Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

CHAPTER 8 — A Miscellany of Work

page 236

A Miscellany of Work

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.

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.

The Field Companies

February saw 6 Field Company, now for one month residents of Kabrit, enjoying a spot of leave, attending schools of instruction, absorbing reinforcements, building a camp for 4 Brigade Headquarters, revising its elementary infantry training and generally flexing its muscles.

Eighth Field Company was doing the same, at first in Maadi and later at Kabrit; Headquarters NZ Engineers and 5 Field Park Company were in Syria. In Baalbek Headquarters was studying files concerned with contracts for earthworks bequeathed by a departing 70 Division and investigating maps also left for the new incumbents. Fifth Field Park was 20 miles north of Djedeide, making an inventory of an RE dump and trying to discover just what stores it was supposed to be responsible for.

Seventh Field Company was back in the desert at El Adem, south of Tobruk and a few miles west of Sidi Rezegh, helping 5 Brigade build a fortress. All of which needs some explanation.

page 245

There were more than enough trained men to fill the ranks of the New Zealand Division after the Libyan campaign. In the Engineers 5 Field Park sappers who had been captured when the prisoner-of-war cage had been overrun were back with the unit again, and so were the majority of 7 Field Company captured at Sidi Azeiz. They had had a bad time for six weeks in an overcrowded pen in Bardia until released by its capture on 2 January.

Fifth Brigade was still in the fighting at Gazala in the middle of December when a projected Divisional move to Syria for refitting and training was cancelled to allow the Division to train for a projected seaborne landing behind the enemy line. The New Zealanders were to do this training at Kabrit, on the Bitter Lakes portion of the Suez Canal.

It was expected that after General Rommel was eased out of the Gazala position his next stand (if he escaped capture) would be at El Agheila, where the Italian Army had sheltered the previous January and from which the combined Italian-German force had regained the lost province of Cyrenaica three months later.

To hold Cyrenaica it was necessary to hold Agheila, and the long-term plan was to land a force behind the enemy position which would join with another force making a wide outflanking move through the desert; they would then sit astride the enemy's communications while a third force attacked frontally.

Fifth Brigade, which with the attached Maoris had three battalions that had not been unduly tried in CRUSADER, was cast for the seaborne role and went to Kabrit on 4 January with 7 Field Company8 for a comprehensive course in landing operations.

General Freyberg asked the CRE to have a plaster model of the area constructed forthwith. The only maps available were without contours or spot heights and were inaccurate regarding sand dunes and marshes, all vitally necessary knowledge in the deployment of ground troops. A satisfactory model was produced by piecing together vertical and oblique aerial photographs, supplemented by Long Range Desert Group reports and information obtained from prisoners. Maps were then prepared for distribution to the units about to be involved. The work was carried out in such secrecy that those employed page 246 on the project (Lieutenant Wildey and Sappers Hardy9 and Barclay10) ate and slept in the hut where they were working. The GOC and his senior officers studied earnestly and often their problems as disclosed on the model. There were some who thought it could be another Gallipoli.

Training and planning for the amphibious landing were complicated by the fact that Rommel was not co-operating by staying in his lair at Agheila. On the contrary he was again taking an active interest in the war by making a reconnaissance in force which developed into a definite thrust (21 January). By the time 5 Brigade had finished its first trial run on a beach in the Red Sea the Germans were back in front of the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line covering Tobruk, The seaborne landing was declared off. So, at first, was a projected New Zealand sojourn in Syria.

The Division was ordered to be ready within a fortnight for a full operational role, but the New Zealand Government made known its feeling that, if possible, the Division should not get involved in possible further heavy losses so soon.

Movement orders affecting thousands of men and tons of material cannot be altered with a stroke of the pen, and the final arrangement was that 5 Brigade Group would report to 13 Corps until another division could be deployed. The Group, now commanded by Brigadier Kippenberger, was in position by the required date (16 February) after borrowing desertworthy trucks from the rest of the Division, and was ordered to dig a fortress at El Adem as part of the defence in depth of the area. Ten days later the rest of the Division began its trek into Syria, where it became part of Ninth Army (General Wilson), whose task was to oppose any enemy thrust on the Middle East from the north. Among the various considerations were the necessity of covering up the weakness in strength through the transfer, proposed and actual, of forces to counter the Japanese threat in the Pacific, preparations to assist Turkey should that country resist a German invasion, and the construction of fortresses designed to impede any enemy progress through Syria.

Demolitions are a sine qua non in such a situation, and Engineer Headquarters traversed every square inch of Syria from the Turkish frontier north of Aleppo to Baalbek, and from the coast to the eastern desert, noting bridges, tunnels, page 247 crossroads and the like. At Baalbek plans were drawn from the field notes and demolition charges calculated and recorded on the plans for use when and if necessary.

map of souther Mediterranean

Sappers with architectural, surveying and engineering training were employed in building a plaster model of Syria showing all defensive works and communications. It was the biggest and longest modelling task undertaken by Divisional Engineers, who by this time had become experts in transforming photographs and maps into something solid that could be understood by commanders who were not invariably expert map readers.

map of eastern Mediterranean

eastern mediterranean

page 248

While 6 and 8 Field Companies are improving their general knowledge at Kabrit before moving to Syria in March, we will return to 5 Brigade and 7 Field Company.

The building of a fortress at El Adem was to counter precisely the same operation Eighth Army had been training to perform against the enemy—an outflanking march that would put enemy troops on the Trigh Capuzzo and cut off the El Adem airfield—our most westerly operational airfield at that period.

The advance parties met their units as they arrived and conducted them to their bivouac areas, in the case of 7 Field Company halfway down the escarpment overlooking the airfield. The site had been occupied before and little digging was needed to make the place comfortable. The only drawback was rats, thicker than rabbits on a Canterbury sheep station and nearly as big. But there was a fine view of enemy air attacks on the airfield below.

The sappers were kept exceedingly busy for six weeks wiring the infantry positions before starting on the minefields, where only salvaged British, German and Italian mines were to be used. New ones were all needed further forward. In ten days they put down 20,000 mines, 13,000 of which were lifted from the outer defences of Tobruk. Other jobs were salvaging enemy water tanks for storing the reserve supply (seven days at half a gallon per man), operating their compressors on gun emplacements and weapon pits, excavating a site for Brigade Headquarters, dismantling observation towers in Tobruk and re-erecting them at El Adem.

The last fortnight was occupied in less specialist work such as repairing the tarsealed road to the airfield, for which job Lieutenant Page had to scour the desert until he found a tar boiler. Other parties were collecting Spandau ammunition boxes from the Gambut battlefield for the even less romantic purpose of manufacturing fly-proof latrine seats for the infantry battalions. All hands were unanimous in thanking the God of War that they were not in Tobruk, which was again under constant attack from the air.

They left El Adem on 23 March and five days later arrived in Maadi. Seven days' leave was granted for those entitled to it and the Company was paid £E1000 for the purpose. A thanksgiving display of enemy rockets with explosive effects on the side was organised, with the result that Maadi Camp page 249 was in an uproar most of the night, and with an extra result that leave was cancelled and the culprit company did four hours' square-bashing the next day.

The requirements of discipline thus satisfied, the sappers went on their leave and those remaining went into training for a ceremonial parade for General Freyberg. To the sappers left behind it was only an elaboration of their punishment, but on the day (2 April) all went well, and four days later 7 Field Company set out for Syria.

Sixth Field Company by this time had been nearly a month at El Aine, near Baalbek, working on the Djedeide fortress situated at the northern entrance to the Bekaa valley between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges. Djedeide had been designed to hold four infantry brigades and auxiliary arms and to be self-contained for two months, with five days' rations held in each company area, five more days under brigade and fifty days under divisional control. The work had to be finished by 15 May, the earliest date an enemy force might reasonably be expected. Some work had been done but there were still dugouts, pillboxes, anti-tank ditches, minefields and barbed-wire defences to be built or excavated, as well as provision for sanitary services, ration and water stores, not to mention ammunition reserves. Communications ranging from mule tracks to main roads had to be constructed. Besides five-hundred strong infantry working parties whose work had to be supervised, 1971 and 1974 (Bechuana) Pioneer Companies and 600 native labourers working under civilian contractors had to be watched. The last month of the Lebanese winter was a time of rain and bitingly cold winds which turned roads into bogs and blew down tents. Compressors were worked in two six-hour shifts and daily maintenance was carried out in the fitters' bay by night in shifts. Overhauls were done on Sundays. A unit library was established in the recreation room but nobody knew what to use for leisure time.

By contrast 8 Field Company was on velvet.

They relieved 42 Field Company, RE, and saw the Syrian winter out in the walled city of Aleppo (population 250,000), 150 miles north near the Turkish border. They took over a comfortable camp at Nerab aerodrome on the outskirts of the city and manned demolitions on tunnels and viaducts, guarded ammunition stores, commenced road blocks and generally ‘recced’ the country as far as the Turkish border with a view to blowing up anything that would impede an enemy's progress. page 250 They also tried to give the impression that they were very thick on the ground by taking out-of-the-way routes and showing themselves in as many places as possible. The Company was not pleased when 7 Field Company took over in the middle of April and they themselves moved to Zabboud in the Djedeide fortress, from where they supervised the construction of a road from Aleppo to the Turkish border, together with the necessary bridges and culverts, as well as running the Aleppo RE stores dump and making roads to the infantry positions in the high Lebanon Mountains. But it was the Syrian spring and the fruit trees were in blossom and the grass was green underfoot, even if the work was unusually hard and battalion commanders wanted their private latrines dug in solid rock.

Brigade exercises began in May and the engineers practised their mine laying and lifting techniques, techniques that had not been taken advantage of in Libya but which were now gaining recognition. An accidental if rather dramatic exposition of the value of minefields was given in the Forqloss desert area where the manoeuvres were being held. Practice mines were contrived by 8 Field Company taking the charge out of EP Mark II mines and replacing it with a small amount of black powder and an ounce of gelignite. The charge was worked out by trial and error with a truck until harmless proportions, giving a loud bang from the gelignite and lots of black smoke from the powder, were determined. These mines were laid by 6 Field Company for the 4 Brigade exercises and proved such a success that Colonel Hanson ordered more to be made forthwith for the 6 Brigade exercises.

Eighth Field Company made the mines but got a bit careless in measuring the proportions for a second batch. Major Currie, who was responsible, describes the result of omitting to put a warning fence in front of part of his minefield before breaching the real field and erecting the standard gap fence.

‘After the exercise all were to congregate on a low hill to watch an anti-tank gun shoot…. The gaps were a bottleneck to the traffic so they started to cross the unmarked minefield. Then the fun started. Trucks and cars were being immobilised all along the line. The overcharged mines were cutting tyres and breaking sumps. We got a General, several Brigadiers and junior Officers. There was a bit of inquiry afterwards because tyres were very precious in the Ninth Army. The CRE told them off for not being mine conscious. I think this was the beginning of mine consciousness in the 2 NZ Div.’

page 251

The time passed pleasantly enough for 7 Field Company stationed around Aleppo. There was daily leave with transport provided, and besides the YMCA in the city there were sixteen cafés in bounds for sappers, two for sergeants and five clubs or hotels for officers. Finding them was quite simple, for unless the IN BOUNDS sign was displayed the place was out of bounds. If you didn't feel like going into town there was the Company canteen, which produced sufficient profits to put on supper in the mess through the good nature of the cooks, who didn't seem to mind working an 18-hour day. There were, of course, minor crises such as when the canteen reported that owing to New Zealand tobacco and beer both being available in quantity at the same time there were not enough funds to purchase both, so would tobacco smokers put their orders in with the requisite cash in advance.

The weeks rolled by almost unnoticed and it was a distinct shock to learn that 8 Field Company was coming back and that 7 Field Company would follow 5 Brigade into the Syrian desert on manoeuvres. It was only too sadly true, and 13 June found the 7 Field Company sapper in a bivouac area at Muskene, wondering just who was sitting in his favourite seat in his favourite café being served by his favourite waitress.

But there was something more than practice going on in another desert facing the Mediterranean, something that needed the immediate attendance of the New Zealand Division.

The following signal was sent by Divisional Headquarters to all formations at 11.45 a.m. on 14 June:

MOST SECRET. WARNING ORDER. NZ Div be prepared to move earliest after 15 Jun following order. three fd regts. remainder NZ div then div cav regt. unit at leave camp return 15 June. 5 NZ bde proceed BEKAA valley forthwith. all informed.

1 Lt E. B. Dalmer, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 30 Oct 1909; civil engineer; twice wounded.

2 Spr A. J. B. Birkmyer; born Opotiki, 9 Mar 1915; engineering draughtsman.

3 WO II R. Duncan; Napier; born Scotland, 17 Aug 1917; mining student; seconded to Middle East Supply Centre 1943–45.

4 L-Sgt F. J. Hight, m.i.d.; born NZ 24 Nov 1909; city engineer's assistant; wounded 21 May 1941.

8 Now commanded by Maj Lincoln, ex 18 Army Troops Company, replacing Maj Thomas, taken prisoner at Sidi Azeiz.

9 S-Sgt K. F. Hardy; Dunedin; born NZ 29 Sep 1915; quantity surveyor.

10 Spr W. C. de R. Barclay; Wellington; born Wellington, 28 Jun 1906; architect.