Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
El Mreir Depression
B Company, 6 Field Ambulance, under Maj E. W. Duncan,6 moved forward behind the 6 Brigade battalions on 18 July and set up its ADS before another attack, this time on a more limited objective—the El Mreir Depression. The ADS moved up just before dark on 21 July, the night of the attack, and set up in an advanced position behind the infantry. Parties of stretcher-bearers under Captain A. W. H. Borrie,7 twelve each from A and B Companies, were to be attached to 24 and 25 Battalions to assist in bringing back the page 213 wounded. They were late in setting out and had to follow and find their infantry battalions. The axis of advance was through two enemy minefields in front of the German positions. The battalions were to move at 9 p.m.
The A Company party had not located its battalion before reaching the second minefield. Moving over the skyline the stretcher-bearers met spandau fire and shelling from some anti-tank guns. They went to earth and took what cover there was. They were out in advance of the infantry. Presently the infantry moved up under cover of machine-gun fire and passed the stretcher-bearer party, which followed them through the gap in the second minefield. Casualties from shelling were picked up here, and the party, working on an arranged plan, carried the patients back to a car park near a green light. Here they were left, protected by banked-up stones, for collection by the ambulance cars when they could get through.
The stretcher party followed the infantry in their advance to the German front line. Seemingly the enemy had been surprised, for everything in the trenches was in disorder; food and equipment were lying about everywhere. More wounded were taken back to the car park. The ambulances did not get through till first light next morning, but all the patients were safely loaded and evacuated before the enemy counter-attacked.
The stretcher party from B Company went forward to the ridge skirting the depression. The wounded were cleared in a 3-ton truck and an RAP runabout; some were carried out. Working amid the whistle of rifle and spandau bullets, the stretcher-bearers stumbled back carrying their wounded to the car park. As the last of the party returned, shells from the German artillery were coming over, bursting behind them. This party, too, had finished its work before the start of the German counter-attack, in which the battalions of 6 Brigade had to face the panzer onslaught without tank support, with the result that 24 and 25 Battalions were overrun and scattered.
The first casualties reached 6 ADS before the troops had passed through the minefields. They continued to come in throughout the night. In the morning the ambulances cleared the many wounded from the stretcher-bearer car parks. Casualties now poured into the dressing station: wounds were redressed, fractures splinted, morphia injections given, and such treatment carried out as would enable the wounded to ride comfortably back to 4 MDS. Within the dressing page 214 station tents there was a busy silence, broken only by the subdued bustle of activity and an occasional curt request by the MO for some instrument, drug, or dressing, or by a call for stretcher-bearers. Outside, an ambulance would pull in to the reception tent, and immediately several stretcher-bearers would unload its patients; at the evacuation tent another ambulance would pull up, quickly fill with the redressed wounded, and pull out again to follow the rough desert track back to the MDS. When the Germans counter-attacked, their shellfire crept uncomfortably closer and closer through the morning but did not touch the dressing station. An accidental grenade explosion at the dressing station during the morning caused some slight wounds. Although the rush continued until about midday, by one o'clock the ADS was clear of its 230 patients.
Situated about two miles behind 6 ADS was 4 ADS, and this unit also received and treated 100 wounded.
At 4 MDS there was an almost overwhelming amount of work, but assistance was given by 1 and 151 British Light Field Ambulances. In addition, two British surgical teams and a transfusion unit were attached, and two extra surgical teams came from 15 British CCS at midday on 22 July.
From 9.15 p.m. on the 21st, patients arrived at the MDS in a continual stream. Many of them were severely wounded, so that it was necessary for the operating theatres to keep going all night until about 3 a.m., when the staff snatched a brief rest and started again three hours later. On the 22nd 632 patients were admitted. By pressing into use every available ambulance car, and also by using returning supply trucks, it was possible to evacuate 394 patients that day to 14 British CCS at Gharbanyat, but over 300 had to be held overnight. All operating sections worked throughout the night, rested for a few hours, and then resumed. Maj Macfarlane,8 DADMS, and Maj Boyd, 4 Field Hygiene Section, gave anaesthetics during this rush period, work which Capt Gleeson,9 the dental officer, carried out regularly throughout the month. The transfusion unit worked continuously for 40 hours.page 215
The 23rd was another very busy day, with 438 cases admitted and convoys leaving for the CCS all day. In the afternoon it was arranged that all British patients arriving at the MDS be passed straight on to 1 British Light Field Ambulance. During the afternoon and evening a large number of Indian troops was admitted, but then the pressure of work eased. Admissions the following day dropped to 150, which enabled the staff to clear the MDS completely.
Beginning on 19 July, some of the severely wounded patients were sent by air direct to Base hospitals in Cairo from an improvised landing ground near the MDS. The staff of the MDS were pleased to hear that their patients arrived in Cairo in excellent condition an hour after leaving the dressing station. In some cases men were in bed in Base hospital less than six hours after being wounded. The returning aircraft brought supplies of blood and urgently required medical stores. Some of the planes bore Red Crosses but others were not so identified. On 24 July the staff saw two of the unmarked planes shot up and set on fire by enemy fighters just as they were about to land. The air evacuation service was suspended for a while but was resumed later with properly marked ambulance planes.
On 28 July 6 Field Ambulance took over the MDS from 4 Field Ambulance. The British surgical team, with its complete mobile theatre specially built on two trucks, and the British blood transfusion team were transferred to 6 MDS. Ambulances of a British Motor Ambulance Convoy and of the American Field Service unit operated with the unit's own ambulance cars, providing ample facilities for speedy evacuation from the forward dressing stations and also back to the CCS.
Only one MDS was active at a time at this period as the distance back to the CCS was short. It was difficult, however, for the active MDS to cope with the rush of casualties, even with the help of attached British staff. The men of the inactive field ambulance felt keenly their inability to share in the strenuous work undertaken by their fellows, while they played football three miles away.
The Eighth Army's casualties during July were about 750 officers and 12,500 men. Of these some 4000 belonged to the New Zealand Division—severe losses which testified to the bitterness of the fighting to stabilise the line. The total of sick and wounded treated page 216 in the New Zealand field ambulances from 27 June to 31 July was 5223, of whom 4 Field Ambulance admitted 3202, 5 Field Ambulance 1460, and 6 Field Ambulance 561.
6 Maj E. W. Duncan, m.i.d.; born Christchurch, 31 Oct 1911; Medical Practitioner, Christchurch; Medical Officer 4 Fd Amb Sep 1940-Oct 1941; Mob Surgical Unit Oct 1941-Feb 1942; 6 Fd Amb Jun 1942-Jun 1943; 3 Gen Hosp Jun-Dec 1943; 2 i/c 5 Fd Amb Dec 1943-1944.
7 Maj A. W. H. Borrie, MC; born Port Chalmers, 10 May 1917; Medical Practitioner, Dunedin; Medical Officer 1 Gen Hosp Aug-Dec 1941; 6 Fd Amb Dec 1941-Jul 1942; RMO 24 Bn Jul 1942-Oct 1944; 3 Gen Hosp Oct 1944-May 1945.
8 Maj T. A. Macfarlane, m.i.d.; born Scotland, 21 Jan 1911; Medical Practitioner; Medical Officer 4 Fd Amb Apr-Sep 1940; RMO Engineers Sep 1940-Jul 1941; 6 Fd Amb Jul-Aug 1941; DADMS 2 NZ Div Aug 1941-Mar 1943; 1 Gen Hosp 1943.