Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
ENEMY forces were already threatening Egypt as 4 and 5 Brigades headed west from Alexandria to Mersa Matruh, where they arrived on 21 and 22 June. By the 24th the enemy was across the Egyptian frontier.
It was decided that Matruh should not be defended inside the prepared defences because of the danger of encirclement and capture as had happened at Tobruk. On the 25th the brigades moved south from Matruh to an escarpment at Minqar Qaim, where they took up a defensive position next day, and where they clashed with the enemy on the 27th. With their brigades were 4 and 5 ADSs under Maj Jack and Maj Edmundson, and a detachment of B Company, 4 Field Ambulance, under Capt Kennedy.1 Some 20 miles to the east were 4 and 5 MDSs. At Mersa Matruh on 24 June, 4 MDS had treated 167 patients from British units to the west, with Maj Harrison's team operating on the severely wounded throughout the night.
Early on the morning of 27 June, 70 men wounded in a bombing raid on the Division at dusk the previous evening were cleared from the ADSs to 5 MDS, but the ambulance cars were unable to reach the ADSs again because of the arrival of German forces in the area. After a heavy artillery duel, two attacks made by the enemy on the Division during the day were repulsed. Ambulance car drivers, both our own and those of the American Field Service, went forward to the RAPs and beyond to bring in the wounded to the ADSs, where surgical treatment was promptly given. During the afternoon the ADSs were threatened by a sudden approach of enemy armour and were hurriedly moved close to Main Divisional HQ.
Maj Boyd was able to get through from Rear Divisional HQ to the ADSs by a southern route with seven of the ADS cars and ten American Field Service cars. After being guided through the minefields, the convoy reached Main Divisional HQ at 3 p.m. The page 207 ambulance cars were quickly filled with wounded and set off to return to 5 MDS, but by now the Division was virtually encircled by enemy armour and the convoy was forced to go back to the ADS area. Shelter was taken in a wadi, which provided some protection from enemy shelling.
At five o'clock General Freyberg was wounded in the neck by a shell splinter while watching from a forward position the progress of an enemy attack. By great good fortune the splinter went through the back of the General's neck without injury to the vertebral column or the spinal cord. He was attended by Col Ardagh and Maj Boyd. With no chance of being evacuated before dark, the General lay on a stretcher in a widened slit trench until the shelling ceased at last light.
Between five and seven o'clock tanks of 21 Panzer Division made attacks from the south and south-east. These attacks were beaten off by anti-tank and field guns. The position was becoming very threatening. As Dvr R. H. Swan2 of 5 Field Ambulance puts it:
‘We were surrounded. It was not a very nice position to be in, and we hardly realised at the time just how serious it was. Things quietened down towards the evening, and as it grew dark we could see a ring of enemy flares around us. This would have been a beautiful sight in peacetime, but when one knew that they belonged to the enemy, and that he was waiting for us, one did not feel too happy; but it was a case of chins up and make the best of it. Those of us who were not busy managed to get some sleep, which was just as well, for although we didn't know it then, there was a long, hard drive to come later in the night.’
1 Lt-Col D. P. Kennedy, m.i.d.; born Christchurch, 19 May 1915; Medical Practitioner, Christchurch; Adjutant 7 Fd Amb (Fiji) Oct 1940-May 1941; DADMS Army HQ (NZ) Jun-Nov 1941; Medical Officer 4 Fd Amb May-Oct 1942; OC 4 Fd Hyg Sec Oct 1942-Aug 1943; Dpty Asst Director Hygiene NZ Corps Feb-Mar 1944; DADMS 2 NZ Div Apr-Nov 1944; DADMS 2 NZEF Nov 1944-Feb 1945; OC 4 Fd Hyg Coy and DADH 2 NZ Div Feb-May 1945; CO 5 Fd Amb Jun-Oct 1945.