New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
CHAPTER 11 — Behind the Retreat
Behind the Retreat
(June to October 1942)
On 27 June, while the field companies were minelaying at Minqar Qaim, No. 2 Detachment, 18 Army Troops Company, maintaining the Western Desert water supply from Fuka to Charing Cross, the aqueducts in Baggush and the wells in Fuka, was getting ready to move out of Burbeita Oasis. Everybody else had already left, some in rather a hurry. The section diarist, whose unconventional remarks are a bright patch in a monochrome of near panic in the back areas, put on record:
‘2400 hours. Last party with the exception of ourselves, in Burbeita moved out. This was War Correspondents. They had been a pain in the neck for 3 days, having tapped our telephone line and monopolised the phone continuously without even taking the courtesy of asking us first. Put up a very poor show on evacuation with every appearance of flight; abandoned stores, tentage etc., as they stood.’
The sappers waited all day for firm orders and at 9 p.m., again to quote the section diary, ‘No news or appearance of enemy so people began to look for somewhere to sleep for night.’ [A verbal order to evacuate was eventually received and the convoy moved off an hour later.] ‘Meanwhile, five minutes after our departure Burbeita workshops etc., went up and a heavy pall of smoke indicated success of our incendiary efforts. Passed road block at East end of Baggush Box. Touch of amusement added to situation by white faced MP appearing at window of truck to ask if we were being chased.’
The rest of the detachment was picked up at Fuka, and after failing to locate anybody who wanted to make use of them at Alamein or Burg el Arab, No. 2 Detachment reported to Company Headquarters at Alex on 30 June.
No. 1 Detachment left Daba two days after the evacuation of Burbeita, during which period 2 NZ Division was sorting itself out at Alamein following the breakout from Minqar Qaim. These Line-of-Communication sappers were thus, for a brief time, many miles nearer the enemy than the New Zealand fighting troops.page 321
Extracts from the section diary are more eloquent on the events that led up to their withdrawal than any secondhand description:
2205 hours 11 June—Air raid. First on local dromes East and West Daba dozens and dozens of flares (Parachute and ground) and HE bombs. Later new planes attacked Daba with flares, HE bombs and incendiaries. Considerable casualties in Daba CCS—Padre busy.
0745 hours 15 June—Weekly parade and rifle inspection. 21 members of section volunteered for blood transfusion after heavy air raid.
0600 hours 22 June—German invasion warning received.
1300 hours 27 June—Continuous air raids all night. Everything he had.
2235 hours … RE Captain dashed up to advise Jerry broken through and we must clear out as best we could. No time for demolitions.
2357 hours … DCRE arrived and ordered demolitions to be carried out and advised dump would be blown in 25 minutes. Demolitions carried out—in one instance in presence of enemy tank—and section departed, standing less on the order of its going than on the speed of their departure.
No. 3 Section pumped water forward and filled water drums as fast as they could be obtained.
Headquarters 18 Army Troops Company was driven nearly crazy with orders and counter-orders. One asked for a detailed list of essential parts taken from pumps before evacuation, notwithstanding that most of the demolitions were undertaken by REs; another demanded the whereabouts of the parts the Company did not even know had been removed; yet another was to pack all non-essential gear forthwith and draw seven days' reserve rations. Water-barge crews stood by for orders; none came.
The forward sections had scarcely settled in at Sidi Bishr when they also began to try to obey orders and counter-orders. page 322 One party took over the operation of water points at Burg el Arab, while another opened up the pipeline and marked it for demolition; the pumphouse staff at Hammam was withdrawn, with the exception of the actual pump operators and an emergency repair gang; three RE officers arrived, each apparently without knowledge of the other, with demolition schemes.
On 4 July the Company, less No. 4 Section which was to fill every available water drum and stand by for a large issue, was ordered to take its electric welding set to Burg el Arab. Nothing happened. This was in connection with the first attack by 5 Brigade on El Mreir and the possible strike for Daba. We know what happened to that.
Eighteenth Army Troops Company war diary for 7 July reads: ‘Fairly quiet day. Just waiting to evacuate or to go forward and repair damage (to water pipes and pump stations).’
The Company went back again to Sidi Bishr but left enough sappers to reinstate the pumphouses from Alamein to Daba. Planning for the attack on Ruweisat Ridge was the probable reason for this move—and also we know what happened there.
On 22 July all 18 Army Troops Company men not actively engaged on pipeline or pumping duty were back once more at Burg el Arab, but as has been related, the big effort at El Mreir did not get past Phase 1.1
During August, while the Divisional Engineers surrounded the New Zealand Box with belts of mines and helped with the defences on Alam Halfa ridge, 18 Army Troops Company stayed at Burg el Arab maintaining plant, operating water points, carrying out internal reliefs, practising with small arms, taking a little leave and doing some swimming. They were still there when 6 Field Company arrived on 9 September, with Rommel back again behind his own minefields and explaining that his late foray towards Alam Halfa ridge was only a reconnaissance in force. In the meantime there was surplus labour in the pipeline Army Troops Company. When it was realised that many of the Company were doing only odd jobs in the Abd el Qadir-Alamein area, the Director of Works, Middle East, instructed that work be found for them and that it was to be in a decent locality while the opportunity offered of giving the sappers a change after their long spell in the desert.
The new locality turned out to be on the Suez Canal and was concerned with the changeover from coal to oil by the Egyptian State Railways. A Section, located at Ismailia, was to page 323 undertake the installation of a 10-inch pipeline to carry fuel oil from tankers in the Canal to storage reservoirs at Nifisha. It entailed the construction of a timber jetty approximately 1800 feet long to carry the pipeline from Chevalier Island across Lake Timsah to a navigable depth of water, and the laying of the remainder of the pipeline underground from Chevalier Island through Ismailia and Moascar to Nifisha.
Lieutenant Mawson was given command of a group which became No. 2 Detachment, irrespective of which section the sappers belonged to. He spent a few very busy days getting indents through and looking over the route. The advance party arrived on 6 October and the main body the following day. It was an interesting job and a pleasant change from the desert.
Meanwhile the shape of things to come was taking form. On 14 October Major Learmonth was informed most secretly that when the Army moved forward (note, not if the Army moved forward) the repair of pumps and piping in pumphouses would be carried out by 18 Army Troops Company. If extensive damage had been done to the pumphouses and adjacent reservoirs additional personnel would be allotted as required.
Mid-June was a momentous period for the sapper gangs of 19 Army Troops Company at Safaga. The caissons for the anchor wall were well advanced; there were disquieting reports that things were not going well in the Western Desert; the New Zealand Base Band was coming down the coast to pay a weekend visit. Up to this weekend (18 - 19 June) the only Kiwis the Company had seen in months had been a few sappers from 9 NZ Railway Survey Company who had spent a few weeks in April and May making a metric gauge connection between Safaga and the Nile railway at Qena. The news of the visit was acclaimed with enthusiasm, and when the band did arrive it was received almost with full military honours.
The concerts drew big audiences from the surrounding British units, as well as from the South African native pioneer troops and other natives in the vicinity. In fact the only people who didn't enjoy the music in the oven heat of Safaga were the bandsmen themselves, although the obvious pleasure with which their efforts were received was probably some compensation for the discomfort they endured.
The news leaked through that Tobruk had fallen and that the New Zealand Division had been rushed from Syria to stop Rommel's push through the Western Desert. The sappers began page 324 to talk of the good old days in Greece and Crete when a man wore a rifle instead of a bloody screw wrench; most of them hopefully regarded the prospect of leaving the heat and monotony of Safaga and rejoining the Division. But the rumours were without foundation.
As the battle line drew closer to Cairo the Director of Works was in almost hourly communication with the Commanders RE at Safaga. Work must, repeat must, be stepped up. Jobs that would normally take weeks must be ready in days; if tie rods and such-like items did not come down from Base RE Stores they must be improvised—somehow; there was more than a possibility that Safaga would be used as an evacuation point; the men must, repeat must, be pushed to the very last ounce of endurance.
One large party of refugees from the Delta did arrive at Qena, but as there were no shipping or embarkation facilities at Safaga they were sent on to the Sudan. Plans were then made for the use of Cookson's wharf for the evacuation of the women running the New Zealand Forces Club and for any other British women and children still in the Delta; lighters to ferry the refugees from the wharf to the ships would be sent down to the Bay.
Work along the foreshore went on feverishly, for the men needed no pressing in that blistering spot of sandy super-heated desert on the edge of the Red Sea; Bren guns were mounted, everybody sweltered in battle order and a 400-strong Indian Dock Operating Company arrived to work the non-existent docks. These Indians, however, did a great deal of good work unloading stores from lighters. The position on 4 July was that three-quarters of the piles had been driven along the foreshore and thirty reinforced crane beams had been completed; and reclamation work in connection with the deep-water berth, the main consideration at Safaga, had recovered from a major setback.
This job had been completed to the point when pile driving with land frames was in the initial stages when, without warning, thousands of yards of new reclamation disappeared under water. Visiting engineers of high and low degree were consulted but nobody had an answer. Another set of soundings was taken and it was discovered that under the steep shelf of sand rested a coral reef that was breaking with the extra weight. There was no simple short-cut, and the sappers had to carry on dumping page 325 spoil until all the weak parts had collapsed and the coral formation had been packed down into a solid mass on the rock base.
Another obstacle to speedy work was the necessity to mount guard over the plant at night. The enemy propaganda machine was working to good effect and Arab saboteurs did a lot of damage by putting sand or salt water in the sumps of concrete mixers, tractors and water pumps. No matter what trap was devised, the wily Wog evaded detection and increased the already long working day of the sappers. The wave of sabotage died down with the stabilising of the line at Alamein, but another curse took its place. Instructions, sheets and sheets of instructions, came down from GHQ Middle East Forces regarding the possibility of paratroop landings and how to deal with them. To men who had already dealt with them on Crete, the elaborate precautions and carefully detailed injunctions suggested that those responsible for the square yards of memoranda knew more of the theoretical than the practical side of the question. But roads had to be picketed and patrols kept watch.
The progress of the project was accelerated by increasing the size of the Egyptian working population by several more hundred, which in turn put such a strain on the water supply that strict rationing was again enforced. The two water distillation plants installed by 19 Army Troops Company produced 20 tons of water for one ton of coal in twenty-four hours, which was now barely sufficient for drinking purposes alone. Water was shipped down from Suez in tankers at the rate of about 2000 tons per fortnight. There was a scheme for bringing water from the Nile at Qena, about 100 miles away, to Safaga but not much work had yet been done on it.
By the middle of July the deep-water berth scheme had advanced to a stage where it could be of some use as an evacuation point, and the driving of the last of the 446 piles under the supervision of the Army Troops sappers marked the successful ending of one of the most difficult phases of the work.
When Major Marchbanks assumed command of 19 Army Troops Company from Major Langbein, the new OC of the New Zealand Engineer Training Depot, on 24 July the other assignment, the construction of crane beams, was 63 per cent complete.
Lesser projects finished about the same time were wiring the wards and installing generators at the recently built hospital, and the installation of a 10-ton methyl-chloride refrigerating page 326 plant. As the sappers also had to maintain the plant, it came in handy for the cooling of the Army Troops Company beer ration.
One job for which the Company could claim no qualification whatever was successfully carried through. The railway between Qena and Safaga was all but completed when the Indian Railway Construction Company was hurriedly withdrawn for work in the Delta. There remained the construction and laying down of marshalling yards and shunting lines to the waterfront. Nineteenth Army Troops Company was by no stretch of imagination a railway unit, but it received an urgent request to consider itself one and complete the port railway facilities. The instruction stressed that the work was to be of a temporary nature in case the necessity arose of using Safaga as an evacuation port. Sappers who had had any experience in railroad work were formed into a detachment; they started on the job and had got a line of sorts to the waterfront when a South African Railway Construction Company arrived and took over the project.
August will long be remembered by the Kiwis at Safaga for a severe tobacco shortage. Large stocks were known to be held in the British DID but the staff steadfastly refused to release any to the Kiwi canteen. A ‘cigarette patrol’ made cautious entry by night and had soon located a stack of ‘V's’ and other equally vile brands when a sentry's voice in broken English came out of the darkness—‘Not those Kiwi. See here, plenty Ardath.’ The Indians and the Kiwis had always got on well together. In due course a horde of Redcaps descended on the New Zealand camp and searched tents and probed all the loose sand in the area, which was plenty. The theft was attributed to Arab labourers and the good name of New Zealand remained undefiled. Eventually the well trodden main path leading from the men's mess to the tents was dug up and the loot disinterred.
Nos. 1 and 3 Sections had practically completed their work on crane beams in early August, and with work on the deep-water berth held up pending the arrival of tie rods, No. 1 Section was transferred to a proposed oil berth while No. 3 Section supervised and worked on the project for the Kima Saddle – Bula – Mons Claudianus – Safaga water pipeline and the construction of three reservoirs, two at Mons Claudianus and one at Bula Wadi. It is interesting that granite for the masonry work involved at Mons Claudianus was secured by ‘barring’ off slabs in a quarry that had last been worked by Egyptian slaves of Roman masters over two thousand years earlier.page 327
Nos. 2 and 4 Sections had by the end of August also done all the work that could be done on the caissons in the absence of the tie rods and were put to construction of transit sheds and general cleaning up.
The last day of August was notable for the arrival at Safaga of the Ronaldshay, a modern suction dredge which had been sent from India to dredge a berth in front of the main wharf. The Ronaldshay had been designed for work in canals and so had little freeboard and no bulkheads. It was a fine feat of seamanship getting her to Egypt. Her suction and delivery pipes had been shipped separately but failed to arrive, and the Chief Engineer, an elderly Scot, performed miracles of improvisation before the Indian crew could start work.
Rommel's repulse at Alam Halfa ushered in a less strenuous time at Safaga. The weather was cooler, there was time for cricket and, towards the end of September, with the major work on the deep-water berth completed, the first batch of ten sappers went to Palestine for a long-overdue leave.
To return to Mons Claudianus, where two wells had been cleaned out in July.2 It was thought that the Romans would have needed more than one well to supply the slaves working the granite quarries and several likely spots were selected, but all that was found were bones and pieces of pottery.3
The wells were located at dykes and faults in the granite, where the water from the infrequent rain collected and ponded behind the dykes in the wadi floor at a level of about sixty feet. The full project was to build a 100-ton reservoir at Mons Claudianus and from there pipe the water about 20 miles down to Wadi Bula, where another 100-ton break-pressure reservoir was to be built and connected to the main Qena-Safaga line.
One sub-section (Sergeant Foley4) of No. 3 Section began work at Mons Claudianus and another (Lieutenant R. A. Nicol) at Wadi Bula, in addition to supervising the laying out of pipes and material along a line to be dug between the wadi and Mons Claudianus. Native gangs began on the pipeline trench as soon as the material was delivered by a Palestinian transport company. Nearly 12 miles of laying and coupling had been completed by 4 October when the sappers, returning to camp at the end of the day, noticed the back-country clouding page 328 over. Rain, the first for two years, began to fall when the men were at mess. They had scarcely left the messroom when there was a roar as a three-foot-high wall of water thundered down their tributary of the Wadi Bula, and the last man from the messroom had barely time to scramble up the wadi bank before the onrushing water wiped the tented camp away like a cloth rubs a drawing from a blackboard.
Within an hour the water had all gone, leaving behind 20 miles of twisted, buckled railway in the Wadi Bula. Four miles of pipeline already laid and filled in on the route to Mons Claudianus was damaged beyond repair. Somewhere in the silt of the wadi were buried the cookhouse, the mess, all the tents and the corrugated iron canteen containing £20 in cash and several dozen bottles of beer.
The Chief Engineer, Middle East, visited the site, complimented the sappers on their work and ordered them to finish it. Within a week the sappers and native labourers had been re-equipped and were back on the job. The storm that had caused so much havoc to the railway and water pipeline also did a fair amount of damage at Safaga.
By the middle of October the Ronaldshay's crew had completed the repairs to the dredge, and after a two-day trial run was making necessary adjustments. On the 21st the first air-raid alarm was sounded at Safaga. A lone enemy plane made a leisurely ‘recce’ of the harbour, then departed without doing any damage beyond raising forebodings in the breasts of survivors from Greece and Crete. At mid-afternoon the following day another plane appeared over the bay and launched a torpedo at the dredge. There was a blinding explosion and the Ronaldshay sank within a matter of minutes, taking with her two of the English officers and fifty-six of the crew.
No. 4 Section (Captain Malt), the first to arrive at Safaga, was the first to depart, for having completed the laying of their section of crane beams, they moved out on 19 October to Adabiya to work in conjunction with 21 Mechanical Equipment Company.
We left No. 2 Section, 21 Mechanical Equipment Company, at Kilo 40 near Alexandria, battling with untold myriads of flies while they made camp and waited word to commence building harbours for Liberator bombers. Captain Tustin could page 329 find nobody who wanted harbours built; in fact he couldn't find anybody who wanted anything built, so, as in all similar cases, the men were given leave to Alexandria.
While the section waited for something to happen it listened to the news bulletins and slowly realised that the Western Desert Railway that it had helped to build was disappearing behind the enemy line. Somebody remembered the orphan section eventually and it was split into several detachments; some went to the Nagb to deliver trucks, some went to Darb el Hagg on the Cairo-Suez road to build a camp site and the rest went to Ataqa. But not for long. The section was recalled and, by the middle of July, had been assembled at Wadi Natrun under command of the CRE 10 Indian Division and equipped with five back-actors and three ditchers with which it started excavating, under the supervision of artillery officers, gunpits, observation posts and trenches. When each excavation was completed East African native troops trimmed the edges and parapets. The sappers worked two shifts daily and were well aware that they were preparing the next line of defence should the present one held by the Kiwis, Aussies, British and South Africans go west. By the middle of August 400 gun sites and 30 miles of communication trenches had been excavated; in addition a party of ten sappers under Captain Tustin hived off and assisted in preparing the approaches to and the building of two pontoon bridges across the Nile. The reader will connect this bridge building with the other ‘flap’ activities already noted in the previous chapter.
As the position at Alamein became more stable the tempo of work at Wadi Natrun slowed down. A friendly canteen opened its doors to an eager clientele, for beer could be procured in plenty and was in equal demand. One morning while a sapper, who had more than quenched his thirst the night before, was operating a trench digger, he looked around at the result of his work and distinctly saw a lion following him. He turned away smartly and dismissed the matter for he had seen elephants and other animals in unusual environments before. He carried on trench-digging until he was disturbed by strange shouting noises and looked cautiously over his shoulder. This time there were two negroes chasing the lion. He returned to camp while he was still in command of the situation and asked casually if anybody had ever heard that there were lions in Egypt. It was with very great relief indeed that he learnt that page 330 an East African unit had been inquiring if anybody had seen their tame lion mascot that had gone astray. Sapper, satisfied with his equilibrium, returned to work.
The section returned to Adabiya on 18 August.
Repairs Section (Lieutenant Bray5) received word to move from the Nagb to the Adabiya Bay area by 15 June and resume there its function of maintaining the mechanical equipment being operated in the locality. Gear was packed, trucks were borrowed, and in due course the section found itself at El Shatt. The first job was the assembly of docks machinery which was spread out all over the wharf and its approaches.
No. 3 Section (Captain C. E. Barnes), with only the dredging of the lighter basin at Aqaba to complete after the last pile of the basin and wharf had been driven on 1 August, sent its surplus sappers back in sections to Adabiya Bay until eventually only eighteen sappers remained attached to the local CRE. To complete the Aqaba story, this last detail left with the project completed its work on 20 December and rejoined the company, which was at that time concentrated at Ataqa.
No. 2 Section took over the operation of all earthworks on the harbour site, which permitted No. 1 Section to concentrate on the main wharf. Here they were driving wooden piles three abreast on each side of the fill to form a staging from which to drive concrete piles, which in turn constituted the support for the rail tracks from which cranes were to operate.
Adabiya Bay was not now recognisable as the desert No. 1 Section knew on its arrival eight months earlier. The rough terrain had been levelled and three transit sheds were in the course of erection; the main wharf was 450 feet out to sea, the caissons were completed and there were several hundreds of feet of driven piles waiting the ‘fill’. The lighter wharf was finished, filled, and being surfaced and the ‘Z’ craft jetty was nearing completion. But the nomad No. 2 Section was on the move once more. On 10 October it left to do a reclamation job at Fanara, where a large ordnance depot was to be built. As previously mentioned, No. 4 Section of 19 Army Troops Company arrived from Safaga to take its place.page 331
The locations of the New Zealand Railway Operating Group as at 1 July were:
Seventeenth Company, now commanded by Major R. O. Pearse in place of Major Poole, boarded for health reasons, had arrived at Burg el Arab on 24 June, made camp and stood by in case the Egyptian train crews departed and left the retreating Eighth Army without trains. Between then and the end of the month the Company managed to give itself a party to celebrate the second anniversary of its formation (25 June 1940), clear all rolling stock from the Alamein-Burg el Arab section, and load its own gear in anticipation of further moves eastwards. On 1 July the Egyptian railwaymen had been withdrawn by a paternal Government or had departed under their own steam; Major Pearse had shifted his headquarters to Amiriya and all stations from Abd el Qadir, just west of Alexandria, to Burg el Arab were staffed by 17 NZ Railway Operating Company.
Sixteenth Company, which had reached Alexandria on 29 June, stabled its train at Nouzha, about a mile from the centre of the city. When the situation cleared and the fighting was stabilised at Alamein the Egyptian State Railways billed the Company for demurrage for holding the train. The demand was rejected on the ground that Rommel would be using the wagons free of charge had they been left behind. The matter was not raised again, but from past experience it would be fairly safe to assume that the British taxpayer footed the bill.
It was an open question whether the line at Alamein would hold. Our forward area now included Alexandria with its immense dumps of stores, its rail network and rolling stock; without more ado the Company moved in and put shadow crews in the yards, loco sheds and signal boxes at Gabbary, the goods locomotive depot for the area.
There was also a railway workshop at Gabbary where a dozen locos and some hundreds of wagons and carriages were being constructed or repaired; plans for demolitions were therefore on a grand scale, but that was the sphere of South African engineers. Sixteenth Company's job was to move as much rolling stock out of Alexandria as possible if the necessity arose. To this end the over-all plan was: Lieutenants Brebner6 and Chapman, working twelve-hour shifts, maintained liaison between page 332 Movement Control and the Egyptian State Railways; Lieutenants Morgan and Couchman7 with detachments of experienced locomotive, shunting and operating other ranks stood by to put the evacuation plan into operation; Lieutenant Barr8 and his mechanics worked on the Company's large locomotives—most had been damaged to some extent in the withdrawal. RSM Hoskin9 and CQMS Melrose10 were called upon for continuous feats of organisation; Captain Hayman practised the rest of the Company on the range with rifle and machine gun. Major Aickin attended a daily conference at which plans were checked in the light of reports from the battle area.
Amiriya became the Army base and many thousands of tons of supplies arrived in a steady flow from Suez; incidentally the reader will now see the necessity for the additional harbour facilities the Kiwi engineers were working on at the ‘safe’ end of the Suez Canal. Trains for Amiriya from Suez did not go through Alexandria but took a short-cut over a new line which met the Alexandria-Amiriya line at Abd el Qadir, which was manned by 16th men under command of 17 Company. The trains from the east were manned by Egyptian crews to Amiriya, where 17 Company took over the running to the railhead. At that stage there was not a great deal of bombing, probably because Rommel still hoped to use the line himself at an early date. Amiriya and Alexandria of course got their share, but there were no New Zealand casualties and little railway damage.
Corporal Dangerfield writes of this period:
‘While the summer heat and sand storms raged our trains were kept busy maintaining the front line with its many necessities for waging war. Occasional hospital trains ran forward to Gharbaniyet to evacuate Casualty Clearing Station there. Jerry respected these trains. How we hated those sand storms—half sand half dust which really penetrated everywhere, repeat everywhere. Visibility zero at times. We at stations dreaded that long trudge out to the distant signal to set detonators to warn engine crews of their whereabouts. Nothing of size grows in this dry land and very few landmarks existed to enable crews to recognise locality. And every blooming native dwelling looks exactly page 333 like the last. Not that the train crews could see much in these storms anyway. Egyptian State Railway goods wagons are not fitted with continuous air brakes and a train parting in a sand storm gave us many a headache in getting things moving again.’
On 1 July the Company was in firm control of the situation and was prepared either to send trains forward to the Eighth Army or eastwards to their new destinations. If the Egyptian crews were around all the better; if not the Kiwi sappers would do the job themselves. July the 2nd, the second day of Rommel's attempt to break the Alamein line by encircling the South Africans in the Alamein Box, was a day of tension in the Railway Operating Companies. Everybody stood-to by day and by night expecting hourly the signal to begin the evacuation, but the Springboks were not to be shifted. The crisis passed and everybody relaxed; 16 Company took over the Amiriya depot from 17 Company, which then worked the section forward to Burg el Arab and occasionally to Hammam. For the rest of July the Railway sappers ran trains to and from the battle line. The New Zealand Chief Post Office (Major Knapp), between combing its personnel of Grade I men for transfer to other units and replacing them with down-graded men, was able to get the mails forward once again regularly by train.11
There was a lull along the front during August, a lull that was not evident at Amiriya where there was feverish activity, and 17 Company and the Divisional Postal Group were continually chased out of their camps by people wanting to lay mines or put up wire or site gun positions. Amiriya was to be a defended area if, as was still possible, the enemy broke through, and British gunners and infantry were taking up positions overlooking the village. Tension began to mount again towards the end of the month and the Railway Group Headquarters and 17 Company were asked to evacuate Amiriya. This would have meant that trains to the front could not have been controlled and operated with the same promptness and efficiency; Colonel Sage therefore demurred and asked that the Company be left where it was to take its chance with the rest of the defending troops. His request was granted, a track along the line was left through the minefields, but special orders were issued to ensure safe evacuation for the railway units if necessary.page 334
When Rommel's drive for Cairo had been turned back in September, Alexandria was no longer menaced by land and 16 Company was really able to relax. For a month it managed a little cricket, tennis, swimming and golf at the various sporting clubs which opened their facilities to them by way of honorary membership.
‘We had sent our Company orchestra into a corner of the camp by itself, and told it not to come back into circulation until it could play well. In a short time their services were in demand at the Fleet Club which was the Navymen's rendezvous and for dances at a soldiers' club founded and supervised by the Mustapha Barracks officers…. We managed to stage two dances of our own, one of which marked the second anniversary of our arrival in Egypt.’12
Mention has been made in Chapter 6 of the standard gauge railway from Egypt terminating at Haifa and of the narrow gauge line connecting Haifa and Damascus by one branch and Amman by the other. A little more Levant railway geography is now necessary. The seaward end of the standard gauge Turkish-Syrian rail network was at Tripoli, about 140 miles to the north of Haifa, but there was no direct connection between the two systems.
The need for one was obvious, but it was not until the defeat of the Vichy French forces in July 1941 that possible routes could be examined and one along the coast through Beirut to Tripoli decided upon.
Work commenced in December 1941, with South African construction units taking charge of the Haifa-Beirut section and Australian units the Beirut-Tripoli section, 86 route miles and 57 route miles respectively.
It was a very different job from the Western Desert Extension; in many places the mountains came down to the water's edge, there were headlands to sidle around, tunnels to be built, and in some places cuttings sixty feet deep and embankments eighty feet high were needed to keep the grade within reasonable limits.
Tenth Railway Construction Company spent its first week at Adloun, about seven miles north of Tyre in south-west Lebanon, swimming, eating oranges and grapes, savouring the page 335 juice thereof and generally getting the desert out of its system. Major Young and his officers spent the time in taking over from the departing South Africans.
The state of the job in June 1942 was that formation and track laying had been completed, bridges were built, tunnels were through but not lined, and a construction train operated as far as Sidon. The main work was ballasting, and quarries had to be found and opened to supplement the sand ballast. Some 800 cubic yards of metal per mile was considered necessary to retain the sand and save it from wind erosion.
The work was allocated as follows:
No. 1 Section was responsible for lining tunnels and maintenance between Az Zib and Ras Naqura. Naqura tunnel was a very difficult job and a special company of Rand miners had been recruited for the work.
No. 2 Section took over train control, ballasting and maintenance from Naqura to Tyre. Tyre had seen a lot of trouble in its day. Originally an island, it withstood a seige by Nebuchadnezzar for thirteen years, but later Alexander the Great, after a seven-months' siege, got fed up, threw a mole across in 332 BC and sacked the city. The mole is now silted up and the island joined to the mainland. Tyre is merely a village. The line in that locality went through a cutting and a number of Roman sarcophagi were recovered. The best went to the Beirut museum, and the Australians working farther north, it is said, converted others into ice chests.
No. 3 Section's duties were ballasting and maintenance between Tyre and Sidon. Sidon is a bigger place than Tyre but not a hive of industry. Boat-building according to the technique of biblical times is still followed on the beach.
No. 4 Section was responsible for completing structures and platelaying in Az Zib station yard.
As soon as the South Africans left (21 June) the Company, less No. 3 Section, moved into a tented camp under olive trees at Az Zib. The sappers found the work and the situation very much to their liking, so much so that a cricket match arranged with the Palestine Police for the afternoon of Sunday the 28th had to be cancelled as the entire Company was confined to barracks to expiate the military sin of a collective late return to camp.page 336
Two days earlier Headquarters NZ Construction and Maintenance Group had settled in at Az Zib, taken over from the South Africans and commenced routine administration.
Thirteenth Railway Construction Company arrived at Khalde, six miles south of Beirut, on 2 July. It found its camp situated in an olive grove, reputedly the largest in the world, only a quarter of a mile from the sea. The tents had concreted floors while the messes, workshops and offices were in cultivated land. After their long sojourn in the desert the sappers could not believe their good fortune. Beirut, with three-quarters of a million inhabitants, was another Alexandria from a leave point of view and its amenities did not suffer by comparison.
The company job was the completion of construction work on the Sidon-Beirut section, and involved the laying out of the Beirut marshalling yards. Track was laid from Sidon almost to Beirut, although several miles at the Beirut end were laid to narrow gauge for construction work. There was much ballasting and lifting to be done, as well as gauge widening and maintenance.
Ninth Railway Survey Company received its orders on 30 June to leave Egypt and report to Group Headquarters at Az Zib. Detachments were concentrated and by 7 July the Company, for the second time in its history, was almost together again. For the first time in its history it came directly under Group Headquarters for operations.
The Company's commander at that date was Major Halley, who allocated duties as follows:
HQ Section: Compilation of plans.
It was not long before Lieutenant Macky and nine other ranks left for the Sudan and Captain Nevins and five other ranks departed for Transjordan on a job of pegging curves and inspecting bridges and culverts on the Hejaz railway. No engineer had been on that line for about two years, for the page 337 reason that Palestine Railways could not supply a Britisher and Transjordan would not have a Jew. Nevins has vivid memories of a meal he was invited to by the Mudir of Maan.
‘The main dish was a sheep, stuffed and roasted whole. The Mudir drew back his gallabeah, baring his arm to the shoulder and cut the sheep open down the belly exposing the stuffing of rice, nuts, raisins and grease. He then plunged his arm inside and worked it about for a time (I have a vivid memory of the way the fat and the stuffing splashed up into his armpit and back into the carcase). Finally he pulled out a goose. Inside the goose was a fowl, inside the fowl a sand grouse, inside the grouse a quail and inside the quail a hen's egg. To drink we had whiskey, gin and arraq. Glasses were kept full but not always with the same thing, so that soon we all had a nauseous mixture of all three. Water was strictly rationed, being mainly reserved for the hyper-religious. There was only one other European, a Cypriot water engineer.’
Work went smoothly ahead, although the native labour employed was not comparable to the Indian pioneer units in the Western Desert. On 12 August a conference held at Haifa decided to open a service of military passenger trains from Haifa to Beirut, commencing on 24 August. Trains would leave Haifa on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and return from Beirut on Tuesdays. Thursdays and Saturdays. To implement the decision a South African operating section took over traffic control of the line on 14 August. Routine maintenance and ballasting of the new track, weekly sightseeing tours and cricket describes the Group's work until October, when the cooler weather turned thoughts to winter dress and football. To quote 13 Company's war diary for October:
‘Sport has been prominent this month. In the beginning, the Group cricket matches against outside teams were continued. In addition to “Tests” there were some practice games in which our Coy personnel played with Aust Ry C & M men.
‘Actually cricket overlapped rugby football, for which conditions are about right now. With the approach of winter, personnel became most enthusiastic over the prospect of rugby football which has not been played by us (through lack of opportunity) since we left NZ. Early in the month a set of togs and 2 balls were received from Patriotic Fund Commissioner. Because of the extreme keenness, it was resolved to reserve this set for Coy games and purchase a set of togs for each section from Reg Funds.’page 338
Towards the end of October 9 Survey Company, less No. 3 Section, was ordered to stand by to join Paiforce. Nobody knew what Paiforce was or where it was located, but the Company had lost the capacity for being surprised and waited calmly for movement orders.
The site for the new mill to be erected in Herefordshire was fixed at Tram Inn station, at a level crossing on the Truxton-Much Dewchurch road, while the men were billeted in Much Dewchurch village about two miles distant. Timber in the neighbourhood was calculated to provide about a year's work for the mill as well as pit-prop work for Italian prisoners of war. Eleventh Forestry Company, which had just got a band mill, its third unit, into production at Cirencester, was given the job of erecting and running its fourth mill at Tram Inn.
There must have been some fairly outspoken comments in letters written home about this period, some of which appeared to have found publication. Methods of milling in England are very different from those followed in New Zealand and not necessarily inferior, taking into account the controlled felling practised in cultivated forests where each tree has been planted by hand and tended throughout its life. The English method of felling to within a few inches of the ground took a lot of getting used to, for the Kiwi bushman always left a waist-high stump—until the appalling wastage was pointed out so often that low cutting became the custom. Another English practice was to trim the log boles of protusions instead of leaving it to the breaker-down men in the mills, but that was a policy of perfection that the New Zealand bushmen never got around to. But whatever factors induced the remarks, they produced a quiet reproof administered by the Deputy Assistant of Military Administration (Forestry) in a letter to Colonel Eliott, part of which read:
‘The Country Gentlemen's Association's Magazine for July 1942 contains a lengthy extract from reports made by officers of your Group with regard to sawmilling in this country, the report being compiled from publications in the New Zealand press. I am letting you know this unofficially as the article has caused a certain amount of comment in this office, and you may like to have an opportunity of considering the general question page 339 of the views of serving officers being published in the press, in relation to ACI's15 on the subject, in case the matter should be brought up officially.’
No doubt the nicely worded warning was passed on—not so nicely worded.
Time was lost during this period of summer by lack of water for the saws and boilers. This was an unusual situation, but up to 240 man-hours a month were generally lost through machinery breakdowns. Several of the mills taken over as going concerns were temporary, with decrepit and out-of-date plant. Securing parts for these was a constant source of trouble and delay.
A change in establishment about this time added more drivers to the strength of each company. They were needed, for it was the duty of the Group to deliver all sawn timber to the railhead, sometimes necessitating hauls of up to one hundred miles. In the early stages pole wagons drawn by rubber-tyred Fordson tractors were provided for such transport but proved too light. They were replaced by Leyland Hippo trucks from which the body had been removed and bolsters fitted instead. These, in turn, were replaced early in 1942 by semi-articulated diesel-driven vehicles.
Woolmer was the only mill that had no transport, because it was on a railway siding and timber was loaded straight on to railway wagons from the yard. There was no accumulation of slabs for the same reason and even the sawdust was no problem, for Canadians in a nearby camp had sawdust-burning stoves and they were only too happy to provide transport for free fuel.
The Tram Inn mill commenced working on 11 September but only for a few hours daily while adjustments were made and improvisations tried out. Nevertheless comparative figures for July-September 1942 (13 weeks) show that the average output per three-company group per week was:
|New Zealand Engineers||33,589 cubic feet|
|Royal Australian Engineers||31,753 cubic feet|
|Royal Engineers||27,674 cubic feet|
|Canadian Forestry Corps||23,371 cubic feet|
This result might be considered satisfactory, particularly as more than average time was lost through breakdowns. Mills erected as temporary structures had been running at peak production for more than a year and the strain was beginning page 340 to tell. Two mills were shut down for a full week of the above period, while others had major machinery troubles that slowed down production. The New Zealand Forestry Group might have been forgiven its minor trespasses under the stress of constant reminders from the Ministry of Supply on the necessity for increased output. It had consistently, whenever comparative figures had been published, produced the highest tallies in the United Kingdom, but it was not enough.
Forestry Commission officials, more concerned with silviculture than with timber getting, complained bitterly that the New Zealand sappers left forests untidy, and indicated that effective supervision of felling was lacking.
The answer was that clearing-up was a secondary consideration to timber production and could be done by unskilled labour. It was in fact done whenever possible by Pioneer Companies attached from time to time.
If any further reasons were wanted for leaving unskilled work to unskilled hands they were provided by the October production figures, when in spite of time lost through the usual breakdowns and the running in of the Hereford mill, Grittleton bettered the previous mill record by 4000 cubic feet, and the grand total of disposals exceeded the previous best output by 14,000 cubic feet.
3 Later a South African Geophysical Unit with its own boring plant found water at other sites in the area.
11 At this period NZ Chief Post Office had a strength of 5 officers and 120 other ranks, plus attachments; NZ Divisional Postal Unit (Lt W. H. McClure) 1 officer and 24 other ranks.
12 Aickin, op cit, p. 261.
15 Army Council Instructions.