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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East


The celebrations that had started in the Western Desert on New Year's Eve were continued at Aqaba in Transjordan by the sappers from 21 Mechanical Equipment Company and 19 Army Troops Company but had nothing man-made about them. A storm blew up from the south and by dusk a six-foot-high wall of water, constrained by the mountainous flanks of the narrow gulf, was sweeping everything before it. At dawn there was only a muddy swell rolling lazily up the beach. But it was rolling through a tangled mass of breakwater and Victoria pier and swirling around beached lighters. The temporary lighter jetty was saved by its more sheltered position, and while the wreckage was being cleared and the barges repaired long hours were worked until the end of January. It was during this period that Lieutenant H. C. Page was transferred as second-in-command to 7 Field Company and his place taken by Lieutenant Dalmer.1

February in Aqaba was notable only for the preparations for a visit of inspection by General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson and the arrival towards the end of the month of the first ship to use the new port facilities. The cargo was landed speedily and efficiently with the aid of mobile cranes from the Mechanical Equipment Company plant. Four days later another freighter called to unload NAAFI stores. This was done even more speedily and efficiently.

March the 5th was a very notable day indeed for it was the only time rain fell while the sappers were at Aqaba. The shower lasted for only about thirty minutes, during which time men were stationed at vantage points to retrieve tables, beds, and other gear that was rapidly en route to the sea. A torrent swept towards what was left of the damaged pier and on its way tore a stone crusher out of its quarry. A light railway line between the RE yards and an Indian labour company's brick kiln was left hanging in mid-air and two diesel trolly engines were overturned and buried in mud. It was quite a shower.

The main job of the Army Troops section now was the page 237 quarrying of metal for the concrete used by 21 Mechanical Equipment sappers on their lighter basin work, and the building of an anchor wall for the sheet-piling being driven along the foreshore by the sister unit. On 11 April they left Aqaba by sea for Suez, had a filthy, seasick passage down a stormy Red Sea and cursed their folly in joining the Engineers.

The sappers of 3 Section, Mechanical Equipment Company, working at Aqaba had their share of the setbacks suffered by the Army Troops men, so much so that they suggested to their Arab friends that perhaps some vital detail had been omitted in the sacrificial offering to Allah, who didn't appear to be on their side at all. The Arabs approached the sheik on the subject, but he assured them that the ceremony had been carried out with the strictest regard to the rules and that the minor disasters being suffered were only Allah's way of testing them and that all would turn out well.

The testing was not all being done by flood at Aqaba for both the road section and Repairs at Nagb Ashtar had their share. Work was curtailed by severe weather and on 3 January the cold was so intense that forty Arabs were frozen to death in their tents. After repeated and urgent requests two Nissen huts were released to Repairs Section and were erected forthwith. Thereafter the winter was endured in some comfort.

A limited amount of leave was available from Nagb Ashtar, but as half the time was taken up in travelling little use was made of it. One party of six, after taking three days to reach Tel Aviv, took over the loco themselves. They clipped four hours from the usual twelve for the journey from Amman to Ma'an, mostly by omitting to stop at wayside halts. The amateur enginedrivers felt that they had put up a good show, but the Transport Authority was prejudiced and took steps…. Major Tiffen, after disposing summary justice, added as a rider a proud, ‘I always knew my boys could drive a train.’

Even Headquarters felt the testing hand of Allah, for on 17 February they had to leave their snug quarters in Garden Street, Haifa, and the protection of the Aussie provosts and move back to Ataqa, about eight miles from Suez.

No. 1 Section at GE1 were the first to see the break in the cloud, for they also were under orders to leave the Arabian desert. They were needed to operate their heavy earthmoving machinery in the building of a deep-sea wharf, a lighter basin and a jetty at Adabiya Bay, about eight miles south-west of page 238 Suez, where the coast projects a couple of miles into the Red Sea and forms a promontory that gives some protection to the water to the north of it. The beach sloped suddenly and to a sufficient depth to berth ocean-going ships close inshore. The terrain was very like Safaga—a narrow beach and a mile-deep foreshore terminating at the bottom of a 2000-foot escarpment.

The project, the largest of its kind in the Middle East, was to be a base for assault landing craft, known technically as Z craft. Perhaps even at that early stage there were eyes sufficiently keen and longsighted to envisage a sea-landing on an Italian mainland. The sappers handed over to 860 Mechanical Equipment Company, RE, by 15 February and caught up with Headquarters outside Haifa.

Part of the section built a camp at Adabiya Bay. The place was renamed Ao-tea-a-roa, but the only resemblance to the real Ao-te-a-roa was in its inhabitants. Others worked at El Shatt (on the eastern side of the Canal and a couple of miles from Suez) where a new wharf was being built. The rest were employed near their temporary camp at Ataqa, working on pits for petrol storage until the arrival of plant and machinery.

The new camp at Adabiya was occupied on 23 March, the day work commenced on the main project. New Zealand sappers were then employed on three different harbour works along the Red Sea coast.

The conditions in the Adabiya area were a considerable improvement on anything the section had previously experienced. Mr Shafto, who needs no introduction to any soldier who served in North Africa, had one of his cinemas at Ataqa. As was the rule with his establishments, the projector often refused to function and the screen remained a white blank or became one very shortly after the entertainment began. Some of the sappers used to help in getting the decrepit machinery going again and the freedom of the house was gracefully accepted by the rest of the company. A good RE canteen existed at Ataqa and the section made it their recreation headquarters, for Suez, only eight miles away, possessed none of the western amenities of Cairo, Alexandria or Port Said. It had an abundance of all their very worst qualities and after dark was not a safe place for an unarmed sapper. Few worried when the place was put out of bounds.

Some preliminary work had already been done at the proposed port. The actual manual labour was performed by natives and the whole project was in the hands of Egyptian contractors, page 239 who were as inefficient in supervising as the labourers were in performing their various tasks. Both parties realised that a new regime had commenced when the Kiwis took over the supervision.

A stone sea wall was already in course of erection and 27 ft steel sheet piles were being driven into the seabed in two rows, 215 feet apart, to form the walls of the deep-sea wharf. At the same time, 700 feet out to sea, two sheet-pile cylinders also 215 feet apart were in the course of construction for the outer end of the wharf. South of the main wharf site the coastline was being transformed. Another line of piles was being driven above high-water line and spoil deposited by carry-alls was making provision for transit sheds.

Returns for April, the first full month on the new harbour, show that a six-day week with two six and a half hour shifts per day was the rule. The plant consisted of two D8 angle-dozers, one D7 angledozer, 7 D7s and 12-yard carry-alls, and 2 D7s and 7-yard carry-alls which shifted 85,450 cubic yards of spoil.

In addition a sea wall was being constructed, a light railway from Ataqa to Adabiya was being built and roads graded at El Shatt.

Headquarters was conducting a school of instruction on earthmoving machinery for about fifty men from Training Depot and RE formations as well as performing its normal functions. The learners were a great help as soon as their education had progressed sufficiently.

May and June followed much the same pattern.

Back on the Nagb the final section of the road, which had to be scalloped out of the hillside like the highway over the Olympus Pass, was finished in late May. The detachment then camped with Repairs Section and worked on the filling and levelling of the marshalling yards, the station and transit sheds for the approaching railway from Ma'an. The line was to end in a shallow valley and the spoil had to be obtained from a neighbouring hill. The carry-alls, confined to a narrow track, made up to fifty trips daily through a foot and a half of powdered, choking, rocky dust. Coalmine respirators were tried but found useless and recourse was made to Arab headdress. The keffiahs have side flaps that normally hang over the back and shoulders and are so designed that they can be drawn across the face to give fair protection against the dust.

page 240

The construction of the lighter basin at Aqaba had been pushed on sufficiently by May for dredging to be started. At low tide there was a depth of from nil to four feet, and it was intended to dredge to an over-all depth of six feet. At this stage something of a problem presented itself, namely, how to dredge a basin without a dredge. Sappers are not supposed to be daunted by situations that halt lesser men in their tracks and an ingenious method was evolved to meet the situation.

A tractor was made secure in a barge moored at a convenient distance out to sea and an excavator made equally secure on shore. A dragline bucket was placed in the basin and attached by a rope to the winches of the tractor. The excavator would haul the bucket along the seabed, lift the spoil and deposit it on the beach to form a staging from which lighters would later discharge their cargo. The tractor on the barge would then come into operation and direct the empty bucket back into the required position for another fill. It was not fast but it worked. Sappers not employed on this work excavated for flood diversion in case of another cloudburst and levelled off sites for transit sheds. Some months were spent thus.

At Safaga 19 Army Troops Company was left using sea water with fresh-water cement because there was no fresh water available. A water boat arrived in mid-January, permitting orthodox practice to be resumed in the manufacture of 446 steel-pointed piles, 14 in. × 14 in. and 47 feet long. They were ready by the middle of April, by which time Lieutenant Morris with the help of two sapper surveyors, Birkmyer2 and Duncan,3 had completed the setting out of the work for the construction of the deep-water berth.

The piles were to be driven in two rows along nearly half a mile of foreshore chosen for the site of the wharf, and then behind them an anchor wall was to be constructed partly by the sappers and partly by contractors.

No. 2 Section arrived at Aqaba on 25 April, by which time the Company was working on a concrete caisson for the anchor wall, setting up boxes for the construction of crane beams, each weighing about seven tons, supervising the driving of the piles page 241 and capping and filling a lighter berth that had been commenced before their arrival. It had to be finished so that supplies could be landed for the bigger job.

Nos. 2 and 4 Sections were employed in building caissons for the anchor wall. They were precast on the surface then sunk to a depth of 15 feet in 6 feet ‘lifts’. Nos. 1 and 3 Sections were kept busy throughout May and early June on the crane beams.

Water was still in short supply and in early May a detachment was sent to Mons Claudianus to examine some wells in the vicinity. Two were found likely to be a valuable adjunct to the Safaga water supply, though the water would have to be piped over ranges and across wadis from the high country down to the coast. Corporal Hight4 and a detachment were sent to clean, deepen, and get the wells ready for linking up. They started first with the Roman Well, 75 feet to water level, and situated at Mons Claudianus. This was the ruin of what, some 2000 years ago, was a Roman town, built handy to the red granite quarries from which countless slaves carved huge pillars for the decoration of the palaces of the Roman emperors. These monoliths were by some means dragged to the Nile, then ferried down to the coast and across the Mediterranean. One which had broken in the final stages of preparation still lay where it had been left twenty centuries ago.

The Roman well, which was used only for watering the infrequent camel trains that passed that way, was first emptied with pumps, then two sappers went down on an improvised bucket to dig out the accumulated sand. Early in June the well had been deepened to 84 feet with a nine-foot depth of water. The only amenity around Mons Claudianus was a 6000-gallon reservoir which, with a temperature soaring to 129 degrees, was in frequent use as a swimming bath.

The Pasha well was across a range of hills between Mons Claudianus and Safaga, close to the spot where a tungsten mining company was operating. The sappers were made welcome by the engineers working the mine. This well was only 60 feet to water level, but was in a shocking condition and took longer to clean than the deeper one. The sappers returned to Safaga early in July.