New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
Tenth Railway Construction Company, which, it will be remembered, left the Western Desert in February for Qassassin16 (where, following surveys by 9 Railway Survey Company, there was platelaying and formation work at El Firdan, Tel el Kebir and El Kirsh) did not remain undisturbed for long.
No. 2 Section was warned to stand by on a day's notice to move to the Sudan, where Lieutenant Marchbanks was to build a bridge across the Gash River which divides the Sudan from Eritrea. The Italians had got as far as putting in the concrete foundations for the piers of a bridge at Tessenei and the job was to finish what the Italians had begun.
The campaign against the Italian East African army was going according to plan; the South Africans had captured Addis Ababa, the capital of Abyssinia, and two Indian divisions were attacking the natural stronghold of Keren, protecting Asmara, the enemy capital of Eritrea. The troops were supplied through Kassala and the Sudan Railway Department had, with civilian labour, built a line from Kassala to Tessenei, a distance of about 40 miles. The Gash was dry until the rainy season, June to December, and a temporary line crossed the dry riverbed, then trucks hauled supplies along an Italian built road from the river to Agordat, which was the beginning of another enemy railway line to Asmara.
The Army was to build the bridge across the Gash and extend the line from the river to Agordat—before the rainy season.
The fifty-strong section left Qassassin on 6 March by train through the Nile valley to Upper Egypt. At Shallal, the southern terminus, they changed to river boat and ploughed along the lake formed by the Aswan dam. Two days of stewing in an page 70 oppressive heat brought them to Wadi Halfa, the northern terminal of the Sudan railway system and the home of Kipling's Fuzzy Wuzzy who ‘broke a British square’.
Another two days of train travel across the searing Nubian desert, a smooth grey ocean dotted with islands of crumbling rock, landed the sappers in Kassala.
Major Halley and twenty sappers of the ubiquitous 9 Railway Survey Company17 had preceded the new arrivals by about a fortnight and were surveying the proposed line from the Tessenei bridge site to Agordat. They were doing themselves fairly well and had taken over stone houses previously occupied by Italian public works engineers. They started work at 5 a.m. with Dinka natives cutting their lines with wicked long swords which appeared as dear to them as the kukri to the Gurkha. Other characteristics of the Dinkas were the great crops of fuzzy black tresses, which hung in ringlets down their shoulders, and the long wooden forks carried like a comb so that they could have a scratch every now and then. Work ceased at midday when the heat was unbearable, and lunch was followed by an Eritrean siesta, long hours of wakeful, restless sweating. Late in the afternoon the more energetic went shooting gazelle, buck or guineafowl, while the others persevered with the siesta. In the evenings the sappers sat on the steps of their stone house and watched the lights of convoys threading through the mountain passes with supplies for the troops preparing to storm Keren. When it was quite dark they made themselves homesick by looking across the mountain tops, where low in the sky hung the Southern Cross.
The bridge builders went on to Tessenei and looked the job over. They saw an empty riverbed with heavy scrub along its banks, hundreds of bright-coloured birds above the trees and monkeys in untold numbers in their branches.
From the Kassala end the bridge spans were one 55 ft, five 50 ft and two 40 ft, a total length of 385 ft. These spans were fixed by the concrete foundations already put in position by the Italians, but the steel built-up girders sent down from Egypt would not fit these measurements and had to be adapted on the job.
Lieutenant Marchbanks wrote later:
‘We were always short of Equipment but managed to get page 71 hold of an Italian electric welding set, gas cutting torches and compressors. About 1000 cubic yards of concrete was poured and for this we had only two ? c. yd mixers. Total weight of steel handled was about 1000 tons with a heaviest lift of 10 tons. We were fortunate in being able to borrow two caterpillar drag lines from the Sudan Rlys for handling the girders.
‘As an example of the way we had to improvise, 1200 ½ and ? [in.] dia. holes had to be drilled in the steel by hand ratchet drills and over 1000 hook bolts for holding the sleepers to the girders had to be forged and threaded.’
The party worked for a month on formation and culverting until material came down from Egypt. The first concrete was poured on 14 April and the first train ran over the bridge on 28 May. Lieutenant Marchbanks was evacuated to hospital a fortnight before the bridge was completed, leaving Sergeant Keller18 in charge. The sappers did not rejoin their unit until the end of June.
Tenth Railway Construction Company lost another 65 all ranks to a composite Operating and Construction Company being assembled to proceed, under the command of Major Smith, to Greece. The rest of the men were provided by 13 Company (132 all ranks) and 16 Company (77 all ranks).19
The selected sappers assembled at El Firdan, where they were issued with tropical kit and began a concentrated course of infantry training. It did not last long.
Further instructions arrived that administration would be simplified if all constructional people were drawn from one unit, and as 10 Company already had one section detached, 13 Company would be withdrawn and 10 Company would supply all the construction element. And the new company would assemble at Qassassin.
Under the new plan 7 officers, 262 other ranks, 11 lorries, 4 motor-cycles and 57 tons of equipment were assembled, with orders to be ready to move within twenty-four hours as from 25 March. An advanced guard of eleven drivers commanded by Sergeant Jack Molloy20 left with the gear on the 29th and the sappers were to follow the next day; they route-marched and machine-gun drilled until 3 April, when they were told that page 72 they were beyond doubt leaving within forty-eight hours; in the morning the departure was postponed indefinitely.
Tenth Company detail was to stand by and 16 Company detail was to go to Amiriya and work on the extensive military sidings there. On 14 April 10 Company detail was ‘definitely embarking’ the next day—it got as far as loading rations on a train and striking camp before the order was countermanded and camp was unstruck.
The sappers really left Qassassin a couple of evenings later, this time in trucks, but a Don R caught them within two hours and the column halted at Tahag. It stayed halted there for a week, when the now thoroughly demoralised detail was told that it was really and truly on its way—back to the Western Desert. But there was one more blow to come: new equipment had been drawn to replace that loaded on the transport and shipped to Greece, but it had come back again and was found lying on a wharf at Port Said.21 The new equipment was to be handed back forthwith and the old gear taken on charge again. New words were added to the English language and the sappers' vocabulary grew in strength and vigour.
This apparently irresponsible conduct was of course partly on account of the situation in Greece, where the campaign was going far from well, and partly because of the enemy counter-attack in the Western Desert.
In the meantime the balance of 16 Railway Operating Company had arrived at El Kirsh to take over the duties of 17 Company, who unknown to themselves were shortly to move to Palestine; on 7 April they were hotfooting it back to Daba. Major Aickin had been informed that if the enemy attack in Cyrenaica was not stopped he might have to operate the whole 200 miles of railway from Amiriya to Matruh; he was to make his headquarters at Daba and to plan on the assumption that communications would fail and that he would be out of touch with his section at Amiriya. Major Aickin could muster only 116 men at the time so he had received a fair-sized job; it was added to materially, as he explains:
‘That night (8th) about 6.30 o'clock, a British Major who held the high-sounding title of Town Major (though his domain page 73 was merely a large chunk of desert, a few water wells and numerous latrines for the cleanliness of which he was held responsible) came into our mess and read us a signal. It appeared that the tiny force representing the then strength of the 16th, a few bakers of the RASC field bakery and less than a dozen men of the Movement Control staff were the garrison of Daba. There were no troops behind us all the way to Alexandria while up forward there was only a small garrison at Mersa Matruh and nothing much in the way of troops or armour in the desert west of there…. We had no wire, no minefields, no artillery and we had not had a tremendous amount of practice with our rifles. We had an anti-tank rifle which temporarily incapacitated the firer at every shot, plus three brens and a lewis gun.
‘The Town Major described our role in terms that gave us freedom of movement and freedom of decision. What he said was, “You'd better put some men over at the cross roads or somewhere. Send out a patrol or two on a truck or something, with bren guns or something of that sort; anyhow you are supposed to do something.” The Town Major was in too much of a hurry to have a whiskey or something as he had to go and organise the bakehouse in depth or something.’
Without more ado 16 Railway Operating Company, the whole 116 of them, set about preparing to receive General Rommel, his two Italian divisions and his 5 German Light Armoured Division, either one at a time or all together. They dug trenches and built field works; they acquired a distaste for sleep in order to complete their defences and carry out their train-running shifts more or less continuously. They were assisted in staying awake by the weight and frequency of enemy air raids.
The Company strength was increased by the return of men from leave, and of another party that had been detailed but which did not go to Eritrea, and the defence works grew in complexity.
Little by little the flap died down. The Australian and British force in Tobruk was a thorn in the side of the enemy communication system and there was no invasion of Egypt.
Thirteenth Company remained in the Canal Zone, where its page 74 main work was at Abu Sultan constructing new spurs in the Ammunition Depot, the laying of depot tracks at Geneifa and Amiriya, and a bridge over the Sweetwater Canal to the wharf. By and large it was a pretty poor show; the food was not good and meal hours did not suit; the heat was trying, for at 116 in the shade steel rails could not be touched with bare hands; furthermore the work was rushed and the native labour more than usually poor.