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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

Forestry Group

page 242

Forestry Group

In England the Forestry Group was working through an English winter towards an English spring. There was much time lost in the mills, but not lost militarily because it was used in soldier training.

Chilton Foliat mill, which was, it will be remembered, some 15 miles from the camp at Chippenham, worked short hours through time taken in travelling to and from work and in waiting for daylight, and also lost time through trouble with its sawdust creeper. For the rest of the mills, time was lost through bad weather, frozen pipes and snow.

Perhaps the most frustrating experience at this period was the difficulty in obtaining dental treatment. A simple dental plate breakage that a civilian dentist would repair within hours took up to six weeks through army channels, so the sappers looked after their own dental troubles by having the work done at their own expense. More serious from the health angle was the lack of a Regimental Medical Officer, which meant that the Group had to depend on whatever medical services were available, sometimes RAMC and sometimes civilian. The establishment was eventually altered to include a medical officer and transport to cover the wide area of the Group's activities.

Climatic troubles were over by the end of March, but production had fallen far short of target figures. The Ministry of Supply was perturbed, mentioned that ample machinery and transport were now available, and said that it was anxious to receive suggestions for an increase in production.

The lag in production was not of course confined to the New Zealand Group, but the resulting suggestions are taken from a report on the activities of the New Zealand Forestry Group sent by Lieutenant-Colonel Eliott to the Commanding Officer, Military Liaison Office, London.

It had been decided, the report said, to erect another mill for 14 Forestry Company near Wickwar, Gloucestershire. The CO NZ Forestry Group had gone carefully into the ability of 14 Forestry Company to run another mill detachment without overstrain, and had decided that it could be done with the assistance of a few reinforcements and the further training of the Spaniards to carry out the more skilled operations. Fifteenth Forestry Company was collecting plant for another mill, and as 120 men from a labour unit were being attached to it, there page 243 should be no shortage of manpower. It was hoped that the third mill for 11 Forestry Company would soon be in operation. AMPC5 labour was to be attached to the company.

The third mill for 11 Company referred to above was a band mill being erected by the company near Cirencester, close by its other two mills at Hailey Wood and Overley Wood. It went into production during the first week in June.

Fourteenth Company, already operating four mills with the help of the Spanish Labour Company at Chilton Foliat, Grittleton, Bowood and Savernake, added a fifth. A block of timber had been acquired at Charfield, near Bristol, and Wickwar mill's returns are shown for the first time in the production figures for the period ending 3 June.

Fifteenth Company's mills at Langrish, Arundel East and Arundel West were increased by another in Woolmer Forest near Longmoor, where 11 Forestry Company camped in the park of Lord Woolmer's home on its arrival in England.6

A typical New Zealand small sawmill was built there and through the generosity of the Commanding Officer, Railway Operating Training Depot, Royal Engineers, at Longmoor, a particularly favourable site on a siding of the War Office's Border-Longmoor railway was made available. From this site timber could be railed to any part of Britain, whereas delivery hauls of up to one hundred miles were made by the other mills. Woolmer mill commenced cutting on 21 July.

A letter of appreciation followed an inspection in May of the New Zealand Group's activities by the Parliamentary Secretary, Materials Section, Ministry of Supply. He concluded: ‘I was delighted with everything I saw and feel I am expressing the views of everyone at the Ministry of Supply and the Government when I say how grateful we are for the grand work that you and your men are doing.’

The question of the destination, civil or military, of the Kiwis' winter output must have been debated by the sappers as was the case the previous winter,7 for among the exceedingly scanty archives of the period is a letter to Colonel Eliott, part of which runs:

‘As it is necessary to keep actual consumption figures a secret we have only been able to give percentages, but it is hoped that these will be of interest to you and your men and show page 244 them what a small part of the output goes to civilian uses. Compared with pre-war days the consumption of sawn timber in this country has been approximately halved. Nearly all the timber we are producing today is directed to the war effort. An analysis of the figures of consumption during the past year has just been made and it shows that for purely civil needs only about 4% of Softwood and only about 5% of Hardwood are used.’

The Group, less skeleton crews supervising the labour units, went into three weeks' military training on 3 June at the Royal Engineers Training Centre, Street Camp, Somerset.

Proposals were made to Headquarters, New Zealand Forestry Group, during this period for the erection and operation of yet another mill, probably at Tram Inn Station, Allenmore, near Hereford. The station stood at a level crossing on the Truxton-Much Dewchurch road, and on its south-eastern side was an abandoned sawmill which was used in the First World War. Western Command would provide a hutted camp for one officer and 25 men, or alternatively would find billets in Much Dewchurch, which was about two miles distant. Timber in the neighbourhood was calculated to provide about a year's work for the Tram Inn mill as well as pit-prop work for Italian prisoners of war.