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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy


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THE 4 Field Ambulance and 4 Field Hygiene Section embarked on HMT Dunera at Lyttelton on 5 January 1940. The Dunera was a regular Army troopship owned by the British India Line and was used before the war to take drafts of British troops to Indian and Eastern stations. The other five transports conveying the First Echelon overseas were passenger liners—Orion, Strathaird, Empress of Canada, Rangitata, and Sobieski—and on them were medical groups, each including three nursing sisters chosen by the Matron-in-Chief, Miss I. G. Willis,1 to run the ships' hospitals. The naval escort for the first stage of the voyage was HMS Ramillies, HMAS Canberra, and HMS Leander.

The spacious promenade and sun decks which catered for the former tourists on these liners were lacking on the Dunera, with the result that the space available for both training and recreation was limited. Cabins were allotted to officers and senior NCOs, but most of the men were less happily accommodated in troop decks. Here the men were divided into messes at long wooden tables, averaging from 14 to 18 men to each mess. At night they slept in hammocks slung above the tables. The hammocks were stowed away, Navy fashion, at reveille in lockers in the ship's hold. Officers and senior NCOs fed in dining rooms, where they were attended by Indian waiters in a picturesque uniform of long flowing blue coat over a spotless white gown, complete with a broad waist sash and turban. In the men's messes conditions were not nearly so comfortable.

In their leisure time on the ship the men read books, played card games or ‘housie’ (the only form of gambling with official sanction), wrote letters, played deck quoits, sunbathed, or leaned over the ship's rails watching the sea. Canteens did a brisk trade in cigarettes, tobacco, chocolate, and beer.

After the men had got over the seasickness induced by the heavy seas as they passed through Bass Strait into the Australian Bight, page 15 they began to settle down to shipboard life. When the liners pulled in to the wharves at Fremantle, almost everyone was given shore leave. It was a brief stay, but the people of Perth, a few miles inland, did their utmost to make it a full one and threw their city open to the visiting troops. They took men to their homes or drove them in cars around the city and its picturesque surroundings. They provided refreshments and meals, and in the evening numerous dance halls were filled with the city's attractive girls. Few will forget Perth's warm welcome. Throughout the war this hospitality was given to all New Zealand troops on their outward and homeward voyages, especially to those on the hospital ships.

An announcement on 23 January that Egypt was the destination of the First Echelon put an end to many shipboard rumours. Lectures on Egypt, the religion and customs of its people, and the precautions to be taken against disease in that country proved very interesting.

The convoy anchored at Colombo on 30 January. No sooner had the transports moored than they were surrounded by swarms of small boats laden with a varied assortment of curios and fruit. For most of the troops it was their first experience of native vendors and their wiles. Sales were made after much haggling. Shrewd practices in the boats below drew a bombardment of pineapple tops from the troops on deck—after that the pineapples were sold with the tops removed. Men from the Dunera had shore leave on 31 January, after a long wait for passenger lighters to take them from the roadstead. Most spent the greater part of their leave sightseeing or strolling around the native quarter looking for bargains in poky little shops. Another popular leave diversion was rickshaw racing.

The voyage across the Arabian Sea from Colombo was calm and uneventful. In the Red Sea the troops could see stretches of bare, rugged coastline on each side—Eritrea and Arabia. On the run to Port Tewfik the convoy increased speed, leaving the Dunera, the slowest ship, to bring up the rear. At Port Tewfik a swarm of Egyptian hawkers tried to dispose of oranges, cigarettes, wallets, Turkish delight, and toffees. Besides the warnings given in medical lectures, the dirtiness of the boatmen and the filth on the wharf deterred most of the troops from making purchases. Scrambling page 16 amid the dirt and refuse on the wharf, small children and adults begged baksheesh from the troops and fought for coins and cigarettes thrown down to them. Most of the men were weary of life on board ship and were glad when orders came to disembark.

Voyage of Second Echelon to United Kingdom

When 5 Field Ambulance and 1 General Hospital embarked with other units of the Second Echelon at Wellington on 1 May, they went aboard the Aquitania and Empress of Britain respectively. The other ships in the convoy were the Empress of Japan and Andes. The naval escort consisted of HMAS Canberra, HMAS Australia, and HMS Leander.

At 6 a.m. on 2 May the Aquitania and Empress of Britain moved away from the wharves and out into the stream. It was a quieter farewell than the First Echelon had received. After waiting all night in the hope of a last glimpse of the men going overseas, relatives and friends were allowed on the wharf for a last-minute exchange of goodbyes. The Trentham Camp Band farewelled each ship with ‘Roll Out the Barrel’, popular at that time.

Rough seas in the Tasman for the first two days of the voyage caused some seasickness amongst the troops. The men were given time to settle down before training was begun, the first parades on board being for the allotment of boat stations and boat-drill practice.

On 5 May the convoy was joined off Sydney Heads by the Queen Mary and the Mauretania carrying part of the Australian contingent, and on 7 May by the Empress of Canada from Melbourne. In excellent weather the troops carried out shipboard training, consisting largely of deck games and physical drill. Lectures were frequently given on medical subjects. Entertainments, including concerts and community sings, were held regularly throughout the voyage.

The convoy anchored off Fremantle on 10 May. The biggest ship of the New Zealand section, the Aquitania, lay at anchor in the roadstead two miles off shore, while the other ships berthed at the wharves. By special arrangement a pleasure steamer, a tug, and a Dutch oil tanker were obtained to transport the men on the Aquitania to the wharf, although it was impossible to give all of them leave.

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As with the First Echelon, the people of Perth and Fremantle were again generous in their hospitality. At a number of halls in both cities light refreshments were made available free to the troops, cars were lent for sightseeing tours, dances were organised, and the men welcomed to private homes.

At midday on 12 May the convoy sailed from Fremantle, headed north-west for Colombo. On the 15th, when the ships were just south-west of Cocos Islands, orders were received for the course to be changed. The convoy then steamed in a westerly direction towards South Africa. Naturally this change in course gave rise to a great deal of speculation on board: whether the convoy had been diverted because the troops were needed in the United Kingdom, or because the ships were needed in the Atlantic, or because of the dangers of the Red Sea passage in the likelihood of war with Italy; there were rumours, too, of the presence in the northern Indian Ocean of an enemy raider.

When Cape Town was reached on the morning of 26 May, the Aquitania was again unable to berth and seas were too high for the troops to be taken off by launch, so with the Queen Mary the ship sailed on the 27th for Simonstown, about 25 miles away. The men on these ships could not be granted as much leave as those on the transports berthed at Cape Town. Here Lt-Col Kenrick left 5 Field Ambulance, flying overland to Cairo to take up the position of acting ADMS, 2 NZEF (ME), during the absence of Col K. MacCormick2 in the United Kingdom to make medical arrangements for the Second Echelon. Maj J. M. Twhigg took over command of the unit.

At Cape Town everyone enjoyed leave during the four days spent there and all were most hospitably entertained. Just before setting sail once more, eight sisters transhipped from the Empress of Britain to the Mauretania to assist in nursing the Australians, amongst whom an epidemic of measles had broken out. A lighter arrived at the ship's side and, with little ceremony, they were hustled off. It was a very choppy sea, and when they arrived page 18 alongside the Mauretania they found they were to clamber aboard, in true sailor fashion, by means of a rope ladder. From the lighter it seemed miles to the top of that ladder. Their hearts sank within them, and with a final look at the ship's heaving side they decided it couldn't—and wouldn't—be done. Kind-hearted sailors finally lowered a bosun's chair and in this, one by one, the sisters ascended to the deck, feeling that medals had been awarded for less hazardous episodes.

The convoy left Cape Town and Simonstown on 31 May without the Empress of Japan, whose troops had been transferred to the Empress of Britain and the Andes. Hotter weather was experienced as the ships headed north and the Equator was crossed on the evening of 5 June.

At Freetown, Sierra Leone, the ships anchored in the stream on 7 June, but no leave was granted. A diversion was caused by the natives who came out to the ships in bumboats and dived for coins. They greatly appreciated the cheese sandwiches thrown to them, but foamed at the mouth when soap was substituted for the cheese.

Italy's entry into the war on 10 June did not affect the convoy's course to the United Kingdom. Between the Canary Islands and the Azores on 14 June, an escort consisting of HMS Hood, the aircraft-carrier Argus, and six destroyers joined the convoy. At one time the ships took evasive action against submarines thought to be in the vicinity, and the destroyers were very active. Passing through St. George's Channel, between Wales and Ireland, on 15 June, all ranks had deeply impressed on them their nearness to the war zone. Early in the morning the convoy passed a large quantity of wreckage, and at midday a large blazing tanker was sighted.

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, 16 June, the convoy arrived safely in the Firth of Clyde and came to anchor at Gourock. The first glimpse of Scotland was magnificent on this lovely sunny day. The sparkling waters of the Clyde, backed by the old buildings of the town, and the rolling downs of the green hills, with an old castle on the point, painted indelible pictures on the memory. In the evening the long twilight softened the colours and added to the allure of the lovely scene, while a rising moon made magic of the night.

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With the Third Echelon to Egypt

As units of the Third Echelon, 6 Field Ambulance (234 strong) embarked on the Orcades on 27 August 1940 and 2 General Hospital (205 all ranks) on the Mauretania. Also in the convoy was the Empress of Japan, and the escort was the cruiser Achilles. Later they were joined by the Aquitania, from Sydney.

On board the Orcades it was a lazy life, neither training nor duties being at all heavy. There were roll-call parades and occasionally a short period of physical training, but it was more or less a do-as-you-please existence, and the ship's two swimming pools were very popular, particularly when the convoy neared the tropics. The staffing of a ship's hospital and a general treatment room did not call heavily on the unit and duties were taken in rotation.

After a neighbourly welcome at Fremantle, the voyagers had their first contact with the East when one morning the convoy sailed into the open harbour of the peninsula on which stands Bombay. The country was flat with a few quaint hill features and dotted with palms and banyan trees. The city itself presented a contrast. Its mosques and domed roofs were Oriental, while beyond the city itself tall, smoking chimneys and factory buildings gave an industrialised western appearance. All around in the harbour and in the open sea were many long-masted dhows and other small craft, and as the liners steamed into the harbour natives in these small boats came alongside to barter, throwing up small articles in ebony or ivory for coins thrown down to them.

At this time Italy had not long entered the war, and with bases in East Africa her air force and navy could prove troublesome to transports in the Red Sea and in parts of the Indian Ocean. As it was thus not advisable to risk the large liners of the convoy on the final stage of the journey to Egypt, a new convoy of smaller transports replaced them. In the new convoy room could not be found for the whole contingent, and 6 Field Ambulance, together with a draft of 550 reinforcements, was obliged to wait at Bombay until transport could be arranged.

On the two-mile march along the waterfront in the tropical heat to quarters in the Brabourne stadium, those new to the countries of the East who took their living conditions at home for granted received a shock. The evident poverty, filth, and stench in many page 20 places were appalling, and maimed and starved beggars in rags seen along the route brought feelings of revulsion.

Troops on the Mauretania and Orcades were transhipped to the Ormonde and Orion respectively. The staff of 2 General Hospital were ferried across to the Ormonde and the patients from the little ship's hospital on the sun deck were settled into the new ship. The unit fitted itself with a struggle into Section 11, E Deck—their dining-cum-sleeping quarters for the next two weeks.

Then there was a rush for leave. By taxi and gharry men travelled to the city, sampling the cool drinks and ices at the Services Club, and then sallying forth to new sights, sounds, and smells. Some bought postcards, sandals, shorts, fly swats; others fathomed the relative values of rupees, annas, and pies in the Bazaar—a foretaste of the economics of the Mousky in Cairo; some went past the stadium to the seafront with its streets of modern flats. A tropical storm caught many in its deluge and prompted an early return to hammocks on the Ormonde.

The more crowded and less comfortable quarters on this ship were not popular with the men, although the staff of 2 General Hospital were relatively fortunate in their billets. As a protest against their living conditions and the food, a demonstration by the troops on the Ormonde delayed its departure from Bombay with the rest of the convoy on 19 September. However, the complaints were adjusted and the transport rejoined the convoy next day. The course was then west. Distant land rose on the skyline and the Red Sea was entered. Brown headlands and islands showed up. Mail closed on board—a sure sign that a port was near. On 28 September the anchor was dropped at Port Tewfik. In the harbour the troops stayed until 1 October, with nothing much else to do than look over the side at the oil tanker and water-boats replenishing the ship.

The ten days 6 Field Ambulance spent at Bombay were, for most, very uncomfortable. Plunged suddenly into a hot, sticky, and trying climate, the men were without proper tropical clothing, their sleeping quarters on the stadium steps were provided with quite inadequate toilet facilities, and the food was deplorable, almost uneatable. To make things more uncomfortable, a monsoon downpour turned the sleeping quarters into a cascade. It rained solidly page 21 for a day and a half and there was no option but to move out of the flooded stadium. The covered stand of the Aga Khan racecourse a few miles out provided dry quarters, even if they were otherwise little more satisfactory. The officers were more comfortably off as most of them were accommodated in hotels in Bombay.

Some delay was still expected before transports would be available, and so, to avoid the trying heat of Bombay, the unit was moved to a camp at Deolali, about 100 miles from Bombay, in the hill districts, where conditions generally were very much more satisfactory. Here they spent another fortnight. Within a short time of their arrival, another downpour thoroughly soaked everyone and everything before the men had been allotted their tents, but it was the last of the rains. The climate at Deolali was much more agreeable than that of Bombay.

After the luxury conditions on the Orcades, the men were not prepared for those prevailing on the Felix Roussel when they embarked in October. This ship was dirty; its Lascar crew were dirty, too, and conditions were in every way deplorable. As there was little ventilation to the troop deck, the men slept out on the open decks, but here they were caught by torrential rains and thoroughly soaked. In the fore galley cooks from the unit made a gallant attempt to provide meals, but they were incapacitated during the first few days of the voyage and everyone had then to be content with hard rations.

Off Aden the convoy was joined by another twenty ships and the escort of armed merchantmen was reinforced by the cruiser HMS Leander. In the Red Sea Italian planes made repeated bombing attacks on the large convoy. They were over almost every afternoon, but with little success. Then, in the early hours of the morning of Trafalgar Day, two Italian destroyers attempted an attack. The cruiser and merchant cruisers slipped off into the night and gunfire was heard well in the distance. Next morning the destroyer Kimberley was towed back to the convoy by the Leander with a gaping hole amidships, having sunk an enemy destroyer, damaged another, and silenced a shore battery that had joined in the action. The convoy kept steaming on slowly and safely.

The Felix Roussel left the convoy to call at Port Sudan for a few hours to take on water. While she was at the wharves, two Italian planes came out of the sun, and almost before anyone was page 22 aware of their appearance a bomb had shattered a goods shed on the wharves with a terrific blast and scattered the natives in all directions. One bomb fell in the sea just beyond the water barge alongside the Felix Roussel, shaking the ship with the blast as if she had been hit and throwing men off their feet, while another also fell into the water close by. The experience was shaking, but the troopship resumed her journey unscathed and steamed up the Suez Canal alone to Port Said.

Voyage of 4th Reinforcements to Egypt

The staff of 3 General Hospital were a small group of 205 among the 4300 troops comprising the third section of the 4th Reinforcements. Most of the unit were in eight-berth cabins on the Nieuw Amsterdam, while about fifty were quartered in a large lounge. Some were not so fortunate, having to sleep in hammocks in somewhat cramped conditions. So large was the number being carried that meals had to be held in three large sittings; purchases at the canteen, wet or dry, meant hour-long waits in endless winding queues.

The voyage to Australia was uneventful, the troops gradually settling down to shipboard life, with its attendant discomforts and advantages. After a brief call at Sydney, with the famous bridge as the main sight, the Nieuw Amsterdam joined a convoy consisting of the Queen Mary, Aquitania, and later the Mauretania. In this exalted company she sailed into Fremantle. Perth hospitality, which by now had become renowned among members of 2 NZEF, was sampled. On the first day in Fremantle no leave was granted to other ranks, but the sisters were permitted to go ashore, provided they were escorted by the CO. Much interest was displayed by all other personnel on the ship at the sight of Col Gower leading a long single file of sisters down the gangway on to the wharf; thence, in and out of various obstacles, to buses, waiting about half a mile away.

After leaving Fremantle the Queen Mary left the convoy to take Australians to Singapore. Bombay was reached on 22 February 1941, and by the 24th all members of the unit had disembarked, the sisters being quartered at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, while the male staff travelled to the Rest and Leave Camp at Deolali. They welcomed the opportunity to visit Bombay and page 23 see the sights of the city, but conditions at Deolali were greeted with little enthusiasm. This introduction to other than European modes of life did not impress any of the unit with the ways of the Eastern native. Views of ‘The Gateway to India’, Malabar Hill, visits to Narsik, or haggling in the bazaars were events to be remembered amidst the vivid contrasts between beauty and sordid filth, colour and drabness.

Deolali was left on 11 March, and the unit embarked on the Empress of Australia at Bombay. One of the other ships of the convoy was the Nieuw Zeeland—loaded with Australians!

As the convoy steamed up the Red Sea, all eyes were turned towards the African coast. The even tenor of the passage, in fierce heat, was broken on only one occasion by an alarm for ‘Action Stations’, with a warning of enemy planes in the offing. The alert passed, however, without incident. Port Tewfik was reached on 23 March. Some 74 ships were counted in the harbour, confounding shipboard rumours that heavy raids had put the port practically out of action.

1 Matron-in-Chief Miss I. G. Willis, OBE, ARRC, ED, m.i.d.; born Wellington, 29 Dec 1881; Asst Inspector of Hospitals, Wellington; 1 NZEF 1914-18, Sister 1 Stationary Hosp, Surgical Team, Matron 1918; Matron-in-Chief Army HQ (NZ) Sep 1939-Mar 1946.

2 Brig K. MacCormick, CB, CBE, DSO,* ED, m.i.d. (2); born, Auckland, 13 Jan 1891; Surgeon, Auckland; 1 NZEF 1914-19, Egypt, Gallipoli, France—OC 2 Fd Amb Dec 1917-Jan 1918; DADMS 1 NZ Div Jan-Oct 1918; ADMS 2 NZEF Jan-Oct 1940; DMS 2 NZEF Oct 1940-May 1942 and Sep 1942-Apr 1943.

* First World War.