Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
There were weeks of unremitting industry at 2 and 3 General Hospitals in February and March as the battle casualties from Cassino were admitted in large numbers.
At Caserta, 2 General Hospital was soon working to its limit. On 18 February wounded from the attack on the railway station at Cassino were admitted. They reached the hospital quickly by road page 354 transport, either from the CCS or MDS, as the hospital was very favourably situated. Evacuations to 3 General Hospital at Bari were carried out by ambulance train from Caserta at the rate of 240 a week. From 5 to 29 February there were 1286 admissions to the hospital at Caserta, the highest number for one month since June 1941. Tented wards were erected for crisis expansion. Lt-Col Clarke6 and his surgeons did notable work.
February's record of admissions was eclipsed by those of March, when 1608 patients were admitted, including 713 battle casualties. Preparations were made to receive heavy casualties, and by 18 March there were 831 equipped beds, with emergency crisis expansion to 1050. Actually, because of the efficient working of the evacuation train system three times a week, the highest number of occupied beds was 580 (on 24 March). The thought of the struggle at Cassino dwarfed the physical troubles prevailing at the hospital and inspired all to do their best. The weather throughout March continued to be wet and cold and boisterous. It lived up to the reputation of ‘Mad March’ given it by local inhabitants.
By 14 March Nissen huts had been erected for kitchens and mess rooms for patients and staff. It was no longer necessary to dine in the mess rooms of British neighbours. The experience had been a novel one for both parties. New Zealanders found it difficult to get used to a very early tea, starting at 4 p.m., and a cooked supper at 8 p.m. A printed menu which described the inevitable slices of bully beef as ‘cold potted meat’ intrigued the Kiwis. On the other hand, the Tommies looked in amazement when visiting New Zealand officers dropped in and had a meal in the men's mess.
On 12 March Maj-Gen F. T. Bowerbank, DGMS, from New Zealand, accompanied by DMS 2 NZEF, Brig Kenrick, inspected the hospital, and another distinguished visitor was General Sir Harold Alexander on 28 March. General Alexander expressed a wish to see the new anæsthetic, pentothal sodium, in use. He was appropriately page 355 gowned and masked and led into the operating theatre, where three patients were receiving attention. Pentothal having been duly given, the plaster and dressings were removed from a shattered elbow, which had received ‘closed plaster’ treatment during evacuation. The General indicated that he had seen enough, and appeared to be just able to make an orderly retirement under his own steam.
From the hospital Mount Vesuvius was clearly visible when, on 22 March, it burst into more activity than it had achieved for nearly 200 years. A cloud of ashes and mud covered southern Italy, some of it descending as far away as 3 General Hospital at Bari.
As the battle casualties were evacuated steadily to Bari, 3 General Hospital provided for a crisis expansion and actually equipped 1130 beds.
The ending of the main New Zealand attacks on Cassino brought some relief, and by 10 April the staff of 1 General Hospital reached Taranto on HS Dorsetshire, after leaving a third of its members at Helwan to run 5 General Hospital for the New Zealand troops still in Egypt. 1 General Hospital set about establishing a hospital at Molfetta, 20 miles up the coast from Bari, to ease the burden on the other hospitals. At this time, too, the Convalescent Depot, which had been open at Casamassima, near Advanced Base, moved to a site near Bari at San Spirito, where was also the office of the DMS 2 NZEF.
The modern building occupied by 1 General Hospital was a seminary, permission to use it as a hospital having been received from the Vatican after protracted negotiations. Built on rising ground on the outskirts of Molfetta, one of the meaner little Italian towns, the main building occupied three sides of a square and commanded a fine view of the Adriatic, which lapped on the shore only a few hundred yards away. It was a red-tiled, three-storied stone building, with many spacious rooms making ideal wards. The corridors were wide and all the floors tiled. One of the drawbacks was that the many windows were just too high from the floor for a good field of vision to be obtained by bed-patients. Among the sights they missed as a result was that of the small fishing boats putting out to sea in the morning and returning again in the evening. Although there were no lifts, the stairways were particularly wide.page 356
The ground floor was occupied by mess rooms, kitchens, the laundry, and storerooms. Here also were stored the books and furnishings belonging to the seminary. On the first floor were the administrative offices, the surgical block, and the massage and X-ray departments. The medical block occupied most of the second floor. The sisters, VADs, and medical officers lived in the hospital building, while the other members of the staff occupied tents in the rear of the hospital. The unit opened to receive patients on 2 May 1944, exactly four years after its departure from Wellington with the Second Echelon.