Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy


page 291


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.

The Hospitals

In the hospitals life seemed uneventful after the excitement of the previous months, but work went on. At 1 General Hospital accidental injuries took the place of battle casualties, some of whom were invalided back to New Zealand on the hospital ships. Seasonal sickness, with the onset of another summer, brought an influx of patients from the concentration of troops in Maadi Camp. The 1762 admissions for July were the highest recorded since 1 General Hospital had been at Helwan, and helped to build up the total of 12.642 patients which it received during 1943. Patients were transferred periodically to 2 General Hospital to ease the burden. The summer was very trying indeed, and its effect was shown on the staff. At Tripoli 3 General Hospital was kept busy; it found the summer the hottest of all.

Changes came about, too. With the furlough drafts, many of the sisters and men from all hospitals returned to New Zealand for well-earned rest, including most of the sisters who had arrived in the Middle East in the beginning and had paved the way in the page 294 hospital work that was now so well established. Farewell parties, large and small, were the order of the day; but the regrets of those leaving the units and breaking old associations were, generally speaking, overshadowed by the prospect of the reunions at home with families and friends after three and a half years of separation. The arrival of fresh staff with the 9th and 10th Reinforcements brought new blood into all the units. At the end of 1943 the staff changes at 1 General Hospital during the year were totalled up and found to comprise 35 medical officers, 82 sisters, 64 VADs, and 68 men.

On 12 June the staff of 2 General Hospital were shocked by the news of the death of their popular and most capable commanding officer, Col Spencer, while on leave in Tripoli. He was a sad loss to the Medical Corps. Col H. K. Christie was appointed CO of the unit, and Miss V. M. Hodges became Matron on Miss Brown's return to New Zealand. The matron of 1 General Hospital, Miss E. C. Mackay, was promoted to the position of Principal Matron in succession to Miss Nutsey on 22 November and was succeeded at 1 General Hospital by Miss M. Chisholm, while Miss M. E. Jackson became matron of 3 General Hospital.

Another Campaign Ahead

Leave over, the field medical units began to reorganise and re-equip in preparation for the next campaign. Equipment was repaired and brought up to scale, while the transport was completely overhauled. Reinforcements were received, inoculations brought up to date, and winter clothing issued.

Rumours about the future were very strong—in fact it had become fairly obvious that the Division was destined for operations in Italy. During the summer months the Allies had pressed steadily on. Mussolini had resigned, and the close of the Sicilian campaign with the fall of Messina on 17 August marked another great step forward. The Allied invasion of the Italian mainland began early in September with landings by Fifth Army at Salerno and Eighth Army across the Strait of Messina. On 1 October Allied forces occupied Naples.

In mid-September the Division moved to Burg el Arab, west of Alexandria. As part of a hardening process, the troops marched from Mena to the Amiriya crossroads, a distance of 99 miles. Some page 295 of the medical units did not have to march, as they were called upon to provide dressing stations on the route and at Burg el Arab.

Apart from morning route marches, no training was done at Burg el Arab during the next few days, and the medical personnel not running dressing stations camped on the flat ground between the coastal ridge and the glistening white sand dunes of the beaches, checked over equipment at leisure, availed themselves of day leave to Alexandria, or wandered down to the sea to swim, plucking ripe figs en route from the stunted trees that dotted the dunes. The drivers were kept busy checking over their vehicles and removing the canopies and supporting frameworks in preparation for loading them on the vehicle transports.

There was still no hint of the future role of the Division, and the troops as usual were groping in a maze of conflicting rumours. A lecture on malaria, coinciding with the first issue of the little yellow mepacrine tablets, was considered to be of major significance until someone announced that malaria was prevalent in many parts of Europe. Finally, commanding officers delivered addresses, informing their units that the Division was about to go overseas. Beyond that they knew nothing, except that the future field of operations was a region infested with typhus and malaria.

Preparations for Departure

The time for embarkation was obviously near when, on 25 September, orders were received to prepare staff tables and loading returns for vehicles. The units packed all equipment, removed shoulder titles and cap badges, and obliterated all divisional signs on the vehicles. Early in October the units moved to the embarkation transit camp which had been established in the stony, dusty waste of the Ikingi Maryut staging area. The troops, quartered in tents, were continually smothered in the fine dust that rose in swirling clouds on every breath of wind. It caked around the eyes and lips, and could be tasted in the mouth and gritted between the teeth. Conveniences were poor, and meals were of a nature requiring the minimum of preparation. A large tented Naafi served morning and afternoon tea and beer to an endless queue.

The men spent many hours rearranging packs, seeking to devise a load that included everything yet could be carried without making the bearer wider than the average door, and which would sit more page 296 or less comfortably on the back without giving a tortoise-like forward thrust to the head.

Embarkation rolls were prepared, and the minimum of equipment that would be required at the destination loaded and despatched to the personnel ships. The units assembled and marched to embussing points, the men tottering under a hundred-pound load that included, besides the normal packs, a bivouac tent, a bush-net with supporting poles, summer and winter clothing, a leather jerkin, spare boots, and a two-gallon water can. The gear was no sooner gladly dropped from already numbed shoulders than there came the inevitable order to pick it up again and change position. A fleet of 10-ton trucks arrived, and the troops clambered aboard, about twelve men to a truck, and set off for the docks at Alexandria.

There was usually a long wait at the wharf, and scratch meals and hot tea were prepared while barges and lighters, each craft packed with khaki-clad, sun-tanned men, came and went between the shore and the troopships anchored out in the stream. Various units stood about in groups, clustered around their dumped piles of gear. No one seemed anxious to swing up his load until the last moment. One man who had sat down with his packs attached had to be assisted to an upright position. At last the men were told that they were moving off on the next lighter. They helped each other on with their packs and filed up a narrow, one-man gangway to the deck of their lighter, the bush-net bags and water cans, carried in either hand, bumping and clanking against the stanchions. Again the gear was thankfully dropped; and again and again it had to be picked up and moved as men were packed more and more closely on the deck. By the time the lighters pulled away from the wharf the men were completely immobilised in a tangle of equipment and legs.

Voyage Across the Mediterranean

The voyage of 6 Field Ambulance can be taken as typical of those of all the New Zealand medical units. The lighters carrying the unit drew alongside a towering, 17,000-ton transport and the troops were instructed to go aboard through one of the luggage ports in her side. What with the steeply-sloping gangway, the low entrance, and the tall packs, they had to be manhandled through like so many sheep. It was impossible to stoop low enough to get page 297 the packs under the top of the door without losing balance, so main packs were left on the lighter to be heaved aboard later. Carrying only hand luggage and side-packs or ‘iggri bags’, the men were guided along the shaft-like ship's corridors to their quarters on the lowest deck of the forepeak cargo hold.

With no natural light, poor ventilation, and permeated with the typical troopship's lower-deck atmosphere of perspiration and sour staleness, added to which was the hold's own native smells of cheese, garlic, and dried fish, the quarters were not regarded with any great enthusiasm. To make matters worse, most of the hold was taken up by mess tables and rifle racks. Hammocks were slung close together over the tables, with the ends of one row inserted between the ends of the next. After a brief inspection the older hands left to seek open-deck hammock sites. At tea-time the food proved unexpectedly good; but the messes were difficult to organise and there were long periods of waiting, both for the men at the tables and for the winding queue of mess orderlies.

The convoy of three transports, with an escort of five destroyers, moved from its moorings in the early morning of 6 October, and passing the smashed hulls and protruding masts of wrecked and sunken ships in the harbour, steamed slowly out through the boom. The troops lined the rails, gazing back at the domes and minarets of the mosques and the magnificent buildings along the corniche, gleaming white and distinct in the sunlight and clear air of the warm Egyptian morning. There was a rapid flicker of morse from a destroyer as it surged past the Reina del Pacifico, and the three transports swung into line abreast and picked up speed. The first contingent of the New Zealand Division was on its way. A few hours later a message from the GOC was read over the loud-speaker system, telling the troops that they were bound for Italy and the prospect of battles under conditions very different from those of the campaign just ended.

Alexandria slowly faded from sight, and the coastal dunes of the Western Desert, the scene of so many memories, appeared for a few hours to the south and then sank below the skyline. The voyage was a succession of still, warm days, the convoy continuing in line abreast inside its cordon of destroyers, each ship towing its hauled in barrage balloon and slipping through a sea disturbed only by the hissing bow waves. Land was sighted on the 7th, and after a page 298 certain amount of discussion was identified as Ras et Tin, the western promontory of the Gulf of Bomba. Just before dusk on the same day, a convoy of some thirty merchant ships with escorting destroyers steamed past. In spite of orders forbidding the carriage of pets, Lulu, 6 Field Ambulance's pet hen, suddenly put in an appearance. She had been carried aboard in a box as a bivvy.

Mount Etna and Sicily were sighted to port at dusk on the 8th, and soon the hills of Italy's toe rose into sight. Daylight on the 9th showed the convoy sailing close to and parallel with the coastline, and the ship's rails trebly lined with men examining and commenting on the countryside, its gently sloping hills and clusters of houses whose red roofs glowed like dull embers as they caught the morning sun. Trees appeared plentiful, both in ordered rows and blocks and straggling natural woodland; and the differing depths of colour in the patterned plots of green and brown told of intense cultivation. There was a promise of moist, cool winds and green fields after the arid dunes and escarpments of the desert.

Disembarkation at Taranto

At 9 a.m. on 9 October the transports steamed slowly through the boom between the two stone moles that encircle Taranto harbour. A British monitor, several cruisers, surrounded by their anti-torpedo nets, and three or four American landing craft were moored in the stream, while an assortment of small merchant ships unloaded at the wharves. The Reina del Pacifico came to anchor off a mile-long stretch of impressive waterfront buildings, fronted by a busy, tree-lined promenade and a beach with wooden bathing sheds and small-craft wharves. A swing-bridge over a canal or the neck of a lagoon, and connecting what was evidently the old and newer towns, carried a constant stream of pedestrians. On the old town side, right on the water's edge and evidently designed to guard the entrance, was a heavily-turreted, wide-bastioned castle, obviously of great age. Behind the quay on the new town side stood a low hill, up which stretched the town, a tightly-packed mass of three-storied houses. The streets visible from the ships were busy with pedestrians and army wheeled traffic.

Grape sellers put out from the shore in dinghies. Standing in the boats, facing their course and pushing against the oars with short rapid strokes, they headed for the ship at a surprising speed. page 299 The AMGOT paper shilling was the lowest denomination in the possession of the troops; and both they and the boatmen seemed hazy about its value in grapes.

Lighters arrived promptly, and by midday two loads had left the Reina del Pacifico. By that time the 6 Field Ambulance personnel were hoping to get a meal before going ashore. However, a long, unhandsome craft named the Messina, evidently an adapted train-ferry and resembling several tiers of wharfing, was brought alongside by two tugs. In answer to a hail, the captain announced that he could take 7000 men, and the burdened crowd poured down the jigging gangway onto the sun-warmed decks of the Messina and left for the shore, where the troops were marching through the old town to the divisional bivouac area, five miles to the north.

On the quay there was the usual confusion with its attendant delays; but finally, at half past one, the unit set off on its march to the bivouac area. The district through which the route lay presented a dismal scene. Many buildings were badly battered, and roads were torn up where the drainage system had been disrupted by bombs. The inhabitants looked poor and bedraggled, underclothed and underfed.

Breakfast had been early, it was a hot day, and the road ran uphill. Hungry and fed up, the troops were exhausted by the time they had tramped two and a half miles up the Taranto-Martina road and a mile and a half along an undulating cart track that ran over lightly wooded hillsides to the Santa Teresa track junction, where, adjacent to a large house occupied by HQ 2 NZ Division, a dressing station and evacuation point was to be established.

Meanwhile, the Messina had returned to the Reina del Pacifico with unloading parties, including a 6 Field Ambulance party detailed to look after the medical equipment. The crates were slung up out of the holds and over the rails by the ship's derricks, many showing the result of the handling received from inefficient Egyptian stevedores. Suspended cases streamed yellow and white tablets and assorted items of medical stores from between broken boards. Others touched down with a rattle of broken glass. The party collected the gear and stacked it in a space allotted to the unit, and moved to the rail to chaffer with the grape vendors.

Another ship was occupying the berth allotted to the Messina, which was compelled to back in between a merchant steamer and an page 300 unloading barge. The only gangways available, found after an exhaustive search, were two twelve-inch scaffolding planks. Over these every item of equipment from the Reina del Pacifico was manhandled ashore. One of the tarpaulin shelters, a difficult six-to-eight-man lift at any time, almost found a destination in the Gulf of Taranto.

The unloading was finished by electric light, and the 6 Field Ambulance gear stacked ready for loading on trucks. The men had a meal of bully beef, tinned fruit, jam and bread from the many broken cases that strewed the wharf, and then, on being told that there was no transport to take them or the gear to the camp, they settled down to sleep among bales and cases, with the bustle of unloading still going on about them.

The First Night at Santa Teresa

It was a quarter to three when the unit reached the divisional area. All thoughts and conversation were on the subject of food; unfortunately there was none. The unit rations and equipment, assumed to have been sent forward promptly, were still on the wharf awaiting transport. The cooks were helpless. Finally, some oddments of dry rations were distributed, and the cooks of Divisional HQ provided tea. With a certain amount of bitter comment the men settled down under the olive trees for the night. Fortunately the weather was warm and bedrolls were not missed.

Trucks arrived at the wharf early on the 10th, and the baggage party loaded on the gear, scrambled on themselves, and set off for the camp, passing through the drab streets with their endless three-story buildings. All windows and shopfronts were shuttered. The trucks ploughed through deep pools of water where the mains and drains had burst, sending muddy waves washing against the walls and among the piles of rubble and fallen bricks.

At Santa Teresa conditions were good and the area pleasant. Although noticeably low-lying, the ground was firm and clean. Across a gully, evidently an old quarry but now overgrown with rough shrubs and wild flowers, stood a barracks building, housing many Italian soldiers who were still in uniform and who seemed to have plenty of time on their hands. The house on the other side page 301 of the track, occupied by Divisional HQ, was the home of the landowner, reputed to be a count, who had fled with the retreating Germans and Fascists.

As all British hospitals were evacuating patients to Sicily and North Africa, a large detachment of HQ 6 Field Ambulance returned to Taranto on the 10th and established an MDS in the Archæological Museum building to hold New Zealand patients.

The MDS in Taranto

The detachment took over the second-story wing of the Archæological Museum, with windows overlooking two courtyards. The wing consisted of two wide galleries, clean and with large windows giving plenty of light. The floor was covered with good cork linoleum. One gallery was used as four wards, stretchers being laid in rows, with ample passageway between. What was intended to be a 50-bed MDS became a hospital holding more than twice that number of patients. The staff slept in the other gallery, and a small, self-contained block was used for officers' mess and sleeping quarters.

Wires for patients' mosquito nets were strung from home-made brackets, and at the end of the ward gallery a treatment room, dental theatre, and later a small blanket-curtained operating theatre were partitioned off. Both cookhouse and hospital suffered from shortage of equipment. The cooks, who often catered for as many as 200 men, had only one burner, and in addition were short of petrol. The medical sections worked with two thermometers for four, later five, wards and had to conserve medical supplies drastically. Worn-out primuses were a constant source of annoyance and delay. In spite of the fact that any amount of rubbish could have been dumped in most parts of the town without its presence being noticed, all refuse had to be carted outside the city area.

Fortunately, the museum was in one of the cleaner areas, and was comparatively removed from those quarters where strident-voiced mothers screamed for missing Marias and Ninas. The quiet was disturbed only by the uproar of the departure each evening of the Bari bus from the street outside, and the nightly passing of a crowd of garrulous Italian sailors returning to their ships.

page 302

ADS with 6 Brigade

Sixth Brigade was bivouacked along both sides of the Santa Teresa-Statte track, on rolling, rocky country that was lightly wooded with olive trees. A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, operated the ADS in an area adjoining that of the brigade band, on a narrow strip between the track and a dry riverbed to the east, where the ground fell away in precipitous scrub-covered cliffs. At the time the band was practising ‘The Bohemian Girl’, and the familiar airs often floated over the company lines.

The evacuation section operated the only working centre, holding patients in a shelter borrowed from HQ. The rest of the company covered the surrounding countryside in daily, two-hour route marches, and constructed a metalled road to and from the shelter. Like HQ, A Company was handicapped by lack of equipment, though limited supplies were drawn from 70 British General Hospital and 7 Advanced Depot Medical Stores.

Excellent rations and a plentiful supply of grapes and almonds no doubt contributed to the good health of the whole company at this time. Wine, too, was plentiful, which gladdened the hearts of those who were not teetotallers, though it may not have improved their health. An innovation that caused almost unanimous satisfaction was the weekly issue of reputable brands of cigarettes in airtight tins of fifty in place of the lung-searing ‘Vs’. The sole dissenter was a somewhat individualistic combination of orderly, company clerk, and stretcher-bearer, who stoutly asserted that he had always enjoyed smoking ‘Vs’ and wished that he could still get them.

The medical units at Santa Teresa found it a pleasant farming district. The olive trees were laden with fruit, and all around the peasants were manuring the ground, carrying the manure to the fields in carts drawn by powerful but docile white oxen with enormous, spreading horns. The oxen and the peasant families were housed in a low, whitewashed stone building adjoining the count's residence. Grape, nut, pomegranate and wine vendors stood about the fringes of the company area. The wine was dark and rather sour, and a little of it went a long way. It was not intended to be drunk in large quantities; and those who quaffed it as they were in the habit of quaffing beer found themselves miserably raiding the bismuth-and-soda bottle next day.

page 303

Some of the men used to cross the gully to where the Italian soldiers sat around a bonfire and passed the evenings singing songs and arias from grand opera. It was good entertainment for the New Zealanders, whose experience of spontaneous mass singing had been confined to carousals and the wailing of Egyptian labour gangs.

The days were spent on duty in the medical centres and cookhouse, in metalling the more important areas, or on route marches. In the splendid autumn weather the route marches were a source of pleasure, being more in the nature of leisurely rambles; and the company tramped for miles over the undulating countryside, passing through olive groves, vineyards, and fields of crops, and scrambling over the ancient stone walls that the Italians use as fences.

A wall newspaper was started in one unit on 17 October, the contributions being hung on a board nailed to a tree. In the unit were men of all manner of views, beliefs, and opinions, many adhering to them to an extreme degree; but a sound editorial committee managed to keep things under control.

Leave in Taranto

Leave to visit Taranto was liberally granted, and although unit transport was limited there were many vehicles on the roads and hitch-hiking was a simple matter. The town itself had little to offer to the motley crowds of Allied troops who thronged its dingy streets. What had appeared from the troopships to be a canal proved to be the entrance to a large inner harbour, called the Mare Piccolo, in which many cruisers, submarines, and motor torpedo-boats of the Italian Fleet still lay at anchor. The exaggerated magnificence of the Italian naval officer's uniform was well in evidence in the vicinity. It was hard to believe that men could take themselves seriously while wearing such a rigout.

Taranto and its rival port of Bari were the chief markets of a fertile, intensively farmed hinterland. Nevertheless, Taranto was short of food, and long queues in the market each morning, with civil police present to keep order, soon bought up all the available vegetables, fish, and fruit. The fish were minute, smaller even than sardines, and there seemed to be no root crops among the vegetables.

There was little evidence of bombing in the areas away from the page 304 waterfront, though the station was badly smashed. The more important streets were well paved and maintained. Beyond lay a maze of smaller streets and alleys that were broken, neglected, and dirty. There were two large, pleasant squares near the MDS. In one was a small, tree-planted enclosure, and in the other stood a massive, muscular, emotionally posed group of statuary, a memorial of the First World War. Opposite the statuary, in what had once been a fine café, the NZ YMCA opened reading and writing rooms and provided tea. Facilities were limited, and troops were instructed to take their own pannikins. Some did so. Others relied on borrowing and fared just as well, as no one can reasonably refuse to lend a drinking mug for a few moments. Later, a Naafi opened in the other square. ENSA took over a concert theatre near the waterfront and screened a series of good films. The seating accommodation was excellent, but the ventilation system left much to be desired. When the house was full the crowd literally stewed.

And, as Pte A. T. Green,1 of 6 Field Ambulance relates:

‘Some of the coffee shops served a satisfying beverage. Though the coffee was ersatz, it was boosted with a liberal dash of rum. Inevitably, however, the favourite resorts of troops were the wineshops. Usually operating in back rooms, and filled with soldiers and sailors of a variety of nations singing or fighting with alcohol-inspired camaraderie or rage, they were guaranteed to provide an interesting afternoon. The source of half of the pleasure of such occasions is the constant awareness that a single word out of place can change a friendly carousal into a brawl.

‘The New Zealanders were still incognito, which was to their advantage in their dealings with the local populace, who, filled with Axis propaganda, imagined them to be some particularly savage breed of barbarians. However, to anyone familiar with them they were unmistakable. For example, could a band of hard-visaged, rather more than ordinarily brawny soldiers, cavorting jovially along with dainty brassieres strapped on over their battle-dress jackets, be anything but New Zealanders?’

A Foretaste of Winter

The long spell of warm autumn weather was finally broken. Showers of rain on 11 October freshened both town and countryside, filling the air with a moist, earthy fragrance. The first rain seen since the storm at Djebibina in Tunisia, it stirred memories of page 305 distant occasions amid New Zealand scenes. However, five nights later a heavy downpour startled the bivouacked units in the divisional area, and set them to deepening drainage ditches and raising bedding clear of the ground. On 28 October there was a violent thunderstorm. During the afternoon clouds banked up, and about five o'clock the storm burst upon the Taranto region. With the thunder came torrential rain that lasted for about four hours. The thunder and lightning were almost continuous, and the barrage balloons over Taranto came down in flames, one by one, the coils of their cables causing trouble where they fell.

In the early hours of the morning the storm began again, continuing steadily for about three hours, and then on and off for the whole day. Out at the flooded A and B Company areas the men sloshed through the chewed-up mud between the wide pools of water, again attempting to improve the drainage system. The night of the 30th brought another storm, with thunder and lightning and drenching rain; but by that time the unit areas were in such a mess that it was regarded almost with indifference.

CCS Arrives

In the wake of the field ambulances, the CCS arrived at Taranto on 22 October on the Egra and Oronda and marched to the divisional area north of Taranto. The unit was in time for the heavy rains.

Upon arrival the bivouacs were set up under the olive trees and upon whatever high ground was available. Already in this task were met the first of the difficulties that Italy was to bring to soldiers accustomed to desert conditions. In sandy surroundings it had always been possible to dig down below the surface, but here it was different. Southern Italy has a heavy rainfall in winter, and as it was obvious that dugouts would soon become mud-holes, it was necessary to raise bivouacs above mud level. This was achieved by making a building platform—a square of heavy stones packed with earth—and on these the small tents were erected.

Accustomed in the past to the many comforts of the hospital—stretchers, plenty of blankets, shelter in the wards, etc.—all the staff now keenly felt the absence of these. A bed now consisted of two blankets and a groundsheet. Later, however, extra blankets were issued and some salvage came to hand. With boxes and tins page 306 from the latter, many improvements were effected. The cookhouse was established in a small shed, but the cook's never-ending task of feeding the multitude was hindered by the lack of sufficient utensils and dixies. Petrol tins were sterilised and used as food containers while, with clever improvisation, a desert-type oven of mud, stones, and tins was built. This allowed greater variety in the menu. Rations and water were delivered daily, the latter being stored in the two-gallon tins carried from Egypt.

When all the bivouacs had been erected, everyone was put to work making roads and paths. Since the unit was to be there for some weeks, it seemed obvious that mud would become the main problem when it rained. For days everybody carried stones and rubble to form paths, principal attention being paid to the cookhouse area. Stone fences are the only kind seen in Southern Italy. One of these bordered the road past the camp, and as the paths and roads grew longer so did it become lower.

At this time the nursing sisters were not with the unit but were staging and working at 70 British General Hospital just outside Taranto. Some of the CCS nursing orderlies and medical officers were also lent to the hospital, which was experiencing an extremely busy time dealing with casualties from the Eighth Army's advance beyond Foggia.

The days now were much shorter and dark descended at 5 p.m. Winter was rapidly drawing on. Summer clothing had been handed in and battle dress and gaiters became the dress. Extra blankets were issued; anti-malaria precautions ceased. Lighting on these long nights was a problem, since lanterns were scarce and the candle ration lasted only a few hours. Many and varied were the means by which bivouacs were lit. A ration of kerosene was available and, although smoky, was burnt in a cigarette tin with a rope wick. Olive oil was also used in home-made lamps. In entertainment, too, the unit had to rely upon itself and devise its own means of spending the long nights. A mess tent had been erected by now and furnished with boxes and planks. Here card tournaments were played by the light of flickering lanterns. Quiz sessions were also held, and sometimes a lecture or informal talk was arranged by the entertainment committee.

This new country offered much of interest and in so many ways was different from other lands that the unit had visited. It was page 307 surprising to see how the old feudal system still existed, as did many other customs handed down from ancient times.

3 General Hospital at Bari

In September 3 General Hospital had packed again, and its third anniversary on 29 October was celebrated on the hospital ship Dorsetshire in the Mediterranean. Arriving at Bari on the 31st, the unit was allotted two blocks of buildings in the Polyclinic to develop into a hospital. Construction of the Polyclinic had been begun by the Italians in 1932. The plan provided for the erection of 22 separate blocks of buildings, most of them to form separate clinics for the treatment of different diseases (hence the name Polyclinic). In 1940, when the Italian army took over the buildings, all constructional work was suspended. Only three blocks had been finished and the remainder were simply concrete and stone shells. One of 3 General Hospital's blocks was finished and one unfinished. They were given the names of Tripoli block and Beirut block respectively. The former block had been used by the Italians as a hospital, and they were still moving out. Members of the Italian medical corps carted equipment away and padres hovered about, distinguishable from the numerous civilian clergy only by the gold braid badge of rank worn on the sleeves of their flowing black gowns. Beirut block became the scene of much activity. Again the tradesmen of the unit proved their worth, and civilian labourers, painters, carpenters, and bricklayers were brought in to assist. Doors and windows were fitted, partitions built, floors finished, and water supply and drainage systems installed. Until this block was made serviceable all patients were cared for in Tripoli block. Sisters and nurses had temporary quarters in Tripoli block, but after three weeks they occupied a small building given the name of Helmieh House. Thus the three previous sites of the hospital—Helmieh, Beirut, and Tripoli—were commemorated.

Tripoli block was occupied by the surgical division, and Beirut by the medical division, plus the laboratory, massage, occupational therapy and administrative departments, and the patients' recreation room. In the basements were the stewards', ordnance, linen, pack and medical stores, and the workshops for the carpenters, plumbers, and electricians on the staff.

page 308

Situated a convenient distance from the docks area and only a few minutes' walk from the railway station, the hospital was in a good position for receiving evacuees by either ambulance train or hospital ship. For the staff it was five minutes' walk to the city, while in the opposite direction not far from the hospital were fields planted with walnut and olive trees.

For the first two weeks of November, 64 sisters and nurses were attached for duty to 98 British General Hospital, one of the other hospitals in the Polyclinic, which was without its sisters. This assistance immediately helped to establish amicable relations between the two hospitals, a co-operation that continued after the British sisters had arrived and NZANS and WAAC returned to their own unit.

As 3 General Hospital was the first New Zealand hospital to operate in Italy, it was not long before an urgent demand was made for the accommodation of patients. The first patient was admitted on 5 November, to be followed by 32 from 6 MDS at Taranto next day. The familiar story of the opening stages of a hospital then followed, the number of occupied beds often becoming very near to the number equipped. The position was alleviated to some extent by the opening of 1 NZ Convalescent Depot at Casamassima, 15 miles inland from Bari.

Air Raid on Bari

Alerts and anti-aircraft fire became common as enemy aircraft sought to destroy Eighth Army supplies in Bari harbour. On the night of 2 December there was a disastrous raid. In the words of S-Sgt Taylor:2

‘The hour is 7.30. The hospital is functioning in the routine manner for the evening. We have a good number of patients in, and a stretcher party has left for the railway station to unload a convoy of casualties due to arrive from the front. Up-patients and staff off duty are at the pictures in the patients’ recreation room. The performance is interrupted by the coughing bark of Bofors guns, and we can see through the window spaces the red and yellow tracer shells angrily streaking skyward. The performance stops and the crowd disperses to handy shelter, for we have had barrages over the city before, but the alerts have never lasted more than half an hour, and we expect to be able to resume our enjoyment of the pictures in a short time….

page 309

‘There are clouds in the night sky, and somewhere in those clouds lurk the enemy raiders. A dense fog, man-made, uncoils itself skywards, seeking to conceal from the Germans the object of their mission of destruction. A succession of equally spaced, parallel flashes, followed seconds later by a series of dull explosions, tells of a stick of bombs dropped from the planes above. There is a terrible beauty about the whole scene, reminiscent of a vivid fireworks display, only never did a child's fireworks have the evil significance of these instruments of destruction.

‘Without warning, a vast fountain of flame, with multi-coloured jets streaming from the top, arises in the air about a mile away. Those who pause to gape at the scene are, a few seconds later, flung flat by the mighty blast that follows the terrific explosion which the flame implied. There is a rattling of glass fragments as many of the windows shatter under the pressure of the blast. We take stock of the damage. Temporary bricked-up window spaces have been flattened, and one of these has fallen inwards in a room which only this afternoon had housed patients. Doors have been wrenched from their frames or split completely in two. There are no reports of any of the staff or patients injured.

‘But the raid goes on. Leaping flames and billowing clouds of smoke show where bombs have found their mark. There is another enormous explosion and a leaping column of yellow flame. By now some of the casualties from the raid are beginning to reach the hospital. Many of these are covered in oil and suffering from one or all of the effects of blast, immersion, and burns. There are Americans, Poles, Indians, Norwegians, and Italians. Far into the night the staff works to treat them and put them to bed.’

Fires on ships in the harbour continued for two days. All units were warned to expect an even bigger explosion from one of the ships on fire stated to be loaded with TNT, but this fortunately did not eventuate, thanks to cold-blooded efficiency on the part of the Royal Navy. In all, 17 ships were lost and over a thousand casualties sustained, 77 of the injured being admitted to 3 General Hospital, while a further 80 were treated and discharged. The work of construction was set back considerably. Much work for the next week was devoted to filling up window frames with calico. Then casualties from the Sangro demanded attention.

1 Pte A. T. Green; born England, 17 Jun 1913; meter reader, Wellington.

2 S-Sgt A. J. Taylor; born NZ, 30 Nov 1916; accountant, Dunedin.