce the officer in charge to produce them. Lieutenant Page was able to persuade the Unit to remodel the tight-fisted Tommy officer's troublesome dental plate—for a set of chromium-plated shower roses.

Equally as important as the harbour works was the building of a good road into the hinterland, for the reason of Aqaba's neglect was the almost inaccessible country lying between it and Amman, the capital of Transjordan. There was a road of sorts between Aqaba and Nagb Ashtar (‘the Nagb’ to the sappers) on top of the mountain buttress of Transjordan, thence on to Ma'an, the second city of the country, but it was no main highway. Twenty-first Mechanical Equipment Company's diarist puts it more plainly. ‘A road had existed between Aqaba and Ma'an but a journey along it was a most horrible bone-shaking page 191 nerve shattering experience to say nothing of the battering which the vehicle had to absorb. In short it was very rough and consequently very slow.’

An Australian railway construction company was building a line from Ma'an on the Transjordan railway system to the edge of the Nagb, and communication between railhead and Aqaba was to be improved forthwith. From Aqaba to the foot of the escarpment was fairly straightforward, but the spirals, hairpins and crazy grades up the side of the Nagb were beyond all reason. Looking down on the Kuweira plains from the top of the Nagb, one saw pure Walt Disney country where the Wizard of Oz would have been entirely at home. Scattered around the base of the cliff like the candles on a birthday cake, and of very much the same shape, were sharp-pointed hills around which the road writhed before entering the Nagb Ashtar pass. An RE attachment had tried for six weeks, without success, to find a grade, and a start was made by No. 3 Section and a party of REs to widen the old road.

Lieutenant Barnes went with the road party and thereby caused a scarcity of labour at Aqaba. He was something of an amateur watchmaker, and after mending an Arab labourer's watch he had found practically every timepiece in Transjordan on his table the next morning. He had a way with Arabs and they would do anything for him. When he went up the Nagb almost the entire working population of Aqaba followed him and it was with the greatest difficuty that they were constrained to return.

It was fortunate that a party of 36 NZ Survey Battery was in the vicinity. Since August they had been tying up the Transjordan survey with that made across the Sinai Desert by South African surveyors. In September they were asked by Lieutenant-Colonel Hammond, RE, CRE Baghdad-Haifa road, to assist in locating a road deviation through the pass. On 8 November the job was done but it took the better part of a year before a road with reasonable grades and well-banked corners connected Aqaba and the Nagb. It was No. 3 Section's job and they were very proud of it.

About the middle of November Repairs Section were ordered to make a camp and shift themselves and gear to Nagb Ashtar, where they were to maintain all mechanical equipment employed on the railway route to Ma'an as well as that on the Nagb road. Nagb Ashtar had become a busy centre, for besides Repairs Section there were Australians, British, Cypriots, Pales- page 192 tinians and several hundred Arabs camped there. And with the onfall of winter they often worked in snow, while only 48 miles away the Kiwi sappers were wondering what a shower of rain would feel like.

Although the sections were scattered over hundreds of miles and in several different countries, administration had become simpler because, instead of having twos and threes in many different jobs and places, the sections were working on projects large enough to employ the whole sub-unit.

Haifa, being central and having rail communication with most of the section bases, was decided upon as the locality for Company Headquarters, and so after nearly two months in allegedly the third hottest place on earth, 21 Mechanical Equip-ment Company headquarters moved to Haifa. It shared a billet with the Australian military police—an excellent arrangement that ensured a trouble-free existence for the sappers.

At the end of 1941 the company dispositions were:

Company Headquarters — in Haifa.
No. 1 Section — in Iraq on Haifa-Baghdad road construction.
No. 2 Section — in the Western Desert on the desert railway extension.
No. 3 Section — in Transjordan on Aqaba port and road construction.
No. 4 Section — in Egypt at Barrage base workshops.
Repairs Section — at Nagb Ashtar in Transjordan.

39 Numbers 20: 17–21.

40 1 Kings 9: 26 and 2 Chronicles 20: 36–37.

41 Lt-Col C. E. Barnes, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; born NZ 30 Jan 1907; civil engineer; killed in accident, Aust., 22 Jun 1952.

42 The diarist is mistaken here. There is no granite but only limestone or sandstone peaks.

44 Jeremiah 49: 17–22.

45 Dvr J. Tatana; Taumarunui; born NZ 30 Apr 1917; tractor driver.