New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
18 Army Troops Company
18 Army Troops Company
While the remnants of 19 Army Troops Company were disembarking at Alexandria from Crete (1 June) Headquarters 18 Army Troops Company was moving from Mex Camp into a block of flats in the Rue Sidi Metwalli, incidentally an ‘Out of Bounds’ area. This change of address, hailed with enthusiasm by the sappers, was the result of taking over the Italian-owned workshop referred to in Chapter 3. The location had its drawbacks for Alexandria underwent some heavy bombing in June, and as the war diary puts it: ‘After seeing what bombs can do to Alex buildings HQ personnel hurriedly dug themselves a shelter trench in the workshops yard.’
From June to August was a quiet period for the pipeline detachments based on Amiriya, Daba, Baggush and Matruh. General maintenance was carried out and some of the more intricate pipe systems relaid. There were still leaks, and water meters were installed until the shortage was reduced to one main in the Matruh sector. The line was searched yard by yard, and where it passed through a minefield one of the wonders of the desert (‘Bondi’) was found. Some very enter- page 177 prising South Africans had discovered how air valves worked and how it was possible to draw off water into a large masonry bath they had built.
There were, however, other water worries after August as Major Lincoln illustrates:
‘With increased duties, the policing of the pipe line became a problem and by arrangement with the Egyptian Police Dept., members of their force kept guard over our pipe line thus releasing our troops for other urgent work. However the police were quick to realise that their job was a money spinner, as by tapping the line they were able to sell water to the Wogs. We then had to make snap inspections of the police in an endeavour to control them.’
Much WD27 equipment was transported by train to Mersa Matruh and with each trainload special tanks of Alexandria water were included, so that suitable water was available at the destination for use in the engine boilers. Under the ‘guard’ of the Egyptian police, this was also a source of supply and finance when sold to the wandering masses at the different stations at which the trains stopped. In fact, many tanks arrived at their destinations empty, with valves fully opened.
In order to deceive the enemy in their bombing raids and with a view to protecting the pipelines and pumping stations in the desert, existing buildings were camouflaged and dummy buildings erected some hundreds of yards distant. The dummy pipeline was marked with patches of oil to simulate water leaks along the line. It worked effectively and was bombed on several occasions.
In September the Company barge fleet had grown to five, two based on Matruh and the others in Alexandria harbour. The maddening shortage of even the commonest tools began to ease at this time, although three-quarters of the requisitions for parts for petrol and diesel engines had still to be filled with improvisations and adaptations.
It was a red-letter day for the Company when the first workshop truck arrived (9 September), a Canadian built 3-ton Ford equipped with an Atlas lathe, a Black and Decker electric drill, page 178 a Delta grinder, a Kellog air compressor, a battery charging set and an electric welding plant. Power was derived from a generating plant driven from the truck engine. The truck crew was Lance-Corporal Penny29 in charge with Sapper G. T. Johnstone30 as his assistant, and only the most urgent jobs on the Daba and Baggush sections were to be handled.
The first indication that something might be afoot in the not too distant future was contained in a secret memorandum to Major Lincoln dated 15 September 1941, the relevant portion of which is a follows:
‘Subject: Water Containers.
O.C. 18 A T Coy.
N. Z. E.
‘Traffic in these containers may suddenly assume large proportions in the near future. Please arrange now a scheme for inspecting, cleaning and stencilling “Water” on drums at the rate of 1000 a day.
‘The drums are likely to arrive at Wardian tainted with petrol. It will be necessary therefore to prepare a steaming scheme. Please investigate the methods of cleaning petrol drums used by the E.S.R. at Gabbari a few months ago and report what you need to steam-out drums at the rate of 1000 a day, using a drum filling platform and piping for steam instead of water….
‘Any necessary paint, paint brushes, ropes and piping must be put forward soon in detail, as the drum cleaning arrangements will probably have to be complete by the end of September.’
A job for the Eighth Army that was begun when the railway sappers delivered 140 truckloads of pipes forward of Mohalafa (Charing Cross) was continued when No. 4 Detachment, 18 Army Troops Company, started on a major extension of the Western Desert pipeline. Work commenced on 6 September with the unloading of about 40 miles of pipes, duplicating the 4-inch line from Matruh Triangle to Charing Cross, laying a new 6-inch pipe from Charing Cross to Kilo 60 on the Sidi Barrani road, and building a new pump station at Matruh railway spill tank. All three tasks were completed by the first week in October. An extract from the 18 Army Troops war diary of 28 September is illuminating:page 179
‘4? line now complete except for connecting up. At this stage the 6? Victaulic line was being laid at the rate of 3 ½–4 miles per 7 hour day in a trench 18 inches deep. (The pipes were laid out alongside the trench.) The labour consists of 7 parties each containing 1 NZ sapper and 15 pioneer Indians. The Indians had no previous experience of pipe laying. These figures are approx. 25 per cent better than those laid down in RE Manual of Field Engineering.’
In Major Lincoln's judgment, ‘This was a very creditable effort by Lt Bruce Wallace and his section Sergeant Ron Ryan31 in spite of two instances of attempted sabotage when some of the pipes were plugged centrally with wood and straw.’
October for 18 Company's sappers had only one topic—water. Again quoting the war diary:
‘30 Oct. General. The majority of the work of HQ and Workshops was in connection with the most urgent dispatch of water to Western Desert by all available means. The putting in operation in short time and then the running and maintenance of the two drum cleaning plants was a particularly strenuous test of organisation and energy with only a limited number of men available to carry it through. It is gratifying to say that as far as the cleaning and filling of drums was concerned no unit or transport was held up on account of the Coy not being able to keep up supply.’
Because of troop movements forward of Daba the capacity of the pipes was barely sufficient to fill the requisitions. No. 1 Section (Lieutenant Mackersey) was working flat out on duplicating an 8-inch pipe to Alamein, but owing to the couplings having been consigned to Alexandretta instead of Alexandria, practically all the joints had to be welded. One electric and one gas welding set were in continuous operation.
The responsibility of 18 Army Troops for the operation of the water pipeline ended at Charing Cross, inclusive. From there westward 36 South African Water Company took over and their estimated requirements were 500 tons daily. To supply this amount as well as meet the local demand it was necessary to build up the storage in Matruh to the maximum. Deliveries by water ship were 8100 tons and by rail 9468 tons.
By the middle of November the Line of Communication troops had done their part and Eighth Army was ready to take the field. From then until the end of the year 18 Army Troops page 180 Company's role was general maintenance and the operation of the Western Desert pipeline and pumping plant. One last transcript from the war diary:
‘19 Nov. News came through that Eighth Army had started its push. Gratification was felt by all that all the hard work of the last few months had gone to help the Eighth Army in making its drive.’
27 War Department.
31 Not traced.