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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

The Forestry Group

The Forestry Group

Increased production of home-grown timber was vital at this stage of the Battle of the Atlantic, the long and bitter fight against U-boats and surface raiders that began in September 1939.

Methods of obtaining greater output were discussed with the Home Grown Timber Production Department by Colonel Eliott and his company commanders upon the resumption of milling (2 July), when the following points were made. First, it was thought that it might be possible in some instances to operate more mills per company46 and in others to work double shifts or a longer working week. Secondly, in order to economise in page 193 the use of skilled labour the companies should be relieved of pit-prop preparation and the cleaning up of bush after felling. This had long been a bone of contention as it was necessary to use about five men clearing up to one man felling and was considered a waste of skilled workers. Thirdly, the companies should also be relieved of clerical duties as these were much greater than was envisaged when the establishment was drawn up.

Nos. 14 and 15 Companies immediately changed from a 44 to a 48-hour week while 11 Company began double shifts. They were stopped after a fortnight, chiefly owing to shortage of trucks and the piling up of timber through lack of yard gangs. Thereafter all companies worked a 48-hour week.

The Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser, visited the groups and talked with representative sappers from each detachment. The most consistent request made to him was for transfers to the fighting forces in the Middle East. The Prime Minister promised to see what could be done and General Freyberg replied to Colonel Eliott's earlier letter, saying he would be very happy to have the Forestry Group in Egypt. And that was as far as it went.

Savernake, 14 Company's third mill and the Group's eighth, commenced cutting late in July, but owing to lack of equipment the logs were not being measured for the comparison of log volume, output and waste. The supply of unskilled workers was still a live issue. As mentioned in an earlier chapter, it was originally intended that each Company should have a pioneer company attached, but in the event only one, consisting of Jewish refugees from the Continent, was supplied, and after about ten months it was withdrawn. The Kiwi bushmen just couldn't get along with them, and Colonel Eliott asked for their removal and the substitution of a British pioneer company. The withdrawal of the Alien Pioneer Company was hastened by a fracas in which six sappers and seventeen aliens were involved.

Fourteenth Company was now well spread with three mills operating, and it asked for a British pioneer company for unskilled labour. The Ministry of Labour replied that very little, if any, civilian labour would be available for cleaning-up operations,47 while the chances of securing a British pioneer page 194 company to work with 14 Company were very uncertain. The War Office amplified the Ministry of Labour's letter with advice (28 August) that five sections of a Spanish pioneer company were available, but for security reasons they were not to be billeted or set to work within three miles of Savernake forest or the main works at Corsham, the sites respectively of munition dumps and chemical warfare supplies. A further suggestion, which of course was really a command, was that 14 Company should move to Chippenham and that the pioneers should take over the servants' wing and the much abused Grittleton stables.

Some new records were established in August; Langrish mill broke the record for a week's output with 5285 cubic feet, and in the same period the Group lifted its output to 26,020 cubic feet, while the total for the month of sawn timber, 116,617 cubic feet, was 40,000 feet higher than the previous best month. This result was due partly to the 48-hour week and partly to the 14,000-odd feet contributed by Savernake mill.

September was an unsettled month. After getting the Savernake mill running nicely the Company received instructions from the Forestry Commission that, beyond cutting the logs already felled, no felling was to be done in Savernake. Logs would be obtained from adjoining forests.

Eleventh Company was also running short of timber at Cirencester, and it appeared likely that the Company would have to build another mill of a type suitable for cutting beech.

Group Headquarters had been told that shortly the New Zealanders would be moved to Scotland, where Canadian forestry groups were operating. Canadian type mills, considered most suitable for the class of timber grown there, would probably be used, but as it was not known whether further Canadian units were arriving in the United Kingdom or what sawmill equipment would be available from Canada, the New Zealand type of mill might have to be used. It was all very unsettling. And, of course, in the event the New Zealanders stayed where they were.

The Spanish Pioneer Company, 130 all ranks, marched into Grittleton on 15 September and the Kiwis very cheerfully handed over their stables and moved into Grittleton House. They were a different type from the Central Europeans 11 Company had had so much bother with, and good relations were quickly established.

The most important event in October as far as the bushmen were concerned was the notification that the British Govern- page 195 ment had agreed to the importation, duty free, of New Zealand tobacco. Up to this date the sappers had to pay almost civilian prices for tobacco, while Canadians were able to purchase their requirements at a very much cheaper rate. About the same time as the reduction in tobacco prices was announced, the National Patriotic Fund Board provided £380 worth of radios, billiard tables and electric irons.

Headquarters New Zealand Forestry Group moved on 24 October from Castle Combe to a more convenient location at Greenways, Chippenham, Wilts., and two days later 14 Company moved from Grittleton House to a hutted camp at Chippenham. It should be mentioned that the Ministry of Supply had asked for help in building a mill at Chilton Foliat, near Hungerford and about 15 miles from Savernake. There was no suggestion of the Group working it, but on 3 October a memorandum said in effect that 14 Company would operate the mill and would the New Zealanders please get on with the erection of same? Felling and hauling would be done by civilian labour and the sappers would continue to be billeted at Chippenham.

This mill appears in the production tables for the week ending 1 November with 1695 cubic feet for five days' operation, in spite of time lost in travelling and in raising steam, this being the only steam-operated plant under the Group's administration.

With four mills to work, 14 Company was very short of men and was grateful for the Spanish pioneers. They learnt quickly and were eventually operating Chilton Foliat, Grittleton and Bowood mills under the direction of a key staff of sappers. Savernake, of course, was operated by New Zealanders only.

December was notable only for the information from the Ministry of Supply that arrangements had been made for 220 (Alien) Pioneer Company, consisting of about 225 men, to be attached to 11 and 15 Forestry Companies.

46 11 Coy was operating mills at Hailey Wood and Overley Wood; 14 Coy at Grittleton and Bowood; 15 Coy at Langrish, Arundel East and Arundel West.

47 Pioneer companies, alien and Canadian, were attached from time to time to help with this work and large areas were cleared, although it was never completely brought up to date.