IT was cold and miserable in that January of 1942 for field units living in holes in the desert at Baggush and visited frequently by driving rainstorms and violent sandstorms that swept into tents, bivvies, or dugouts, coating everything with thick sand. The men were not sorry when, towards the end of the month, they climbed into goods waggons at the Sidi Haneish station and set out on a somewhat long-drawn-out journey for Maadi Camp.
At Maadi, in tents under the shadow of the escarpment, the units were able for a brief month to enjoy the amenities of a base camp, Cairo leave, and contact once again with civilisation. Running water, comfortable tented quarters, and a mess tent with tables and forms were some of the small things that made so much difference to camp life, while the new Lowry Hut, with its excellent appointments, facilities for writing and recreation, refreshment counter, and many entertainments, together with YMCAs, Naafi canteens, and Shafto's and Pall Mall cinemas provided almost all that the men could expect to make Army life in Egypt bearable.
With the arrival of further reinforcements bringing the units almost up to strength, some reorganisation was undertaken and a light training programme embarked upon. Route marches and routine training with medical equipment occupied but a small part of the day, however, and as leave was on a fairly generous scale some of the men were able to take advantage of specially conducted tours and visit many places of interest, not only around Cairo but at Luxor, Thebes, and Aswan in Upper Egypt.
When the Maunganui arrived in the Middle East in January she brought the first detachment of the NZ WWSA (Hospital Division) ---our VADs. In charge of them was Miss M. King.(1) Three weeks later the second detachment arrived on the Oranje.
In October 1941 two hundred girls had been selected by a board in Wellington and enlisted in the Army through the Women's War Service Auxiliary (WWSA), which later became the New Zealand Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, with a consequent change in the appellation of its members from 'Wassies' to 'Waacs'. The nursing section was drawn from the voluntary aids of the Order of St. John and the New Zealand Red Cross Society, and its members were required to have had a minimum of 60 hours' hospital training, but many of them had given voluntary service over a period of many months in various emergency medical centres. The members of the clerical section had to be able to write shorthand at 130 words a minute and type at 75 words a minute. As only 14 clerks were chosen competition was keen.
Going into Trentham Camp in December 1941, the girls had been broken in to a new life as privates in the New Zealand Army, and had then sailed on the Maunganui on 22 December, some of them disembarking in Australia to follow to the Middle East in the Oranje.
The sisters welcomed the VADs to the hospitals in Egypt. The future alone was to tell what a help these girls from New Zealand were to be. They worked with a will and soon learned to co-operate with the orderlies in their work and to give assistance to the sisters. They took the ups and downs of Army life cheerfully and with little complaint.
Hospital life was new and interesting to them. The patients found them jolly companions and cheery nurses; they gave much of their spare time to the entertainment of the patients, and this in itself was a big help to the sisters in their endeavour to make hospital life as happy as possible for the men. With time their work became invaluable, many becoming capable and responsible nurses. They were grand girls, and none appreciated them and their work more than did the sisters of the NZANS.
The clerical section of the WAAC was absorbed immediately, particularly in the hospital offices, where the girls replaced men who were sent to field units. These girls were also employed as shorthand typists and clerks in the stewards' stores, company offices, QM stores, and X-ray departments of the hospitals. To most of them the medical terms were strange, but with the aid of medical dictionaries and assistance from the members of the NZMC, they soon became conversant with the new vocabulary.
The members of the nursing section, comprising the majority of the VADs, were posted to the various wards as assistants. Their duties consisted of making beds, taking temperatures, washing patients, serving meals, sweeping and cleaning, and helping in the kitchen. The working hours were considered good---ten hours a day, with a half day free every fourth day and a full day off every ninth. All members of the WAAC realised that their employment in the Middle East was an experiment, and they were most anxious that the experiment should be successful. The length of their service abroad and the increased responsibility of their duties were proofs of their success.
In January 1942 the first of the New Zealand Rest Homes was opened. This was a rest home for New Zealand sisters and nurses, established in a delightful house in Garden City, a suburb of Cairo. There was a pleasant garden at the back of the house, and after the necessary renovations were made all was ready to receive guests.
In December Charge Sister E. M. Sutherland(2) gave a reception to enable officials to see the Rest Home before its official opening. Much had been accomplished and everyone was well pleased with the transformation. From that time onward the Rest Home was very much appreciated by sisters and nurses on convalescent leave, bi-annual leave, or even on a night off. Cool, clean, and quiet, it was an ideal place for a rest after sickness, but near enough to the city when one wanted to go into town.
Shortly afterwards, another Rest Home for officers was opened nearby. It offered the same comfortable hospitality to officers of the Division during convalescence. All the time the Division was in the Middle East the Rest Homes continued to carry on very successfully, giving unspectacular but greatly appreciated service.
The official opening of these two Rest Homes (Nos. 1 and 3) was performed by Lady Lampson, wife of the British Ambassador to Egypt, on 27 January 1942. Opportunity was taken at this function to extend hospitality and return thanks to the many people of Cairo, Maadi, and surrounding districts who had assisted to entertain patients in hospital and the troops. These people, who made all welcome to their lovely homes and gardens or worked unstintingly in clubs and canteens, as well as visiting the hospitals, will never know how much good they did for the men of the British forces in Egypt.
Another Rest Home (No. 2) for other ranks, with Maj Kirker(3) in command, was opened in Alexandria by Lady Freyberg on 27 February. Seriously sick or wounded patients who were not fit enough to go to the Convalescent Depot were sent there. To the patients it seemed the nearest thing to a home away from home they could find: linen on the beds, tablecloths and china in the mess, little discipline, much freedom, and a long sea-front with excellent bathing facilities to explore. One hundred patients could be accommodated at this Rest Home, though the term 'patient' was not encouraged. Rather they seemed to the Charge Sister her 'family' under medical supervision and orders.
On 27 February the Mobile Surgical Unit was disbanded and its personnel, transport, and most of the equipment absorbed into 1 NZ Casualty Clearing Station, which then was officially constituted as a unit of 2 NZEF, with an establishment of 106 personnel. Lt-Col P. A. Ardagh was appointed Commanding Officer.
During these days at Q area, Maadi Camp, the new unit, like an infant struggling eagerly to find its feet, had a busy time experimenting to find the quickest and most efficient way of carrying out its duties. The various departments were staffed, surgical and ordnance equipment checked, and training in the layout of the wards and other essential sections of the unit carried out. Much more practice in erecting tents was required when the original issue of EPIP tents was replaced by a type known as 'Hospital Pattern, extending'. This was a much larger type of tent, and when extended to the requisite ward size required about twenty men to erect it. Once it was up, however, and 'tied off', two or three could complete it in a very short time.
During this period the unit was divided into light and heavy sections. In the former, most of the original MSU personnel were retained, since they were already fully experienced in the work that would be required in the future mobile role and function of such a section.
Transport for the unit still remained a problem, there being sufficient only for the Light Section's equipment. The vehicle list comprised seven 3-ton lorries and a 15-cwt. truck, and to these was added an X-ray laboratory van and a trailer which had been specially constructed to carry the electrical plant. As the shortage of transport was still acute and there were no prospects of further vehicles being obtained, it was thought that when the CCS moved other transport would have to be borrowed from some other section of the Army. This was what actually did happen during later months.
Shortly after the unwelcome news of the fall of Singapore, the field units left Maadi for a camp on the Suez Canal. It was an unpleasant spot, some 20 miles north of Suez on a promontory between the Great and Little Bitter Lakes of the Canal, near the Kabrit airfield. The flat, sandy plain was swept frequently by wind and dust-storms.
Setting up an MDS camp hospital to service their brigades, the field ambulances remained here for a few weeks. A few cases of sickness were held in the MDS, but work was not exacting except on the few occasions when a high wind threatened to level the tents and the men were obliged to grapple with billowing canvas, double peg the guy ropes and, in some cases, repair ripped tent flies.
All units at this time took part in combined operations with naval landing craft on the Canal lake. Gliding noiselessly across the lake in the dark, small assault landing craft or the larger tank craft nosed up on to the beaches on the other side and unloaded their invasion forces. While the fighting units carried out their attack exercises, the medical party set up a light dressing station near the beach.
Towards the end of February, after the invasion exercises, the units, preceded by advanced parties, left by road and rail for Syria. With each ambulance's limited transport went a small road party via the Sinai Desert, while the majority followed by rail through Palestine to Haifa. In Syria the Division, as part of Ninth Army., had been allotted the task of constructing defences in the Lebanon Valley.
Plans had been drawn up for the defence of Syria from the north, north-east, and east. The New Zealand Division had been allotted the task of completing the defences of the Djedeide fortress, on which considerable work had already been done. This was in the Orontes valley lying between the high mountain ranges of the Lebanons and Anti-Lebanons. In this valley the Division was mainly concentrated.
When 4 Field Ambulance, under Lt-Col King, reached Syria on 5 March, B Company set up an ADS for 4 Infantry Brigade at Djedeide, while the remainder of the unit established an MDS in Gouraud Barracks at Baalbek, 20 miles to the south. The MDS buildings were in a most untidy and filthy condition but were soon cleaned up for the admission of patients. Until the CCS opened at Zahle early in April, both 4 and 6 Field Ambulances had to hold more sick and accident cases in the divisional area than was customary, and at the end of March 4 Field Ambulance was holding 71 patients. Four inches of snow fell in Baalbek during the night of 22-23 March and a cold wind made outdoor conditions unpleasant. Morale, however, received a boost on 24 March when the first mail from New Zealand for many months arrived.
In the middle of March 4 Field Hygiene Section, under Maj W. J. Boyd,(4) arrived in Syria and took over part of a large hotel in Baalbek. The hotel had previously been occupied by an Australian hygiene section, and a useful demonstration area had been laid out by it. A large concrete reservoir at the back of the building, with a constant supply of ice-cold water from the ancient Roman springs, was used as a swimming pool, and hot showers were improvised by the unit workshop. One of the section's first tasks was an inspection of the food and barbers' shops in the town. The problem of rubbish disposal was overcome by employing native contractors and forming a controlled tip in the old quarries on the outskirts of the village.
The unit had become responsible for the supervision of hygiene for an area of about sixty square miles, as New Zealand units were spread out between Rayak and Ras Baalbek in the Lebanon Valley. This district was one of the most malarious in the Middle East, and the Australians had had a large number of malaria cases in the previous season. As soon as the weather permitted, a survey of all watercourses, swamps, and irrigation areas was begun and detailed maps prepared. This work took several weeks because of the roughness of the tracks and the thickly wooded country. A large number of Arab labourers was employed on drainage work, clearing streams, installing and repairing sluice gates. This work was done so effectively that no extensive mosquito breeding could be found in the area up to the time the Division left.
In May the unit was pleased to read in an issue of the NZEF Times an article on the good health of the troops in the country, which reflected credit on the work of the hygiene section. At this time, too, soldiers with sartorial aspirations found themselves living in troubled times, the cause of the trouble being the recently issued 'Bombay bloomers', unsightly shorts which could be extended to "semi-longs' in the evening to frustrate attacks by the mosquito.
On 10 March 6 Field Ambulance, under Lt-Col Furkert, left Kabrit with 6 Brigade units for Aleppo. By road the transport party followed the coastline of Syria, skirting the Lebanon Range and the stony, terraced hillsides along the sea coast to strike inland north of the mountains, whose snow-covered heights were enveloped in fleecy clouds. Over the large, flat, fertile plains of the high country, the road led through the towns of Homs and Hama, past buildings of ochre stone and great water-wheels up to thirty feet in height. The reddish-brown soil was cultivated in amazingly long straight furrows. In the fields were peasants in tight-legged, baggy-seated trousers or women in coloured blouse and skirt with the .bottoms of long trousers poking out below, and often Arabs in loose sheepskin coats and Bedouin headdress. Scattered everywhere were Kurdish villages of strange mud-brick huts, chrome coloured and conical in shape like giant beehives. Often, too, they were walled and fortified and perched on hilltops. Quite remarkable was the almost complete absence of trees of any sort over all this country.
Then, coming over the brow of a hill, the convoy 'came in sight .of Aleppo, a white, cold, and forbidding city, dominated by its medieval, moated citadel. But Aleppo was to prove more friendly than its cold exterior indicated. The ambulance, taking over from Australians, established an MDS in an Italian hospital building. With quarters in a block of modern flats nearby, the officers and some of the men took up duties in the hospital. In the flats they enjoyed comfort they had not experienced since leaving New Zealand.
With 6 Brigade to the Turkish border went B Company, 6 Field Ambulance. For a few days the company camped on the rolling broken country within half a mile or so of the huge stone archways which marked the frontier. One ardent malaria squad treating ponds and water-holes with an anti-mosquito preparation ventured over the border, but as zealous Turkish guards had fired on some British planes which had strayed across the demarcation line, it was thought advisable not to provide them with more targets.
At Aleppo the MDS was almost a miniature general hospital of 100 beds. Six Australian sisters remained at the hospital until the arrival of four New Zealand sisters later in March. The ambulance men staffed medical and surgical wards, theatre and Medical Inspection Room, laboratory and dispensary, and assumed many other duties required in running a hospital. Never had the unit worked under conditions such as these. Long wards were complete with bedsteads, enamelled lockers, plenty of bed linen, and numerous cupboards. There were also handy little side rooms for nursing more serious cases, and bathrooms and cookhouse connected directly with the wards. The little two-roomed theatre was well equipped. Refugees from across the Turkish border were medically examined and their clothing disinfested.
The MI Room was a busy place. Its clientele consisted of New Zealanders, British troops stationed in the city or near it, and members of the local populace whom doctors and orderlies endeavoured to question in half-remembered scraps of high school French. There was always somebody requiring treatment for some sore or minor injury.
In the wards, orderlies experienced only in field hospital or dressing station practice at times fell short of the sisters' hospital technique, but the sisters found them able and willing, if at times. rather blunt and apt to dispense with formalities. One report on a patient left for the sister by a night orderly ran, 'Had the runs all night and dry retched so I gave him bismuth and soda, but he still feels pretty crook this morning.'
At first patients for evacuation to hospital were carried back over the long journey of 200 miles or so to Beirut, until 1 NZ CCS set up at Zahle. Over these journeys cars of the American Field Service, a volunteer organisation, carried many of the patients. This was the New Zealanders' first contact with these fine young Americans, who were to establish a firm and genuine friendship of long standing with the Division.
Of more than usual interest to the men in Aleppo, this closely packed city of white stone buildings, were the medieval citadel and the Souk, Aleppo's unique markets. Almost all visited the massive stone fortifications of the citadel and walked around the thick walls which skirted the large circular plateau on which it is built. The markets drew many back again and again to bargain for brocades, hand-worked linen, or silver filigree trinkets. The Souk was a maze of miles and miles of lanes and alleyways packed with row upon row of small open stalls. Being completely covered with a roof, the market gave the impression of being underground. In each small street were stalls selling one particular line of merchandise. One wandered through streets of coloured cloths, streets of shoes, streets of silver and gold work, streets of skins, streets of fruit and vegetables, and streets of many strange foods. Each had it own distinctive odour, and all presented a fascinating and colourful picture.
For a little over a month 6 Field Ambulance operated the Aleppo hospital. The wards were always full and there was plenty of work to do. Some of the men had found their way into the homes of the friendly and hospitable Armenians and had made the acquaintance of American missionaries in the city, and it was with some regret that they handed over to 5 Field Ambulance in mid-April and moved south to a camp in the Orontes valley.
Fifth Field Ambulance had just arrived in Syria. On 11 February it had accompanied 5 NZ Infantry Brigade to Cyrenaica as part of Eighth Army, and had returned to Maadi on 28 March. The hospital at Aleppo was run by 5 Field Ambulance, under Lt-Col McQuilkin, until June. Patients were received from New Zealand, Indian, and South African units, and from the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force, but the numbers were kept down by frequent evacuations to the CCS at Zahle, although an outbreak of sandfly fever taxed the accommodation at one stage.
On 15 March the CCS received its first movement order. The unit was to move to Syria to provide a hospital, pending the transfer of 2 General Hospital from Gerawla to Nazareth.
Friday, 20 March, dawned dull and overcast. It was perhaps this that caused the pickets to sleep late and thus call the cooks late for the breakfast appointed for five o'clock. And it was perhaps the cold morning that made many of the men rise behind time, resulting in much hustle and bustle at the last minute, rolling up blankets and making final adjustments to packs preparatory to departure. But at ten minutes past six goodbye was said to Q Area and Maadi as four trucks left to convey nine officers and 74 other ranks of the CCS and personal baggage to Cairo main station. All entrained at seven o'clock, and soon they were on their way to the new country that was to provide for every member of the staff a pleasant interlude in his life in the Middle East.
A five-hour trip past the palm-fringed mud villages of the Delta brought the party to Kantara. At various stations the train was besieged by dozens of 'Georges' and their children, when the local policeman wasn't looking---all selling 'eggs-a-cooked', 'eggs-a-bread', bottles of doubtful-looking coloured water, or 'very sweet, very clean, very hygiene' water melon. The persistent efforts of these bewhiskered, cunning, and crafty hawkers to convert their wares into piastres provided interest at each station, but they soon became an unbearable nuisance.
On arrival at Kantara it was necessary for everyone to shoulder personal gear, detrain, wait in turn to cross the Canal by barge, and then walk to the Kantara East railway station, where there was a long wait for another train to take them through Palestine. Meanwhile, nearly everyone elected to change Egyptian for Palestinian currency, a proceeding that required much thought and calculation in order not to be bested by the wily and prosperous roadside money-changers.
Throughout the long night hours the train lurched and swayed, with occasional halts at small unknown stations. Some time during the night it crossed the Egyptian border, and the early light of dawn showed the cultivated green fields of Palestine slipping past the carriage windows. With daylight the view on either hand became very pleasant, and soon there were agricultural scenes reminiscent of New Zealand. After recent weeks of desert surroundings, this journey through the ordered and fertile countryside of the land of the Bible was a welcome and refreshing experience. It was springtime, and the fresh growth on cactus fences lining narrow country lanes, and the gay profusion of wild flowers---poppies, anemones, and marguerites---was a tonic to the eyes. Jasmine, too, was everywhere.
Breakfast consisted of dry rations again, but most of the men filled up with oranges. During the early part of the morning the train passed through the heart of the citrus-growing district, with orange groves stretching far on either side. Hill and valley were a mass of dark-green trees heavily laden with the bright fruit, while the sweet scent of its blossom pervaded the air. From time to time the train would halt at a station or railway siding, and here there would be scores of people with cartloads and baskets of large juicy oranges. For less than a shilling one could buy 40 or 50 of the choicest Jaffa variety. Anything that would hold them was filled, and eating oranges became the chief pastime.
Skirting the Mediterranean, the train arrived at Haifa. After a ten-thirty breakfast at the local Naafi, the unit moved to a transit camp at the foot of Mount Carmel. High up on its summit could be seen the modern building of the famous Carmelite Monastery built over the ruins of the one destroyed by the Turks in 1821 and which, tradition says, was originally erected over the cave where once dwelt the prophet Elijah. The journey on from the transit camp was made in civilian buses. Upholstered seats were a novel experience after the indifferent springing of Army trucks. All enjoyed the ride through Haifa's Kingsway, with its modern buildings, and north onto the coastal road running round the Bay of Acre. On the right could be seen an old Turkish aqueduct still carrying water from the distant Kabri springs.
It was dark when the buses climbed into the hills that swing out to the coast at the northern border of Palestine, and, it was almost midnight before the convoy arrived at a transit camp at Beirut. Heavy rain was falling; everyone was tired. Laden with bedrolls and packs, many of the men searching for their tents floundered off into the darkness through muddy ground into water-filled ditches and barbed-wire fences. Many were wet through. In crowded, leaking tents, the only thing they could do was to sit around on packs and wait for daylight.
Late next morning the buses climbed the Lebanons. The road was steep and winding. Many fine houses, the summer homes of Beirut residents, were to be seen. Aley, a well-known tourist resort, looked particularly attractive with its first-class hotels and stylish French residences, as, too, did Bhamdoun and Ain Sofar.
There was thick snow as the road neared the summit, where the scene became more rugged and where, suddenly, the shrub-covered, fertile coastal side of the range gave way to the barren eastern slopes. Magnificent views of the white Anti-Lebanon Mountains, and especially Mount Hermon, were obtained throughout the long winding descent to Shtora. The buses climbed another hill and came to a halt at the hospital, the home of the CCS for the next few months. There below, all at once, was Zahle, a picturesque village nestling in the hollow of the hills.
The building that had been taken over was well suited to the unit's purpose. Funds for its erection as a hospital for the poor of Zahle had been contributed by Americans formerly resident there. Construction work had ceased in 1918, to be resumed again in 1938. A few interior details yet remained to be completed. It was built of grey stone in the form of a square, the centre of which was a paved courtyard. There were two floors as well as an attic.
The first few days after the unit's arrival on 22 March were extremely cold. Battle dress, which in Egypt had seemed so hot and uncomfortable, was now most welcome. Rain, sleet, and snow prevailed; it was said locally to be the coldest March for 60 years. In such cold and miserable conditions, memories of the heat and glaring sands of the desert became dim.
Because of the large numbers of poor village folk who persisted in grouping round the hospital---some in the hope of obtaining clothes to wash, others out of idle curiosity---it was necessary to. picket the building and the surrounding area. The people seemed slow to realise that their hospital-to-be had now become a military one. Efforts to convince them of this gave rise to many humorous incidents because of the language difficulty. Though obviously desperately poor, these people seemed to be of a much better character than the Egyptians.
By 1 April---two days before Easter---the Casualty Clearing Station was ready to receive patients; the first eleven cases were admitted that afternoon. Soon the building took on the appearance of a well-run hospital, with some 120 beds neatly arranged throughout the various surgical and medical wards. Eight nursing orderlies were appointed to each ward.
On 4 April eight sisters, with Sister Hodges(5) in charge, joined the CCS. Pending the construction of a stone hut---incidentally not completed until two months later---they lived in tents adjacent to the hospital. A stone cottage served admirably as kitchen and mess room. Two local Lebanese women, Yvonne and Adele, were engaged to attend to sundry tasks. For their mess the officers had the use of another house higher on the hill to the south-west of the hospital. Tents pitched on the slopes below this served as their sleeping quarters. On arrival at Zahle the men were quartered in the main hospital building, shifting later to the attic. This was not convenient for long, so in the first week of April some of the unit tents were erected and occupied instead.
Patients were evacuated by ambulance cars of the American Field Service. Five cars, a small sub-section of this organisation, were already at the hospital when the CC S arrived. The drivers' duties entailed trips to Rayak, Baalbek, Damascus, Beirut, and Nazareth. Representing almost every state in America, the drivers of the AFS served without pay. Well educated and from wealthy American families, most of them had given up good positions to volunteer for the work. Their association with the CCS was happy; their personality, efficiency, and obliging readiness for any extra tasks made them well liked by all members of the staff.
In the AFS lines near the hospital, there was a little ceremony on 1 April when the Stars and Stripes was raised. This was believed to be the first time the American flag was flown in the Middle East since the United States entered the war. Lt-Col Ardagh presented the flag on behalf of General Freyberg.
A few days later there was another parade when the whole unit assembled to say farewell to Col Ardagh, who was relinquishing command of 1 CCS to take up the position of ADMS 2 NZ Division. Lt-Col L. J. Hunter took over the command.
In order to be nearer the Division, 2 General Hospital left Gerawla by train at the end of March for Nazareth. A long and tedious journey brought the unit from Egypt to Palestine, and the new site was reached at midnight on 2 April. The hospital was housed in three hotel buildings, each three or four storeys high---'Terra Santa', the medical and administrative block, 'Casa Nova', the surgical block, and 'Adriatic', the reception and isolation block. The male staff were quartered in a school, the sisters in a stone building, a former Italian convent for orphans, where Australians had lived previously, and the officers in a monastery.
The unit settled into its new quarters smoothly and was pleased to be working under the best of conditions. The admission of patients began on 9 April. They came by train from the CCS at Zahle on a narrow-gauge railway that ran through Damascus to Affule, about nine miles from the hospital. By the end of April there were 173 patients and by the middle of June 578---British and New Zealand troops.
The hospital was situated next to the Arab quarter, whose narrow, cobblestone alleyways were used as stock routes for the animals going to and from the homes they shared with their owners; the alleys also served as the handiest tip for rubbish and food scraps, which would not be swept away for a couple of days. These factors, and the display of uncovered food, sugar, sticky dates, meat, and cake in the markets, provided as good an attraction for flies as can be imagined. By a persistent defence the staff were able to keep the hospital and their quarters almost entirely free of them.
To most the town of Nazareth was a disappointment. The name conjured up sacred memories and hallowed associations, so that all expected something out of the ordinary---some beautiful little village nestling in the hills. Perhaps it used to be like that, but the New Zealanders found a typical 'wog' town, scattered on three sides of a valley. The town itself was dirty with rough, narrow streets winding tortuously beneath overhanging windows, from which, at any moment might descend the household's daily refuse. Mangy dogs roamed about, pawing through heaps of refuse at the street corners. However, the people were found to be a better type and more independent than the Egyptians, and the pleasant countryside invited walks and excursions. One feature of Nazareth that will be remembered was the ringing of church bells at all times of the day. In May 42 nurses of the NZ WWSA were first posted to 2 General Hospital. At first their accommodation was cramped, but the male staff moved from the school building to the huts of an Austrian hospice, and the school quarters, refurbished and renovated, became the home of the VADs.
The Austrian hospice was a mile from the hospital, which meant that the men when leaving for work in the morning had to be prepared not to go back until evening. Apart from the distance, which was a source of grievance, the change was undoubtedly good for the men, as they were billetted on a hillside shaded by trees and nearly always kept fresh by a breeze.
The canteen suffered in patronage from the competition of local restaurants, but the day was saved by the introduction of housie, a game not exploited by the Palestinian.
Leave to Syria was opened at the end of May, and in addition the staff were able to explore Palestine. The unit was in Nazareth in the spring, when most days were sunny and when the country was clothed in the green of growing grain, variegated by an abundance of wild flowers of every colour. Pleasant walks could be taken in almost any direction.
In May 1942---the second year of its service overseas---3 General Hospital, under Col Gower, left behind the hospital it had completed in the sand at Helmieh to journey to Syria. Before its departure a plaque of the unit's insignia and motto---a tiki surmounting 'Kia Kaha', artistically designed in green and red---was cast and set prominently in the lawn beneath the flagpole, an enduring testimony to the unit's stay in the garrison.
It is not a simple matter to move a complete hospital, lock, stock and barrel, from one country to another. As each tent and but was emptied, its contents were stacked in orderly piles in the hospital grounds. As Sister Somers-Cocks(6) described it:
'Great heaps of dismantled beds lay stacked to the sky; stoves, heaters, brooms, jugs, bedpans, forms, tables, chairs, case upon case --tightly packed; endless bales of blankets, sheets, pyjamas, and hospital linen; hundreds of mattresses, thousands of pillows; mosquito nets, medical stores, pots and pans and all cooking utensils; X-ray and massage equipment, theatre tables and trolleys. The list is endless. If the amount of stuff seemed incredible, the possibility of moving it all to another country and putting it all in place again seemed more so.
'Most of the equipment went by train, and this entailed loading on to trucks, off-loading on to the train, guarding it on the train, and unloading on to trucks again to go to the new site. Some of the equipment went by road, a long, unwieldy convoy taking several days and nights.
'The new site--Choukri Chanum, on the slopes of the Lebanons, overlooking Beirut---was far from being complete and ready to receive a hospital. Some roads had been made and the main buildings were there, but roadmakers, plumbers, and carpenters were there by the score. Concrete mixers scraped all day, the road roller rumbled up and down, workmen jabbered and spat unceasingly. The din was indescribable.
'Each department of the hospital had to find a new home kitchen, ordnance, linen store, medical store and dispensary, X-ray, massage, theatre, laboratory, and office. In the new wards tired and weary orderlies, who had been working night and day during the shift, seemed to find new life they hammered beds together and fetched and carried. Sisters and VADs swept, mopped, and scrubbed, Equipment arrived in dribs and drabs. In spite of weary limbs everyone was cheerful. On the third day the first patient was admitted---the first of a steady stream. Less than a fortnight had elapsed between the discharge of the last patients in Egypt and the admission of the first in Syria.'
On 30 May the sisters and nurses had journeyed by train and bus to rejoin the male members of the staff who had preceded them to Choukri Ghanum. On a splendid site in the hills, the hospital buildings consisted of a former French barracks, part of a mental hospital, and several stone huts which were built for wards.
The area used for the hospital was extensive, having a frontage of about three-quarters of a mile. The surgical block was at one end and medical at the other, with staff quarters in between. This meant having a reception desk, hospital office, laboratory, cookhouse, etc., in both blocks.
The main route to the Lebanons, Damascus, and Aleppo passed the sisters' mess and hospital, and for a while the country seemed full of the noise of passing traffic. The constant stream had its blessings; it was in Syria that these sisters first acquired the art of hitch-hiking.
The French barracks, which housed the surgical block, were solid concrete buildings, single-storied and rather attractive; long and wide, they were whitewashed in cream and terracotta. They were in groups of two, three, or four, and held thirty to thirty-two beds. For administration purposes three or four wards formed a block under the supervision of a charge sister, with a sister and/or nurse and orderly to each ward. Between every two wards was a small kitchen, duty room, and sluice room. Each ward had two toilet rooms, with one bath and shower.
The wards were airy and light, with plenty of shuttered windows and doors opening on to full-length verandahs on both sides. These verandahs were ideal for convalescent patients. Electric fans helped to keep the wards cool and fresh during the heat of the summer. The high humidity of the Syrian atmosphere made the heat outside more trying than in Egypt, though temperatures were not as high.
The sisters' quarters were stone huts, facing the sea, with rooms shared by two. Whitewashed, with wall shelves and recesses for wardrobes, they were really comfortable, though the blackout brought its trials during the summer. Hot water for showers was available for four hours daily, while a boiler outside the kitchen provided hot water for laundry purposes. Syrian girls were employed as maids, and with a little training proved very good and a great help.
The medical block in the permanent hospital buildings had a sewerage system---an advantage with the numbers of dysentery and typhoid cases nursed there. These main buildings were much cooler than the stone huts which completed the medical block, though the huts were well planned and very convenient to work in. Each hut held sixty to eighty patients and was complete with kitchen, duty room, etc. All these huts were not completed when the unit arrived. From the day the hospital opened the overwhelming influx of patients made business extremely brisk, so there was little time to add frills. As soon as a but was completed beds and equipment would arrive, and after a few hours' work the ward was ready to receive patients. It was strenuous work in the heat, and it seemed that just as the last bed in the hospital was filled another ward would be finished in time to save the situation.
With the onset of summer came malaria, sandfly fever, dysentery, tape-worm, gastric upsets, typhoid fever, and the usual infectious diseases, keeping Lt-Col J. D. Cottrell(7) and his assistants busy.
Patients' nationalities were varied. There was some disappointment when the Division moved away and the staff found they had to care for a variety of patients, drawn from almost all the Allied countries. But, in retrospect, all felt it was good experience---it broadened the outlook, making all more tolerant of the characteristics of other peoples, and provided experience that could prove useful in after years.
Tommies were grand patients, courageous, cheerful, and grateful for the smallest nursing attention; they helped their fellow patients and were very willing workers in ward fatigues, doing dishes, serving meals, helping with the cleaning of wards, and making tea or cocoa for Sister's supper while she wrote the evening report. Other patients were Indians, Basutos, Trans-Jordan Frontier Force men, Greeks, and Poles, all rather difficult to look after because of language differences.
With the coming of summer the grape vines flourished and the development of the grapes was followed with interest by all. But the men of the CCS and the field ambulances were not destined to pick any of the 1942 harvest in the Lebanon. News from the Western Desert indicated that events were taking a dramatic turn. The daily newspapers brought up to the CCS by 'Johnny', the local paperboy, carried headlines indicating that all was not well.
Rommel had been building up for an offensive in the Western Desert, and on 27 May 1942 it opened. Following heavy fighting at Bir Hacheim and Knightsbridge, the Free French were compelled to evacuate Bir Hacheim. Rommel gave the Eighth Army no respite and inflicted heavy losses on British tank strength. Black days were ahead.
Headquarters 2 NZ Division received orders on 14 June that the Division was to move forthwith to Egypt. Then followed that memorable thousand-mile dash that took the Division down through Syria and Palestine and up into the Western Desert to bar the way to Rommel's advancing panzer forces near Mersa Matruh.
The move was carried out with the greatest secrecy. All distinguishing signs were removed from trucks and uniforms; all main centres were by-passed wherever possible on the journey, and no one was informed of the destination or purpose of the move. When they reached the Suez Canal the men heard that Tobruk had fallen and that the Axis forces were approaching the Egyptian frontier. Vain dreams that the convoys were destined for anywhere but the Western Desert were now dispelled. Egypt and the desert sands greeted the New Zealanders once again.
ENEMY forces were already threatening Egypt as 4 and 5 Brigades headed west from Alexandria to Mersa Matruh, where they arrived on 21 and 22 June. By the 24th the enemy was across the Egyptian frontier.
It was decided that Matruh should not be defended inside the prepared defences because of the danger of encirclement and capture as had happened at Tobruk. On the 25th the brigades moved south from Matruh to an escarpment at Minqar Qaim, where they took up a defensive position next day, and where they clashed with the enemy on the 27th. With their brigades were 4 and 5 ADSs under Maj Jack and Maj Edmundson, and a detachment of B Company, 4 Field Ambulance, under Capt Kennedy.(1) Some 20 miles to the cast were 4 and 5 MDSs. At Mersa Matruh on 24 June, 4 MDS had treated 167 patients from British units to the west, with Maj Harrison's team operating on the severely wounded throughout the night.
Early on the morning of 27 June, 70 men wounded in a bombing raid on the Division at dusk the previous evening were cleared from the ADSs to 5 MDS, but the ambulance cars were unable to reach the ADSs again because of the arrival of German forces in the area. After a heavy artillery duel, two attacks made by the enemy on the Division during the day were repulsed. Ambulance car drivers, both our own and those of the American Field Service, went forward to the RAPs and beyond to bring in the wounded to the ADSs, where surgical treatment was promptly given. During the afternoon the ADSs were threatened by a sudden approach of enemy armour and were hurriedly moved close to Main Divisional HQ.
Maj Boyd was able to get through from Rear Divisional HQ to the ADSs by a southern route with seven of the ADS cars and ten American Field Service cars. After being guided through the minefields, the convoy reached Main Divisional HQ at 3 p.m. The ambulance cars were quickly filled with wounded and set off to return to 5 MDS, but by now the Division was virtually encircled by enemy armour and the convoy was forced to go back to the ADS area. Shelter was taken in a wadi, which provided some protection from enemy shelling.
At five o'clock General Freyberg was wounded in the neck by a shell splinter while watching from a forward position the progress of an enemy attack. By great good fortune the splinter went through the back of the General's neck without injury to the vertebral column or the spinal cord. He was attended by Col Ardagh and Maj Boyd. With no chance of being evacuated before dark, the General lay on a stretcher in a widened slit trench until the shelling ceased at last light.
Between five and seven o'clock tanks of 21 Panzer Division made attacks from the south and south-east. These attacks were beaten off by anti-tank and field guns. The position was becoming very threatening. As Dvr R. H. Swan(2) of 5 Field Ambulance puts it:
'We were surrounded. It was not a very nice position to be in, and we hardly realised at the time just how serious it was. Things quietened down towards the evening, and as it grew dark we could see a ring of enemy flares around us. This would have been a beautiful sight in peacetime, but when one knew that they belonged to the enemy, and that he was waiting for us, one did not feel too happy; but it was a case of chins up and make the best of it. Those of us who were not busy managed to get some sleep, which was just as well, for although we didn't know it then, there was a long, hard drive to come later in the night.'
At dusk instructions were issued for the Division to force its way out during the night. As the enemy encirclement had blocked the escape route to the east, it was impossible to break out without a night attack. 4 Brigade was ordered to clear a wide lane through the enemy positions to allow the rest of the Division through. Plans were made for an attack with the bayonet by the whole brigade.
Fifth Brigade had been separated from its transport, and the consequent shortage affected the medical units, particularly 5 ADS, but by 11 p.m. all patients and medical staff were crammed on to the available vehicles ready for the break-out. The GOC's caravan truck, carrying the General, his ADC, and Col Ardagh, had a Red Cross flag attached, and headed a medical convoy, which included 5 ADS and the detachment of B Company, 4 Field Ambulance, travelling with 5 Brigade.
Let Driver Swan continue his story:
'At eleven o'clock we were told to move into position, as the enemy was due to attack at any time, and we were to move off and attempt a break-through. We felt sorry for the infantry boys, as they had repulsed some strong attacks during the day and were preparing to do it again. We were placed on the outside column of a nine-row front, and at a given signal the whole formation moved off, none of us knowing just what to expect. Shortly after moving off the convoy was engaged by ineffective mortar and machine-gun fire, so the whole formation swung to the right and had only travelled a short distance when suddenly all Hell broke loose as we ran into the enemy. What made us do it no one knows, but all the trucks closed in together and made a beautiful target for the enemy, who was using every type of weapon he could bring to bear. He was firing tracer tank shells close to the trucks, and his machinegun fire, which was trained between the rows, took a heavy toll of the boys who panicked and jumped off the vehicles to run for better cover. An incendiary shell hit an ambulance carrying wounded. behind my truck, causing it to go up in flames and light up the whole area, but fortunately the patients all got out and made a run for it, so we moved up to the front of the convoy and then swung right, and headed for some smoke that was hanging low over the ground. As we were nearing this a 3-ton truck came roaring lip, and as it drew level there was a loud report, and it went up in flames, and by the light of this we could see men being knocked down by the transport everywhere. We could do nothing about it so kept on going, and eventually caught up with a small group of vehicles containing two of our ambulances and trucks from several other units. When we considered we had travelled a safe distance from the battle and it was safe to stop, we pulled up to find out just where we were and what direction we would have to take; and it was during this halt that I discovered that an armour-piercing tank shell had gone through the left mudguard of my truck, grazed both tires, and come out through the back mud-flap. If this shell had been aimed a few inches to the left, it would have meant the end of my truck, and my spare driver would probably have been seriously wounded. After a while we moved off again and travelled due east by the stars throughout the remainder of the night. Dawn found our little convoy miles from anywhere.
'After a breakfast halt the medical orderlies attended and fed the wounded, and we buried two soldiers who had passed away during the trip, then set off once more and travelled most of the day, stopping occasionally to attend to the patients.'
In the break-through four New Zealand and two American Field Service ambulance cars and two trucks were set on fire or disabled, and 15 men of 5 Field Ambulance and three AFS drivers were taken prisoner. It was possible to get some of the wounded and medical staff from the disabled vehicles on to trucks which continued eastwards. Over 300 wounded were brought out. General Freyberg experienced a rough journey in his caravan, which was hit at least twice and had the windscreen shattered, but during the height of the battle he got out of bed and viewed the action through a window, likening it to Balaclava. During the day (28 June) the GOC was sent by air from El Daba to 1 General Hospital at Helwan, where he made a quick recovery.
During the break-through by 4 Brigade, Dvr. C. C. Robinson(3) went forward in his ambulance behind the infantry making the attack. Although ordered to follow the comparatively safe centre of the attack, he zigzagged his ambulance across the whole battlefield, ignoring the heavy machine-gun fire. Every wounded man unable to walk he loaded on his ambulance, and brought it safely out laden with wounded.
On 28 June the divisional medical group, which had travelled all night except for short stops to attend to the wounded, was joined by eleven ambulance cars from 4 and 5 MDSs, these units having also moved east to the Alamein Line. When the convoy reached the line at 8 p.m., most of the wounded were sent on to 14 British CCS at El Hammam, while some were admitted to the MDS established in the Kaponga Box earlier that day by 4 Field Ambulance. Coming into the Box with 6 Brigade, A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, under Maj R. A. Elliott, took over the dressing station on 30 June, and 1 4 Field Ambulance set up its MDS again some 15 miles to the east.
The delaying action at Minqar Qaim was an important factor in slowing down the momentum of the enemy's advance into Egypt. The enemy spearhead, one of the panzer divisions, suffered heavy casualties, and in the night assault one German infantry battalion was almost destroyed.
By the morning of 29 June the Division had reassembled in the Kaponga Box and was preparing to meet the inevitable attack. The Alamein Line formed a strong defensive position, with its narrow front of some 40 miles between the coast on the north and the impassable Qattara Depression. Forced by sheer exhaustion to delay his attack, Rommel halted, but there was some confused fighting and at times the position was very critical.
At the three ADSs the staffs were kept busy with a constant stream of casualties, and themselves had one man killed and several wounded. The Germans were shelling the ridges heavily, and several times daily the Stuka bombers roared over. In the uncertainty of the situation the ADSs were kept prepared for a hurried move, and the tension produced several false alarms.
4 MDS had a very busy and anxious time, with a number of abnormal difficulties to cope with as well. For a while water was rationed in the Box, as every pint used had to be brought some 40 miles over loose sand. The MDS urgently required water if it was to function effectively, so two water trucks were sent to Alamein. The water point was found to be under shellfire and the enemy dangerously close, but the trucks returned full. After some days medical supplies were replenished from 13 Corps medical centre at Burg el Arab, and some new trucks were obtained. Blood for transfusions was obtained from members of the unit.
On 2 July it was found that 15 British CCS and MAC on the line of evacuation had moved without notifying the MDS. The channel of evacuation was switched to 14 CCS at Burg el Arab, some 40 miles away over rough country. By the evening the MDS was holding 215 cases, some of whom were evacuated next day, but most of them could not be sent to the CCS until 6 July, when a mixed convoy was organised. In its tribulations the MDS was cheered by the congratulations of the CO 14 CCS on the excellent condition of the wounded on arrival at his unit.
In the ten days up to 6 July 4 Field Ambulance had treated 612 battle casualties and 304 sick. Many of these had come from our counter-attacks on 4 July, which tipped the balance slightly and placed the enemy on the defensive.
The approach of the enemy nearer to the Nile Valley and his premature boasts of complete victory brought consternation in Cairo. The staffs of the medical units at Base shared the growing uncertainty for a while. Some knew more than others of the plans for evacuation. The DMS Office knew more than most, and the staff were busy reducing files and burning less essential papers so that the remainder could be packed quickly. Maadi Camp units were organised into a defensive formation called 6 NZ Division, the Camp Hospital becoming 23 Field Ambulance. Sisters and nurses had their bags packed ready to move out of the country at a few hours' notice. The men of the hospitals never heard of any plans for them and presumed they were to stand by their patients if the enemy came. But the enemy did not come. Days of uncertainty passed, and gradually confidence returned and life resumed its normal course. The civilians who had fled returned, and news of the battles in the desert was followed closely in the Cairo newspapers. The hospital staffs, as they attended to the needs of the wounded, admired the men who barred the enemy's progress at Alamein.
On the night of 14-15 July 4 and 5 Brigades made an attack on Ruweisat Ridge. By daylight they gained their objective but were unable to establish themselves with supporting arms. The Germans counter-attacked strongly. In the absence of the support expected from British armour, three New Zealand battalions were overrun, and the two brigades were forced to withdraw with considerable losses.
The advanced dressing stations for this attack were 4 ADS and 5 ADS. There was much enemy air activity over nearby areas on 15 July, and some bombs fell in 5 ADS area but only damaged one truck. During the day 4 ADS, under Maj J. M. Coutts,(4) admitted 103 New Zealand and twelve British patients, and 5 ADS, under Capt J. M. Watt,(5) 159 New Zealanders plus British, Indian, and enemy wounded. At 8.30 p.m. 5 ADS was told to be ready to move at immediate notice. Tents were struck and the patients then held were loaded on the available vehicles, but at half past eleven word was received that there would be no move and the tents were erected again by midnight.
For the week that it had been open 5 MDS had been steadily admitting bomb and shell casualties, but on 15 July the number of admissions jumped to 400, of whom 167 were held overnight. The unit was handicapped by shortage of transport and was also understaffed, although 32 reinforcements had been received on the 12th. When 5 MDS was relieved by 4 MDS on the 16th, it had treated 1095 cases since 7 July. The whole of 5 Field Ambulance was then placed under command of 4 Brigade, which moved back to Maadi Camp at this stage.
Sixth Field Ambulance had moved to the desert from Maadi on the 16th and waited in reserve alongside 4 MDS. Ahead was the almost continuous rumble of gunfire, and German bombers ranged the sky, pursued by tiny puffs of smoke from the anti-aircraft barrage. A squadron of bombers circled the ambulance position and everyone dived for slit trenches, but the aircraft passed over the Red Cross markings and made for some transport vehicles nearby. Tiny bombs, shining silver in the sunlight, fell away from under the planes. Slowly at first but gathering speed, they fell at a steep angle to burst in spouts of flame and smoke just beyond the unit's area.
B Company, 6 Field Ambulance, under Maj E. W. Duncan,(6) moved forward behind the 6 Brigade battalions on 18 July and set up its ADS before another attack, this time on a more limited objective---the El Mreir Depression. The ADS moved up just before dark on 21 July, the night of the attack, and set up in an advanced position behind the infantry. Parties of stretcher-bearers under Captain A. W. H. Borrie,(7) twelve each from A and B Companies, were to be attached to 24 and 25 Battalions to assist in bringing back the wounded. They were late in setting out and had to follow and find their infantry battalions. The axis of advance was through two enemy minefields in front of the German positions. The battalions were to move at 9 p.m.
The A Company party had not located its battalion before reaching the second minefield. Moving over the skyline the stretcherbearers met spandau fire and shelling from some anti-tank guns. They went to earth and took what cover there was. They were out in advance of the infantry. Presently the infantry moved up under cover of machine-gun fire and passed the stretcher-bearer party, which followed them through the gap in the second minefield. Casualties from shelling were picked up here, and the party, working on an arranged plan, carried the patients back to a car park near a green light. Here they were left, protected by banked-up stones, for collection by the ambulance cars when they could get through.
The stretcher party followed the infantry in their advance to the German front line. Seemingly the enemy had been surprised, for everything in the trenches was in disorder; food and equipment were lying about everywhere. More wounded were taken back to the car park. The ambulances did not get through till first light next morning, but all the patients were safely loaded and evacuated before the enemy counter-attacked.
The stretcher party from B Company went forward to the ridge skirting the depression. The wounded were cleared in a 3-ton truck and an RAP runabout; some were carried out. Working amid the whistle of rifle and spandau bullets, the stretcher-bearers stumbled back carrying their wounded to the car park. As the last of the party returned, shells from the German artillery were coming over, bursting behind them. This party, too, had finished its work before the start of the German counter-attack, in which the battalions of 6 Brigade had to face the panzer onslaught without tank support, with the result that 24 and 25 Battalions were overrun and scattered.
The first casualties reached 6 ADS before the troops had passed through the minefields. They continued to come in throughout the night. In the morning the ambulances cleared the many wounded from the stretcher-bearer car parks. Casualties now poured into the dressing station: wounds were redressed, fractures splinted, morphia injections given, and such treatment carried out as would enable the wounded to ride comfortably back to 4 MDS. Within the dressing station tents there was a busy silence, broken only by the subdued bustle of activity and an occasional curt request by the MO for some instrument, drug, or dressing, or by a call for stretcher-bearers. Outside, an ambulance would pull in to the reception tent, and immediately several stretcher-bearers would unload its patients; at the evacuation tent another ambulance would pull up, quickly fill with the redressed wounded, and pull out again to follow the rough desert track back to the MDS. When the Germans counter-attacked, their shellfire crept uncomfortably closer and closer through the morning but did not touch the dressing station. An accidental grenade explosion at the dressing station during the morning caused some slight wounds. Although the rush continued until about midday, by one o'clock the ADS was clear of its 230 patients.
Situated about two miles behind 6 ADS was 4 ADS, and this unit also received and treated 100 wounded.
At 4 MDS there was an almost overwhelming amount of work, but assistance was given by 1 and 151 British Light Field Ambulances. In addition, two British surgical teams and a transfusion unit were attached, and two extra surgical teams came from 15 British CCS at midday on 22 July.
From 9.15 p.m. on the 21st, patients arrived at the MDS in a continual stream. Many of them were severely wounded, so that it was necessary for the operating theatres to keep going all night until about 3 a.m., when the staff snatched a brief rest and started again three hours later. On the 22nd 632 patients were admitted. By pressing into use every available ambulance car, and also by using returning supply trucks, it was possible to evacuate 394 patients that day to 14 British CCS at Charbanyat, but over 300 had to be held overnight. All operating sections worked throughout the night, rested for a few hours, and then resumed. Maj Macfarlane,(8) DADMS, and Maj Boyd, 4 Field Hygiene Section, gave anæsthetics during this rush period, work which Capt Gleeson,(9) the dental officer, carried out regularly throughout the month. The transfusion unit worked continuously for 40 hours.
The 23rd was another very busy day, with 438 cases admitted and convoys leaving for the CCS all day. In the afternoon it was arranged that all British patients arriving at the MDS be passed straight on to 1 British Light Field Ambulance. During the afternoon and evening a large number of Indian troops was admitted, but then the pressure of work eased. Admissions the following day dropped to 150, which enabled the staff to clear the MDS completely.
Beginning on 19 July, some of the severely wounded patients were sent by air direct to Base hospitals in Cairo from an improvised landing ground near the MDS. The staff of the MDS were pleased to hear that their patients arrived in Cairo in excellent condition an hour after leaving the dressing station. In some cases men were in bed in Base hospital less than six hours after being wounded. The returning aircraft brought supplies of blood and urgently required medical stores. Some of the planes bore Red Crosses but others were not so identified. On 24 July the staff saw two of the unmarked planes shot up and set on fire by enemy fighters just as they were about to land. The air evacuation service was suspended for a while but was resumed later with properly marked ambulance planes.
On 28 July 6 Field Ambulance took over the MDS from 4 Field Ambulance. The British surgical team, with its complete mobile theatre specially built on two trucks, and the British blood transfusion team were transferred to 6 MDS. Ambulances of a British Motor Ambulance Convoy and of the American Field Service unit operated with the unit's own ambulance cars, providing ample facilities for speedy evacuation from the forward dressing stations and. also back to the CCS.
Only one MDS was active at a time at this period as the distance back to the CCS was short. It was difficult, however, for the active MDS, to cope with the rush of casualties, even with the help of attached British staff. The men of the inactive, field ambulance felt keenly their inability to share in the strenuous work undertaken by their fellows, while they played football three miles away.
The Eighth Army's casualties during July were about 750 officers and 12,500 men. Of these some 4000 belonged to the New Zealand Division---severe losses which testified to the bitterness of the fighting to stabilise the line. The total of sick and wounded treated in the New Zealand field ambulances from 27 June to 31 July was 5223, of whom 4 Field Ambulance admitted 3202, 5 Field Ambulance 1460, and 6 Field Ambulance 561.
In the desert, towards the end of July, it was clear that Egypt had been saved by what General Auchinleck described as 'sheer guts and hard fighting'. It was evident that neither side was sufficiently strong to deliver a knockout blow to the other, and each required a breathing spell in order to accumulate the men, material, and supplies necessary for the resumption of full-scale operations. The full resources of the Eighth Army had been employed in holding the extended front, and it had been impossible to form a real reserve in which troops could be rested, reformed, and trained for fresh assaults on the enemy. New formations were beginning to arrive in Egypt, but these had to be trained and would not be ready for some time. It was decided, therefore, to discontinue further offensive operations and to prepare for a new and decisive effort later.
In July the number of flies at Alamein increased alarmingly. They were so thick and persistent that it was impossible to keep them from contaminating food or to elude their tormenting attentions. The onset of the plague lay in circumstances beyond medical control, but medical help was sought in an attempt to get rid of it. When 4 Field Hygiene Section came down from Syria it had handed over its vehicles to other units in the Mersa Matruh area, and most of the section was sent back to Maadi, while Maj Boyd became liaison medical officer with the Division. At the end of July six men from the section were called back to the desert and attached to the ADSs. Fly breeding was traced to unburied dead in wadis in the front lines and to the insanitary state of the Italian positions that had been captured. The rocky ground made good sanitation a problem. Life became extremely busy for the hygiene men with the Division, and the main body of the unit at Maadi lent its support by constructing fly-traps and incinerator latrines and making up gallons of fly poison. As they distributed this material and fought the flies, the few members of the unit in the divisional area became more popular than ever before. But the flies had a big start, and this was their best breeding season. Traps and swatting killed millions of them, but they still seemed to be as thick as ever.
In August one of 4 ADS staff, Pte F. Fleming, wrote:
'The flies are persistent and aggressive. There seems to be no escape from them. Every meal is a battle with them. Traps have accounted for thousands. The ground for a yard or so around "killer tins" is inches deep in dead flies and you can swot them by the dozen, but it is like mopping up the Mediterranean with a piece of blotting paper. Nets are spread over the cabs of vehicles, and some men wear nets like bee-keepers' veils over their heads. The netting on our bivvies is a blessing---it allows us to keep the numbers down inside to manageable figures, but we can see the little black devils swarming outside. They seem to hang around waiting for the curtain to be lifted, when they swarm in. I regularly catch three or four in my tea now and eat with a spoon, always keeping one hand waving over the dish.'
In the blazing August heat in the desert the men were feeling the strain of a long period in the line, which even when the action was static meant that they were tied down to their slit trenches. With practically no fresh food and the plague of flies, it was little wonder that the incidence of sickness should rise, though the rate in the Division was the lowest in 13 Corps at that time. Even among the ambulance men mild dysentery was fairly common, and cases of jaundice were beginning to appear in most units.
After the desperate days in early July, Eighth Army gradually reorganised. Fresh troops, tanks, guns, and all the paraphernalia of war arrived in Egypt. Confidence began to return. In mid-August General Sir Harold Alexander was appointed Commander-in-Chief Middle East, and Lieutenant-General Montgomery took over command of Eighth Army. About the same time, General Freyberg resumed command of the Division after a quick recovery from his wounds.
There was a lull in the fighting. The frequent Stuka raids wounded a few of the troops, but the ADSs and 6 MDS were kept busy attending to the sick. On 18 August 4 and 6 ADSs moved within the Division's defensive area with its protective minefields and barbed wire. A reserve of food and water was supplied, and the men were told to expect an attack at any time with the possibility that the dressing stations might be isolated. As part of the defensive plan, the MDS was moved a few miles back on two occasions, and the staff took up their duties again in the stifling heat. When 6 MDS was relieved by 4 MDS on 25 August, it had treated over 1600 patients in four weeks.
Then, on the night of 30-31 August, there was heavy shelling around the ADSs area. Rommel's attack had begun. The Germans advanced round the southern tip of the Eighth Army line, where the New Zealand defences were. The main column directed to the north-east was opposed by the main strength of British armour, and when within range of the New Zealand Box was hotly engaged by our artillery and armoured cars. The light column was attacked persistently and successfully by Eighth, Army's light forces, while the RAF kept up a devastating day and night assault. The enemy forces could find no weak spot in the defence and sustained heavy losses. There was no alternative for them but to withdraw, and as this operation proceeded 13 Corps took the initiative. The New Zealand Division,, with 132 British Infantry Brigade under command, attacked southwards on 3 September with the object of disrupting the withdrawal. Eighth Army had had its first major success for a long time.
In these operations the enemy had moved from the south to the east of the Box defences, and at times it seemed to the men of the ADSs as if the battle would go over the top of them. Shells burst close with a shattering blast and shrapnel penetrated the tarpaulin tents. Unnerving as the fire was at times, the dressing stations escaped without serious damage. By night enemy bombers were overhead incessantly dropping flares, butterfly bombs, and incendiaries. An incendiary struck a water cart and burnt its way through cab and flooring. Full ambulances came in from the RAPs in. the early hours of 3 September, and Bren carriers, tanks, and trucks also brought in wounded, many of them not yet attended to. The evacuation tents at the ADSs were filled to overflowing with men lying. shoulder to shoulder on folded blankets spread on the ground, There were not enough stretchers, and many patients walked across from reception tents supported by orderlies. The wards presented a sight that would be horrible to the ordinary eye but which was now commonplace to the medical staff. Flies clustered thickly on the bloodstained bandages. A dust-storm raged most of the day.
Midway through the morning 20 Stukas dive-bombed nearby gun positions, but no bombs landed in the medical area. Three urgent calls for ambulances followed. Several trucks arrived to take back walking wounded, then an MAC convoy, and later the ambulances from the MDS. By noon the action had quietened considerably and most of the patients had been sent back to 4 MDS, 22 miles away. For the ADSs the worst was over, but for several days wounded continued to come in, some of them men from the Buffs and West Kent regiments.
The first ambulance car had arrived at the MDS at 8.15 a.m, on 3 September as the wounded could not be taken out through the minefields in the darkness. It brought a verbal request for more cars at the ADSs. All those immediately available had already been sent, but further help was summoned in the form of trucks from 5 Brigade and MAC and AFS cars. By afternoon there were 67 ambulance cars and ten trucks working on the line of evacuation. By midnight 4 MDS had handled 561 patients, as many British as New Zealanders. Lt-Col Furkert arrived at 7 p.m. in response to a request for a further surgical team in, addition to Maj S. L. Wilson's CCS team, already attached, and the two unit teams. A British transfusion unit took charge of the pre-operative and resuscitation tent. All departments of the MDS worked continuously all night and well into the following. morning. In the operating theatres there was a thick atmosphere of blood, ether, and steam from the sterilisers.
From 25 August to 11 September, when the Division was withdrawn from the line, 4 MDS treated 909 battle casualties and 915 sick, of whom 378 and 494 respectively were New Zealanders. In a remarkable period of work from. 27 June 4 Field Ambulance, under Lt-Col R. D. King, had borne the brunt of the. work of the field medical units. and had admitted 5026 patients. In this period the 4 MDS staff performed 250 major operations and the attached surgical teams 199, a total of 449, and some of the patients were nursed for several days before they were fit to be sent on to the CCS. The special sections---Reception, Operating, and Evacuation ---handled the very large numbers without any breakdown or loss of efficiency.
The ASC drivers attached to the field ambulances played a vital part in the evacuation of wounded in all battles, especially in the summer battles of 1942, as also did the American Field Service drivers with their ambulance cars. The latter distinguished themselves by their keenness to go forward of the RAPs, often dashing out into the desert to try to collect pilots who had baled out from our planes in the dogfights overhead.
The journey of about four thousand yards from the RAP to the ADS took perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes in the daytime and longer at night. The journey was inevitably slow, even under enemy fire, as the ambulance drivers tried to save the wounded from the bumps, and at night-time it was impossible to drive with any speed in the darkness along a track which twisted through gaps in the minefields and alternated between rocky stretches and soft sand.
In busy periods the drivers, on reaching the ADS, would quickly drink a mug of cocoa and return immediately to the RAPs. Those who took the wounded back to the MDS had to cover up to 20 miles of rough desert track. The next stage of evacuation was from the MDS to the CCS, and at Alamein some of the most difficult driving of all was met on this route. The desert was of deep, soft sand which made driving a slow, tedious, careful matter. In places long stretches of wire matting were placed on the sand to provide a track.
On 10 September the Division moved to a rest area on the coast to rest, train, and reform, and with it went the medical units, except 4 Field Ambulance, which returned to Maadi Camp to rejoin 4 Brigade, which was training for conversion to an armoured brigade. In the rest area the soothing music of the sea replaced the noise of the guns, and there were fewer flies. Groups from each unit went in turn for a few days' leave to Cairo or Alexandria, and on the coast the men spent much of their time swimming. With band concerts, the Kiwi Concert Party, YMCA canteens in the unit areas, and a supply of beer from the Naafi store at Burg el Arab, the men were able to spend a pleasant ten days or so.
A month's training in the desert followed. This proved a relatively busy period for the field ambulances, for although little training was done, 5 and 6 Field Ambulances provided ADSs for the units in training and 6 Field Ambulance set up an MDS for cases of sickness from the Division.
The New Zealanders had spent a trying summer. For two and a half months they had seen almost continuous action under most difficult conditions, and after a brief respite had continued with hard training. It was not surprising that the rate of sickness was high. It seemed always to increase when units came out of the line to rest or train, and in September and October this was again the case. A wave of infective jaundice reached almost epidemic proportions and caused much concern, and the dressing stations were taxed to capacity to hold the cases that flooded back to them. 6 MDS forming almost a small desert hospital.
Through the latter part of September and early October the dressing stations were kept busy, but towards mid-October all patients were evacuated through the CCS and 6 MDS moved into reserve near the coast. It was becoming cooler, and dust-storms were a frequent, almost regular, occurrence. On one occasion rain set in. It was heavy rain with a high wind, driving right into the bivvies that remained standing and completely flooding the low-lying area on which 6 Field Ambulance was camped.
All CCS men will have clear memories of Charbanyat, where they moved early in October after providing a staging post in the Delta on their return from Syria in June. Not that there was anything special about the area---it was much the same as the surrounding desert---but it will be remembered for the busy dramatic days that were spent there. Situated west of Burg el Arab and a few miles inland from the sea, the area was bisected by an extremely rough road deeply covered with a fine, creamy-coloured dust. From the camp site the barren desert sloped gently down to the main desert railway about a mile away, rising again to merge into a series of ridges and wadis stretching as far as the eye could see. On a clear day the dust of Army convoys moving up to the Alamein Line could be seen in the distance. In the broad monotonous panorama the only relieving feature was the tall chimney of a factory and a cluster of dusty palms down by the railway.
The weather in early October had become much cooler, and the first light rains of the approaching winter were experienced. Occasionally, thunderstorms typical of the Mediterranean coast provided vivid electrical displays at night. Strong winds were frequent and on at least two occasions caused severe sandstorms. During these storms the problem of keeping operating theatres and surgical wards clean and sterile can be imagined. Sand filtered everywhere. Visibility was restricted to a few yards, while in the dim light of closed, wind-torn tents it was impossible to read or write. All one could do off duty was to go to bed with a damp towel over one's head. One feature of the late autumn days spent preparing for the Battle of Alamein was the beauty of the rising and setting sun.
The general layout of the unit at Gharbanyat remained practically the same throughout the following months in the desert. The tented wards and all sections of the hospital were widely dispersed, for although it was expected that the enemy would respect the Red Cross no chances were taken, even though the dispersal caused some inconvenience and loss of time. In open desert the number of tents that constitutes a CCS, and the vehicles that are forever around it, present a fair target from the air. Despite the Red Crosses, enemy bombers could easily make a mistake, especially at night. Thus, at Gharbanyat, 100 to 200 yards separated most departments.
In the reception tent, where ambulances first arrived at the CCS, all admissions and evacuations were registered and controlled, while the pack store nearby was responsible for the storage and handling of patients' gear and valuables. The medical officer on duty at Reception decided whether patients required operation, whether they were to be admitted direct to a ward, or whether they were fit to travel on a stage further to some other unit. In the. rush periods this medical officer was perhaps the busiest person in the unit, since he had also to visit the wards and arrange the evacuations. When ambulances arrived during his absence from the reception tent, he was summoned by two blasts of a whistle or three for emergency. Many times the Reception whistle shrilled out over the calm midnight air.
Patients for operation went direct to the pre-operative ward where blood transfusions and other resuscitation aids were provided. From here they were taken by ambulance or carried on stretchers to the operating theatre. This consisted of two EPIP tents laced together, a part of one being partitioned off for X-ray. In later locations the X-ray department was part of the preoperative ward. An ambulance was stationed at the theatre to transfer patients to wards immediately after operation. The 'major surgical' wards consisted of EPIP tents joined together, but most of the other wards were of the large, square, tarpaulin type. Beds were available in only one of the surgical wards; other patients lay on stretchers. In the early days of the desert campaign these were laid on the ground, making tiring work for sisters and orderlies dressing wounds. Later, petrol tins were salvaged and filled with sand and the stretchers placed on them. At Gharbanyat South African engineers graded a road from the reception tent, linking up the theatre with the wards. The staff slept either in their own departments or in small bivouacs close by. The MI Room, dispensary, and laboratory each had its own tents close to Reception, while the two cookhouses were conveniently sited.
Across the road and separated from the rest of the unit were the various QM tents---ordnance, ration, medical, linen, and Red Cross stores. Each morning they had to replenish stocks for the theatres and wards as well as replace breakages. Fresh linen was always in demand. A chapter could be written about activities in the linen store alone. The methods employed to meet the daily demand for sheets, guards, towels, and gowns were many and various. Oil drums were cut down to serve as wash-tubs. Washing had to be done daily. Shortage of water, insufficient fuel, high winds and sandstorms, and collapsing clothes-lines were some of the difficulties to be overcome. And ever the wards called for clean linen; at times it had to be rationed among them.
The unit had other small departments, too: the orderly room, the post office, the dental tent, and the workshop. Situated in a small stone hut, the workshop was a hive of industry, or at least it sounded like one when two of the unit's handymen, Len Lambourn and Vie Thompson, got to work on tins and oil drums. Both were kept busy answering SOS calls from wards and theatres. All manner of tasks were tackled; ingenious plumbing and clever carpentering produced many useful articles from benzine tins and old packing cases. The hygiene, transport, and general duties sections were other indispensable parts of the unit.
Although the unit officially admitted patients only every second day, it was usually necessary to open in the latter part of the closed day to take the overflow from 10 British CCS. For the first three weeks of October the daily average of admissions was approximately 120. Of these the majority were sick patients. It was essential to clear the hospital daily to make room for next day's admissions. 1 NZ MAC ambulance cars took patients to an ambulance train which left Gharbanyat station on most mornings at ten o'clock.
Because of a shortage of staff these heavy admissions kept the unit very busy, but all the while it also made preparations to deal with the even greater demands that the forthcoming battle would bring. Extra tentage was drawn, medical stores were built up, extra rations and Red Cross comforts obtained, while ordnance stocks such as stretchers and blankets were increased. As far as possible plans were made for emergencies and difficulties that might arise. At this time the unit resembled a military transit camp, there were so many new faces around. For a while a number of American Field Service volunteers were attached, as well as RASC and MAC drivers. Maj D. T. Stewart(10) and the energetic team of the newly-formed 2 NZ Field Transfusion Unit were also with the CCS for some considerable time. In subsequent battles it was usual for the Transfusion Unit to work with the MDS which was admitting casualties.
The eight nursing sisters who had been with the CCS in Syria rejoined the unit during October. Glad to be back with the unit, they were extremely eager to share in the work, dangers, and discomforts that conditions in the desert would bring. Tents pitched in the open desert do not afford much privacy for women, and scrim was erected around a small area to form a compound. However, no special compound was ever provided again at the CCS.
When 2 NZ General Hospital prepared to leave Nazareth in June, the news from the desert was not reassuring and the unit's return to Egypt was delayed. Meanwhile, it moved to Kfar Vitkin, on the coast between Haifa and Tel Aviv. The change was a radical one. Here the hospital was on a flat sandy stretch back from a cliff near the sea. A little inland were acres of orange groves, while near at hand grapes were to be had in abundance, at about twopence a pound.
Everyone was housed in huts commanding a view of the open sea. The sisters' cottages had been previously used by convalescent officers, but had in the first place been built as seaside residences for wealthy Jews from Haifa and Tel Aviv. The designs varied slightly, but nearly all of them consisted of two bedrooms, living room, kitchenette, and bathroom, with a front and a back porch.
Some field training was engaged in at Kfar Vitkin, but the afternoons were largely devoted to organised recreational training, swimming, and sunbathing. There were cricket, hockey, and tennis matches, a number against 1 NZ Convalescent Depot, which was in an adjoining area, and a tabloid sports meeting. A donkey derby was a highlight in the sporting events and drew a large crowd. The riders all wore racing dress and there was a totalisator and a loudspeaker system.
Members of the unit were guests at Jewish communal farms. Trips were made to Jerusalem and to Tel Aviv, where the Palestine Orchestra was heard and the Madame Kraus Ballet seen. The nurses staged a concert, which went with a swing and showed the extent of their suntan. Kfar Vitkin built up the health of the unit for the strenuous work of establishing the hospital at El Ballah.
The move to El Ballah was welcomed, though all knew it would entail hard work once more. All the staff were keen to play their part in the active work ahead. On 26 July the unit entrained at Hadera station for the overnight journey to Kantara, its home for the next eighteen months.
El Ballah---meaning a date palm, though no one ever found it there---was a stretch of desert south of Kantara, some three miles from the Suez Canal and almost alongside the Sweet Water Canal. For the first time the unit found itself in a hospital area, together with four other hospitals and a British convalescent depot. Most of the wards were in Nissen and Army huts, some were tented, and there were also administration and departmental buildings. The staff lived in sunken EPIP tents with tiled floors.
The sisters' tents, shared by three or four, were made comfortable and attractive by the addition of box furniture covered with gay floral chintz. The sisters' compound was completely hemmed in by a large mud-brick wall, giving no view but a patch of sky and a broken line of trees growing beside the Sweet Water Canal. The sisters' mess and lounge were in Nissen huts; the lounge with its gay curtains, bright cushions, piano, and easy chairs looked very homely. Then, too, plenty of water, good showers, and a bath were greatly appreciated. El Ballah was within easy reach of Cairo, while Port Said and Ismailia also made good shopping and leave centres.
Four days after the unit was established in this area it was admitting patients, mostly New Zealanders. Glad to be hard at work again, everyone was ready for the rush of patients that came from El Alamein.
While 2 General Hospital had travelled to Gerawla in the Western Desert, to Nazareth in Palestine, and to El Ballah in the Canal Zone, and while 3 General Hospital went to Beirut, 1 General Hospital had remained at Helwan as the main Base hospital. The unit had had its share of travel in going to England, and its share of adventure in its battle experiences and losses in Greece and Crete.
Throughout its first eight months at Helwan the number of patients in hospital varied from 500 to 750, and when conditions were critical in the Western Desert in July 1942 the bed-state rose to 890 and remained above 800 for some months. Six major convoys were received during July, and by the end of that month 444 battle casualties had been treated since the New Zealand Division rushed from Syria to Mersa Matruh in June.
In the latter part of July several small convoys were received by air ambulance. Patients brought by this form of transport were often admitted to the hospital within 48 hours of being wounded., after passing through the field medical units. The first air ambulance to use Helwan airfield with patients for the hospital, which was only a mile away, landed there on 5 August. Later, the planes reverted to the use of Heliopolis aerodrome on the other side of Cairo.
The serious jaundice epidemic in the Division in September and October 1942 stretched the hospital's accommodation to the utmost. On 2 October there were over 1000 patients in hospital. Extra tents were erected in 'Spencerfield' and jaundice patients admitted there direct. On 4 October there were 1149 patients, by the 8th 1256, on the 11th 1288, until the highest total of 1327 in-patients was reached on 20 October. The number of jaundice patients imposed a great strain on the medical division of the hospital. Large numbers of less seriously ill cases had to be transferred to Maadi Camp Hospital. The total number of jaundice (infective hepatitis) cases treated during October was 721, and there were about 400 in hospital at one time. The average bed-state for the month was 1136, the highest average ever reached by 1 General Hospital.
The majority of the sick and wounded from the desert came by ambulance train through Alexandria to Cairo main station. From here they were taken the 17 miles to Helwan by motor ambulance cars from 1 General Hospital and Maadi Camp Hospital. Waiting in the station yard for the train to arrive would be dozens of ambulances drawn up in line, doors hanging open. When the train arrived, stretcher parties passed to and from the platform carrying the wounded to the ambulances under the interested gaze of Egyptian loiterers. With their quota of patients the ambulances then headed for Helwan hospital, where the unit was expecting them---everyone from Colonel to Private soon got the message when a convoy was due. The patients were speedily transferred from the ambulance cars to the wards, where the sisters saw that they were washed and put to bed between clean sheets. After their long journey the men were so weary and tired that, after they had been fed, they soon dropped off to sleep. Then would begin treatment to restore them to health again, a process that might take many hours of attention over weeks or months.
A cable by General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence in New Zealand on 9 August 1942 testifies to the able service rendered by the hospitals and other medical units.
'Have just finished visiting our General Hospitals at Beirut, Canal Area, and Helwan following personal experience of greatest skill and care at No. 1 while recovering from my wound. I feel at the present moment when there are so many battle casualties in our hospitals that you would be reassured to know something of the wonderful work of our Medical Services in looking after battle casualties.... Skill of doctors and nurses is of the highest standard and all serious cases have special day and night nurses.
'DMS reports wounded arrive in excellent condition due to quick evacuation, including evacuation by air ambulances now in use, and to high standard of medical attention by our field ambulances, whose excellent equipment and efficiency has greatly impressed the medical mission at present visiting the Middle East.
'Wonderful spirit of efficiency and devotion to duty is evident amongst all doctors, sisters, and attached services, both in the hospitals and in the field.
'Finally, the great work of the Medical Services receives continual inspiration from the magnificent spirit of our wounded.'
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