Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
In spite of the miserable conditions, Christmas was made to be a success in all of the field medical units. At 5 ADS the men had been sleeping under haystacks, in barns and implement sheds, or under any cover that was handy, but a tarpaulin shelter was erected for the celebrations. The men came back from the resuscitation post in time for Christmas dinner, after being relieved by B Company, 6 Field Ambulance. The latter company had to postpone its dinner until the 27th, when the weather was still cold and wet. page 332 Each man was issued with two bottles of beer; there were so many non-drinkers in the company that the others had enough to lift them beyond the influence of such clogging details as rain and mud.
At 6 MDS celebrations did not take place until the 26th. The men sat in the long school corridor at tables laid with beer, cigarettes, fruit and nuts. The officers and sergeants served the meal of turkey and plum pudding. The guns were still firing outside, and ambulance cars whined up the narrow lane into the courtyard. Little time was wasted over the meal. The Colonel made a short speech, comparing the occasion with the previous Christmas spent on the Gulf of Sirte, and everyone washed up and returned to duty. In the school at Atessa, 4 MDS likewise enjoyed their dinner, distinguished by turkey, pork, and vino; and so did the other units, 4 ADS, 4 Field Hygiene Section, and 5 MDS. The latter was in reserve near the village of Perano, where there was a Methodist church. The minister held a special Christmas service for the staff—the first Italian service for those Protestants who attended. Two or three days before Christmas, one of the sergeants formed a carol party. He borrowed the church organ and at evening the party sallied forth on a tour of the neighbouring farmhouses, serenading the occupants with carols sung in close harmony. The local inhabitants did not know quite what to make of this fresh evidence of Kiwi peculiarity; but on the whole they were very friendly. They brought out the children and the vino and soon caught on to the idea.
Just before leaving San Buono, a 5 Field Ambulance corporal had acquired a pig and had carried it forward with a view to augmenting the Christmas rations. It may have just been a coincidence that the corporal was walking around barefoot for the next few days. The pig was named Bernie, after its master, and kept in a pen, where it devoured all the unit's scraps. Unfortunately, a fortnight before Christmas he decided to supplement his diet by sampling a large tin of red paint. It was thought advisable to close his colourful career with the unit, and he was sold to one of the local inhabitants, who appreciated the point of the deal and duly handed over a dud 500-lire note.
The month of December was particularly busy for 3 General Hospital. The work of establishing the hospital, the devastating air raid, and the flow of casualties from the Division all combined to page 333 produce a desperate contest between the provision of equipped beds and the rising bed-state. At times, stretchers had to be placed in corridors and unfinished parts of Beirut block, but amazing efforts by the Royal Engineers and unit staff had 1020 beds available by the end of the month. During this month 1611 patients were admitted; the average daily number of seriously ill cases was 38, and at the end of the month 54.
In spite of the bleak weather, a sad change from that only recently experienced in previous sites, both patients and staff managed to capture something of the spirit of Christmas. On Christmas Eve a party of carol singers toured the wards, the sisters being dressed in their red cloaks and carrying lanterns. All wards, messes, and also the patients' dining hall were colourfully decorated. An Italian orchestra was engaged, playing in the wards first, and later during the up-patients' dinner on Christmas Day. Each patient received a menu, printed on an airgraph and incorporating Christmas designs with a scene typical of the location of the hospital. During the afternoon the 6 Brigade band played selections in the hospital compound, while the day ended with an impromptu concert by patients, mainly Maoris.
So passed 1943, a year during which the hospital had operated in three different continents, at places totalling 2500 miles apart. Preconceived ideas of ‘blue Italian skies’ had been rudely shattered by the reality of a bitter European winter.