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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

New Zealand Medical Units in the Campaign

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New Zealand Medical Units in the Campaign

At a conference called by the DDMS 13 Corps, Colonel Smythe, on 16 November it was agreed that in desert warfare the distances between main dressing stations or ‘staging posts’ should, if possible, not exceed 25 miles. With such a line of evacuation, patients would not have to spend more than two and a half to three hours in motor ambulance cars without dressings being adjusted, sedatives administered, or hot drinks given. This policy was adhered to in the early stages of the campaign as the Division advanced to Bardia and Sollum, but had to be abandoned later when 5 Field Ambulance, which established the staging posts, moved up towards Sidi Rezegh because of roving enemy armoured columns. At midnight on 18 November the medical group arrived at the dispersal area north of Fort Maddalena, which was between the Libyan-Egyptian frontier and the frontier wire inside Libya. Here 5 Field Ambulance set up a temporary MDS, and then maintained a staging post for two days. On 21 November instructions were received for all New Zealand field ambulances to move forward to a dispersal area near Point 187. The halt at this point was short and by 10.30 a.m. next day the medical group was again on the move in desert formation and headed for a point south-west of Sidi Azeiz crossroads. The convoy passed west of Sidi Omar to avoid enemy shellfire and a battle which was then in progress in that area. Eight miles south-west of Azeiz, 4 Field Ambulance, under Lieutenant-Colonel Tennent, set up an MDS which dealt with 250 casualties after the engagements on 22 and 23 November. The Mobile Surgical Unit, under Major Furkert, opened up near 4 Field Ambulance MDS and performed forty major operations on specially selected cases. Fifth Field Ambulance was redirected back to the location of the previous day near Point 187 and there set up as a staging post.

On the morning of 23 November 6 Field Ambulance (less A Company) was stationed in reserve in the vicinity of Sidi Azeiz. Late that morning after a conference between Colonel Kenrick and Lieutenant-Colonel Speight, CO 6 Field Ambulance, the latter's unit was instructed to move along the Trigh Capuzzo and to open an MDS at some suitable spot to the east of Gambut, in which area 4 and 6 Infantry Brigades were now located. For this move the ambulance was attached to the Divisional Headquarters convoy which was proceeding west from Sidi Azeiz that afternoon. Towards evening this convoy became involved in a brush with enemy troops and a wide detour to the south of the Trigh Capuzzo became necessary. The convoy dispersed and halted for the night at about 11 p.m. with 6 Field Ambulance to the northern side.

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On the morning of 24 November tank shells began to fall amongst the ambulance vehicles and the unit was moved a mile to the south to the entrance of a wide wadi, where a number of casualties from the tank battle were treated. One or two abandoned vehicles were discovered here and, having been made roadworthy, were added to the unit transport.

The convoy began moving up the wadi at 2.30 p.m., and shortly afterwards 6 Field Ambulance received instructions to go to a wadi 7 miles from Sidi Rezegh to take over from A Company 6 Field Ambulance and open an MDS at that site. Darkness was now falling, and by the time all the ambulance vehicles had negotiated the steep track from the wadi to the escarpment above it was already dark. As there were only the vaguest notions as to where precisely A Company was sited, the next three hours of wandering in the desert were rather anxious, but A Company's ADS was found about midnight and the MDS erected immediately. A Company's personnel were thus given a short and well-earned rest from the extremely strenuous work which had occupied them for the previous few days. At the time the ADS was holding 250 wounded (some New Zealanders, some Germans, and about 200 South Africans from the overrun 5 SA Brigade), after evacuating 200 during that day. During the next twenty-four hours 450 casualties were received at 6 MDS in a steadily increasing stream, which by the morning of 26 November had reached almost flood proportions. The operating theatre was continuously busy throughout the twenty-four hours.

On 25 November Colonel Kenrick discussed with GSO I NZ Division (Colonel Gentry)1 the insecurity of the medical units due to the fluid nature of the battle and the activities of enemy armour in the rear. It was agreed that the safest place for all the New Zealand medical units not actively employed elsewhere was with 6 Field Ambulance in the wadi near Advanced NZ Division Headquarters, which had under command a reserve of tanks. It was considered that these tanks would provide additional security for units in this location. Consequently, the same day 5 Field Ambulance, Mobile Surgical Unit, and 4 Field Hygiene Section were instructed by Colonel Gentry (with Colonel Kenrick's approval) to move up with Rear HQ NZ Division and Administration Group to join 6 Field Ambulance MDS near Advanced Divisional Headquarters.

1 Maj-Gen W. G. Gentry, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Greek), Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born London, 20 Feb 1899; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier, 1920–22; GSO II NZ Div 1939–40; AA and QMG Oct 1940–Oct 1941; GSO I Oct 1941–Sep 1942; commanded 6 Bde Sep 1942–Apr 1943; Deputy Chief of General Staff (in NZ) 1943–44; comd NZ Troops in Egypt, 6 NZ Div, and NZ Maadi Camp, Aug 1944–Feb 1945; comd 9 Bde (Italy) 1945; Deputy Chief of General Staff, Jul 1946–Nov 1947; Adjutant-General, Apr 1949–Mar 1952; Chief of the General Staff 1 Apr 1952–14 Aug 1955.

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The Mobile Surgical Unit arrived on 25 November and was erected further down the wadi about a quarter of a mile from the 6 Field Ambulance MDS. Selected cases were referred there for operation at first, but by 26 November the number of casualties requiring operation was greater than the MDS surgical teams could cope with, so that many wounded men were sent straight on to the MSU without any real attempt at proper selection being made. For the evacuation of casualties use was made of returning RMT transport as well as of the ambulance cars.

During 26 November 5 Field Ambulance, less one company and the Field Hygiene Section, arrived at the MDS and dispersed its vehicles on the plain above the wadi. The ambulance remained packed in anticipation of a move into Tobruk at any time. Fifth Field Ambulance medical officers and personnel, however, were of great assistance in helping the 6 Field Ambulance personnel with the heavy flood of casualties arriving at the MDS. The Hygiene Section, besides its ordinary duties of sanitation, marked out routes between Divisional Headquarters and the medical units, and also assisted the other units as orderlies and buried the dead.

Considerable numbers of German wounded were being admitted to the MDS and Lieutenant-Colonel Speight arranged for the release of two German medical officers and a number of German medical orderlies from the prisoner-of-war cage nearby to assist with the treatment of German casualties at the MDS. The German officers messed with the MDS officers and proved pleasant and co-operative in every way.

A convoy of 7 British MAC arrived on 26 November with twenty motor ambulances; the route that had been taken from 4 Field Ambulance MDS was 5 miles south of and parallel to the Trigh Capuzzo road. At midday the convoy of ambulance cars took 279 wounded back to 4 MDS by the same route. Soon afterwards it was learned from the DADMS that 4 MDS had moved, under instructions from Brigadier Hargest,1 commanding 5 Brigade, to Abiar Araaz owing to the proximity of enemy tanks. Fourth Field Ambulance had carried with it 150 wounded, including many Germans, but those unable to be moved were left at the original site under the care of a detachment comprising Major R. D. King and sixteen other ranks who volunteered to remain. The ambulance convoy staged at Major King's unit and later encountered enemy columns, but eventually found its way back to Conference Cairn.

1 Brig J. Hargest, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d.; born Gore, 4 Sep 1891; farmer; Member of Parliament 1931–44; Otago Mounted Rifles, 1914–20 (CO 2 Bn, Otago Regt); comd 5 Bde May 1940–Nov 1941; p.w. 27 Nov 1941; escaped Mar 1943; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.

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Fourth Field Ambulance, following the overrunning of Headquarters 5 Brigade by enemy tanks, and on instructions from GOC 13 Corps, moved forward with that headquarters to join Headquarters NZ Division, and opened on 27 November a main dressing station alongside that of 6 Field Ambulance. Its presence materially lessened the heavy strain on 6 Field Ambulance's tentage and enabled part of the stream of casualties to be diverted.

During 27 and 28 November remnants of some South African and British medical units began to trickle into the MDS area. Tentage was allotted to these medical officers and they were asked to attend to the increasing numbers of Italian wounded coming in.

An attempt was made to pass the Italian wounded to the German medical officers for treatment but usually they politely sent them back. The New Zealanders found that the German medical orderlies avoided all contact with the Italians whatsoever.

On the morning of 28 November the number of patients in the combined main dressing stations was 862, including 96 prisoners. Because of the danger of motor ambulance convoys falling into enemy hands, Colonel Kenrick had decided on the 26th to hold all wounded with the prospect of being able to evacuate them to Tobruk at an early date. When 5 Field Ambulance arrived in the area on 26 November, this unit had been directed to remain packed and ready for a further move. It was anticipated that there was every chance of moving 5 Field Ambulance into the Tobruk area, where the unit would open an MDS and take in all the casualties from the New Zealand units operating in that area of the desert.

By this time three New Zealand field ambulances (each less one company which was operating with its brigade group), 4 Field Hygiene Section, and the Mobile Surgical Unit were concentrated in the wadi 7 miles east of Sidi Rezegh. In view of the number of the patients and the uncertainty of the situation, special steps were taken to conserve the supplies of water and rations, now very short. From an abandoned German camp along the slopes of the escapment facing the Trigh Capuzzo, a wide range of valuable equipment was obtained which helped materially in the necessary expansion of the medical centre. Tentage, in particular, proved extremely valuable to accommodate many wounded who would otherwise have been without shelter, and some medical equipment was obtained to supplement the rapidly dwindling supplies held by the New Zealand medical units. German portable filters, Seitz pattern, proved invaluable in conserving the dwindling supplies of water. (Some were used later in the Pacific campaign.)

At 11 a.m. on 28 November General Freyberg visited the MDS and expressed his firm belief that, within a very short time, access page 262 to Tobruk would be open and the wounded would be evacuated there with all possible speed. This news, which was made known to all troops, materially improved the morale of the wounded, whose condition in many cases was becoming serious. Many men had already been subjected to exposure before they had been brought into the MDS, the weather, particularly at night, being very cold.

During 28 November the tank reserve at Divisional Headquarters was, at the request of Brigadier Barrowclough,1 commanding 6 Infantry Brigade, committed to action and the headquarters was left temporarily unprotected. About 4 p.m. a tank battle developed a mile and a half to two miles south of Divisional Headquarters. It turned out later that 22 Armoured Brigade, which was moving on the southern flank of the New Zealand Division, was involved. The tank battle drew away to the south-west and at 5 p.m. all became quiet. At 5.15 p.m., just at dusk, enemy lorried infantry with some armoured cars came along the escarpment on to the grouped medical units and the adjoining prisoner-of-war cage. They captured both and set free about 1000 prisoners.2 Divisional Headquarters, some 600 yards away over the escarpment, might well have been captured too but for the onset of darkness. As it was, Rear Divisional Headquarters was able to move into Tobruk during the night.

Colonel Kenrick and Major Macfarlane, DADMS NZ Division, moved through the corridor into Tobruk on 29 November with Rear Divisional Headquarters in order, now that the New Zealand Division was without main dressing stations, that arrangements might be made with ADMS Tobruk area for forward evacuation of further wounded through the corridor into Tobruk. On the night of 29–30 November the corridor to Tobruk was cut but was reopened later. New Zealand casualties had been heavy.

Colonel Kenrick arranged with Colonel Fulton, ADMS Tobruk, that in future New Zealand casualties would be evacuated by a chain of three ADSs from Ed Duda back to 173 Field Ambulance MDS, and then to 62 General Hospital in the town of Tobruk. New Zealand units were to provide transport to the British ADS at Ed Duda, and thereafter British units were responsible for the evacuations. All British medical units were most co-operative, and eventually 315 New Zealand wounded were evacuated by this route into Tobruk from the ADSs.

1 Maj-Gen Rt. Hon. Sir Harold Barrowclough, PC, KCMG, CB, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US), Croix de Guerre (Fr); Wellington; born Masterton, 23 Jun 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde 1915–19 (CO 4 Bn); comd 7 NZ Inf Bde in UK, 1940; 6 Bde, 1 May 1940–21 Feb 1942; GOC 2 NZEF in Pacific and GOC 3 NZ Div 8 Aug 1942–20 Oct 1944; Chief Justice of New Zealand.

2 The story of the captured medical centre, and its 900 wounded, including 700 New Zealand casualties, will be taken up later in this chapter.

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At midday on 1 December information was received that the enemy had made a fierce attack on Belhamed with tanks and infantry at 7.30 a.m. Sixth Brigade Group had been partially overrun the previous evening, and there was no news of the ADS beyond the fact that Captain Staveley was reported as wounded and missing, and that Captain Clay,1 Bishop Gerard,2 and all the medical personnel were missing. Fourth Brigade Group was heavily hit and split up, but the ADS under Major Harrison had not suffered. The corridor was cut again and the New Zealand troops inside or in touch with Tobruk were 18 Battalion (470 strong) and two companies of 19 Battalion (290 strong), the ASC, 4 Infantry Brigade's B Echelon transport, Headquarters NZ Division, less Battle Headquarters, and sundry New Zealand Artillery personnel. Between 2 and 4 December medical arrangements were made for the New Zealand units in the Tobruk area, and the stragglers from the medical units were collected. On 4 December it was arranged with the DDMS 13 Corps (Brigadier Smythe), who had arrived in Tobruk by air three days earlier, that the responsibility for the evacuation of further New Zealand casualties would be entirely that of the British medical units in Tobruk.

1 Capt D. C. L. Clay; born Otaki, 19 Jul 1906; medical practitioner; 6 Fd Amb, Feb–Dec 1941; p.w. Dec 1941; died Wellington, 22 Jan 1955.

2 Rt Rev G. V. Gerard, CBE, MC, m.i.d.; Rotherham, England; born Christchurch, 24 Nov–1898; Lt, The Buffs, 1918–19 (MC); SCF 2 NZEF, May 1940–Nov 1941; p.w. Dec 1941; repatriated Apr 1943; SCF 2 NZEF (IP) Apr–Dec 1944.