New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
The Army Troops Companies
The Army Troops Companies
Repair and salvage jobs kept 19 Army Troops Company busy in Benghazi throughout March, with sixty different works orders in varying stages of completion from not started to almost finished. They ranged in complexity from the removal of petrol installations from a derelict ship and the raising of sunken tugs to Job 109/112, which was—‘Construct one 6 hole squatter native latrine for 209 Z Craft Co. and one similar 3 holer at Ceremonial Landing’.
The storm-wrecked port was now of little consequence as a supply point for the Eighth Army but was assuming importance for another project scarcely dreamed of in sapper circles outside the Directorate of Works at General Headquarters, Middle East page 467 Force; Benghazi was, even then, being prepared for use in the contemplated invasion of Italy that was to follow the end of the fighting in North Africa. In addition, the vast Benina airfield where 21 Mechanical Equipment Company was working needed water for the growing RAF and USA bombing forces which were to precede and accompany the landing in Sicily.
Many months of work lay ahead for the New Zealand sappers, but since the concentration of the unit, billets were overcrowded and the offer of the White Barracks was gladly accepted. Some scope for renovators existed, for after being bombed by both armies, much of the barracks' roofing needed repairs and all the windows were without glass. There was also a complete absence of furnishings and the water supply had been demolished.
The reconstruction of the barracks was entrusted to No. 4 Section, which had previously shown marked acquisitive ability, and Major Marchbanks co-operated by not finding any reason to be in the vicinity. Sergeant Bert Adamson,2 who was in charge of the job, held an Army Headquarters salvaging authority which he used to good effect in collecting doors, windows, beds and furnishings for the new home, an activity certainly not envisaged when the authority was issued. A clean sweep was made of a recently renovated building, and Adamson found his detachment under close arrest for despoiling the new quarters of the Provost Corps.
The Kiwi sergeant had to disclose considerable ability as a bush lawyer and listen to a crisp address on the predatory instincts of New Zealanders in general, and 19 Army Troops Company in particular, before his men were released.
The Electrical and Mechanical Section had by this time linked up and was operating all the powerhouses in Benghazi, and favourable comment was made by Army and Navy authorities on the freedom from faults and power failures.
The port was to be a fuel-oil base for light craft, and probably as a result of the successful commissioning of the Kiwi referred to in a previous chapter the Company was found another ship, the sunken oil tanker Speranzo, which the Navy considered could be salvaged for use in the operation of the base.
The Speranzo was an entirely different problem from the wooden Kiwi. She was steel-built and had a hole in her side 15 feet wide by 25 feet deep which called for extensive welding. It was really a shipyard job—but there was no shipyard.page 468
When the Company took over in the middle of April the wreck had been beached near Customhouse Quay, together with a number of other derelicts cleared from the channels adjacent to the berths. She was winched into shallower water, a section cut out of the steel deck and a start made on burning off the jagged plates with oxy-acetylene torches. The problem of welding 16 ft by 4 ft straight steel plates on to a curving bow was solved by overlapping each plate, and by the end of May, with improvisations of concrete, steel mesh and a two-inch seal of plaster, the Speranzo was made watertight and handed over to the naval people as an oil supply ship.
Concurrent with the ship-repairing operations was the building of a 1000-ton oil reservoir and the construction of floating pipelines of alternate lengths of steel pipe and rubber hosing. Permanent submarine pipelines posed more problems, for steel piping was in very short supply. Salvaged 100 ft lengths of pipe joined with rubber hose were not satisfactory and an original procedure was adopted in the laying of a second oil pipeline. Some 250 yards of pipe were welded into a unit, floated into position along a line cleared of sunken obstacles and, after some trouble, securely anchored and connected to the shore by flexible armoured hose—an unorthodox solution but a complete success.
The responsibility for the supply of water to Benghazi and Benina was another major project entrusted to the Company. A South African unit had maintained the existing water points but an extensive programme of works to meet the growing demands included reservoirs, booster stations and pumphouses, all of which were built by the New Zealand engineers.
Work had not been long started when the Company was called on to supply water for a welcome customer. The Division was passing en route to Cairo and needed hot showers. On no other occasion had the sappers to meet such a demand and on no other occasion did they work with greater enthusiasm; the boosters went flat out for twenty-four hours non-stop, and the supply somehow survived the demand without a breakdown.
Further evidence of the port's new importance was provided by the arrival of specialist engineers on 12 May—the day before hostilities ceased in North Africa—to select Fairmile slipway sites for the shipping repairs which might reasonably be anticipated by an invasion force.
The western end of Cathedral Mole was chosen and the construction of two slipways entrusted to 19 Army Troops Company, page 469 but apparently the specialists were not in complete accord for amendments and a stream of correspondence seeking additional data held the project up until the strength of the Company had been depleted by the departure on 3 June of the Ruapehu draft.
At that period No. 2 Section was employed on Benghazi water supply; No. 3 Section on the construction of the concrete reservoir for Navy fuel oil; No. 4 Section on the Fairmile slipways and timber fenders for underwater fuel pipes; E and M Section on fuel pipelines, electrical supply, welding jobs on tank landing craft and on various shop jobs.
The revised design for the Fairmile slipways meant, for each one, the precasting of fourteen 25 feet concrete sleepers weighing approximately ten tons each, which were to be laid for 250 feet underwater. There was, in addition, the dredging, underwater filling and grading before the concrete sleepers could be lifted by the Kiwi and laid in position—a heavy engineering project of some complexity. Work on this and the other assignments went on steadily until the middle of August, during which time (on 9 August) Major Marchbanks left to take command of 5 Field Park Company and Major Learmonth became OC 19 Army Troops Company. A couple of days later the Company was instructed that the Fairmile slipways were a No. 1 priority job and that every endeavour should be made to assure the completion of the first one before the end of September. Despite interruptions through the diversion of the dredge and lighters to presumably even more important work, the first slipway was practically finished a week before the deadline.
The fuel-oil installation—reservoirs, pumphouse and pipelines—was ready, 700 tons of fuel oil discharged into the reservoir and the job handed over to the Navy on 29 September.
Arrangements were now being made for the return of the Company to Maadi and an extra effort was put into finishing the second slipway. On 7 October, when a week of fine weather would have seen it ready, OC 19 Army Troops Company received a signal from No. 109 RE Works Section, Middle East Forces, ‘As second slipway Benghazi not required stop work on this’.
Such a blow would have broken the hearts of ordinary men, but the sappers of 19 Army Troops Company were used to it. Had they not helped to build a complete harbour at Safaga which was never used? The upsets that happen in long-range planning were no concern of theirs, and the second leave draft page 470 would soon be leaving for home. But a stack of a hundred tons of cast concrete frames was a testimony to the vagaries of wartime engineering.
On 8 October a Palestinian Army Troops Company began to take over the water-supply installations, and two days later the Company was told to be ready to move out at an early date.
Equipment was handed over and gear packed, and on 17 October 19 Army Troops Company left Benghazi and marched into NZ Railway Operating Details; four days later those not eligible for the second leave draft were posted to other units and 19 Army Troops Company was disbanded.
The possibility of a change in location implied in the instructions received by 18 Army Troops Company at the end of January became a probability in February and a fact in March, during which period the drop in the amount of water pumped into the Western Desert pipeline and the diminished maintenance consequent thereon permitted Headquarters to get rid of non-essential material and have a general clean-up. No. 4 Detachment at Burbeita was the first to move out. It completed the handing over of all duties west of Daba, exclusive, to 44 Water Maintenance Company, SAEC, on 10 March, spent a few days in smartening-up drill, proceeded to Ismailia, found the orders to join No. 2 Detachment cancelled, and by the end of the month had settled into a camp built for the Company at Adabiya Bay.
No. 1 carried on at Alamein with normal pumping duties. The highlights of the month, according to the Detachment diary, were the accouchement on 7 February of Farida, the family cat, in the cook's bed, and the mixture of gale force wind, sand, rain and cold that raged for three days (22nd–24th), considered the worst yet experienced. March was a succession of sandstorms, in between which 44 Water Maintenance Company was shown over the area. The Detachment diary sketches the scene:
‘March 30—Morning spent winding up the estate—tidying up the area, disposing with poultry, dogs, cats etc., and placing the house in order. Saw Signals and returned telephones and gave new address.’
No. 2 Detachment at Chevalier Island, which, it will be remembered, consisted of any sappers sent down from the ‘Blue’ for a change of air, had been pile-driving and siting and tying in fuel pipelines, a job very similar to that done by 19 Army page 471 Troops Company at Benghazi, when it was told to get its works orders cleaned up as soon as possible as it would probably be leaving some time in March. The convoy left Ismailia on 1 April and, together with Headquarters and No. 1 Detachment, settled into the new camp at Adabiya Bay that evening.
No. 3 Detachment sappers at Amiriya were not relieved of Western Desert water-supply duties by 44 Company until 9 April, when they joined the rest of the company at Adabiya Bay. The crew of Water Barge No. 4 from Tobruk had already marched in, No. 3 came in from Alexandria a fortnight later, and No. 5 from Benghazi rejoined on 5 May.
Eighteenth Army Troops Company re-formed into sections and spent three weeks training with American pontoon bridging, tubular scaffolding, bridging cribs, sheetpiling and light standard steel trestlework. It did not escape the notice of the trainees that an ability with such materials would be very handy when forcing a landing on a hostile coast. Morale rose to a pitch indicated by an entry in the war diary when the Company, after its tour of training at Adabiya, moved on to the RE Training Depot at Moascar for its post-graduate course in assault landing technique. The single entry for the afternoon 21 April, while the Company was en route for Moascar, read: ‘Tally Ho!’
The whole of May was spent in general field engineer training, and the Company was spreading along the Canal area in various stand-by jobs on 4 June when the blow fell. Eighteenth Army Troops Company was not eligible under the furlough scheme, but its fate was to provide reinforcements for 2 NZ Division. Even the GOC's letter to Major Learmonth did not help much:
My Dear Major Learmonth,
I would like to write and express my regret that circumstances have made it necessary to disband 18 Army Tps Coy. It is doubly hard as I have heard from all quarters high praise of the work done by the Company, and I am well aware that their work, while not as spectacular as that of the Division, contributes in full measure to the common cause. The reputation of NZ Engineers stands very high.
Would you please explain the situation to the men and give my sincere thanks to the Unit for good and faithful service.
B. C. Freybergpage 472
In accordance with a signal from Chief Engineer, British Troops in Egypt, the Company handed back the jobs it had taken over and on 4 July marched in to New Zealand Engineer Training Depot, Maadi, gave itself a ‘break-up’ party, handed in its equipment, and ceased to be a unit of the New Zealand armed forces on 24 July 1943.