Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
IN Britain in the hour of greatest danger was the Second Echelon. It arrived in June 1940, shortly after Dunkirk, and stayed until the end of the year.
When the troops disembarked on 17-19 June and the troop trains passed slowly through Clydeside, the spontaneous and exuberant welcome from the sturdy Scots of all ages warmed the hearts of the New Zealanders. The same welcome was extended all along the line as they made their way south to Aldershot. Edinburgh provided hospitality at the station, as also did Banbury Cross.
Scotland as the men saw it in the middle of a smiling June was a country somewhat akin to their own, but with an air of solidarity and permanence. England in the soft sun of a late afternoon presented a panorama of field, wood, castle, and town. The industrial areas were a hive of activity, surrounded by smoke and grime. The rural countryside was well cropped.
The medical units, 5 Field Ambulance, I General Hospital, and 1 Convalescent Depot, settled into quarters at Ewshott, a welcome change from shipboard life. Ewshott will always be remembered by many members of the medical units. In the first few days the ration supply was very erratic and cabbage became the mainstay of their diet, being served up in many forms till full rations were available. Otherwise, all memories of the district are pleasant.
From Aldershot the Matron, Miss E. C. Mackay,1 and the sisters travelled by bus to the quaint old village of Warnborough in Hampshire, about twelve miles to the south. Seven of the sisters were billeted at ‘The Lodge’ with Mrs Alberta McLean, a former resident of New Zealand, and the rest with kindly village folk.
After a few days in camp the New Zealanders were given their first leave, travelling to London in a fast electric train. Going to London was an experience not to be forgotten: from one side of the carriage could be seen miles of chimney pots and small, closely packed houses placed back to back in certain areas; from the other page 54 side one got occasional glimpses of world-famous buildings—St. Paul's, the Houses of Parliament, and many others. Waterloo Station was impressive for its size and network of railway lines, with a constant bustle of trains arriving and departing beneath the huge glass roof. A short journey on the underground to Charing Cross brought the sightseers to the heart of London. At first it was hard to realise that there was a war on until one noticed the sandbagged windows and the notices pointing to air-raid shelters. Talking with the people, then and later on when bombs began to fall, one realised what sacrifices many were making and what little chance Hitler had of breaking their morale. Members of the units took trips up the Thames, saw the Tower of London, Westminster, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, Hampton Court and the Zoo, and marvelled at the Tube trains.
Near the camp at Ewshott were plantations of the Scots pine and larches, and mixed forests where ashes, birches, rowans, and elms abounded. It was an easy matter in the long summer evenings to gather blackberries, and the public-spirited labours of a few volunteers provided an occasional blackberry pie. The country inns were popular rendezvous. The social aspect of drinking impressed our men. Inns looked more like private houses than business premises; outside were hung names less prosaic than in New Zealand—The Jolly Farmer, The Shepherd and Flock, The Barley Mow. Inside, the inns were more like a club where darts, ‘shove a'penny’, and other games of skill were played, and a glass of beer drunk unhurriedly.
The New Zealanders found that England was not dying on its feet, as had been rumoured, but that it was a country of courageous civilian communities, who met the blatant self-assurance of some of the Anzacs with a kindly display of courtesy, interest, and hospitality. Great men and cottagers alike opened their hearts to the wearers of those strange hats, and the London Press lauded these distant kinsmen.
The threat of invasion hung over England; to fit themselves for the active role they had been allotted should it come, the troops of the Second Echelon worked day and night. Their morale was high even if they were short of equipment. The New Zealand troops were inspected on 6 July by the King, who showed the greatest interest in the training of the various units. At the conclusion of page 55 the inspection he requested that an order be issued telling the men that he had enjoyed being among New Zealanders again and had been impressed by their fine physique, keenness, and determined demeanour. Six of the sisters had the honour of lunching with him in a marquee—a simple wartime meal, but capped with luscious raspberries and cream. All were impressed by His Majesty's amiability, and he particularly complimented the sisters on their grey uniforms.