DURING September the field ambulances moved to the Western Desert with the Division. The convoys of trucks and ambulance cars moved out on the road through Cairo, past the Pyramids and Mena Camp, and on to the stretch of desert road leading to Alexandria. Then, turning west from Alexandria, the convoys drove along the coastal edge of the Western Desert that all were to get to know so well during the next two years.
On the third day, after moving in easy stages, trucks swung past the small station of Sidi Haneish, some 30 miles from Mersa Matruh, and halted near the little wadi that was to be the new camp area. The area into which the Division had moved was the Baggush Box, the defensive position dug and manned by the troops of the First Echelon in 1940. Wells in the small oasis of palm trees at the end of the little wadi provided a good supply of water.
The Germans and Italians were holding strongpoints in the Sidi Omar, Sollum, Capuzzo area near the border and besieging Tobruk. Another drive had to be launched against them, if possible before they were in a position to storm Tobruk, for which it was known they were preparing. The New Zealanders naturally expected to be given a role in the Western Desert again, this time as one of the foundation divisions of the Eighth Army, which took over operational command of all troops in the Western Desert at midnight on 26-27 September.
Indian troops moving out of Baggush left their dug-in EPIP tents to serve as hospital wards for the camp hospital 6 Field Ambulance was to establish. The erection of more tents, dug in and sandbagged, completed the hospital layout, and very soon the little hospital was operating.
The spot was more pleasant than any of the unit had expected. The wadi provided natural shelter and the surroundings were relieved from the monotony of flat desert by a line of white sandhills running down to the sea coast about half a mile away, and by the little oasis of green date palms where the wadi opened into a flat basin a few hundred yards below. A single, large, spreading fig tree was the only vegetation in the camp area, but in the many dips and hollows the men were able to dig cosy little holes over which to erect their bivvy tents, and with much ingenuity and improvisation there were soon many comfortable little dugout homes scattered about the area. The blue water of the Mediterranean close by was delightfully calm and refreshing, and the men spent much of their off-duty time swimming and basking on the beach.
A test of 6 Field Ambulance's organisation came early in a rush of a hundred South Africans suffering from acute food poisoning. Without warning, they descended upon the MDS one morning. Large tarpaulin shelters were erected to accommodate them, the MDS managed to provide blankets and stretchers, and all received care and attention. Within a day or so the majority returned to their units; the gift of a large number of cigarettes from the South Africans for the orderlies who attended them was much appreciated.
Conditions in the Western Desert were by no means as unpleasant as many had expected. Everyone was accommodated quite comfortably, and the weather in September and October became cooler and less trying. The men were able to keep in touch with civilisation through a special Western Desert edition of the Egyptian Daily Mail and the weekly 2 NZEF Times, or could listen in the evenings to a wireless programme or news commentary. In the large dugout canteen the men drank beer and played housie-housie, and the canteen always stocked a good selection of tinned fruit, biscuits, chocolate, and cigarettes, and many other extras. Meals were excellent and the water ration adequate.
By day swimming and football matches provided occupation and interest, but the long and rapidly cooling nights dragged slowly and lack of entertainment was keenly felt. Thoughts would often turn to home and well-lit rooms and female company, a fire and friendly chairs and all the very personal things that seemed now to belong only to the past.
Early in November patients were all evacuated from the camp hospital and 6 Field Ambulance's equipment and medical stores were checked over and brought up to war scale. It was apparent that a major move was impending.
In November 2 General Hospital, under Col Spencer, left Maadi to establish a tented hospital in the Western Desert. The site was near Mersa Matruh, at Gerawla. A few trees growing near the water point gave that lonely little station its only and considerable mark of distinction. Beside the railway ran the road, and just beyond the road, behind a well-built embankment, was the site chosen for 2 General Hospital.
Arriving at Gerawla on 4 November, everybody set to work unloading the 200 tons of equipment from the trucks, erecting bivouac tents, and preparing the site. During the initial period 60 men of the newly formed 1 NZ Casualty Clearing Station were attached to the unit and provided willing help.
Hard manual work continued for the next three weeks---in spite of the heat and the rocky ground, the men worked hard with pick and shovel to excavate sites forwards as a protection against bomb damage. Graders and steam rollers came to their aid, while gangs of native labourers worked spasmodically. The theatre block, comprising operating theatre, plaster-room, X-ray unit and resuscitation ward, was dug out to a depth of six feet, and the cookhouses and telephone exchange sunk to a depth of four to five feet. All these dugouts were roofed with corrugated iron. Many other tents were sunk to a depth of three feet. The staff dug away the ground under their bivouacs, individual rivalry producing comfortable quarters, in some of which there was standing room. Ward tents were laced and laid out, ready to erect at a moment's notice, and equipment was distributed so that the unit was soon ready to function. Deficiencies were rectified by using odds and ends of material salvaged from nearby areas.
The hospital site was laid out in the form of a cross, the administrative offices forming a small central cross and the ward tents a larger one. It was thought that the nature of the unit would be recognised from the air, especially when the roofs of the tents were painted red. By 23 November, when the sisters rejoined the unit, the digging in of tent sites and the erection of tents was completed and the hospital ready to take patients. The opening ceremony was held only 20 days after the unit first arrived. The flag. was broken out on a beautiful day, the bright sunshine, crisp air, and sparkling blue vista of the Mediterranean combining as a happy augury for the future work of the hospital. The sisters gave a tea party to mark the occasion.
Towards evening a plane passed overhead towards the railway station and appeared to be back-firing rather badly. Sisters, ever solicitous for the well-being of the Air Force, and also with their fair share of feminine curiosity, rushed outside their tents to see what. was happening, talking altogether in the way that women sometimes do, when a masculine voice of authority shouted, 'Tell those ----- girls to take cover! Jerry is machine-gunning the station! , With more haste than dignity they did as they were bid, but it was many months before they could live down the incident.
On 11 November the New Zealand Division began its approach march by motor transport to the Libyan frontier. The trucks were well loaded with gear, including some stowed away in three wooden racks (two along the sides, one along the front) suspended from the canopy frame. Most of the men's personal gear, other than bedrolls, went in these racks, the remainder being used as additional padding on the tops of boxes and panniers. A member of a. group travelling on one of the trucks, Pte F. L. Newcombe,(1) of 4 Field Ambulance, gives us the following picture of the journey:
'In the driver's seat rode our officer, commonly known as "Old Bill", then the driver, Doug. On the back in a row, lying on their backs as they couldn't sit up beneath the forward rack, were Carv, Bernie, Bill and Jack; then came Vern and "Happy" one sitting, on each side, myself in the centre. At the tail, in a jumble of leas and bodies all their own, were "Butch" "Curly", Colin, Al, "Cocoa"---derived from Bournville; while Dave, being NCO in charge, perched here, or stretched yards of body over other people's legs as the night went on. In "civvy street" we numbered ourselves the following occupations: waterside worker, schoolteacher, slaughterman, clerk, railway employees (2), warehouseman's assistant, barber. student demonstrator, upholsterer, bookkeeper, tramway linesman, fire-brigadesman, and apprentice to a maker of wooden clogs. . . .
'Of the journey that afternoon (and subsequent days and nights) one has the usual glimpses that remain, while other memories have gone. Busy military traffic, both ways; the pink, or cream or red, sand and rocks and pebbles of the desert country; the last tiny glimpse of white sand and blue sea before the Mediterranean disappeared from view; of a Field Bakery and cries for mungaree; a halt at dark for a snack; the refitting of bodies and legs into a jigsaw puzzle, containable by the truck; the first of a series of desert night rides; the bumps, bangs, and general cold discomfort; curses now and again; memories and tales of Greece cropping up all the time; someone with a remarkable repertoire of songs in which others join when they know them; at length, halts for rest, the digging of slit trenches, and fitful sleep using a steel helmet as a pillow, battle dress as bedding, and the stony ground as a bed.'
All three New Zealand field ambulances and the Mobile Surgical Unit were concentrated on 18 November, 20 miles west of Conference Cairn. One company from each field ambulance was then detached and came under command of its respective brigade. These companies moved into Libya with their brigades on the night of 18-19 November.
'That night the whole visible world around us seemed to be moving on wheels,' wrote Pte Newcombe. 'There were lines of vehicles, sometimes roaring as they sped ahead or, faltering, took some rise, or with grinding brakes descended a faintly glimpsed declivity. In this manner we crossed the Wire, dust in the air, a cloudy sky, lights of traffic colour guides, occasional bangs and flashes, these last the subject of many surmises.
'With daylight dispersal, the column's vehicles were scattered over a huge area of undulating ground as far as the eye could see. That morning the first patients were received.
'The afternoon was notable for two investigating Messerschmitts, who, like angry silver hornets, darted down from the clouds, but being met by a cone of ack-ack fire, quickly made for cloud cover and were off. Our own bombers with fighter escort passed over in numbers that seemed unreal to us with our memories of Greece---was the boot really on the other foot? At 3 p.m. the brigade group moved north about twelve miles and they lay up in laager until 1.30 p.m. on 21 November.
'As we moved forward on 21 November we suddenly came across many tank tracks and heaps of empty tins and scattered wrappers. Halting here, we got down and looked them over---tins of peach jam and tomatoes were both Italian make; cigarette packets were Austrian; chocolate wrappers came from Bordeaux, while sausages, naturally, were German.'
The main bodies of the three field ambulances, the Mobile Surgical Unit, and 4 Field Hygiene Section crossed the wire on 21 November and dispersed that night near Point 187. Next morning the medical group moved on in desert formation to a point southwest of Sidi Azeiz crossroads. West of Sidi Omar the convoy had to make a deviation to avoid enemy shellfire from a battle then in progress in that area. It was planned to set up a chain of dressing stations, with one every 25 miles, back to the casualty clearing stations near the frontier. While 5 Field Ambulance, under Lt-Col Twhigg, moved back to Point 187 to set up an MDS, 4 Field Ambulance, under Lt-Col Tennent, opened an MDS eight miles southwest of Sidi Azeiz. The Mobile Surgical Unit, under Maj Furkert, was attached to 4 MDS, and 6 Field Ambulance was in reserve.
The Mobile Surgical Unit, the only unit of its kind in the Eighth Army, was attached to the field medical units to carry out major forward surgery of all types. It carried elaborate equipment in a specially designed van, and also a valuable extra supply of water. It was fully mobile and self-contained and had a picked staff of surgeons and nursing orderlies.
The broad intention of the British offensive was the destruction of enemy forces in North Africa, and the first phase was to be the recapture of Cyrenaica. The plans of the campaign were altered as the campaign progressed. That which had at first been incidental to the plans, the relief of Tobruk, became the major objective, and 2 NZ Division was used to achieve it. The initial task was to isolate enemy forces in the Sollum-Bardia sector of the frontier defences, and to this end 5 Brigade captured Sidi Azeiz, Capuzzo, and Musaid on 21 and 22 November.
As the attack developed, 5 ADS, under Capt Edmundson,(2) which opened near Sidi Azeiz on the morning of 22 November, received numerous wounded, both New Zealand and enemy. Accommodation was grossly overtaxed and there was insufficient equipment.
The position of 4 MDS was then unknown. Welcome help was received from a British medical unit which supplied blankets, stretchers, and other medical supplies. The admission of casualties continued throughout the night and early hours of the morning, and at the first opportunity a reconnaissance successfully located the MDS. It was then possible to divert most of the steady stream of casualties to the MDS, the unit's car post at Fort Capuzzo evacuating the patients. At 6 p.m. on 23 November the ADS moved out to the Sidi Azeiz crossroads, where by seven o'clock next morning a new ADS was established at Brigade HQ. Patients continued to arrive and their evacuation was always a problem.
Eight miles south-west of Sidi Azeiz, 4 Field Ambulance set up an MDS; it dealt with 250 casualties after the engagements on 22 and 23 November. The Mobile Surgical Unit opened near 4 Field Ambulance MDS and performed 40 major operations.
Meanwhile, on 21 November, 6 Brigade was directed to move westward to assist 7 British Armoured Division at Sidi Rezegh. After capturing the Gambut airfield, the brigade pushed on westwards and, after a hard-fought battle, drove the enemy back from Point 175 on the 23rd. On the same day 4 Brigade moved westwards to link up with 6 Brigade. The Division, less 5 Brigade, which was left behind to carry out the task at the frontier, was now committed to capturing the features dominating the route to Tobruk via Ed Duda. After hard fighting Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh were captured, and on the night of 26-27 November the Division joined up with the Tobruk garrison at Ed Duda.
B Company, 4 Field Ambulance, under Maj Harrison,(3) was under the command of 4 Infantry Brigade. The company arrived at Menastir on 22 November, after the cutting of the Tobruk-Bardia road by 4 Brigade that morning, and set up an ADS to receive the first battle casualties. most of whom were Germans. The position of the MDS was not known, but the ADS was cleared by sending two truck-loads of patients to HQ NZ Division to be redirected from there. Next day the ADS was cleared by three ambulance cars before the unit moved to the Gambut airfield, which had been captured by 19 Battalion, to set up an ADS there.
On 24 November the brigade group travelled twelve miles to Zaafran, where the ADS was established and worked all night. The company had carried its patients for two days, but on 25 November three ambulance cars arrived from the 6 Field Ambulance MDS, now about four miles to the south, and the ADS was cleared. A shortage of supplies, especially water, was becoming acute. About eighty battle casualties were admitted during 26 November, and the evacuation of the patients to the MDS worked smoothly.
On the morning of 23 November, as they pulled up for breakfast near Bir Chleta, elements of 6 Brigade clashed with part of the Afrika Korps headquarters. Working from the trucks and ambulances under shellfire, the men of 6 ADS, under Capt Staveley,(4) treated many wounded, mostly German prisoners, whom they were obliged to leave with water and a Red Cross sign to be picked up by others. Moving on again in the afternoon, the ADS set up in a wadi seven miles east of Sidi Rezegh. Here again the unit was shelled, and then came under fire again when four German tanks directed an attack on nearby New Zealand units. Machine guns blazed straight through the dressing station and bullets whistled among the tents. Hurriedly the staff pulled down their tents, threw them aboard the trucks, and moved with all speed towards Brigade HQ. Here some tents were erected again to deal with the numerous casualties. The recent experience had been unsettling, but Capt Staveley managed to restore order and Father Kingan(5) assisted in organising the evacuation centre. Soon everything was back to normal. This was fortunate, for many casualties from the bitter struggle for Point 175 were admitted during the afternoon and night. The staff worked at high pressure, and in the early morning it was possible to evacuate the wounded.
The ADS then set up again in the wadi which it had hastily left the previous afternoon. But there was no rest as more wounded flooded in. Work again went on into the night. About midnight HQ and B Companies of 6 Field Ambulance arrived to set up an MDS and take over the patients, now amounting to 250. The ADS had already evacuated 200 cases, who had a long journey of 72 miles over rough desert before reaching 15 British CCS.
On the morning of 23 November, 6 Field Ambulance (less A Company) was stationed in reserve near Sidi Azeiz, about a mile and a half to the east of 4 MDS. Late that morning, after a conference between Col Kenrick, ADMS 2 NZ Division, and the CO (Lt-Col Speight), 6 Field Ambulance was instructed to move along the Trigh Capuzzo and open an MDS at some suitable spot to the east of Gambut, in which area 4 and 6 Brigades were now located. For this move the ambulance was attached to the Advanced Divisional HQ convoy, which was moving west from Sidi Azeiz that afternoon. Towards evening this convoy became involved in a brush with enemy tanks and a wide detour to the south of the Trigh Capuzzo was necessary. The convoy dispersed and halted for the night.
On the morning of 24 November tank shells began to fall amongst the ambulance vehicles, and the unit was moved a mile to the south, to the entrance of a wide wadi, where a number of casualties from the tank battle were treated. One or two abandoned vehicles were discovered here and, having been made road-worthy, were added to the unit transport.
The convoy began moving up the wadi at 2.30 p.m.; shortly afterwards 6 Field Ambulance received instructions to go to a wadi seven miles from Sidi Rezegh to take over from 6 ADS and open an MDS there. Darkness was now falling, and by the time all the ambulance vehicles had negotiated the steep track from the wadi to the escarpment. it was already dark. As there were only the vaguest notions where precisely A Company was sited, the next three hours of wandering in the desert were anxious ones. Capt Staveley's ADS was found about midnight and the MDS erected immediately. A Company's personnel were thus given a short rest from the extremely strenuous work which had occupied them for the previous few days.
During the next 24 hours 450 casualties were received at 6 MDS in a steadily increasing stream, which by the morning of 26 November had reached almost flood proportions. The operating theatre was busy continuously.
The wadi in which 6 MDS was sited was a large shallow gully. half a mile or so in length and one to two hundred yards wide, and it provided good shelter for a large dressing station. Although two convoys of wounded were evacuated---150 in trucks and 279 in a British motor ambulance convoy---at times casualties unavoidably had to be left lying around the area with no cover. The position was considerably relieved when the MDS was later joined in the wadi by almost all of the Division's medical units---the Mobile Surgical Unit on 25 November, 5 MDS and 4 Field Hygiene Section on the 26th, and 4 MDS (with 150 patients and less a detachment of its staff, under Maj R. D. King, left at Sidi Azeiz with seriously wounded) on the 27th. In making the decision to concentrate these divisional medical units, Col Kenrick took into consideration the number of wounded to he treated, and also the fact that some degree of security was afforded by the proximity of the MDS site to HQ 2 NZ Division with its small reserve of tanks. Enemy armoured columns were moving towards the Egyptian frontier, upsetting lines of supply and threatening isolated units. The plan for dressing stations every 25 miles had to be abandoned.
The combined units formed a quite considerable tented colony. Even so, the dressing station was still hard pressed, for in four days almost 1300 men, sick and wounded, New Zealand, British, South African, and German and Italian prisoners, were brought in for treatment; and after the two convoys at first evacuated, one of which narrowly escaped capture, the lines of communication back had been cut by the enemy, and the MDS was obliged to hold and care for its rapidly growing numbers of patients until the Division had forced its way through to the Tobruk garrison and established a corridor through which convoys could pass. Then the patients were to be evacuated by hospital ship from Tobruk to Alexandria. When 5 Field Ambulance arrived in the medical area it remained packed in anticipation of an early move into Tobruk, where it was to set up an MDS.
As considerable numbers of German wounded were being admitted, Lt-Col Speight arranged for the release of two German medical officers and a number of medical orderlies from the prisoner-of-war cage to assist with the treatment of German casualties. The German officers messed with the MDS officers and proved pleasant and co-operative in every way.
During 27 and 28 November remnants of some South African and British medical units joined the MDS centre. Tentage was allotted to these medical officers, and they were asked to attend to the increasing numbers of Italian wounded coming in. An attempt was made to pass the Italian wounded to the German medical officers for treatment but they politely sent them back. The New Zealanders found that the German medical orderlies avoided all contact with the Italians.
The MDS centres working constantly, day and night, had been almost vainly endeavouring to give treatment and some measure of care and attention to the wounded men who so urgently required it. The reception centre was frequently choked with waiting cases, stretchers with wounded covering the entire floor of the large tarpaulin shelter, with many more outside; men with gaping, horrible wounds and piteously smashed and broken bodies, but there was hardly a murmur from them; their courage, and endurance was amazing. Blood transfusions could be given only sparingly, but wounds were dressed and fractures splinted. Day and night in the theatre, with the thick smell of blood, ether, and antiseptic in the air, work continued. Case after case followed from the preoperative tent next door, and the little steriliser boiled continuously. The evacuation centre had spread itself into tentage of every description, shape, and size. Tents of the ambulance units, German tents, and even the crude shelter of odd pieces of canvas accommodated the many hundreds of patients, but blankets were all too few among so many for the bitterly cold nights in the desert. The nursing orderlies could not hope to give these men the care they really required. Food had to be strictly rationed and water was so scarce that Red Cross invalid foods could not be prepared for the serious cases.
At 11 a.m. on 28 November General Freyberg visited the MDS and expressed his firm belief that within a very short time access to Tobruk would be open and the wounded (then totalling 862, including 96 prisoners) would be evacuated there with all possible speed. This news, which was made known to all troops, materially improved the morale of the wounded, whose condition in many cases was becoming serious. Many men had already been subjected to exposure before they had been brought in.
About four o'clock a tank battle developed about a mile and a half away to the south. The tanks held in reserve at HQ 2 NZ Division joined in this engagement and left the Headquarters and the main dressing stations practically unprotected. The battle drew away to the south-west, and at five o'clock all appeared to be quiet. A quarter of an hour later, just as it was becoming dusk, the medical units and the guards at the adjoining prisoner-of-war cage, containing about 1500 prisoners, were suddenly and unexpectedly attacked from the south-west by German armoured forces and were all captured.
Between 24 and 27 November Rommel had counter-attacked towards the Egyptian frontier, after which his armoured forces streamed back towards Sidi Rezegh. From 28 November the enemy tried to annihilate the New Zealand Division and sever the corridor to Tobruk. During the next few days the Division bore the brunt of this attack, and after successively yielding. the key points of Point 175, Sidi Rezegh, and Belhamed, withdrew from the battle during the night 1-2 December. But these battles had also exhausted the enemy, and with the increasing pressure brought to bear on his supply lines, he began to withdraw on 5 December to a line based on Gazala.
There was heavy shelling in 4 Brigade area all day on 29 and 30 November. The enemy was ranging on a battery near 4 ADS. Several of the wounded in the ADS received fresh wounds, and eight of the staff were wounded and one killed. One of the medical orderlies, L-Cpl C. Munro,(6) carried out his duties during the shelling with complete disregard for personal safety and was later awarded the MM.
In the evening of 30 November the ADS was moved to a more sheltered locality. A convoy which had taken patients to Tobruk on the 29th returned with 300 blankets and 100 stretchers, which were urgently needed, and a further convoy of patients was sent to Tobruk that night.
At seven o'clock on the morning of 1 December there was heavy machine-gun and shell fire to the south of the ADS. A tank battle was in progress, and British tanks manuvred among the ADS vehicles. At midday the remnants of the badly mauled 6 Brigade withdrew through 4 Brigade, and the enemy was in full view on the escarpment, south-west of the ADS. Patients were collected from two 6 Brigade medical officers (Captains A. W. Sutherland and G. H. Levien), and at 5 p.m. 4 ADS held 120 patients. Eighteen trucks were supplied to carry these patients during 4 Brigade's withdrawal to Egypt that night. Across the frontier the patients were transferred to 14 British CCS at Minqar el Zannan, and the ADS then continued east and reached Baggush on 5 December.
On the nights of 29 and 30 November 6 ADS evacuated to Tobruk hospitals some 600 wounded from the battered 6 Brigade, a total which had called upon all the resources of the staff as they treated them. On the evening of the 30th, after despatching the second of its convoys of wounded to Tobruk, the ADS was obliged to move as a tank attack was expected on the part of the perimeter where it was sited. Packing the trucks, the men moved farther up the slopes of Belhamed, where they slept in the trucks for the night. At dawn next morning an enemy attack broke on the south-eastern slopes of Belhamed, right by the ADS, which was soon overrun. Two men of the ADS staff were killed and six wounded.
The captured medical men, with the wounded bringing up the rear, were marched up the main escarpment. Capt Staveley was wounded in the leg, but marched with his men. Most of them were forced to march a long distance west across the desert but were later taken in trucks to the prison camp at Benghazi. Capt Staveley, with four men of the company and six regimental stretcher-bearers, remained at a German RAP near the edge of the escarpment. Later in the day they were taken to the German hospital at El Adem.
On the afternoon of 2 December Capt Staveley was severely wounded by a shell. That night the hospital grounds were bombed and machine-gunned by the RAF, but no direct hits were made on any building used as a ward. The tide of battle was turning again in favour of the British forces, and during the night the Germans began a general evacuation. During 3 and 4 December they evacuated the wounded, leaving behind only 25 British wounded in the care of a small German medical staff, as well as Capt Staveley and five of his men. Then on 8 December all the remaining Germans left, taking seven of the wounded. The small staff of New Zealanders cared for the remaining 18 patients until relieved on 10 December by a British infantry patrol. By this time seven of the wounded had died. Later that day staff and patients were taken to Tobruk.
On 27 November, as the enemy columns streamed back from the Egyptian frontier towards Sidi Rezegh, they overwhelmed 5 Brigade HQ group which stood in their path at Sidi Azeiz. The units in the group, including 5 ADS, surrendered to the German forces. One member of the ADS staff was run over by a tank and killed and six were wounded
The German troops systematically looted all the vehicles and commandeered medical and other equipment not in actual use. Nearly all the transport was taken over and driven away. The ASC drivers were marched off to Bardia as prisoners of war, along with other troops of HQ 5 Brigade. A German medical officer, who had made contact with the ADS medical staff, granted every facility for the collection and treatment of casualties, both friend and foe alike. A German general also personally investigated the treatment of German casualties, which he found was equal to that given New Zealanders.
Two RMOs of 5 Brigade units, Captains Tyler(8) and Adams,(9) along with their RAP orderlies, joined the ADS and gave valuable assistance, besides bringing in most welcome supplies and equipment. Throughout that day and the next the ADS was unmolested, despite the passage westward of large enemy columns. By 29 November very few enemy troops remained in the locality. At 6 p.m. on the 30th a patrol of 2 NZ Divisional Cavalry arrived, and the evacuation of patients and staff was speedily organised and the convoy set off for Fort Capuzzo, where the patients were a accommodated in an underground cistern until they could be transferred to 19 Indian MDS at Sidi Omar on 2 December. The ADS reopened in the ruins of Fort Capuzzo to serve the concentrating units of 5 Brigade. The Indians supplied some equipment, some vehicles were salvaged, and three trucks obtained. On 5 December the ADS admitted 67 casualties, which were transferred to the MDS at Sidi Omar. The ADS then prepared itself for further action with 5 Brigade.
The cooks were preparing the evening meal in the grouped MDSs on 28 November when over the eastern ridge of the wadi appeared German tracked troop-carrying vehicles, from which sprang men in slate-grey uniforms and kneeboots, armed with tommy guns, rifles, and machine guns. 'They're Jerries!' echoed many as the German infantrymen ran down into the wadi and, as if to show that they, did not intend to be trifled with, fired a few bullets into the sand.
Again came the guttural commands that some had heard in Crete, and in the open area in front of the reception tent the units collected. After a period of confusion the medical staffs were allowed to return to their duties, and thereafter the Germans permitted them full control of the wounded in their care. Armed guards were posted in the dressing station and the two German doctors, previously prisoners themselves, took charge.
The German troops took up positions on the high ground flanking the wadi and opened fire in the direction of Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. British artillery replied and a number of shells fell among the tents, causing further casualties amongst the wounded. All next day, 29 November, artillery duels continued and, to make matters worse, the enemy set up batteries of field guns just on the perimeter of the medical area.
A conference of the medical officers of the captured group discussed all aspects of the position that had arisen and decided that Lt-Col Twhigg should take over full command of all the medical group so as to ensure the conservation and equitable rationing of food and water. The work of all the medical personnel was coordinated, duties allocated, and the sanitation of the area attended to. In all, 1800 men were under medical control, of whom over a thousand were patients.
They were prisoners of war---perhaps to drag out months and years in a German or Italian prison camp---but there was yet hope that the dressing station might be recaptured. All humour had not deserted the men, for many smiled amusedly when a cherub-faced, flaxen-haired German boy armed with a rifle stepped into the reception tent as a guard, and to his obvious embarrassment was approached by two orderlies, who took his rifle and trenching tool from him and examined them with affected interest and curiosity, fingering the badges and ammunition pouches of his uniform and equipment as if he were a show exhibit.
Work continued in the centres in redressing wounds and treating German wounded brought in by the units' ambulances and in staff cars. Most of the trucks had been immobilised by their drivers, who had removed the rotor arms to deprive the Germans of their use. Taking such of the transport as they could still use, the two German doctors left with their wounded on 29 November, promising to return with the vehicles and with supplies. They had been courteous and considerate and had kept their troops and artillery away from the Red Cross area. With their departure came the Italians, who were neither as polite nor as considerate, and when in the late afternoon the Germans were reinforced by motorised troops of the Ariete Division, the Italians set up gun positions on the ridges of the wadi and showed little respect for the Red Cross area of the dressing station, using it where convenient as shelter. Columns of Italian transport passed through the lines westwards, and during the night the clatter and rumble of mechanised vehicles continued around the southern end of the wadi. The Germans moved on westwards, leaving the Italians in occupation of the area.
On both 29 and 30 November artillery duelling had continued between the enemy guns on the ridges of the wadi just above the MDS and our own artillery, whose accurate shooting scattered columns of Italian transport in all directions and sent them rushing back through the dressing station and over the ridge on the far side. Any respect by the Italians for the medical area disappeared with their courage. They drove ammunition carriers and trucks between the tents and over slit trenches, and disappeared in dust. These scenes did not lack an interested audience. Men hobbled from uneasy beds to see the gala performance. This was an excellent tonic for jaded spirits, and orderlies, too, left their work to watch. Each telling shell was cheered, each disappearing truck hooted. 'Give 'em another one, boys!' someone called, as a particularly well-placed shell added more confusion. The wounded Italians were brought to the MDS for treatment, and work went on to the occasional unnerving whine of pieces of shrapnel falling close.
It was most unlikely that the Italians would be able to evacuate the large numbers of men in the wadi immediately for there were over 1000 patients in all, many of them seriously wounded stretcher cases, and some 600 men of the medical units. The Italians did not have the transport nor were their lines of communication secure. Some effort was made to pool and assess the food and water supplies held by the units and to conserve as much as possible by strict rationing, for if supplies could not be replenished soon the position would be grave; the water situation was already serious enough to cause alarm, particularly as the Italian MO who had assumed command of the area appeared somewhat unconcerned when the position was explained to him and the urgency of obtaining further supplies stressed.
Two light meals became the daily food ration and barely half a mug of tea or cocoa the daily fluid supply for all, both patients and staff alike, except, of course, for the two Italian officers, who did not restrict themselves in any way and demanded several cups of tea with each meal in the officers' mess they had set up. With even this bare minimum the supply of water would last only four days, so a large ground sign WATER was made out of sheets and displayed on the eastern slope of the wadi in the hope of attracting the attention of the RAF.
About midday on 30 November the artillery fire was intensified. On the north-western ridge was an emplacement of some fourteen guns no more than 150 yards from the dressing station's Red Cross flag, and immediately above the Mobile Surgical Unit's tents 30 enemy tanks were drawn up. British field artillery was directed on these positions and, although their shooting was amazingly accurate, a number of shells fell in the hospital area and caused casualties. The shelling continued through the afternoon and created consternation among the Italians, but in the dressing station the constant scream and burst of exploding shells and the whine of shrapnel around and amongst the tents was unnerving. Some of the men retired to slit trenches while others attempted to absorb themselves in some occupation, but for the many patients there was little cover and they were largely exposed and helpless. A shell fell in .one of the MDS tents, killing a patient and wounding three others, while a direct hit on one of the Mobile Surgical Unit's tents killed an orderly and five patients, and in the 4 Field Ambulance area the shelling caused further casualties among staff and patients. S-Sgt J. C. Henley's(10) contempt for danger during the afternoon, and his work organising the reception and evacuation of wounded from the operating theatre, materially assisted the patients and inspired confidence in his men and was recognised by the award of the DCM.
In the night the culmination came with heavy shell and mortar fire when counter-attacking South African troops got to within 2000 yards of the MDS but were forced back. The blast and concussion of shells as they exploded close around the slopes or among the MDS tents was followed by the whine of flying shrapnel, which cut through the tent canvas, clanged against the metal of trucks, and sometimes smashed bottles on the tables in the dressing Centres. Men hugged the ground, lay in the cover of slit trenches or, constantly ducking and diving, endeavoured to continue work or to provide cover for the many wounded and helpless who could not move themselves. A fragment from a shell landing alongside an operating theatre smashed the tent pole and slightly wounded a patient on the table.
Close above, on the eastern slopes, a big gun firing over the MDS with a harsh, nerve-shattering blast brought answering fire from the British guns, whose ranging shots frequently landed among the tents. The gun was ultimately silenced, but a shell had landed in a tent of Italian wounded, a direct hit. Many were killed and several wounded. In the reception tent where the wounded were taken for treatment, a man with his leg blown off above the knee, a ghastly sight, was moaning and crying pitifully, 'La guerra, la guerra! Male!'
In the morning, shelling and thirst again; all day the intermittent shelling kept up, and the continued scream and bursting of shells was proving most trying for the patients. Water, too, was their cry. but their requests could not be satisfied. Towards evening a large German water truck arrived, but the meagre allowance permitted the dressing station, and that only after prolonged and difficult argument, only slightly relieved the situation. That night large diesel trucks collected the Italian wounded and took them to Derna, together with a good quantity of medical supplies demanded from 6 Field Ambulance.
Italian combatant officers arrived at the dressing station next morning. Some twenty cockaded and pompous Bersaglieri, with rifles slung over their shoulders, trotted down the western escarpment at the double and were halted by their sergeant, who reported to the captain. Orders were then given for all officers and men to be paraded at once. While everybody was assembling with a precautionary haversack of minimum kit, the Italians systematically looted the whole area; bivvies and tents were ransacked and any personal gear of value taken. They attempted even to take watches from the men, but with little success, and from the QM tent they took a considerable quantity of the remaining meagre supply of rations. After a few minutes orderlies and wounded brushed the guards aside and returned to their quarters.
In the afternoon all ranks not actually engaged in the wards were paraded again and were detailed into groups for embussing in a convoy of motor vehicles, which had assembled by this time. In their selection the Italians tended to allow the medical staffs who had been looking after Italian wounded to remain behind. Thus the eleven South African medical officers and other ranks of their field ambulance, as well as two attached British officers, were retained. Permission was given by the Italian commandant for all the staff of the Mobile Surgical Unit to return to their area. The senior New Zealand medical officers strongly opposed the impending move on the grounds that they were being taken away from the wounded under their care, but on being informed that the object was to set up a reception hospital in the back areas could offer no further resistance. The men of 4 Field Ambulance were fortunate that there was not enough transport to take them away.
The medical staff detailed for removal, as well as some of the walking wounded, were hurried up the slope onto the south-western escarpment, where large diesel trucks were drawn up, and were taken away towards Derna and Benghazi.
The medical group taken away as prisoners of war (and not to a hospital unit as they had been led to believe) comprised 14 medical officers, including Lt-Cols Tennent, Twhigg, and Speight, and 182 other ranks.(11)
On the evening of 2 December the medical officers remaining in the medical centre reorganised their administration, with Major Furkert in charge. Lt-Col G. Dittmer, CO 28 (Maori) Battalion, a patient, led 38 patients and staff, including Capt A. L. Lomas(12) of 4 Field Ambulance, in an escape by truck that night, and they crossed the frontier wire at dawn next morning. Another group of 23 led by another patient, Lt-Col H. K. Kippenberger, CO 20 Battalion, and including Maj S. L. Wilson,(13) Maj A. A. Lovell, and Capt D. M. Jack,(14) similarly escaped in daylight on 4 December.
Around the MDS area the shelling had quietened down; the gunfire heard for a while in the distance had diminished and receded until finally all was quiet. For two days the guns had been silent. Uncomfortable as the shelling was, it had been a reassurance of friendly forces near at hand, and when it died in the distance hopes faded too. An Italian war correspondent retailed the news according to Radio Roma: the British offensive had failed and all their forces had been surrounded. It had a possible ring of truth. For two days hopes had been high that the dressing station would be recaptured and returned to safety, but as day followed day hope gave way to despair. Men continued their duties as a routine, doing what little was now possible for the wounded, on whom the continued strain of suffering, thirst, and inadequate attention through lack of facilities was beginning to tell. The conditions tried even the strongest and fittest of the patients, but their pluck, calmness, and fortitude brought admiration from all who were in contact with them.
Patients began to die from dehydration, in spite of the distribution of extra water from the shares of those who had been taken away. Several patients died of the cold at night as supplies of kerosene for the heaters failed. In the Mobile Surgical Unit water was used and re-used in Major Furkert's operating theatre after being cleansed by a German filter. The lack of water in the theatre. where operations were steadily carried on, made conditions seem as primitive as those of the Crimea. The escape of the entire Mobile Surgical Unit staff, which would have been practicable, was considered but was abandoned because of the plight of the patients.
Up on the eastern slopes Father Forsman(15) conducted Mass, while later Padre Underhill(16) held an informal song service to which many gathered from the. dressing station; the spirit of that little service was one of devotion and earnest prayer.
Though the position was grave, many times a lighter side forced its way through the heaviness of despair and men were quick to seize and play upon the humour in many a situation. One of the staff-sergeants, who had dared to argue with an Italian officer, was on his way to the shooting gallery when, seeing Lt-Col Speight, he yelled loudly to attract the Colonel's attention. 'He's going to shoot me sir!' said the staff-sergeant. 'That's tough luck,' said the Colonel. 'I wonder if we can talk him out of it.' Whereupon Father Forsman was called on to reason with the Italian and save yet another delicate situation.
The Italian troops caused many an amusing situation by their readiness to scamper down into the dressing station when shelling or the strafing Hurricanes became too hot for them, and attempts to keep the combatant troops out of the Red Cross area frequently gave rise to some doubt as to *who were captors and who captives. The sight of Freddy Kennedy, the perfectly harmless cookhouse fatigue, chasing away an Italian on a motor cycle complete with light machine gun, was a little incongruous. It was a favourite pastime to rush up the slope to meet the Italians as they retreated into the wadi and tell them as forcibly as possible to get to hell out of it. Whereupon some would feign sickness or injury.
In spite of Italian promises, no water or food reached the captured medical centre by 5 December and the patients were desperate, some having swollen and cracked tongues. After the evening meal that day the quartermaster announced that there were only 30 gallons of water left for a total of 860 patients and staff. As this was not enough to give all the patients even their limited ration the next day, the Italians decided to move everyone from the wadi as soon as they could bring in enough vehicles.
That night there was much activity among the Italians, but the New Zealanders took little notice of it as British planes had been bombing and strafing each night and the Italians would hastily change their positions. However, next morning there was no sign of the Italians, and at eight o'clock some British troops of 7 Armoured Division drove over the western escarpment and those in 'Shellfire Wadi' were relieved.
Nobody became excited as everything happened so quietly, and very soon there was plenty of work for the medical orderlies to do. Transport was called for by radio, and during the morning 19 three-ton trucks and three ambulance cars arrived. These, together with three or four of the remaining New Zealand trucks in tow, were loaded with about 510 wounded and 210 medical personnel and moved off to the south in the middle of the afternoon. The most serious cases, the patients of the Mobile Surgical Unit, were held back for the ambulance convoy which arrived later. By six o'clock this convoy also headed back to the Egyptian border with all patients and staff on board, and Shellfire Wadi, which had seen so much feverish activity, was deserted.
The convoys reached the chain of medical services, British and South African, near the frontier wire, and the patients next day received full medical care from 7 South African CCS and 14 British CCS. The remnants of the medical group returned to Baggush, which they had left so full of hope only four weeks before.
The 16 volunteers of 4 Field Ambulance and two men of the Mobile Surgical Unit, under command of Maj R. D. King, who had remained to care for the seriously wounded when 4 MDS and the Mobile Surgical Unit left the site near Sidi Azeiz, observed German tanks and other enemy vehicles approaching at 8 p.m. on 25 November, but this column stopped while still some distance off. At first light next morning enemy tanks had a short engagement with British armour about five miles west of the area, and the British column withdrew.
The story of the captured dressing station is told by one of the medical orderlies, L-Cpl D. Waight:(17)
'All day long German convoys passed by our MDS. Some vehicles stopped and officers and men strode in to take a look around. In the afternoon General Rommel himself visited us. Before he left he gave orders that we were to be left alone and were to carry on with our work. German wounded were brought in, and before the end of the day we had one ward with nothing but Germans in it, some of them in a pitiful condition. One of our chaps took over this ward by himself.
'At sunset a large convoy of RASC ambulances and trucks came over the horizon, bringing with them 275 wounded. [These had come from 6 MDS.] They had not been molested and had no idea that we had been captured. By using all available primus stoves (in the camp and on ambulances) we were able to give a cup of tea to all the patients in the convoy; but we could only give them bully and biscuits to eat. Some of the worst cases were attended to in our operating theatre, and the minor walking wounded were accommodated wherever it was possible to find room for them---some with the Germans, others in the morgue. The stretcher cases remained in the ambulances. There were no guards on our camp, and the convoy pulled out the following morning (27th). It arrived safely at a South African CCS.
'The same morning a party of Italian motorised infantry arrived. They strutted around like bantam roosters, chattered a lot, and generally made nuisances of themselves. They would have perhaps gone further but for the fact that Maj King was able to make them understand that we were to be left alone, on the instructions of General Rommel, who had visited us the previous day. This was quite enough. The Italians left in undignified haste.
'It took three of us all morning to redress the wounds of the Germans. Many of them were worse than they should have been owing to lack of proper primary treatment. One chap had to be literally peeled off his stretcher. He was stuck to it by his own blood. . . .
'In addition to our MDS with its three canvas wards, operating theatre, and odd tents, there was a ward left by the Mobile Surgical Unit. This was unfortunately rather isolated from our own camp. In it were 28 mixed post-operative surgical cases, all of them fairly serious. One corporal and one orderly of the Mobile Surgical Unit looked after them. They even did the cooking and the burials. This ward greatly increased the work of the Major, the only MO in the camp. He was doing a great deal of operating, many of the more serious dressings, interviewing enemy visitors, supervising the whole camp, and generally keeping everyone cheerful. We had 150 patients and there were only 18 of us. The Major seemed to work without any rest.
'On the third day, just as we were starting the morning dressings, four armoured cars came over the horizon. A British voice with a typical oath ordered us to put our hands in the air. With Bren, anti-tank, and .303 guns pointing at us we did not hesitate. As there were quite a number of German and Italian wounded strolling about, the fact that we were British took quite a lot of explaining. The armoured cars were on patrol and could do little for us. Shortly after, a New Zealand Bren-carrier patrol called in. The day passed quietly. Everyone was hopeful and wonderfully cheerful.
'Towards evening the RASC ambulance convoy returned. It brought food, water, petrol, and cigarettes. What a feed we had that night! It seemed like Christmas. Throughout the night the whole staff worked to prepare patients for the evacuation. Fresh dressings were given to all cases. Anxious moments, when enemy tanks passed close to the area, held everyone in suspense, as the number of extra vehicles must have been obvious. However, closer investigation was not made. Next morning all the stretcher cases were loaded on the ambulances before breakfast and drivers fed their patients. After breakfast all hands helped pull down the tents, which were loaded on to the trucks together with all the equipment. The convoy left the area quietly in the morning, although enemy vehicles were still visible in the east. Then followed an uneventful trip of six hours to a South African CCS, where we handed over our 123 patients. These included 47 German and Italian prisoners.'
Maj King was awarded a well-deserved DSO for his services in this campaign.
At a 13 Corps medical conference on 5 December at Conference Cairn, Maj King was asked to form an MDS for 5 Brigade with the composite group he had gathered about him. Maj Wilson and Capt Jack joined him when Lt-Col Kippenberger's party reached Conference Cairn, and when the new 5 MDS went to Tobruk with 5 Brigade it received some equipment and reinforcements from men of 5 and 6 Field Ambulances who had been released from enemy hands. Two British medical officers were also posted to the unit.
Actions early in December had led to the complete relief of Tobruk. The enemy then retreated towards Gazala, where he made a stand for five days before he was once more driven into retreat. For this action 5 Brigade came under 13 Corps, along with 4 Indian Division and British and Polish units. Casualties received through 5 ADS, under Capt Edmundson, were sent on by 5 MDS to Tobruk after treatment. On 14 December some of the staff of the ADS were wounded in dive-bombing attacks. The MDS was highly praised by DDMS 13 Corps for its work, and Maj Wilson continued to carry out surgery of the highest class, as he had done in the Mobile Surgical Unit.
After this short action all the New Zealanders returned to Baggush, where the remnants of the medical units did their best to provide medical services for their battered brigades.
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At half past five on the afternoon of 5 December the SS Chakdina left Tobruk harbour carrying 380 wounded, of whom 97 were New Zealanders. The Chakdina was not a hospital ship, but her use had been arranged by the British ADMS in Tobruk. In addition to the wounded she had on board some officers and men who were going to Baggush to resume duties with HQ 2 NZ Division. Among them were Maj M. Williams, OC 4 Field Hygiene Section, WO 1 R. W. Cawthorn,(18) and two men of ADMS's staff. Just after nine o'clock an enemy plane released a torpedo, which exploded in one of the after holds of the Chakdina. She sank within three and a half minutes. There was very little chance of escape, except for those who were unwounded or only lightly wounded, and who were in a favourable position at the time. Only 18 of the New Zealand wounded were picked up by the destroyer HMS Farndale, which also rescued all except one of the Divisional Headquarters medical staff. The survivors reached Alexandria on 7 December, and the casualties were admitted to the detachment of 3 NZ General Hospital there. The sinking of the Chakdina was the only major misfortune in the evacuation of New Zealand wounded during the war.
For the field medical units the campaign had been most eventful ---too eventful. All of them except 4 ADS were at one time or .another in the hands of the enemy, and a large proportion of the .staffs of 5 and 6 Field Ambulances and 4 Field Hygiene Section, and some of 4 Field Ambulance, were taken away as prisoners. In .addition, some were killed and wounded. Coming on top of the losses in Greece and Crete earlier in the year, this was a sorry blow.
But the medical units did their utmost under difficult conditions for the numerous wounded---New Zealand, British, South African, German, and Italian. During the campaign 4 ADS admitted 448 casualties, and a considerable amount of surgery had to be undertaken by Maj Harrison because of the isolation of the unit. 5 ADS admitted 700 patients, and although the staff did not remain prisoners, the unit lost all its transport and much of its equipment. 6 ADS also lost equipment and transport, and had a most strenuous time treating its 1150 wounded and evacuating them when there was no stable medical chain. For their good work with 6 ADS Capt Staveley was awarded the MC and S-Sgt Nicholas(19) the MM. Many of the wounded were admitted in turn to the MDSs, although a number were sent through British, South African, and Indian units to British hospitals before they were later transferred to the New Zealand hospitals. Apart from their losses of staff, the MDSs also lost equipment and vehicles. The Mobile Surgical Unit suffered less than the other units in this respect.
Baggush was not the pleasant and friendly spot the medical units had left a few weeks before. It was bitterly cold, and sudden rainstorms created a rushing torrent in the bottom of the wadi and all but flooded out the camp. Still fatigued, the men had looked for some good food, rest, and comfort, but their reward was work, the rainstorms, and unappetising meals. Their experiences in the desert had shaken their confidence, they had lost many of their friends, and the news of the entry of Japan into the war with its consequent threat to New Zealand came as a final blow. Dark clouds seemed to be about them. However, with leave to Cairo and Palestine, Christmas festivities, and a gradual return to full health and fitness, confidence returned and spirits regained their buoyancy.
The erection of a camp hospital was hampered by driving rain and a high wind, against which the men had to battle to hold down tents, but soon the hospital was operating. Many had managed to make model little dugout homes, and they turned their attention then to the many parcels, Patriotic parcels, and Christmas cakes which had arrived in one huge consignment. The next few weeks they spent eating their way through the contents of the parcels and avoiding what little work there was.
At Christmas there was beer in almost unlimited quantities. It flowed freely but the celebrations, though hearty, were kept within the bounds of propriety. Stuffed turkey and Christmas pudding were served by the officers and sergeants, and with cigarettes, chocolate, and many extras it was a fine spread. But it was the New Year celebrations that provided an outlet for suppressed feelings and emotions. With the return of 5 Brigade from the Desert the Division was once more reunited, and on New Year's Eve it let itself go with a. spontaneous outburst. For almost an hour before midnight and for some considerable time after, the sky was lit with a fireworks display of flares, tracer bullets, and multi-coloured flashes. Machine guns, anti-tank guns, and 25-pounders were fired overhead and out to sea, Italian grenades were tossed about, and flares fired into the air as the New Zealanders gave free rein to their pent-up feelings. A British unit nearby 'stood-to' most of the night, thinking the celebration a seaborne invasion.
The first convoy of patients (57 in all) was admitted to 2 General Hospital at Gerawla on 27 November, followed by others, the largest being 174 on 11 December. Only very ill patients were held for any length of time, the others being transferred back to Base hospitals as quickly as possible. Consequently, though the hospital was seldom filled to capacity, at times duties were very heavy, as nursing very sick men under the primitive conditions of a canvas desert hospital was no light matter.
Many of the casualties from the Western Desert were in a worse condition than those from Greece and Crete. Sick and badly wounded, many had been driven miles across the desert, sometimes in the backs of trucks, with German tanks and planes pursuing them. On arrival they were travel-stained and weary, some weak from loss of blood, and all very much in need of nursing care.
Later came patients from Bardia. These men had been taken prisoner at Sidi Azeiz on 27 November and had been prisoners for five weeks when Bardia was recaptured by the South Africans early in January. As was to he expected after so many weeks of privation, all had drawn and emaciated faces, which their long beards and motley garb only emphasised. One Maori soldier was resplendent in a complete Italian Marine's uniform, while most patients wore German canvas lace-up boots. Nearly all were suffering from enteric disorders. But once again rest, good food, and nursing care soon restored most to physical and mental health.
In its four months at Gerawla 2 General Hospital admitted 3266 patients, including battle casualties. New Zealand patients numbered 990. The hospital experienced numerous dust-storms and occasional rain, but it was never subjected to air attack. At Gerawla the unit felt that, from nothing, it had built up something really worth while. The men of the unit, of whom only two or three were trained tradesmen, did a great deal of construction work as carpenters, tinsmiths, plumbers, electricians, and engine-hands. Improvements were still being made up to the time the movement order to leave for Palestine was received. The unit left by train at the end of March.
In November 1941 it was decided to establish a small hospital at Alexandria to deal with the casualties coming by ship from the desert before they were sent on to our Base hospitals at Cairo. Accordingly, a small staff of five officers, 25 sisters, and 32 other ranks from 3 General Hospital was sent to Alexandria on 23 November. Lt-Col Button was in charge and Miss Hennessy(20) was Matron. Their destination was the Anglo-Swiss civilian hospital, where two wings were taken over along with a large pavilion in the grounds. The sisters found it a joy to be working once more in a building with normal hospital conveniences.
Previously the wards taken over had housed German prisoner patients, and barbed wire still fenced in the balconies and some of the windows. The first few days were spent in the usual scrubbing and cleaning of wards and living quarters, unpacking equipment, and setting up 200 beds. On 4 December the first patients (41) arrived by ship from Tobruk; the number of patients grew to 171 by the end of the month.
The hospital functioned till the end of April 1942 and admitted 626 patients. The main excitement for its staff was an air raid almost every night, sometimes twice on bright moonlit nights. A large Egyptian civilian prison was situated across the road from the hospital, and it was equipped with an air-raid siren which none could ever fail to hear. Its blare could be almost as alarming as a raid. Regularly, about 11 p.m. or midnight, it would sound, and after about ten minutes the anti-aircraft guns would start firing as the planes passed overhead. Although the docks which were the bombers' targets were a mile away, the planes seemed to start to dive farther back and would scream overhead quite low. Then the sisters, donning their tin hats, would take their rugs and cushions down to the cellars to sleep till the raids were over. Occasionally an attempt was made to bomb the railway bridge not far away, but fortunately there was never any damage done in the hospital area. German propaganda leaflets were found in the area after one raid, some of the sisters rescuing a few as souvenirs.
As 1941 was drawing to a close the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour turned the attention of all from the Western Desert to the Pacific, and radio communiqués were listened to with more marked interest. Another year of warfare had passed, and as yet victory seemed far off.
In all the New Zealand hospitals in the Middle East every effort had been made by the staffs to ensure that the patients bad a happy Christmas. All the usual Christmas activities were carried through with enthusiasm, and in such troublous times it was doubtful if a happier atmosphere could have prevailed anywhere than that in the New Zealand hospitals in Egypt on Christmas Day, 1941.
It was at Christmas time that 2 General Hospital's unit canteen more than came into its own. The provident Col Spencer had initiated the venture by purchasing stores on the way to the Desert. The necessity for extras drove a committee into energetic action. Stocks were bought from the EFI bulk store eight miles away. On the hot, dry, dusty days when they worked long hours to establish the hospital at Gerawla, the men looked forward to a bottle of beer or kazouza, a tin of fruit or a cake of chocolate, at the end of the day.
The popularity of the canteen spread widely across the and sands of the Western Desert. Nearby units availed themselves of its varied facilities land even passing convoys, encamped nearby for the night, sought it out in the darkness. Business increased and stocks grew in variety and dimensions. For Christmas its buyers, went to Alexandria and Cairo to bring back canned beer, stuffed olives, mixed nuts, paper streamers, and many other extras. Besides, this, the canteen out of its profits added substantially to the Christmas larder, providing extras in the messes during the months that followed, as well as subscribing to unit entertainments.
In January 1942 the New Zealand Hospital Ship Maunganui came to Egypt on her fourth voyage to carry home many of the wounded from the Libyan campaign. First she disembarked the first of the voluntary aids to go to Egypt, as well as a medical reinforcement---the only one for the next year as men were required in New Zealand and the Pacific during the months of crisis.
The patients began to go on board at six o'clock on the morning of 26 January. Because of the large number of stretcher cases, the 371 patients were not all on board until 11 a.m., but the ship put to sea fifteen minutes later. This was the heaviest load of serious cases ever carried in the Maunganui in her 17 voyages as a hospital ship. In all, there were 310 surgical cases, 287 of them battle casualties, and many were gravely ill on embarkation.
On this voyage Col Murray, OC Troops, took over supervision of the RAP and the care of the isolation block, thus relieving the other medical officers. In the theatre Majors Bridge(21) and Fulton(22) began the changing of plasters, whilst blood transfusions were given to the more serious cases. Blood donors were readily found among officers and other ranks of the staff and members of the Merchant Navy. Sisters and orderlies worked twelve to sixteen hours daily, and the limited number of ambulant patients who were fit for light duty willingly helped with ward fatigues.
On 29 January two men died, and at dawn the next day they were buried at sea with military honours. As the ship entered Colombo on 6 February a third patient died; he was buried at Colombo later that day.
At Colombo leave was given to all patients fit to go ashore, and the Australian Red Cross unit, as usual, did everything possible for their comfort and entertainment; the staff had leave in turn and everyone benefited from a brief visit ashore.
The ship sailed at 6 p.m. Because of a considerable swell which lasted for several days, ports on the weather side had to be secured. The weather was hot and humid and the wards became less comfortable, the necessity for changing more plasters becoming increasingly apparent. Each day saw more patients able to go up on deck, and they were loud in their praises of everything in the Maunganui, the nursing attention and the food particularly earning favourable comment.
The weather became cooler and the swell was lost as the ship approached Fremantle, eventually tieing up at a quarter to two on the afternoon of 16 February. Leave was again given from three o'clock to seven to the fitter patients, and a special train was at. their disposal to visit Perth. Leave, as duties permitted, was given to the staff up to midnight.
The port was cleared at 6.30 a.m. on the 17th. The weather was cold but fine across the Bight, battle dress being worn. Land was next seen on the 22nd as the ship passed south of Tasmania. At this stage of the voyage Major Bridge and the theatre staff were still engaged changing plasters, and it was realised that all of this work could not be completed before disembarkation in New Zealand. The weather was warmer and the sea remained calm for the Tasman crossing, and Wellington was reached at 10.45 a.m. on 26 February. The patients were then disembarked into the Casualty Clearing Hospital on Aotea Quay.
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