Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
BACK in Maadi at the beginning of June 1943, the field ambulances concentrated in an area near Maadi Camp Hospital. The camp was seriously overcrowded: 4 Field Ambulance had a limited but clean area near HQ 4 Armoured Brigade, 6 Field Ambulance was squeezed into an area that was totally inadequate for the organised sports that were to occupy an important place in the training envisaged, and 5 Field Ambulance had a most unsuitable stretch of sand and dust immediately behind the Naafi bulk stores. In this area was also 4 Field Hygiene Section. On 8 July, however, 5 Field Ambulance moved to a new area to the east of Lowry Hut, where there was much more space. When 6 Field Ambulance took over the huts vacated by 5 Field Ambulance, it expanded until the unit lines provided both adequate accommodation and a spacious parade and sports ground.
For many, however, the stay in unit lines was short. Those due to return to New Zealand on furlough under the Ruapehu scheme, the married men and some of the single men of the first three echelons, were marched out to another section of the camp where the furlough draft was concentrating. Though it was unknown to them at the time, for many it was a final goodbye to the units in which they had served for so long. Col Furkert was senior medical officer to the furlough draft, and Col R. D. King became ADMS 2 NZ Division, while Lt-Col J. K. Elliott was appointed CO 4 Field Ambulance.
After eight months of alternating action and boredom in empty deserts, all men turned their thoughts to leave, which was rapidly organised. Almost immediately parties left their units for a fortnight's change at leave camps by the sea at Sidi Bishr and Nathanya, or to hostels in Cairo, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and other places. All had such large credits in their paybooks that they were able to live lavishly, and all enjoyed the respite from a regimented existence.
The days of June were hot and dry and hardly conducive to the work of unloading and checking equipment. However, it had to be done. But there was no lack of energy for sport—cricket, tennis, page 292 baseball, rowing, swimming, athletics and yachting. Teams were entered in divisional competitions and inter-company games were arranged. In the baths at Maadi swimming carnivals and water polo games were held.
In July a training programme was instituted. Officers and men did special courses at hospitals. Most of the men soon lost any illusions they might have had about training in Maadi Camp. They fell in for hard work, plenty of it, and found it elementary compared with their accustomed duties in the field. Still, there were reinforcements to be broken in. The staff of 4 Field Hygiene Section was busy with its normal duties in the crowded camp. Medical officers attended a series of weekly discussions at Maadi Camp Hospital, designed to stimulate interchange of views on medical work and to standardise procedures in the field.
Some officers visited 4 Field Ambulance to view a demonstration of the erection of a ‘penthouse’, a lean-to type of tent designed for attachment to 3-ton cooks' and QM trucks, and destined to be the retreat of poker players, tipplers, and the well-known types, present in all units, who were always too tired to erect bivvies.
Companies of the field ambulances journeyed in turn to Ain Sukhna, on the shores of the Red Sea, for exercises. The tents were pitched along both sides of the road, where it skirted a series of bluffs that ran down to the shore. The heat was almost tangible. At the first free moment there was a concerted rush for the water, and the translucent shallows were soon whitened by splashing limbs. Throughout the stay at Ain Sukhna the men spent most of their time in the sea, the majority never tiring of floating face down and gazing through the clear, lukewarm water at the shoals of fantastically coloured fish that swam amongst the coral on the sea bed.
Between long spells of rest and recreation, the company carried out various types of training. After dark, tarpaulin shelters were erected against the clock. The beach was a scene of dim activity, with the shadowy figures of men rapidly tossing out and unrolling the tarpaulins, and standing in pairs on the top of each truck, waiting to catch the thrown ropes and haul the edges of the shelters up on to the canopies. Shouted directions and the blows of sledge hammers on steel stakes rang through the night. In about 20 minutes the sections were ready to operate.page 293
It was a good camp at Ain Sukhna, away from the irksome restrictions of Base. The training was pleasant and leisurely, and at night the men gathered for informal sing-songs and supper on the beach. Refreshed, they packed up and started out along the desert track to Maadi.
After that the units were once more together at Maadi, with the men spending their spare time quaffing beer in the Naafi, eating Groppi's ice cream in the Lowry Hut, or sitting on the hard, sandbag seats of the El Djem amphitheatre.
The number of original members of the units was further depleted on 2 September when men were marched out to join the second furlough draft. During the first days of September an unaccountable decree for route marching was issued—the reason was learnt later. Daylight or darkness, it made no difference: the men would find themselves tramping in column of route through the sand. However, a route march is more pleasant than many other forms of training; at least one can just tramp on, empty-minded and at peace. On 10 September the Medical Corps paraded on the Maadi Club sports ground, and awards were presented by the GOC. Next day was polling day for the General Election in New Zealand.