Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
CHAPTER 4 — WITH THE SECOND ECHELON
WITH THE SECOND ECHELON
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.
1 General Hospital at Pinewood
As soon as the location of the New Zealand force was definitely fixed as the Aldershot area, the ADMS 2 NZEF, Col K. MacCormick, approached the head of the Emergency Medical Service in the United Kingdom for hospital accommodation. This he was given in a new hutted hospital at Pinewood Sanatorium, near Wokingham, some ten miles from the main New Zealand camp. In the hutments 100 beds were set aside for sick New Zealanders, and, in addition, 70 beds in the sanatorium buildings were to be available for New Zealand casualties. New Zealand medical officers were to be available for work in the Sanatorium if required by the Medical Superintendent. All other arrangements for the running of the hospital were suitably completed with the indispensable co-operation of the EMS authorities, whose established services were largely used. Final administrative questions were settled with the London County Council, owners of the Sanatorium, who supplied all food, drugs, and dressings, while the Ministry of Health was responsible for all other equipment. As the possibility of enemy attack became imminent, 1 NZ General Hospital made immediate preparations to take over the allotted buildings and receive patients.
A first step in the setting-up of the hospital was taken on 26 June 1940, when the CO, Col McKillop, and an advanced party, moved to Pinewood. A further party comprising the Registrar and 20 other ranks moved over from Ewshott on the last day of June to assist in staffing the hospital. By then 72 beds had been made ready and two patients had been admitted. The remainder of the unit arrived at Pinewood on 2 July.
The hospital was pleasantly situated in a plantation with trees right up to the hospital entrance. The huts each accommodated 36 page 56 beds normally and 42 in an emergency. Each had a kitchen, storeroom, baths, lavatories, and heating. There were also a well-appointed theatre and X-ray block, cubicles for 36 nurses, dining and sitting rooms for nurses, and a kitchen block. Administrative quarters were improvised in a cottage, as normally the hospital would have been administered from the Sanatorium. The men were accommodated in billets at Edgecumbe Manor, a mile and a half away, and the officers and sisters occupied unfurnished wards. This was not very convenient, but the unit was fortunate in securing any accommodation at all. The housing of British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand forces gathered for the defence of the United Kingdom placed a premium on all available buildings. Some of the staff were accommodated in tents. The officers moved into East Hampstead Cottage on 30 July.
It was not long before the wards were working at pressure coping with an epidemic of measles and mumps, to which some of the unit succumbed. As each new ward was completed, the hospital expanded to cope with an increasing number of patients. The operating-theatre block was one of the earliest buildings completed and all surgical work was then undertaken by the unit, which also provided a consultant service to neighbouring British regimental medical officers. A mobile surgical unit assisted hospitals in nearby districts where enemy air raids had caused heavy casualties.
There were many visitors to the hospital, the most notable being Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, who called on 21 September, visiting all wards and departments of the hospital, speaking and shaking hands with every patient and member of the staff on duty. Her Majesty was touched when informed that two soldiers operated on that morning had refused sedative in case they would be asleep during her visit, and she returned to the wards to thank the soldiers concerned. The Queen's gracious and charming manner endeared her to everybody.
5 Field Ambulance in Operational Role
During July and August 5 Field Ambulance underwent a series of field exercises with 5 Infantry Brigade in preparation for an operational role in the event of invasion. Particular emphasis was laid on the importance of maintaining contact between ADS and MDS. The unit also handled sickness and accident cases in the page 57 New Zealand force. After two months in England the first vehicles were obtained.
The unit marched (remember the Hog's Back!), manoeuvred, and bivouacked in the counties of Surrey, Sussex, and Kent. It was then that they appreciated the beauty of the English landscape, a beauty largely due to the trees, which also provided shelter and protection. A convoy on the move is a target for hostile aircraft, but for many miles the unit was able to travel along narrow country roads under the green canopy of trees arching the road from both sides. The beeches of Arundel, with their clean but-tressed trunks, are associated with a misty wet morning in the early stages of a six-days' march. The men arrived there at dark, more than a little weary after a final uphill stretch, and had a long tramp through the park in search of their allotted bivouac, only to find that the cooks, who should have reached there by motor transport ahead of them, had lost their way; the meal was not ready until after 10 p.m. As they rolled into their blankets (some of them on a mattress of leaves), there was an air-raid warning and the sound of aircraft overhead.
Another halt on that same march was at East Grinstead, near the Castle and within sight of St. Hugh's Charterhouse, the largest monastery in Britain. Here the men of the unit saw a herd of deer not far from the ancient oaks under which the vehicles were parked. Many beautiful gardens were also seen; for example, that at Sheffield Park, where after a hot day on the march the men were able to bathe in a large pond set in a picturesque landscape of trees and shrubs.
The troops continued their training in the countryside. With the coming of autumn they saw a marked change in the landscape, as many of the English trees are leafless in winter. Before the fall, brilliant autumn colours appeared, beautiful in the lengthening rays of the afternoon sun.
Towards the end of August the unit drove down in convoy to Kent. HQ Company took over a stables in the Sittingbourne Road, outside Maidstone, A Company were at Broughton Monchelsea, and B Company at Sittingbourne. While they were here the area was heavily bombed, and the ambulances worked for the first time carrying casualties, mostly civilians, to the Maidstone Hospital. page 58 5 Field Ambulance continued to function through the various enemy air attacks during its stay in that area.
September was the month of the Luftwaffe's mass raids on London, planned to smash the way for an attempt at airborne and seaborne invasion. During the first week the New Zealand troops in reserve, by now a well trained and mobile force although not yet fully equipped, were moved nearer the coast to occupy what were virtually battle positions covering the Folkestone-Dover area. Early in the month the Prime Minister himself found time to inspect a parade of New Zealand units at Mytchett. Mr. Churchill made one of his inspiring speeches and gave evidence of his energy and insight.
On 4 September the surgical team at 1 General Hospital was suddenly called to Weybridge to help deal with bombing casualties. The Vickers aeroplane factory had received a direct hit, causing many casualties, although fortunately it was lunch-time and many of the 10,000 employees were away. Surgical and resuscitation teams had also been brought from London, and all worked through the afternoon and evening until midnight. It was early morning before a weary New Zealand surgical team returned to Pinewood.
From these large air raids, casualties were also admitted to Pinewood from London—men, women, and children, old and young; some in the clothes in which they had been extricated from the rubble; all with the dust and dirt seemingly ingrained into their skins; some severely injured, all badly shocked. Bomb casualties were then a new experience to New Zealanders, and they were impressed by the courage of the sufferers.
Later in the month the threat of invasion lessened as the weather over the English Channel became worse. To avoid the strain of stand-to at dawn and dusk each day, a relaxation of the manning of defences was ordered; troops were granted leave, sports were organised, parties travelled by bus, sightseeing, or visited hot baths in nearby towns. Life in billets in Kent was enjoyed by the men—the quaint villages, hotels, old houses and churches, the hopfields, orchards, and oast-houses provided a setting far removed from the usual military camp. Many had cause to remember the hospitality of English homes and people.page 59
It had originally been intended that the Echelon should have been relieved of its operational role on 13 September, pending its embarkation for the Middle East, but these orders were cancelled three days before, and the New Zealanders stayed in bivouacs covering Dover. The postponement had been ordered personally by Mr. Churchill after a visit to the Dover sector. At first it was intended that the departure of the Second Echelon would be delayed only a few weeks and that it would leave for the Middle East towards the end of October. However, because of the urgent need in the Middle East for reinforcements of armour, artillery, and antiaircraft units, its departure was again delayed. The New Zealand force retained its operational role under command of 12 Corps and was largely concentrated in the Maidstone-Ashford area of Kent. The happiest relations existed between the soldiers and the civilians, many of whom established canteens and organised entertainments.
1 General Hospital Leaves for Egypt
Instructions to 1 General Hospital on 7 September to prepare for departure were not cancelled when the departure of the rest of the Echelon was postponed. The staff were sorry to be leaving the hospital, which was then nearing completion. Nissen huts had been erected to allow the pack and ordnance stores to be cleared from the two wards they had been occupying. A move had been made into the administration block, and the painting of the hospital was almost completed. The summer had changed to autumn, the fruit was ripening on the trees, and the beech trees were a picture in their autumn tints. Pinewood, too, had been spared the attention of enemy aircraft. Few were looking forward to a sea trip again, feeling that they had already spent so much time travelling. All hoped until the last that the arrangements might be altered, but they were not changed although a little delayed.
On 26 September DDMS, Aldershot Command, visited the hospital to make final arrangements for 18 British General Hospital to take over. He expressed his pleasure at having had the unit in his district and his appreciation of the good conduct of the staff and of their reputation with the people of the district; he also congratulated Col McKillop on the excellent work of the unit.
The staff all had seven days' leave before embarking for Egypt, and this took them to all parts of England and Scotland. Some page 60 tried to find their way to quieter areas, as the noise of planes overhead became trying at times, especially at night. On 4 October the main body embarked at Gourock on HMT Georgic. The ship sailed on the evening of the 7th and reached Port Tewfik on 16 November, after calling at Freetown and Cape Town.
Fifth Brigade's manoeuvres were continued from time to time throughout October. A surprise order to be ready to move early on 25 October caused most units to believe the operation to be a real one, although it was only a practice. During the month several aircraft, both German and British, crashed in the brigade area and several delayed action bombs were located.
Lt-Col Twhigg assumed the appointment of ADMS, NZ Division (UK), but retained command of 5 Field Ambulance. Under arrangements with DDMS 12 Corps, all New Zealand patients were held in special hospitals so that they would not be too scattered. 5 Field Ambulance alone was responsible for the evacuation of casualties from the force's area and for the care of all but serious cases. Two ADSs and an MDS were established. Besides taking patients back to the CCS or to hospital, the unit returned patients from hospital or, when required, transferred them to the Convalescent Home. In addition to the Warbrook Convalescent Home, a camp reception hospital at Farnborough (formerly operated by 1 NZ Convalescent Depot before it went to Egypt, and later by 1 NZ General Hospital) was reopened on 14 October for convalescent patients and was staffed by a detachment from 5 Field Ambulance.
During September and October 186 patients suffering from various injuries, many of them football ones, were admitted to 5 Field Ambulance. A common cause of admission was respiratory disorders, for which during the two months 104 patients were treated, this total including 79 with minor influenzal infections. The total number of cases evacuated by the ambulance beyond unit RAPs2 was 617.
Months passed and winter came. There was still no invasion. The New Zealanders saw a civilian population laugh at bombing, saw a small but courageous Air Force chase the Germans out of the daylight sky, and marked the heroism and self-sacrifice of the page 61 ARP services. And they profited by what they saw. When they came to leave England they breathed something of the same spirit, and they left an excellent impression.
When the New Zealand force returned to the Aldershot Command during the first week of November, the MDS was set up at Runfold and the ADS at Heathcote, and both acted as reception hospitals.
After six months in England a week's leave was granted, with free travelling warrant. Most of the men went to Scotland, though some took the opportunity to visit relatives in other parts of England. One-third of the unit went on leave at a time so that it could still function over the leave period.
Early in December there were rumours of embarkation as equipment was sorted out and general preparations made. Over the Christmas period the English people went to no end of trouble to entertain the New Zealanders, and many were invited to civilian homes for Christmas dinner.
On the night of 1-2 January 1941, units of the Second Echelon began to leave Aldershot Command for ports of embarkation to join the rest of the Division in the Middle East, their original destination. It was the middle of winter and influenza was prevalent. Snow fell in the afternoon of 2 January, when B Company, 5 Field Ambulance, left Heathcote by train for Liverpool, where they embarked on the Athlone Castle the next day. There was further frost and snow on the 3rd, when HQ and A Companies cleared the houses and grounds of ‘Inglewood’ and ‘The Spinney’ at Runfold, marched to Farnham station, and left by train for Newport, Wales, where they embarked on the Duchess of Bedford on the 4th. The next day this ship moved out into the Bristol Channel and then up the Irish Channel to reach Belfast on 7 January, where the Athlone Castle and other ships joined the convoy on the 11th.
On 12 January the convoy sailed from Belfast Loch in the early morning, heading west in a zigzag course and then south. All ranks at first slept in their clothes in the danger zone and wore steel helmets and lifebelts while on deck. The ships' hospital accommodation was taxed by the number of influenza patients, and nursing orderlies from the field ambulance companies were attached to their respective ship's hospitals for duty. When the influenza page 62 abated there was a mild epidemic of measles on board the Duchess of Bedford.
After crossing the Equator on the way south, enjoying leave at Cape Town, and crossing the Equator on the way north again, the convoy reached Port Tewfik on 3 March. As the troops prepared to disembark, they were informed that they would not be long in the country and were advised to take full advantage of any leave granted to them. Units of the New Zealand Division in the Middle East were then leaving Egypt for another theatre of war.
1 Principal Matron Miss E. C. Mackay, OBE, RRC, m.i.d.; born Porangahau, 13 Feb 1902; Sister, Hamilton; Sister, Ngaruawahia Camp, Jan-Mar 1940; Matron 1 Gen Hosp Jun 1940-Nov 1943; Principal Matron Nov 1943-May 1945.
2 Regimental Aid Posts.