During the Second World War, the New Zealand Ordnance Corps (NZOC) provided a variety of Ordnance Services to the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF). The most well know of the Ordnance Service proved are those of the Base Ordnance Depot, Advanced Ordnance Depot, Ordnance Field Park, Laundry and Bath Units, and up to the end of 1942, the Base and Field Workshops and Light Aid Detachments which separated from the NZOC to form the New Zealand Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (NZEME). However, there remains one Ordnance unit which, although appearing on the 2nd NZEF Order of Battle, only rates a very obscure mention in only one of nine official campaign histories published after the war and has mostly been forgotten; this is the NZ Divisional Salvage Unit.
World War One Origins
New Zealand’s first experience of Salvage units was during the 1914-18 war. Each British formation (including Dominion forces) was required as part of an army salvage plan to appoint a Salvage Officer for each brigade, and a Division Salvage Company, which in turn was supported by a Corps Salvage Company. Formed on 5 May 1916, the NZ Divisional Salvage Company was under the command of Lieutenant Macrae, NZAOC. The duties of the NZ Divisional Salvage Company were:
- The care and custody of packs of troops engaged in offensive operations.
- The care of tents and canvas of the Division.
- The salvage of Government property, and enemy property, wherever found.
- The sorting of the stuff salved and dispatch thereof to base.
An indication of the type of work carried out by the NZ Division Salvage Company can be found in the work of the British Army’s 34th Divisional Salvage Company, which was active on the Somme during July 1916. During this period, the 34th Divisional Salvage Company recovered,1
Rifles – 12,998
Bayonets – 6,050
Revolvers – 8
Very Pistols – 28
Machine Guns – 51
Trench Mortars – 12
Small Arms Ammunition – 1,580,000 rounds
S.A.A. fired cases – 145,000
Bombs – 40,000
Sets of equipment complete – 5,500
Groundsheets – 700
Steel Helmets – 9,869
Gas Masks – 13,280
Picks & shovels – 2,000
Wire Cutters – 950
Bully Beef Tins – 16,000
Bagpipes – 6 sets
Total value of one month’s salvage = £1,500,000.
American author Isaac F Marcosson, writing in 1918, described this recycling operation in some detail.2
“At the ‘sharp end,’ there was “Battle Salvage, which deals with the debris of actual fighting and includes all trench materials such as wood and iron, shell-cases, guns, rifles, equipment, clothing, tools and other stores that have been damaged in actual fighting.” There was also “so-called Normal Salvage, which is material such as empty packing cases, [fuel] cans and other articles which never reach the battlefield.”
The Salvage system proved to be a success, with statistical records published of what each unit had recovered, with competition between units not uncommon. To outdo the New Zealand Division, one of the Australian Divisions went to the effort of stealing copper appliances and hardware from a derelict brewery to accrue additional credits.3 Following the success of the Salvage system in the First World War, provision was made on war establishments for Salvage units on a ratio of one Salvage unit per Division and one Salvage unit as Corps troops.
Western Desert 1941
As the New Zealand Division became established in Egypt in early 1941, General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Middle East requested information on 2 April 1941 on the establishment of the New Zealand Divisional Salvage Unit and when its equipment would be ready. With no Salvage Unit yet formed, an establishment for an NZ Salvage Unit, consisting of 1 Officer and 43 Other Ranks, was published on 18 April 1941, with no further action towards the formation of the NZ Divisional Salvage Unit taken until August of 1941.4
The role of Field Salvage Units was to sort salvage. All RASC motor transport units serving divisions and corps were tasked with carrying salvage on the return journey. This included containers which could be reused, small equipment which could be recycled and ammunition that had been unpacked but not used. T
With Australian and South African Salvage units already operating in the Middle East and with Indian and New Zealand units expected to begin operating shortly, GHQ Middle East called a conference to define the relationship of these units with the Salvage Directorate GHQ.
At the conference held on 13 August 1941, it was established that the Dominion Divisions were formed with a war establishment of one Salvage unit per Division and one per Corps troops. No Salvage units were provided at present for British Divisions, or Corps, although they were allowed for in the War Establishment.
The pressing question of the conference was if the Dominion Salvage units were to be part of the Middle East Salvage Organisation or regarded as separate units working under their own headquarters.
The Australians were satisfied with existing arrangements and stated that full cooperation from the AIF could be expected.
The representatives of the 1st and 2nd South African Divisions stated that they were willing to cooperate and that the available Salvage units should be used for the common good but wished that the SA Salvage units remain administered by their Headquarters and the units should accompany their divisions into action.
The Representatives of the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions stated that when formed, they favoured using them as a GHQ asset rather than as Div troops.
New Zealand, represented by its DDOS Colone King, stated that a New Zealand Salvage unit was not yet formed, but could be if requested. As a Divisional unit, it was expected that the unit remained with the Division, with the Salvage Directorate assured of the cooperation of the NZ Division in every conceivable way.
Base Salvage Depots under the control of GHQ received all Salvage irrespective of the unit that it was collected from. GHQ conducted all sales with the proceeds credited to His Majesty’s Government. The War Office was approached to consider the value of salvage collected in the future when setting capitation rates for equipment.
The consensus was that Salvage Units remain with their divisions but that the Salvage Directorate exercise technical control.
Armed with the knowledge that the Salvage unit was to remain with the New Zealand Division, approval for the formation of the NZ Divisional Salvage unit as a unit of the NZEF was granted by Headquarters 2 NZEF on 16 August 1941. The NZ Divisional Salvage unit was to be a unit of the NZOC with the NZEF DDOS in conjunction with the Military Secretary, HQ NZEF and HQ Maddi Camp arranging for a suitable officer and Other Ranks to be posted to the unit and equipment to be assembled.
On 12 September 1941, the New Zealand Division begun to move into Baggush in the Western Desert as it began to assemble for the upcoming Operation Crusader. On 11 November, the New Zealand Division together for the first time joined at an assembly point near the Matruh-Siwa road. On 18 November Operation Crusader began with the New Zealand Division crossing the Libyan frontier into Cyrenaica and after some hard fighting linking up with the garrison at Tobruk on 26 November. It is in Tobruk that the Salvage unit get sits only mention in the New Zealand War history series of books in the volume “The Relief of Tobruk” it stares: 5
“The NZASC companies provided working parties at the ammunition depot, and the docks, Workshops and Ordnance Field Park overhauled vehicles, and the Salvage Unit for the first time found plenty of work to do.”
On 23 December 1941 the NZ Salvage Unit lost a member of the unit when Private Leo Gregory Narbey died as the result of an accident. Private Narby now rests in the Commonwealth War Grave Commission Alamein cemetery.6
Operation Crusader was a success but one that inflicted heavy losses on British and Dominionarmour and Infantry, as the Axis forces withdrew under pressure, large quantities of enemy equipment and war material was abandoned leaving the battlefield to the battered 8th Army. Due to the magnitude of the Salvage work to clear the battlefield, GHQ request that all Divisional Salvage units be placed under 8th Army control as Army troops to allow their coordinated use. This request was agreed to by the GOC 2 NZEF on 1 January 1942 on the condition that the Salvage unit was released back to the NZ Divison if required. As the NZ Salvage unit was at Baggush, its transfer to 8th Army control was immediate.
Libya and Syria 1942
Badly mauled in Operation Crusader and the subsequent operations, the New Zealand Division had suffered 879 dead, and 1700 wounded and was withdrawn from Libya back to Egypt and then at the instance of the New Zealand government moved to Syria during February to recover but also prepare defences for a possible German offensive through Turkey.
As the NZ Divison rebuilt itself in Syria the NZ Divisional Salvage unit remained in Libya under 8th Army command. During March the delay in receiving reinforcements from New Zeland hastened the need to make estimates for replacement drafts, and HQ 2NZEF approached GHQ Middle East with an enquiry on the expected release dates of 2NZEF units including the NZ Salvage Unit who were under direct 8th Army command. The presumption was that the detached units remain under 8th Army control until the operational situation allowed their release.
Remaining detached from the Division, the NZ Salvage units establishment was increased to a strength of 1 Officer and 45 Other Ranks, its transport assets were also increased to include one car and five trucks and given the tactical situation, ammunition allocation per man was increased from 20 rounds of .303 to 50 rounds per man.
With the NZ Divison rushed back into the fight in the Western Desert in June 1942, the NZ Salvage unit remained detached. August 1942 found the NZ Salvage Unit in Syria and under the command of the 9th Army and operating as Army Troops rather than a Divisional unit as initially intended. On 24 August 1942, the ADOS of 2 NZ Div sent a submission to HQ 2NZEF recommending the disbanding of the NZ Salvage unit. The main point of the submission was that the NZ Salvage Unit since its formation had always been employed as Arny troops outside of the Division. Also given the reinforcement situation its personnel could be better employed within the main NZOC Divisional organisation. The GOC 2NZEF approved the proposal in principle but felt that the NZ Salvage Unit might still be usefully employed by the 8th Army in the current theatre. 8th Army rejected the offer, and the decision was made by HQ NZEF to recall the unit from Syria to Maadi Camp while a decision could be made on its future employment or disbandment.
Rolling through to September 1942 the NZ Salvage Unit was still detached to the 9th Army in Syria when on 19 Sept HQ NZEF sent a warning order to Headquarters 9th Army of the intent to recall the NZ Salvage unit to Egypt for disbandment. Final Order instructing the Unit to return to Egypt was issued on 3 October 1942, with the NZ Divisional Salvage Unit formally disbanded as a unit of the NZEF on 20 October 1942.7
After 15 months of service, the NZ Divisional Salvage Unit was disbanded and its men distributed to other NZEF and NZ Divison Ordnance Units. The Salvage units contribution to the war effort in the Middle East alongside the other Dominion Salvage Units provided an essential function, collecting, sorting and dispatching battlefield salvage, captured allied and enemy equipment to Workshops and Salvage Depots for repair, recycling and redistribution fighting units. It is unfortunate that this crucial administrative war work carried out by one of New Zealand forgotten Ordnance units have been forgotten, and it is hoped that future research into this unit will expand on their story.
British Pathe Newsreel providing an example of Salvage work carried out in the Western Desert. Desert Salvage
Copyright © Robert McKie 2018
1 Marc Barkman-Astles, “The Archaeology of Star Wars Strikes Back!,” https://www.heritagedaily.com/2016/05/the-archaeology-of-star-wars-strikes-back/111007.
2 Steve Atcherley, “Llewellyn Atcherley’s World War One,” http://www.atcherley.org.uk/wp/remembrance-day-seven/.
3 Arthur Forbes, A History of the Army Ordnance Services (London: The Medici society, ltd., 1929), 76.
4 2nzef – Organisation and War Establishments – Ordnance – Field Item Idr20107590 Record No Da 1/9/Sd81/21 (Wellington: New Zealand Archives, 1941).
5 473W. E. Murphy, The Relief of Tobruk, Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-45 (Wellington, N.Z.: War History Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs, 1961, 1961), Non-fiction.
7 2nzef – Organisation and War Establishments – Ordnance – Field