AFTER three years of fighting that had swept to and fro over a thousand miles of desert, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania were completely occupied and the enemy driven back to Tunisia. With Tripoli harbour in use, supplies were rapidly brought forward, and by the end of February 1943 Eighth Army was ready to resume the offensive. In Tunisia Rommel had linked up with Von Arnim, who through the winter had been fighting off the British and American forces that had advanced from the west.
While other formations of Eighth Army pressed along the coast, the New Zealand Division rested and reorganised outside Tripoli. There were changes of command in the Medical Corps. In February Col Ardagh was appointed DDMS 30 Corps, with the rank of Brigadier. He was succeeded as ADMS 2 NZ Division by Col Furkert, who in turn was succeeded as CO 6 Field Ambulance by Lt-Col Fisher.
The CCS spent three weeks at Zuara before moving on again on 26 February to cross the border into Tunisia. The unit's hospital was handed over to South Africans and the men then packed equipment on trucks lent by 15 British CCS. They were old hands at travelling by now. Usually bedding or tentage was packed on top of the load, and on this the travellers would lounge and sleep as the miles passed by. Ration boxes and water tins were always the last to go on. The inner man was well looked after even if the convoy stopped for only ten minutes.
After passing Ben Gardane---a small Arab town having as a particular feature tunnel-shaped dwellings joined together like a row of dog kennels---the trucks traversed a really atrocious road. Deep ruts and dust from passing tank-transporters frayed tempers and nerves. Everyone was tired out when the destination was reached, but the unit had to set up immediately.
The area, just off the main road and 23 kilometres from Medenine, was undulating, rocky in some parts, and in others deep in fine, powdery sand. Winds were again a source of annoyance, but fortunately stunted vegetation prevented any large-scale dust. storms. The nine wards and other departments were well dispersed as usual. This scattered layout always caused extra work in the running of power-lines to all tents and the maintenance of the two generators. It was never possible to have the departments in the same relative position, so that a new plan of wiring had to be arranged at each location. Theatres and the pre-operative ward had priority, but two days' work was necessary to wire the whole unit completely. Salvaged German cable proved very useful. At Alamein the power motors had generated continuously for long periods---once for seven days---but in this advanced position they could run for only the minimum time because of the shortage of petrol.
Since passing Tripoli the CCS had been the most advanced New Zealand unit and the most forward casualty clearing station. Now it was considered to be too far forward as there was a possibility that the enemy armour might break through and Medenine become a battleground.
At the end of February Rommel began concentrating his armour at Mareth. The danger to the advanced forces of Eighth Army became apparent. Immediate reinforcements were required and 2 NZ Division was called forward. It was an emergency move and a very fast one. Orders were received on 1 March. That day the first column was on the move, and 48 hours later the entire force had completed the 180 miles over a single road, had dug in, and was ready to defend its sector of the line. A new phase in the North African campaign was about to begin.
The Mareth Line, known as the 'African Maginot' was a formidable position. The defensive zone stretched from Zarat on the Gulf of Gabes to Ben Khradache in the Matmata Hills, and was originally built by French military engineers. It was a series of fortifications in depth which included permanent anti-tank obstacles and concrete emplacements. The whole position was served by a system of military roads which allowed quick movement for mobile reserves. The coast north of the line was unsuitable for landings, and to the south there was rough and difficult country.
It was from this base that Rommel launched his last attack in Africa. He had concentrated his two infantry divisions (90 Light and 164) and the panzer divisions of the Afrika Korps (15 and 21), and 10 Panzer Division had come down from the north. In addition, he had Italian infantry formations.
Facing these forces were 51 (Highland) Division on the coast, 7 Armoured Division, then 2 NZ Division with 5 Brigade forward and 4 Light Armoured Brigade as a mobile force, and 6 Brigade deployed in the rear. Their defences were arranged as at Alam Halfa---defence in depth with artillery and anti-tank guns deployed and tanks ready to move to pre-arranged positions when the direction of the attack became clear.
When the Division moved up on 1 March both 5 and 6 Brigades had their ADSs with them, and 5 Field Ambulance opened an MDS close to the town of Medenine. To the MDS were attached Maj Bridge's surgical team and 2 FTU under Capt Powles.(1) With Rear 2 NZ Division some 30 miles back towards Ben Gardane were 4 and 6 Field Ambulances and 4 Field Hygiene Section. On the road midway between Medenine and Ben Gardane, 1 CCS was situated, but as there was a threat of attack on the lines of communication behind Medenine General Freyberg advised DDMS 30 Corps to move the Heavy Section of the CCS, including the sisters, to a safer position some 20 miles to the east. For the same reason, 5 Field Ambulance had been sited at Medenine within the fortified perimeter, which was rather more forward than usual, being within half a mile of 6 ADS and four miles of 5 ADS.
The enemy began the expected attack at first light on 6 March. 5 Brigade knocked out several enemy tanks early in the action. The enemy heavily shelled Main Divisional HQ area, which was about one mile ahead of 5 MDS. Air activity increased and Me109s operated so close that most of the personnel of the field ambulance had their first experience of watching the four bombs drop away from each plane as it dived on its objective. Enemy aircraft exploited the cloudy conditions and sneaked in from time to time, notwithstanding the superiority of the Allied Air Force. Very few casualties were reaching the MDS, those received being mostly prisoners of war. It was unusual to get them in before our own casualties and this was an indication that the battle was going well.
The battle continued during the whole day, but the New Zealand casualties received numbered no more than seven or eight. By the end of the day the enemy had nothing to show for his costly offensive except many dead and wounded and 52 knocked-out tanks. Rommel accepted the reverse and during the night withdrew his battered forces to the Mareth defences. Throughout the night our artillery maintained their heavy fire. Next day fierce air battles took place, and from one dogfight a Macchi 202 was shot down almost within the field ambulance lines. There was a raid by eight Me109s and many bombs were dropped close by, but it was fairly obvious that the planes were avoiding the ambulance area. Red Crosses were displayed prominently on the tents, which had by then been bleached snow-white. Set at an angle, the Red Crosses could be seen miles away. From this air attack 16 casualties were brought in from adjoining units.
Eighth Army continued with its plan to take the Mareth Line. This plan envisaged a frontal assault on the line itself and an outflanking movement through the desert from an assembly area 80 miles to the south. For this outflanking role the New Zealand Corps was formed by the addition of British armoured and artillery units and the Fighting French, who had come from Chad in Central Africa in a remarkable desert trek.
The new outflanking operation closely resembled the left hook around Agheila. It involved moves by night of 27,000 men and 6000 vehicles, tanks., and guns to an assembly area in the desert, and a race to an objective over 150 miles away across little-known and difficult country.
On 11 March NZ Corps began a secret move to the assembly area in the desert. The force first moved back to Ben Gardane, which it had passed in the advance to Medenine, then southwards to the assembly area 30 miles south-west of the hill village of Foum Tatahouine. The whole force was self-contained with eleven days' food, water, and ammunition and with petrol for 350 miles. For six days the force continued to assemble in the desert, and by 18 March it was complete.
All possible measures for concealment were taken; no Red Crosses could be displayed by medical units and no tentage erected. All sick at this time were evacuated to 4 Field Ambulance, which had been established on the Ben Gardane-Foum Tatahouine road, sufficiently far away not to draw attention to the main Corps' concentration. The unit rejoined the Corps on the first day of the move from the assembly area, being relieved by Light Section 14 British CCS.
On the night of 19 March and during the 20th the Corps advanced across the undulating desert, being slowed up by bad going and minefields. There were some bomb casualties at dusk on 20 March. The advance, held up by darkness, was resumed on the 21st, contact being made with the enemy in the afternoon. The New Zealand Corps then moved up and deployed, and by nightfall armour, artillery, and infantry were facing the enemy positions covering the four-mile-wide Tebaga Gap.
On an area suitable for air evacuation, 6 Field Ambulance established its main dressing station before nightfall. Here it remained as the nucleus of a medical centre for the remainder of the operation. On the move forward to the area the unit was strafed by four enemy planes, and a member of the attached surgical team was killed and five members of the unit wounded.
An attack launched by 25 and 26 Battalions at 10 p.m. on 21 March captured Point 201, a vital feature. Casualties began to come back to 6 MDS through 6 ADS at eleven o'clock. The route of the advance, 170 miles long, had been so rough that in the medical plan it had been decided not to attempt rearward evacuation by surface transport for any save the lightest of wounded. For this reason the MDS was ordered to hold its cases until air evacuation was possible.
From the time of the first attack the MDS was kept busy. Ambulance load after ambulance load arrived from the advanced dressing stations. The 4 Field Ambulance ADS arrived and added its shelters to those of 6 Field Ambulance. Two 6 Field Ambulance teams and the CCS surgical team operated continuously all day and through the night of 22-23 March. By the 23rd the MDS was holding 287 patients. The important thing now was to get a landing ground ready for air evacuation, and 6 Field Ambulance, with the assistance of engineers and a company of 5 Field Ambulance sent forward for the purpose, cleared and levelled a very good airstrip which was ready for use by 2 p.m. on 23 March. The company of 5 Field Ambulance then established an Air Evacuation Centre in which, at all times, 30 cases were held ready to load on planes on their arrival and thus minimise the time the aircraft had to remain on the ground. Dogfights frequently took place in that area and the Bombay aircraft on the ground were a large target. The first plane landed at eleven o'clock on the morning of 24 March. Thereafter all serious cases were evacuated by air, 402 patients being flown out by the end of March. The RAF was very co-operative and was delayed only by the high winds and dust-storms which, unluckily, were almost constant at this time.
During the battle of Mareth the CCS was sited at Medenine along with 3 and 14 British CCS and 2 Indian CCS, and dealt with the casualties from the 51 Highland and 50 Northumbrian Divisions following the assault on the main Mareth defences. The casualties from the British divisions in the frontal attack on 20 March were heavy and the CCS worked at high tension, the operating theatres being continuously in action for over three days.
Extra tentage had been erected in preparation for heavy casualties and the staff of the various departments arranged so that the maximum effort could be made. At the cookhouse a 24-hour service was maintained. Meals were kept in hot-boxes for night-duty staff and patients admitted overnight. Evacuations to Ben Gardane were necessary twice daily. A limited number of special cases went by air to Tripoli from the Senem aerodrome, three and a half miles away. Casualties also came back to the unit by air from New Zealand Corps and in a hospital plane service run by an Australian air ambulance unit. New Zealand patients evacuated by air brought back the first news of the outflanking movement.
The frontal attack at Mareth did not succeed. Reinforcements were therefore sent to join New Zealand Corps and the main effort was switched to the Tebaga Gap.
For the main attack on 26 March, it was agreed that New Zealand Corps would collect and hold its wounded and that 6 Field Ambulance would become a holding unit, leaving the surgical work to 4 Field Ambulance which had set up ahead. To accompany the Corps when a break-through was achieved, 5 Field Ambulance was kept on wheels. The company of 5 Field Ambulance which had been functioning as Air Evacuation Centre was ordered to rejoin its parent unit, and 4 Field Hygiene Section took over its duties. This was a most satisfactory arrangement, the Hygiene Section having adequate cooking facilities and sufficient tents from its shower section to hold enough cases to avoid keeping aircraft on the ground too long. The MDS was only one and a half miles away, and severe cases were sent direct from there and not held at the Air Evacuation Centre overnight. Ambulance cars and extra stretcher-bearers were supplied by 6 Field Ambulance as required. The planes brought up ample blankets and stretchers to replace those sent back with patients, and hundreds of bottles of blood also came by air.
At 3 a.m. on the 26th, at moonrise, B Company, 6 Field Ambulance, under Maj Duncan, moved forward through a cleared gap in the minefields to set up again as ADS for 6 Brigade against the ancient Roman wall that stretched southward from the Djebel Tebaga across the gap to the Djebel Melab. All that remained of the wall was a high embankment of earth into which the men dug their slit trenches. A high wind sprang up at dawn and developed into a thick dust-storm that lasted all day. Throughout the morning and the early afternoon the vicinity of the dressing station was shelled and mortared, the target evidently being a road immediately to the rear. At 2 p.m. A Company, 5 Field Ambulance, serving a Brigade, moved forward one and a half miles through minefields to Kebili and set up its ADS under Capt Tyler in a well-protected position within two miles of the RAPs.
At 3 p.m. the first RAF bombers went over. Half an hour later the artillery barrage began and the roar of the squadrons overhead was drowned in the rolling gunfire. Tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade advanced through the swirling dust ahead of the New Zealand infantry battalions, many tanks passing through the ADS area and drawing enemy anti-tank fire. Soon the first ambulance cars came back over the shell-torn tracks from the RAPs, and the night-long stream of wounded had begun. There was further shelling during the night, shells and mortar bombs bursting around the dressing station to the agitation of some of the casualties lying in the shelters.
The wounded began to arrive at 4 MDS at 6 p.m. and in sufficient numbers to keep four operating teams working through the night until three o'clock next morning. Even then the staff could not rest for long as more wounded came in all day, until that night the MDS was holding 400 patients. All stretchers and blankets were in use and extra shelters were erected from truck covers and tent flies. The hot, windy day had made conditions unpleasant for the patients; and on the 28th a dust-storm raged all day, so that aircraft could not land on the airfield behind Tebaga Gap to evacuate the wounded. During the day, however, the welcome news was received that the Medenine-Hallouf-Bir Soltane road was now open and that DDMS 30 Corps (Brig Ardagh) had sent 30 ambulance cars. On the 29th five planes arrived at the airfield and these, plus the 30 ambulances, and twelve cars and eight 3-ton trucks from the field ambulances, cleared 392 patients.
Few wounded had been admitted on the 28th and 29th as the capture of Tebaga Cap was completed by the 28th, the enemy having withdrawn from the Mareth Line the previous night. The decisive defeat of the enemy at Tebaga Cap cost him many men and much material, and the turning of the line marked the beginning of the end for him in Tunisia.
On the morning of 28 March the ADSs closed and moved forward with their brigades, while 5 Field Ambulance advanced with the Corps also. The dust-storm had persisted and was still blowing when the column moved into the Tebaga Gap on the morning of the 28th. A Junkers 88 bombed the column, killing and wounding 29 men, and a few hours later an Me109 strafed it.
In the late afternoon of 28 March, 6 ADS pulled into a small side wadi and attended to the bomb casualties. It was a pleasant, fertile spot, surrounded by bare, precipitous cliffs, and the men slept amongst barley and broad beans beneath fig and olive trees. It was with some reluctance that the gear was packed and loaded for departure in the morning. The hills gradually fell away and fields of barley appeared. In the later afternoon the column spread out in desert formation and halted until dark, when it moved forward on to a tar-sealed road. A halt was made for the night at eleven o'clock. Road demolitions prevented the original intention of continuing through the night to a concentration area north-west of Gabes being carried out, although A Company, 5 Field Ambulance, following 5 Brigade on a different route from New Zealand Corps, had done so.
The 30th dawned wet and dismal. The blown-up roads were taking longer to repair than had been anticipated, and though the 6 Brigade troops were aroused at half past five, there was no move until about 10.15 a.m. The route lay through the outskirts of Gabes and the large date plantations that surround the town. Arabs swarmed in hundreds. On the 31st the ADSs moved with their brigades to bivouac areas.
When 4 and 6 Field Ambulances moved forward 41 miles on 31 March to join the Division, a company of 4 Field Ambulance, equipped with a wireless set, remained with 23 abdominal cases who were not fit to move; they were eventually flown out on 2 April. During the Mareth Line actions between 5000 and 6000 prisoners were taken, and a detachment of 4 Field Hygiene Section was attached to the prisoner-of-war cage. where they deloused prisoners and disinfected trucks.
There ensued a pause at Gabes. An MDS was opened by 5 Field Ambulance on the Gabes-El Hamma road on 1 April.
On 30 March half the CCS moved 50 miles from Medenine on to Teboulbou, five and a half miles from Gabes, and next day the rest of the unit joined it and set up ready for the next battle. On the journey the unit was able to see the defences of the Mareth Line, with its many formidable strongpoints, tank ditches, and wadis. It was no wonder that the casualties had been so heavy. At the new site many civilians, including well-dressed women and children, gave a smiling welcome to the troops.
During daylight on 3 April 5 MDS provided treatment for several patients; their numbers increased substantially during the night in consequence of enemy bombing raids. At 7 p.m. all the troops were very pleased to see a Heinkel III bomber being shot up by ack-ack. This plane, with others, had dropped bombs in the MDS area and some of the staff had had a lucky escape from serious injury. Apart from the extreme cold of the night, the continuous dropping of flares and bombs disturbed everyone's rest, and daylight was welcomed. Fortunately the medical personnel escaped injury.
At 11 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. next day there were two further enemy air raids, and many casualties, some with severe injuries, were admitted. Major Bridge spent a strenuous day operating. At 4 p.m., when he was working on one case, the lighting plant broke down just as he was seeking a bleeding axillary artery. The operating tent which was sealed up against dust was plunged into darkness, but he finished the operation by the light of a hurricane lamp. At 6 p.m. Captain Douglas took over from Major Bridge, who returned to the field ambulance. Many admissions during the day came from 168 British Field Ambulance, and included Air Force and Royal Navy personnel, Indians, Free French and Mauritians, besides New Zealanders.
The weather was fine and hot. Swimming and leave parties from closed medical units went to Gabes which, though badly damaged, was full of interest for the troops, providing them with their first glimpse of a French town. Many of the famous Chasseurs d'Afrique were strolling about the streets.
On 5 April the men of the medical units were given an outline of the operations ahead, in which 6 Field Ambulance, under Lt-Col Fisher, was again to be the MDS with the Division, opening en route as required. On the 6th 30 Corps would deliver an attack on the enemy positions at Wadi Akarit, a wadi running inland for about ten miles in a south-westerly direction from a point on the coast some 20 miles north of Gabes. Extended from the Gabes-El Hamma road to just south of Wadi Akarit, 2 NZ Division waited, ready to advance immediately 30 Corps breached the enemy line.
The attack on the Wadi Akarit positions opened in the early hours of 6 April. Throughout the morning RAF fighters roared over in large numbers. The weather was fine, but with a hot, dust-laden wind. Although the New Zealand infantry was not committed to this battle, some casualties from British and other units came through 5 MDS. Again 50 and 51 Divisions suffered heavy casualties and our CCS worked with 14 British CCS in dealing with them. Accommodation was taxed to the full, every stitch of canvas being utilised. The operating theatres worked continuously for three days.
By the morning of the 7th a bridgehead across the wadi was established, and the Division moved forward through the 30 Corps positions and on northwards. Under the command of Divisional Reserve Group, 6 Field Ambulance MDS started to move at 8 a.m. Progress was slow, the column crawling through scattered fields of barley toward the Djebel Roumana, a range of hills some 15 miles north of El Hamma. Large numbers of prisoners were passed. Many Italians with vehicles were driving themselves, but the Germans were all under guard. The weather was hot, and the prisoners, trudging back through the dust, looked utterly exhausted. Taking pity on one Italian youth, the occupants of an MDS truck offered him a drink of water, and immediately the truck was surrounded by a thirsty, pleading horde.
Negotiating minefields at the foot of the hills, the Division entered a gap between the Djebel Roumana and the northern spurs of the Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa, lying immediately to the west. The MDS passed through the gap just after sunset, the vehicles jammed nose to tail in the dusty defile, and emerged on the open plain to the north.
The route continued over rolling, sparsely grassed country. A bitterly cold wind sprang up, with clouds of dust, and the troops sat huddled in the vehicles next day as the column slowly wound its way onwards, skirting the eastern edge of a great salt lake. At 2 p.m. the column halted, the leading armour having encountered an enemy gunline along the Sfax-Maknassy railway, which ran east and west across the route. Then five enemy fighter-bombers appeared, bombing and strafing units ahead of the field ambulance and causing a number of casualties. The MDS was opened near the marshy edges of the north-eastern end of the lake. There was no further move on the 8th, and the MDS remained open. the men digging in under the gloomy gaze of bedouin in a nearby encampment.
About 4 p.m. casualties from the action at the railway be-an to arrive. Most of them were Germans. About fifty were treated, many requiring surgical operations.
The reserve medical companies halted about 1 p.m. on the 9th and stood in desert formation on ground pulverised by countless wheels into a fine dust that rose in clouds on the chilly wind.
At first light on the 10th the Division was ordered to move northwest and trap the enemy forces in Sfax by cutting the main road at La Hencha, some 20 miles north of the town. HQ 6 Field Ambulance went into reserve and remained with the patients, 4 Field Ambulance having been ordered by wireless to join the Divisional Reserve Group as MDS.
After evacuating to the MDS a few casualties from the night's bombing, A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, followed the Division and moved rapidly northward. Passing the tarpaulin shelters of HQ Company, the company traversed vast flower-covered plains that flashed with colour to the skylines, and in the later afternoon entered a region of olive groves. There seemed no end to the olive trees. They stretched in lines away into the distance, and down the long vistas surged vehicles of all descriptions. A halt was made ten miles from La Hencha.
To everyone's astonishment the company was informed that it was on the flank, that German forces were in the vicinity, and that it would have to provide pickets. Orderlies and stretcher-bearers spent the night rambling through the grove with a souvenir Italian rifle. Enemy aircraft continued their attentions during the evening. Invisible in the darkness, they flew low over the trees, dropping occasional bombs and firing occasional bursts of tracer.
The only damage done was to the olive trees, several of which were blown out of the ground.
A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, moved at 7 p.m. on the 11th, and after travelling nine miles through the groves and then along cactus-lined lanes, camped in a field west of the La Hencha-El Djem road. Several accident cases were brought in and treated. The company was away before dawn on the 12th, moving northward in desert formation. Eight miles only were covered, however, when the whole brigade was held up by the column in front having to break down to single file on the road north of El Djem. During the whole day A Company covered only 15 miles and halted in the evening one mile west of El Djem, in sight of the ruins of a huge amphitheatre.
By this time HQ 6 Field Ambulance had evacuated its patients by ambulance cars to Sfax and moved up, joining 2 NZ Divisional Administration Group on the 11th, and reaching La Hencha on the 12th. The two attached sections, 2 NZ FTU and 1 NZ CCS surgical team, left to operate with 4 Field Ambulance. 6 MDS opened at La Hencha, where it remained until the morning of the 14th, staging patients back along the main road to Sfax. There was little for the staff to do, and many of the men moved around among the local Arabs, bartering 'V' cigarettes for fresh eggs.
Still in desert formation, divisional units left El Djem early on the 13th. It was a cold morning, with a clear sky, and as the trucks moved away over the soaking grass all eyes were fixed on the old colosseum, which towered, overwhelmingly impressive, in the sun-suffused dawn mist. After five miles of cross-country going the units turned on to the road and travelled northward in column of route. Though Sousse had been occupied early on the 12th, and patrols had pushed on eight miles beyond before encountering the enemy's rearguard, the advance continued to be slow. The crowded road had become the only practicable route, the surrounding countryside being cut by deep wadis and watercourses.
As the column wound through Sousse the people lined the road, cheering and waving flags. A bulky but supple Arab girl performed a seemingly endless Salome dance on a low embankment, bringing roars of approval from the passing troops. An old Arab, seated on a donkey cart, waved a wine bottle, between deep draughts of its contents. He, too, received delighted greetings.
Sousse fell behind. Units continued northward along the main road, stopping for a meal in small copses of olive trees, and moving on to stage about two miles south of Sidi bou Ali. Late in the afternoon of the 14th A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, moved forward four miles and opened the ADS in another olive grove west of the road, while B Company, 5 Field Ambulance, set up on the Enfidaville-Kairouan road.
When the Division moved through Sousse on 13 April, 4 Field Ambulance left the surgical team and one company to follow on when it had disposed of the patients. When the advance halted on the 14th, the ambulance set up on a very good site just off the main tar-sealed road, half a mile north of the village of Sidi bou Ali, and remained the open MDS for the attack on Takrouna.
The rush at Akarit was no sooner over than the CCS was on the move again through the picturesque little town of Gabes, with its green groves of palms, to an olive grove south of Mahares., where it remained for two days resting.
The whole countryside was covered with olive plantations. One large house, the centre of one of the largest plantations, was visited and hospitality dispensed by a cultured French family, very proud of their home and very relieved at the departure of German officers who had been billeted on them just a few days before. A large olive-oil refinery was seen nearby. After a very short stop in the olive grove, the CCS went on to 15 kilometres north of El Djem. In brilliant sunshine, the trip was the best the unit had yet made.
In a clear, blue sky swallows and larks sang cheery songs of spring. Flowers grew in great profusion---by the acre. After the small seaport of Sfax was passed, they appeared in even greater numbers. Here wild poppies grew so thick as to give the appearance of a carpet of pure red stretching for acres under the olive trees. Other flowers growing in large masses made a brilliant picture.
In such surroundings the convoy halted just beyond El Djem, 40 miles north of Sfax. The new site was on the top of a gently sloping hill commanding a view of distant hills flushed red with poppies. There were numbers of native villages nearby, and the inhabitants as ever pestered the troops for tea, sugar, and food. The beauty of the site was spoilt by its proximity to one of the main operational airfields, to which the Germans paid particular attention, coming over most evenings to drop high-explosive and anti-personnel bombs. Some of the latter landed in the unit area. After a heavy raid one night, casualties were admitted from the aerodrome; they included members of an American squadron which had most successfully intercepted German planes near Cape Bon the day before.
The Axis retreat had now ended. The enemy occupied strong defensive positions in the high, rough country which meets the coast at Enfidaville. The period 14-19 April was spent by the Division in preparing for its part in the general Allied offensive, in which the Eighth Army's role was to exert heavy pressure to keep as many of the enemy as possible fully engaged on its front. There was little activity for the medical units. Patrols were active and the New Zealand infantry advanced its position slightly, but few casualties were received.
The attack was timed for the night of 19-20 April. Arrangements were made for extra supplies of blood and extra stretchers and ambulance cars at the ADSs. At nightfall on the 19th the tanks that had been squatting somnolently in the tall grass round the ADS area moved out in column, and tanks, trucks, and guns began pouring up the rough road toward the jagged hills to the north, where scattered gun-flashes flickered through a haze of moonlight.
A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, under Capt J. L. Wright, packed and loaded equipment early in the evening, and at half past nine moved forward and reopened a few hundred yards west of the Kairouan-Enfidaville road, at a point five miles due south of Takrouna. Digging in was extremely difficult, as the clayey ground, soaked by past rains, had caked to a cement-like hardness in the sun. Deep cracks ran in all directions, sheltering revoltingly huge centipedes. Similarly 5 ADS, under Maj T. J. MacCormac,(2) had moved up on the morning of the 19th and occupied a site well 1 hidden by a cactus hedge.
The barrage opened at 11 p.m. At the ADSs all men not detailed for duty bedded down. However, sleep was out of the question; in addition to the uproar, the night was stifling and mosquitoes descended in swarms on the slit trenches. In the early hours an enemy heavy gun opened fire from the hills. The shells whined past, crashing along a track to the left. The first casualties arrived at 6 ADS at 1.30 a.m. and at 5 ADS half an hour later; from then on they came back in a steady stream, keeping medical officers and. teams of orderlies working continuously throughout the night. The ambulance drivers and orderlies were having a nerve-wracking time bringing loads of wounded men from the RAPs over tracks that were frequently shelled and mortared.
Casualties from 6 Brigade were not numerous and 6 ADS was clear by 11 a.m., when 88 cases had been handled, but 5 ADS was more difficultly placed. At 4 a.m. it received advice that the RAPs were flooded with casualties, and it sent forward all available transport---three ambulance cars and six 3-ton trucks. Six additional ambulance cars were sent forward from the MDS to the ADS at 6 a.m., enabling evacuation to proceed smoothly. By half past eight 130 cases had been received by 5 ADS, and wounded continued to come in until 2.30 a.m. on 21 April, after which there were only occasional admissions. The total number of admissions to 5 ADS on 20 April was 276.
As these casualties were all transferred to 4 MDS, that unit was kept very busy. On 20 April 334 battle casualties, mostly New Zealanders, were admitted and treated. Both surgical teams worked long hours, but there was no hold-up or undue delay in attending to cases. Patients were evacuated to 1 NZ CCS, eight miles north of El Djem, along a good bitumen road. Extra ambulance cars were available, and so at no time was there undue congestion at the MDS.
At El Djem 1 NZ CCS was the most forward clearing station and acted more as a staging post. Special cases, such as ophthalmic and neurosurgical, were admitted without prior surgical treatment and dealt with by the attached 1 British Mobile Ophthalmic and 4 British Neurosurgical units respectively. Also attached were a field surgical and a field transfusion unit, both British. Evacuation was by road to Sfax, thence to 3 NZ General Hospital at Tripoli, but later upwards of 50 patients daily were loaded in transport planes returning from El Djem to Tripoli.
On the 25th, when 6 Brigade was extending its positions, a sudden rush of casualties, commencing at 4 a.m., kept 6 ADS busy until late afternoon. It was Easter Sunday and Anzac Day. Services were held by the padres, and red poppies were placed on the graves in the ADS cemetery.
Fifth Brigade had been relieved on the night of 22-23 April, and on the 26th arrangements were made for the relief of 6 Brigade. By 3.25 a.m. on the 27th the change-over was completed. The ADSs then moved into reserve with the Division.
On 29 and 30 April the CCS made its last move forward in the North African campaign, to the north of the village of Sidi bou Ali. Here midst fields of barley, surrounded by olive groves and spiky cactus fences, the tents were erected for the last time in Tunisia. This was the thirteenth time the unit had set up since leaving Base. It was now at the end of the long 2000-mile trip from Cairo. The unit was again the most advanced CCS. Twelve miles ahead loomed the mountainous heights behind Enfidaville. From them the sound of artillery echoed back day and night.
A major attack by First Army was planned for 6 May. The role of Eighth Army remained unchanged---to exert pressure and thus prevent the enemy from transferring troops from its front to oppose First Army. Accordingly, 2 NZ Division moved north-west by day on the 4th and 5th to assemble in the vicinity of Djebibina. No major operation was to be carried out, the intention being that the Division should advance to threaten the gap in the hills before Pont du Fahs.
On 5 May 5 Field Ambulance opened an MDS a few miles behind Djebibina. At Sidi bou Ali 4 MDS remained open; 1 NZ CCS had moved up adjacent to this unit on 30 April. This position was only ten miles from the forward defended localities.
At dawn on 6 May the First Army attack was launched along the axis of the Medjez el Bab-Tunis road. Before it the enemy defences crumpled. Tunis and Bizerta fell on 7 May and British armour swept across the base of Cape Bon peninsula before the enemy could regroup. On the southern flank of the attack, 5 Brigade and New Zealand artillery carried out advances and sustained some casualties, 52 being admitted to 5 MDS in five days. They were evacuated to 4 MDS and 1 CCS at Sidi bou Ali.
On 8 May 2 NZ Division was ordered back into reserve near Enfidaville, and 5 Brigade was left to hand over its positions and follow on, while 5 Field Ambulance remained for a few days until its serious cases were fit to move and then rejoined the Division.
The Allied success in the north made the position of the enemy infantry on the Enfidaville front hopeless. On 13 May Marshal Messe, now in command on this front, surrendered unconditionally to General Freyberg. Resistance ceased and over 31,000 prisoners were taken on the southern front. For many days prisoners, both German and Italian, were marching back to prisoner-of-war cages in the rear. To the north the Royal Navy and Allied Air Force prevented evacuation from Cape Bon peninsula, and altogether over 200,000 prisoners and a vast amount of equipment were captured.
An eerie silence seemed to hang over the countryside. It was difficult to realise that it was all over; that there would be no more 'up the blue'. Thousands of prisoners were moving back along the main road, driving their own vehicles. It was noticeable that as they passed a British cemetery near 6 Field Ambulance they saluted and showed it marked respect.
In Tunisia part of 4 Field Hygiene Section was kept very busy arranging the disinfesting of prisoners. At Bir Soltane 3000 of them were examined for signs of lice and sorted into 'clean' and 'unclean' groups. The latter were treated in groups of twenty with a solution of kerosene and soft soap, and their clothing steam-disinfested and dusted with lice powder. This work had to be done at top speed as it was necessary that all prisoners be treated before they were moved to the rear areas. All vehicles carrying prisoners were sprayed out with formalin to prevent the spread of lice. The proportion of lousy Italian prisoners to Germans was about nine to one, the Germans being anxious to get cleaned up but the Italians being apathetic. All these precautions were not designed merely for the comfort of the enemy troops but were an effort to prevent any typhus epidemic, and in this they were successful.
After 13 May units were able to organise trips to places of interest. Parties visited Takrouna and Kairouan, and a number of men made unofficial visits to Tunis by hitch-hiking. Takrouna was smashed and its atmosphere fetid. Kairouan, ranking high among Islam's holy cities, was full of interest. Soldiers were permitted to inspect the Grand Mosque, with its huge chandelier of oil lamps, and view the city from the minaret.
Tunis was crowded with troops of all descriptions, and consequently the leave quotas for units of the Division were very limited. The medical units were able to send small parties. The harbour was a scene of ruin, with ships sunk at the wharves; but the town itself, with its fine buildings and wide, tree-lined streets, was practically undamaged. The visit included Carthage, where the party inspected the Roman and Carthaginian ruins.
The sisters of the CCS also visited Tunis, going up one day and returning the next. They spent the night with an Italian family who provided beds and cooked the rations which they took with them. They enjoyed seeing the town, though shops and most other places of interest were closed. Leaving early on the return trip, they were able to see much of the country where the last fighting had taken place. Later the sisters had another trip to Tunis to witness the Victory March, with General Eisenhower taking the salute.
Though neither 1 nor 2 General Hospital was called upon to follow up Eighth Army in its advance from Alamein to Tunis, each worked hard dealing with casualties throughout the campaign and could claim a share in the glorious achievement.
In 1942 1 General Hospital admitted 10,881 patients at Helwan, while 2 General Hospital, a smaller hospital, had 6377 admissions at Gerawla, Nazareth, and El Ballah. 3 General Hospital treated 11,306 patients in 256 days at Choukri Ghanum, before moving up to Tripoli, where it admitted 5402 patients in 170 days.
The number of patients alone does not sum up the work of the hospitals. At 1 General Hospital, for instance, the number of outpatients was 7310, and a total of 2880 medical boards were completed in 1942. Over 1,000,000 meals were supplied to patients and staff during the year, and the quantity of food and fuel used was over ten tons daily. More than 3600 jobs on repairs and maintenance were completed, some taking only half an hour, others six weeks.
Leaving Beirut on 2 March, the staff of 3 General Hospital, after staging in the Canal Area, arrived in parties by hospital ship at Tripoli in March. Their new location was at Suani ben Adem, twelve miles from Tripoli and two miles from NZ Advanced Base. On it was a large stone fort. This building later became the administration block, containing operating theatres, X-ray, dispensary, ordnance, steward's store, hospital and QM offices.
At Tripoli the unloading of the hospital's equipment from ship to lighter began on 1 April, and by the evening of the 5th it was all on the hospital site without being damaged by air raids on the harbour. Work now went ahead rapidly. As there was no Royal Engineers service, all plumbing, joinery, and electrical work had to he carried out by the staff of the hospital, and the result showed their skill and initiative. It was difficult to obtain engineers' supplies, and material from salvage dumps was adapted to suit requirements. Stoves, for example, were not available, and two acquired from an abandoned Italian ship were brought into use. For wards EPIP tents joined together had to take the place of hospital expanding-pattern tents.
Before the hospital opened some of the staff were attached to 48 British General Hospital, whose staff was hard-pressed. Although regarded at first with some suspicion, they soon earned expressions of appreciation and approval. On 10 April, in response to an urgent request, 100 patients were admitted to 3 General Hospital. On the 14th 300 beds were occupied, only four equipped beds being empty. At the end of the month all 900 beds were equipped. By this time all departments were functioning except dental, massage, and occupational therapy. These opened during May.
On 2 May the New Zealand Minister of Defence, the Hon. F. Jones, visited the hospital and expressed his appreciation of its work and that of the other medical units during the North African campaign. The Minister was accompanied by Brig H. S. Kenrick, who had returned from a tour of duty in New Zealand and had been reappointed DMS 2 NZEF on 17 April, upon the return of Brig K. MacCormick to New Zealand.
48 the African campaign drew towards it end, the tempo of the hospital activities increased. The number of patients treated grew as battle casualties arrived from the forward areas, both by road and by air. Frequent evacuations by hospital ship, however, prevented the bed state from rising to an unmanageable figure.
Throughout May and succeeding months the heat proved most trying, a temperature as high as 119 degrees being recorded on one occasion inside the reception tent, with a temperature of 130 degrees outside. Margarine ran like water in the mess tents, and all food and drinks were strongly laced with salt to compensate for perspiration loss. Situated near the hospital was the Convalescent Depot, under Lt-Col Noakes, and the staff of the depot were likewise tried by the heat.
On 16 June the hospital was informed of the anticipated visit to the locality of 'General Lyon', and elaborate arrangements were made for his arrival. Included amongst these preparations was the closing of the main Tripoli road for two days. This and other arrangements provoked much speculation as to the identity of the mysterious General, but all were convinced that he must be a very high ranking official. On 19 June the air was thick with planes apparently engaged on an endless patrol of the skies, and the arrival at Castel Benito of one plane, with heavy escort, further confirmed the popular belief.
On the following day the hospital was visited by General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, and Sir James Grigg, Secretary of State for War in the United Kingdom Government. But the identity of General Lyon remained a secret until the 21st, when 3 General Hospital paraded for His Majesty King George VI, who was visiting the troops in North Africa. Officers and other ranks, both patients and staff, were drawn up on either side of the road as His Majesty passed on his way to inspect 1 Armoured Division. On the return journey King George, who was accompanied by General Montgomery, stopped while Col Gower was introduced to him. After asking a few questions regarding casualties treated in this site, the King reviewed the hospital staff as he drove slowly through the lines.
Any hopes at 3 General Hospital that the unit was shortly to move were sadly dashed when it was disclosed in June that a crisis expansion of 200 beds was to he provided for. The expansion to 1100 beds was completed by 10 July, the date of the invasion of Sicily, but the first convoy of any size from this campaign did not arrive until 20 July. Casualties were not as numerous as expected, but a block in the lines of evacuation caused the bed-state to rise until on 13 August it reached 1071, the highest number of patients in hospital at any one time up to that date. In August there were 1740 admissions, but with the campaign in Sicily successfully concluded the numbers decreased.
Of their life in Tripolitania one of the sisters wrote:
'Fleas were not the only enemy occupants of our territory. We peered fearfully under the canvas flaps of our EPIP tents, set amidst the gum trees, for scorpions and other reptiles, and then braced ourselves to deal with all possible hazards. These we were told included booby-traps, fifth columnists, faulty sanitation, dehydrated cabbage, and the RAF.
'The first two we did not meet. The third refused to be attacked on our own level and kept caving in. Dehydration we do not discuss, we were not enthusiasts; and only the timid among us scanned the sky above our roofless shower house, for aircraft flying lower than 1000 feet, and slower than 200 miles per hour.
'We were a stopping place when the Division returned from Tunisia. For three days and nights the battle raged, and the mess staff strove gallantly to keep up the supplies of food and drink for the hordes of bronzed warriors who thronged our mess. On the fourth morning the sole remaining sign of the siege was the place where our piano had formerly stood. Wearily and thankfully we returned to nursing as a full-time occupation.
'On 21 June, dressed in formal white, two rows of us stood gladly in the sweltering sun to see the King smile at us as he drove slowly along Mussolini's Libyan highway. Earlier in the day our Matron(3) was presented to His Majesty at the parade in the Piazza Italia, Tripoli. Leslie Henson, Mae Craven, Vivien Leigh, and several other celebrities came out one day to entertain us. With traditional colonial hospitality we turned on rain, which leaked through the tents over the performers and audience impartially. The sun shone, however, for Noel Coward. when he entertained us and the temperature hit 110 degrees with no effort at all. . . .
'July saw the invasion of Sicily, and then Tommy casualties began to arrive. Practically all these patients developed malaria. having been infected before being wounded. The incidence of malaria among the staff was low, for our precautions were good. Nets, mosquito leggings, and long sleeves after sundown---not to mention mepacrine, which added to our already dehydrated appearance that delicate shade of yellow that indulgence in that drug brings.'
On 15-17 May the Division began the 2000-mile journey to Egypt. The medical units dispersed through the convoys provided a medical service for the five groups, admitting and treating patients en route. The route lay inland through Kairouan and along the South London Road and 'Y' Track to the main coast road at la Skhirra. From la Skhirra the convoys followed the coast.
Staging areas for the returning Division at intervals of approximately 120 miles were cleared of mines, and all troops were warned of the danger of mines and booby-traps in the vicinity of these areas. After the first stage, during which a number of vehicles were held up by tire blowouts, the journey was uneventful. At Tripoli a halt of one day was called for rest and vehicle maintenance. Leave was granted, but few availed themselves of it: the resources of the town had been exhausted long before. Patriotic parcels were issued and the Kiwi Concert Party put on its latest show for each group.
The convoys pushed on past Homs and Misurata and around the Gulf of Sirte. Wherever there were settlements the Italian colonists stood at the roadside and cried out for food. Families possessing attractive daughters had them standing appealingly at their gates. and they received the lion's share. However, there were some high-principled stalwarts among the troops who, resolutely crushing the promptings of their instincts, ignored the visions of beauty in distress and threw what they had to older or less attractive supplicants. The area near Nofilia and, a few miles farther east, the scene of the Christmas festivities were passed. It was difficult to realise that not five months had elapsed since they had passed that way westward.
Another day was spent checking over the vehicles in staging areas around Benghazi. The majority of the men had not seen Benghazi. Others had seen it only as prisoners of war. All wished to see it or see it again, and the leave trucks were crowded.
For the remainder of the month the Division moved steadily eastward. The road led over the high Tocra Pass and the Barce Pass, and on to Derna and the Derna Pass, from which the view of the sea and coastline was startlingly beautiful. The Bir Hacheim and El Adem turn-off was passed, and the seemingly endless column wound through Tobruk, where the harbour was still full of derelict ships and masts that stuck desolately out of the water. The half-demolished bridge outside Bardia had not been repaired, but an easily negotiable detour ran beside it. At Fort Capuzzo the dilapidated remains of Mussolini's monuments looked more pathetic than ever.
The Division crossed the border and streamed down the Sollum Pass and on past the foot of Halfaya Pass, where, six months earlier, the vehicles had waited, jammed nose to tail, while Messerschmitts strafed the troops on the top of the escarpment. Buqbuq, Sidi Barrani, and Mersa Matruh were left behind. At Gerawla much of the old tentage of the field hospital operated by 2 General Hospital in 1941-42 was still standing.
Along the desert highway the convoys travelled through scenes long familiar to the New Zealand troops. Baggush, Fuka, El Daba, El Alamein, the Burg el Arab turn-off and the El Imayid staging area, all had their memories, though El Alamein struck a strange note with its peaceful silence and vast, neatly laid-out cemetery.
After spending the last night of the journey at the Ikingi Maryut staging area, near Amiriya, the head of the 300-mile column of worn and battered vehicles moved along the desert road to Cairo and Maadi and began to disperse through the Maadi Camp area. The medical units arrived at the camp on 31 May and 1 June. The units occupied a medical area adjoining 23 Field Ambulance.
The North African campaign was over. It had been a campaign in which the medical units had been compelled to adapt themselves to widely varied conditions. The ADMS reported, with particular reference to the month of April:
'The month has been an interesting one from the medical administrative point of view as it started with an extremely rapid advance with all the problems of distance to contend with, and ended with a set-piece battle of the 1914-18 type. The divisional medical units showed that they could cope with both types of warfare equally well, and at no time was there difficulty in dealing with casualties.'
Day leave to Cairo was immediately granted, and preliminary arrangements made to despatch the men on 14 days' special leave. The nominal rolls of those returning to New Zealand on furlough under the Ruapehu scheme were received. When the men affected were advised a series of congratulatory and farewell carousals began. The first parties left on special leave on 5 June, and throughout the rest of the month representatives of the field medical units were to be found all over the Middle East, from the cabarets of Cairo and Alexandria to the hills and old towns of Palestine and Syria. Another campaign was behind them. Where the next would take them they did not know, and for the time being they did not care.
As a Corps unit, 1 NZ CCS did not accompany the Division back to Egypt but remained in Tunisia until 23 May, when it moved the 380 miles back to Suani ben Adem, near 3 General Hospital and 1 Convalescent Depot, and established a 200-bed hospital to receive casualties from the coming invasion of Sicily. For several weeks all members of the unit were engaged in erecting the hospital. The work was done mostly in the mornings as the afternoons were excessively hot. Departments were set up close together on both sides of a road through the eucalyptus plantation.
It was now mid-summer. As June passed the days grew progressively hotter. Temperatures soared to 120 degrees in the shade and never fell much below 100 for days on end. Nights brought little relief. A strong wind known as the 'jebeli' was experienced on several occasions. Blowing from the burning sands of the Sahara Desert, it came sweeping through the trees as a searing hot blast, and usually lasted two or three days. Even in the shade most things became too hot to touch. Tins of water could be kept moderately cool only by placing them in a hole covered with wet sacks. Motor vehicles had difficulties on the road as petrol vapourised before it could reach the engine. In such enervating weather the long ride to the beach on the old German diesel truck was like a trip through an oven. With heat such as this the grapes soon ripened, although some varieties were burned on the vine. Each evening many of the men would disappear over the fields in the direction of the vineyards. Later they would return laden with bags, kits, and shirts bulging with large bunches of choice grapes. Everyone was certainly making up for the opportunity lost the previous summer when the unit had to leave the Lebanon. Grapes and fresh fruit were also part of Army rations at this time; peanuts were issued by the sackful.
Early in July there was a request that a surgical team from the CCS be attached to 30 Corps for landing operations. This clearly indicated that an invasion was about to take place. On 6 July a team comprising Majors M. H. Aiken(4) and L. A. Bennett,(5) Corporal C. W. Grey,(6) Privates R. L. Roberts(7) and F. W. Palmer,(8) under the command of Major W. M. Brown, left to join 174 Field Ambulance at Tripoli. The team had no surgical equipment as its personnel carried only their personal requirements and rations. Four days after their departure word came that there had been a landing in Sicily. The New Zealand party was included in the second landings on 11 July. Originally it was thought that they would be ashore only two days but, as events turned out, eleven days elapsed before they left Sicily. The only New Zealanders to take part in the Sicilian campaign, they were on the move practically all the time, visiting British field ambulances and other medical units. For a few hours they would work as a relieving surgical team and would then pack up and move on to some other unit where surgical cases were banking up. On 19 July they were ordered to return, since instructions had come through that no 2 NZEF personnel were to be in Sicily. The team sailed from Syracuse on 21 July on the hospital carrier St Julien, and arrived at Suani ben Adem on the evening of the following day. All were exhausted and ready for a well-earned rest.
The CCS received 132 of the casualties from the Sicilian campaign on 20 July. These were transferred from a hospital ship at Tripoli by 1 NZ Motor Ambulance Convoy which had also remained in the Tripoli area. Towards the end of the month warning came that the CCS was no longer required in Tripolitania. This was welcome news.
On 6 and 7 August the unit left, part by the hospital ship Llandovery Castle and part by road, to return to Egypt and rejoin the New Zealanders in Maadi Camp. Pleasant though it was at Suani, everyone was feeling the monotony of the area and longing to return to Cairo. Much interest was taken in the future of the Division. Some were sure it would now go to England. Others thought it would return to Crete and Greece, perhaps via Turkey. Some were positive that Italy would be the destination. Not a few were certain the Division would return to New Zealand. None, however, dreamt that there was still two years' work ahead.
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