Specialist mechanical unit paved the way for troops

Name: Eric Mallen
Date: 1941–1945
Unit: 2/1st Australian Mechanical Equipment Company
Location: New Guinea

Early in World War II the authorities realised there would be a need to have earth moving machines and equipment with experienced operators to be used in various war zones including the Middle East and the Pacific.

It was decided in October 1941 to form a specialist unit to supply the expertise and equipment that would be needed and so the 2/1st Australian Mechanical Equipment Company was formed.

Among the men who were in the Company was Sgt Ern Mallan who served in the Northern Territory before going to New Guinea. He produced a short history of the unit.

Recruitment began in all states and the men selected came from shires, state road departments, water boards, rural tractor operators and men with experience and fitting qualifications. The unit consisted of a Headquarters unit and four sections, with an ex-Commissioner for Main Roads, Col A Toyrer in charge and Capt K E Blacket.

Section 1: Northern Command, Capt Vidgin and Lt Gibson, Qld.
Section 2: Eastern Command, Lt Sweet and Lt Hatcher, NSW.
Section 3: Eastern Command, Capt Bright and Lt J. Brown, NSW.
Section 4: Southern Command, Capt JK Longmuir and Lt EM Harvey, Vic.

Later, Major DA White replaced Col Toyrer as OC unit and the unit went into camp at Liverpool. Training commenced in December 1941 with Sgts Major F Filed and P Mortimer under Lt Frazer in charge.

On 9 February 1942, advance warning was given that a section was to proceed at an early date and No 1 Section in command of Capt Vidgin, was selected to be equipped with all plant. On 17 February, 13 sappers under Lt Gibson, left Mascot by Lockheed for Port Moresby. On the same day, one sergeant and 43 sappers under Capt Vidgin departed by flying boat Corinna for Port Moresby.

On 10 March 1942, the MV Macdhui arrived at Port Moresby with the plant and 19 sappers and 2 NCOs.

The section in Port Moresby immediately went to work on the aerodrome and roads that were being damaged by enemy bombing. The Japanese had occupied Lae and Allied air transport to Bulolo had almost ceased, so it became urgent that an escape route be surveyed to evacuate the people in Bulolo.

Capt Vidgin, Lt Fox, Cpl Swanson and Sapper Cribb walked a survey route that started from Bulldog, 80 miles up the Lakakamu River, to follow the Eloa River, thence up the Owen Stanleys to a height of 8000 feet to finish at Edie Creek, a distance 58 miles. The work began in January 1943 under the command of Col Reinhold.

In April 1943, one officer and 24 other ranks of section 1 2/1st ME Company, arrived from Moresby and took control of all mechanical equipment. They worked on the road under trying conditions from extreme heat to intense cold and rain, coupled with high malaria infection, until 1 August. Then, Platoon 4, under Lt Carter, took over from Lt Anderson, who, with the sappers of the original Section 1, returned to Moresby and thence to Australia to be disbanded. Some if this group were absorbed into the reorganised 2/3 Railway Construction Company.

After Section 1 had left for New Guinea, the remainder of the unit, under Major White, entrained for the Northern Territory on 30 March 1943 and arrived in Katherine on 11 April, locating HQ there. Work commenced at once on the remaining section of the north-south road and a summary of the unit's work in the Territory follows:

  • Construction and maintenance of 35 miles (56km) of the north-south road from Katherine to Maranboy.
  • Construction of numerous internal roads in the area.
  • Complete maintenance of north-south road, Larramah to Elliott, 120 miles (193km).
  • In Darwin, sub artesian boring, dismantling Vesty's freezers.
  • Berry's Springs, construction of 7 miles (11km) of road and sub roads.

During the period June to August 1943, road work was carried out on a 24-hour basis by sections 2, 3 and 4 in 8-hour shifts, all using the same plant and motor transport.

Night work was made possible by the flood lighting of gravel pits and the road head, with flares being used to mark the centre line.

The unit returned to Kapooka for leave and after a refresher course, the unit was reorganised into platoons and entrained for Townsville. They then travelled by MV Taroona to Moresby on 4 June 1943. With its HQ at Rigo Road, the unit worked on widening bends on Rouna Pass and other roads in the area.

On 1 August 1943, Platoon 4 under Lt Carter moved to Bulldog and relieved Lt Anderson and his sappers from the original Section 1. Capt Hatcher and Lt Try also joined Platoon 4 and the platoon carried on the work on the mountain road to Edie Creek.

On 22 August, a convoy of jeeps led by a Mechanical Equipment Company bulldozer, made the trip between Wau and Bulldog. The mighty Owen Stanleys had been conquered, a feat described by General Blamey as one of the finest engineering achievements in the Pacific war zone. About 33,000 troops, natives and carriers took part in the project.

Platoon 4 went on upgrading the mountain track and the existing road down to Lae until August 1944, when, with Platoon 2 they returned by MV Ormiston to Australia to go on leave before returning to Petrie in Queensland.

On 12 August 1943, Platoon 3 under Capt RI Fraser and Lt NS Duncan, and Platoon 2 under Capt M Sweet and Lt Gilchrist, moved to Milne Bay. Platoon 3 was attached to 20th Brigade 9 Division and joined a convoy at Buna.

The brigade landed at Hopoi north of Lae on 4 September and with 7 Division occupied Lae on 16 September. Platoon 2 left Orde Bay by barge for Lae.

On 21 September 1943, Platoons 3 and 1 joined a convoy for Finschhafen and on 22 September landed with the 20th Brigade at Scarlet Beach. 'Blue' Norm Bashford was awarded a Military Medal in this action.

The platoons afforded engineer support during the capture of Satelberg and the drive to Sio where 9 Division handed over to 5 Division and returned to Australia on 13 January 1944.

The platoons were attached to 5 Division and went to Madang working on roads and the airstrip. Platoons 3 and 1 left Madang on 3 August on MV Van Heutz.

In February 1945, the unit entered camp at Petrie in Queensland and had an Motor Transport platoon under Lt J Hunter, added to its strength. On 3 March the unit left on MV Searay for Morotai to prepare roads and camp sites for 7 and 9 Divisions, which were due there in May.

In June, the unit joined a convoy for the Borneo invasion and on 10 June, Platoon 4, under Lt Griffith, landed at Brookton on the mainland. Platoon 2 under Capt E Harvey and Lt Try, and Platoon 3 under Capt NS Duncan and Lt J Hunter, landed on Labuan Island.

Organised resistance ceased on 21 June and the Japanese surrender came on 14 August 1945. The unit was redundant and came home under the points system.

The unit was a very small cog in a vast machine but its members were proud of the unit and the mates they served with.

The material for this article was written by Ern Mallan and supplied by Mrs June Morley of New South Wales

Last updated:

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Specialist mechanical unit paved the way for troops, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 18 May 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/australians-wartime/specialist-mechanical-unit-paved-way-troops
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