Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
CHAPTER 9 — SYRIAN INTERLUDE
IT was cold and miserable in that January of 1942 for field units living in holes in the desert at Baggush and visited frequently by driving rainstorms and violent sandstorms that swept into tents, bivvies, or dugouts, coating everything with thick sand. The men were not sorry when, towards the end of the month, they climbed into goods waggons at the Sidi Haneish station and set out on a somewhat long-drawn-out journey for Maadi Camp.
At Maadi, in tents under the shadow of the escarpment, the units were able for a brief month to enjoy the amenities of a base camp, Cairo leave, and contact once again with civilisation. Running water, comfortable tented quarters, and a mess tent with tables and forms were some of the small things that made so much difference to camp life, while the new Lowry Hut, with its excellent appointments, facilities for writing and recreation, refreshment counter, and many entertainments, together with YMCAs, Naafi canteens, and Shafto's and Pall Mall cinemas provided almost all that the men could expect to make Army life in Egypt bearable.
With the arrival of further reinforcements bringing the units almost up to strength, some reorganisation was undertaken and a light training programme embarked upon. Route marches and routine training with medical equipment occupied but a small part of the day, however, and as leave was on a fairly generous scale some of the men were able to take advantage of specially conducted tours and visit many places of interest, not only around Cairo but at Luxor, Thebes, and Aswan in Upper Egypt.
Arrival of Voluntary Aids
When the Maunganui arrived in the Middle East in January she brought the first detachment of the NZ WWSA (Hospital Division) —our VADs. In charge of them was Miss M. King.1 Three weeks later the second detachment arrived on the Oranje.
In October 1941 two hundred girls had been selected by a board in Wellington and enlisted in the Army through the Women's War Service Auxiliary (WWSA), which later became the New Zealand page 187 Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, with a consequent change in the appellation of its members from ‘Wassies’ to ‘Waacs’. The nursing section was drawn from the voluntary aids of the Order of St. John and the New Zealand Red Cross Society, and its members were required to have had a minimum of 60 hours' hospital training, but many of them had given voluntary service over a period of many months in various emergency medical centres. The members of the clerical section had to be able to write shorthand at 130 words a minute and type at 75 words a minute. As only 14 clerks were chosen competition was keen.
Going into Trentham Camp in December 1941, the girls had been broken in to a new life as privates in the New Zealand Army, and had then sailed on the Maunganui on 22 December, some of them disembarking in Australia to follow to the Middle East in the Oranje.
The sisters welcomed the VADs to the hospitals in Egypt. The future alone was to tell what a help these girls from New Zealand were to be. They worked with a will and soon learned to co-operate with the orderlies in their work and to give assistance to the sisters. They took the ups and downs of Army life cheerfully and with little complaint.
Hospital life was new and interesting to them. The patients found them jolly companions and cheery nurses; they gave much of their spare time to the entertainment of the patients, and this in itself was a big help to the sisters in their endeavour to make hospital life as happy as possible for the men. With time their work became invaluable, many becoming capable and responsible nurses. They were grand girls, and none appreciated them and their work more than did the sisters of the NZANS.
The clerical section of the WAAC was absorbed immediately, particularly in the hospital offices, where the girls replaced men who were sent to field units. These girls were also employed as shorthand typists and clerks in the stewards' stores, company offices, QM stores, and X-ray departments of the hospitals. To most of them the medical terms were strange, but with the aid of medical dictionaries and assistance from the members of the NZMC, they soon became conversant with the new vocabulary.
The members of the nursing section, comprising the majority of the VADs, were posted to the various wards as assistants. Their page 188 duties consisted of making beds, taking temperatures, washing patients, serving meals, sweeping and cleaning, and helping in the kitchen. The working hours were considered good—ten hours a day, with a half day free every fourth day and a full day off every ninth. All members of the WAAC realised that their employment in the Middle East was an experiment, and they were most anxious that the experiment should be successful. The length of their service abroad and the increased responsibility of their duties were proofs of their success.
In January 1942 the first of the New Zealand Rest Homes was opened. This was a rest home for New Zealand sisters and nurses, established in a delightful house in Garden City, a suburb of Cairo. There was a pleasant garden at the back of the house, and after the necessary renovations were made all was ready to receive guests.
In December Charge Sister E. M. Sutherland2 gave a reception to enable officials to see the Rest Home before its official opening. Much had been accomplished and everyone was well pleased with the transformation. From that time onward the Rest Home was very much appreciated by sisters and nurses on convalescent leave, bi-annual leave, or even on a night off. Cool, clean, and quiet, it was an ideal place for a rest after sickness, but near enough to the city when one wanted to go into town.
Shortly afterwards, another Rest Home for officers was opened nearby. It offered the same comfortable hospitality to officers of the Division during convalescence. All the time the Division was in the Middle East the Rest Homes continued to carry on very successfully, giving unspectacular but greatly appreciated service.
The official opening of these two Rest Homes (Nos. 1 and 3) was performed by Lady Lampson, wife of the British Ambassador to Egypt, on 27 January 1942. Opportunity was taken at this function to extend hospitality and return thanks to the many people of Cairo, Maadi, and surrounding districts who had assisted to entertain patients in hospital and the troops. These people, who made all welcome to their lovely homes and gardens or worked unstintingly page 189 in clubs and canteens, as well as visiting the hospitals, will never know how much good they did for the men of the British forces in Egypt.
Another Rest Home (No. 2) for other ranks, with Maj Kirker3 in command, was opened in Alexandria by Lady Freyberg on 27 February. Seriously sick or wounded patients who were not fit enough to go to the Convalescent Depot were sent there. To the patients it seemed the nearest thing to a home away from home they could find: linen on the beds, tablecloths and china in the mess, little discipline, much freedom, and a long sea-front with excellent bathing facilities to explore. One hundred patients could be accommodated at this Rest Home, though the term ‘patient’ was not encouraged. Rather, they seemed to the Charge Sister her ‘family’ under medical supervision and orders.
Formation of Casualty Clearing Station
On 27 February the Mobile Surgical Unit was disbanded and its personnel, transport, and most of the equipment absorbed into 1 NZ Casualty Clearing Station, which then was officially constituted as a unit of 2 NZEF, with an establishment of 106 personnel. Lt-Col P. A. Ardagh was appointed Commanding Officer.
During these days at Q area, Maadi Camp, the new unit, like an infant struggling eagerly to find its feet, had a busy time experimenting to find the quickest and most efficient way of carrying out its duties. The various departments were staffed, surgical and ordnance equipment checked, and training in the layout of the wards and other essential sections of the unit carried out. Much more practice in erecting tents was required when the original issue of EPIP tents was replaced by a type known as ‘Hospital Pattern, extending’. This was a much larger type of tent, and when extended to the requisite ward size required about twenty men to erect it. Once it was up, however, and ‘tied off’, two or three could complete it in a very short time.
During this period the unit was divided into light and heavy sections. In the former, most of the original MSU personnel were page 190 retained, since they were already fully experienced in the work that would be required in the future mobile role and function of such a section.
Transport for the unit still remained a problem, there being sufficient only for the Light Section's equipment. The vehicle list comprised seven 3-ton lorries and a 15-cwt. truck, and to these was added an X-ray laboratory van and a trailer which had been specially constructed to carry the electrical plant. As the shortage of transport was still acute and there were no prospects of further vehicles being obtained, it was thought that when the CCS moved other transport would have to be borrowed from some other section of the Army. This was what actually did happen during later months.
Move to Syria
Shortly after the unwelcome news of the fall of Singapore, the field units left Maadi for a camp on the Suez Canal. It was an unpleasant spot, some 20 miles north of Suez on a promontory between the Great and Little Bitter Lakes of the Canal, near the Kabrit airfield. The flat, sandy plain was swept frequently by wind and dust-storms.
Setting up an MDS camp hospital to service their brigades, the field ambulances remained here for a few weeks. A few cases of sickness were held in the MDS, but work was not exacting except on the few occasions when a high wind threatened to level the tents and the men were obliged to grapple with billowing canvas, double-peg the guy ropes and, in some cases, repair ripped tent flies.
All units at this time took part in combined operations with naval landing craft on the Canal lake. Gliding noiselessly across the lake in the dark, small assault landing craft or the larger tank craft nosed up on to the beaches on the other side and unloaded their invasion forces. While the fighting units carried out their attack exercises, the medical party set up a light dressing station near the beach.
Towards the end of February, after the invasion exercises, the units, preceded by advanced parties, left by road and rail for Syria. With each ambulance's limited transport went a small road party via the Sinai Desert, while the majority followed by rail through page 191 Palestine to Haifa. In Syria the Division, as part of Ninth Army had been allotted the task of constructing defences in the Lebanon Valley.
Egypt, Palestine, and Syria
Plans had been drawn up for the defence of Syria from the north, north-east, and east. The New Zealand Division had been allotted the task of completing the defences of the Djedeide fortress, on which considerable work had already been done. This was in the Orontes valley lying between the high mountain ranges of the Lebanons and Anti-Lebanons. In this valley the Division was mainly concentrated.
When 4 Field Ambulance, under Lt-Col King, reached Syria on 5 March, B Company set up an ADS for 4 Infantry Brigade at Djedeide, while the remainder of the unit established an MDS in Gouraud Barracks at Baalbek, 20 miles to the south. The MDS buildings were in a most untidy and filthy condition but were soon cleaned up for the admission of patients. Until the CCS opened at Zahle early in April, both 4 and 6 Field Ambulances had to hold more sick and accident cases in the divisional area than was customary, and at the end of March 4 Field Ambulance was holding 71 patients. Four inches of snow fell in Baalbek during the night of 22-23 March and a cold wind made outdoor conditions unpleasant. Morale, however, received a boost on 24 March when the first mail from New Zealand for many months arrived.
In the middle of March 4 Field Hygiene Section, under Maj W. J. Boyd,4 arrived in Syria and took over part of a large hotel in Baalbek. The hotel had previously been occupied by an Australian hygiene section, and a useful demonstration area had been laid out by it. A large concrete reservoir at the back of the building, with a constant supply of ice-cold water from the ancient Roman springs, was used as a swimming pool, and hot showers were improvised by the unit workshop. One of the section's first tasks was an inspection of the food and barbers' shops in the town. The problem of rubbish disposal was overcome by employing native contractors and forming a controlled tip in the old quarries on the outskirts of the village.
The unit had become responsible for the supervision of hygiene for an area of about sixty square miles, as New Zealand units were spread out between Rayak and Ras Baalbek in the Lebanon Valley. This district was one of the most malarious in the Middle East, and the Australians had had a large number of malaria cases in the previous season. As soon as the weather permitted, a survey of all watercourses, swamps, and irrigation areas was begun and detailed page 193 maps prepared. This work took several weeks because of the roughness of the tracks and the thickly wooded country. A large number of Arab labourers was employed on drainage work, clearing streams, installing and repairing sluice gates. This work was done so effectively that no extensive mosquito breeding could be found in the area up to the time the Division left.
In May the unit was pleased to read in an issue of the NZEF Times an article on the good health of the troops in the country, which reflected credit on the work of the hygiene section. At this time, too, soldiers with sartorial aspirations found themselves living in troubled times, the cause of the trouble being the recently issued ‘Bombay bloomers’, unsightly shorts which could be extended to ‘semi-longs’ in the evening to frustrate attacks by the mosquito.
On 10 March 6 Field Ambulance, under Lt-Col Furkert, left Kabrit with 6 Brigade units for Aleppo. By road the transport party followed the coastline of Syria, skirting the Lebanon Range and the stony, terraced hillsides along the sea coast to strike inland north of the mountains, whose snow-covered heights were enveloped in fleecy clouds. Over the large, flat, fertile plains of the high country, the road led through the towns of Homs and Hama, past buildings of ochre stone and great water-wheels up to thirty feet in height. The reddish-brown soil was cultivated in amazingly long straight furrows. In the fields were peasants in tight-legged, baggy-seated trousers or women in coloured blouse and skirt with the bottoms of long trousers poking out below, and often Arabs in loose sheepskin coats and Bedouin headdress. Scattered everywhere were Kurdish villages of strange mud-brick huts, chrome coloured and conical in shape like giant beehives. Often, too, they were walled and fortified and perched on hilltops. Quite remarkable was the almost complete absence of trees of any sort over all this country.
Then, coming over the brow of a hill, the convoy came in sight of Aleppo, a white, cold, and forbidding city, dominated by its medieval, moated citadel. But Aleppo was to prove more friendly than its cold exterior indicated. The ambulance, taking over from Australians, established an MDS in an Italian hospital building. With quarters in a block of modern flats nearby, the officers and page 194 some of the men took up duties in the hospital. In the flats they enjoyed comfort they had not experienced since leaving New Zealand.
With 6 Brigade to the Turkish border went B Company, 6 Field Ambulance. For a few days the company camped on the rolling broken country within half a mile or so of the huge stone archways which marked the frontier. One ardent malaria squad treating ponds and water-holes with an anti-mosquito preparation ventured over the border, but as zealous Turkish guards had fired on some British planes which had strayed across the demarcation line, it was thought advisable not to provide them with more targets.
At Aleppo the MDS was almost a miniature general hospital of 100 beds. Six Australian sisters remained at the hospital until the arrival of four New Zealand sisters later in March. The ambulance men staffed medical and surgical wards, theatre and Medical Inspection Room, laboratory and dispensary, and assumed many other duties required in running a hospital. Never had the unit worked under conditions such as these. Long wards were complete with bedsteads, enamelled lockers, plenty of bed linen, and numerous cupboards. There were also handy little side rooms for nursing more serious cases, and bathrooms and cookhouse connected directly with the wards. The little two-roomed theatre was well equipped. Refugees from across the Turkish border were medically examined and their clothing disinfested.
The MI Room was a busy place. Its clientele consisted of New Zealanders, British troops stationed in the city or near it, and members of the local populace whom doctors and orderlies endeavoured to question in half-remembered scraps of high school French. There was always somebody requiring treatment for some sore or minor injury.
In the wards, orderlies experienced only in field hospital or dressing station practice at times fell short of the sisters' hospital technique, but the sisters found them able and willing, if at times rather blunt and apt to dispense with formalities. One report on a patient left for the sister by a night orderly ran, ‘Had the runs all night and dry retched so I gave him bismuth and soda, but he still feels pretty crook this morning.’
At first patients for evacuation to hospital were carried back over the long journey of 200 miles or so to Beirut, until 1 NZ CCS set up page 195 at Zahle. Over these journeys cars of the American Field Service, a volunteer organisation, carried many of the patients. This was the New Zealanders' first contact with these fine young Americans, who were to establish a firm and genuine friendship of long standing with the Division.
The hospital wadi near Sidi Rezegh after its capture by the Germans
Of more than usual interest to the men in Aleppo, this closely packed city of white stone buildings, were the medieval citadel and the Souk, Aleppo's unique markets. Almost all visited the massive stone fortifications of the citadel and walked around the thick walls which skirted the large circular plateau on which it is built. The markets drew many back again and again to bargain for brocades, hand-worked linen, or silver filigree trinkets. The Souk was a maze of miles and miles of lanes and alleyways packed with row upon row of small open stalls. Being completely covered with a roof, the market gave the impression of being underground. In each small street were stalls selling one particular line of merchandise. One wandered through streets of coloured cloths, streets of shoes, streets of silver and gold work, streets of skins, streets of fruit and vegetables, and streets of many strange foods. Each had it own distinctive odour, and all presented a fascinating and colourful picture.
For a little over a month 6 Field Ambulance operated the Aleppo hospital. The wards were always full and there was plenty of work to do. Some of the men had found their way into the homes of the friendly and hospitable Armenians and had made the acquaintance of American missionaries in the city, and it was with some regret that they handed over to 5 Field Ambulance in mid-April and moved south to a camp in the Orontes valley.
Fifth Field Ambulance had just arrived in Syria. On 11 February it had accompanied 5 NZ Infantry Brigade to Cyrenaica as part of Eighth Army, and had returned to Maadi on 28 March. The hospital at Aleppo was run by 5 Field Ambulance, under Lt-Col McQuilkin, until June. Patients were received from New Zealand, Indian, and South African units, and from the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force, but the numbers were kept down by frequent evacuations to the CCS at Zahle, although an outbreak of sandfly fever taxed the accommodation at one stage.
CCS Journeys to Zahle
Friday, 20 March, dawned dull and overcast. It was perhaps this that caused the pickets to sleep late and thus call the cooks late for the breakfast appointed for five o'clock. And it was perhaps the cold morning that made many of the men rise behind time, resulting in much hustle and bustle at the last minute, rolling up blankets and making final adjustments to packs preparatory to departure. But at ten minutes past six goodbye was said to Q Area and Maadi as four trucks left to convey nine officers and 74 other ranks of the CCS and personal baggage to Cairo main station. All entrained at seven o'clock, and soon they were on their way to the new country that was to provide for every member of the staff a pleasant interlude in his life in the Middle East.
A five-hour trip past the palm-fringed mud villages of the Delta brought the party to Kantara. At various stations the train was besieged by dozens of ‘Georges’—and their children, when the local policeman wasn't looking—all selling ‘eggs-a-cooked’, ‘eggs-a-bread’, bottles of doubtful-looking coloured water, or ‘very sweet, very clean, very hygiene’ water melon. The persistent efforts of these bewhiskered, cunning, and crafty hawkers to convert their wares into piastres provided interest at each station, but they soon became an unbearable nuisance.
On arrival at Kantara it was necessary for everyone to shoulder personal gear, detrain, wait in turn to cross the Canal by barge, and then walk to the Kantara East railway station, where there was a long wait for another train to take them through Palestine. Meanwhile, nearly everyone elected to change Egyptian for Palestinian currency, a proceeding that required much thought and calculation in order not to be bested by the wily and prosperous roadside money-changers.
Throughout the long night hours the train lurched and swayed, with occasional halts at small unknown stations. Some time during the night it crossed the Egyptian border, and the early light of dawn showed the cultivated green fields of Palestine slipping past the carriage windows. With daylight the view on either hand became page 197 very pleasant, and soon there were agricultural scenes reminiscent of New Zealand. After recent weeks of desert surroundings, this journey through the ordered and fertile countryside of the land of the Bible was a welcome and refreshing experience. It was springtime, and the fresh growth on cactus fences lining narrow country lanes, and the gay profusion of wild flowers—poppies, anemones, and marguerites—was a tonic to the eyes. Jasmine, too, was everywhere.
Breakfast consisted of dry rations again, but most of the men filled up with oranges. During the early part of the morning the train passed through the heart of the citrus-growing district, with orange groves stretching far on either side. Hill and valley were a mass of dark-green trees heavily laden with the bright fruit, while the sweet scent of its blossom pervaded the air. From time to time the train would halt at a station or railway siding, and here there would be scores of people with cartloads and baskets of large juicy oranges. For less than a shilling one could buy 40 or 50 of the choicest Jaffa variety. Anything that would hold them was filled, and eating oranges became the chief pastime.
Skirting the Mediterranean, the train arrived at Haifa. After a ten-thirty breakfast at the local Naafi, the unit moved to a transit camp at the foot of Mount Carmel. High up on its summit could be seen the modern building of the famous Carmelite Monastery built over the ruins of the one destroyed by the Turks in 1821 and which, tradition says, was originally erected over the cave where once dwelt the prophet Elijah. The journey on from the transit camp was made in civilian buses. Upholstered seats were a novel experience after the indifferent springing of Army trucks. All enjoyed the ride through Haifa's Kingsway, with its modern buildings, and north onto the coastal road running round the Bay of Acre. On the right could be seen an old Turkish aqueduct still carrying water from the distant Kabri springs.
It was dark when the buses climbed into the hills that swing out to the coast at the northern border of Palestine, and it was almost midnight before the convoy arrived at a transit camp at Beirut. Heavy rain was falling; everyone was tired. Laden with bedrolls and packs, many of the men searching for their tents floundered off into the darkness through muddy ground into water-filled ditches page 198 and barbed-wire fences. Many were wet through. In crowded, leaking tents, the only thing they could do was to sit around on packs and wait for daylight.
Late next morning the buses climbed the Lebanons. The road was steep and winding. Many fine houses, the summer homes of Beirut residents, were to be seen. Aley, a well-known tourist resort, looked particularly attractive with its first-class hotels and stylish French residences, as, too, did Bhamdoun and Ain Sofar.
There was thick snow as the road neared the summit, where the scene became more rugged and where, suddenly, the shrub-covered, fertile coastal side of the range gave way to the barren eastern slopes. Magnificent views of the white Anti-Lebanon Mountains, and especially Mount Hermon, were obtained throughout the long winding descent to Shtora. The buses climbed another hill and came to a halt at the hospital, the home of the CCS for the next few months. There below, all at once, was Zahle, a picturesque village nestling in the hollow of the hills.
The building that had been taken over was well suited to the unit's purpose. Funds for its erection as a hospital for the poor of Zahle had been contributed by Americans formerly resident there. Construction work had ceased in 1918, to be resumed again in 1938. A few interior details yet remained to be completed. It was built of grey stone in the form of a square, the centre of which was a paved courtyard. There were two floors as well as an attic.
The first few days after the unit's arrival on 22 March were extremely cold. Battle dress, which in Egypt had seemed so hot and uncomfortable, was now most welcome. Rain, sleet, and snow prevailed; it was said locally to be the coldest March for 60 years. In such cold and miserable conditions, memories of the heat and glaring sands of the desert became dim.
Because of the large numbers of poor village folk who persisted in grouping round the hospital—some in the hope of obtaining clothes to wash, others out of idle curiosity—it was necessary to picket the building and the surrounding area. The people seemed slow to realise that their hospital-to-be had now become a military one. Efforts to convince them of this gave rise to many humorous incidents because of the language difficulty. Though obviously desperately poor, these people seemed to be of a much better character than the Egyptians.page 199
By 1 April—two days before Easter—the Casualty Clearing Station was ready to receive patients; the first eleven cases were admitted that afternoon. Soon the building took on the appearance of a well-run hospital, with some 120 beds neatly arranged throughout the various surgical and medical wards. Eight nursing orderlies were appointed to each ward.
On 4 April eight sisters, with Sister Hodges5 in charge, joined the CCS. Pending the construction of a stone hut—incidentally not completed until two months later—they lived in tents adjacent to the hospital. A stone cottage served admirably as kitchen and mess room. Two local Lebanese women, Yvonne and Adele, were engaged to attend to sundry tasks. For their mess the officers had the use of another house higher on the hill to the south-west of the hospital. Tents pitched on the slopes below this served as their sleeping quarters. On arrival at Zahle the men were quartered in the main hospital building, shifting later to the attic. This was not convenient for long, so in the first week of April some of the unit tents were erected and occupied instead.
Patients were evacuated by ambulance cars of the American Field Service. Five cars, a small sub-section of this organisation, were already at the hospital when the CCS arrived. The drivers' duties entailed trips to Rayak, Baalbek, Damascus, Beirut, and Nazareth. Representing almost every state in America, the drivers of the AFS served without pay. Well educated and from wealthy American families, most of them had given up good positions to volunteer for the work. Their association with the CCS was happy; their personality, efficiency, and obliging readiness for any extra tasks made them well liked by all members of the staff.
In the AFS lines near the hospital, there was a little ceremony on 1 April when the Stars and Stripes was raised. This was believed to be the first time the American flag was flown in the Middle East since the United States entered the war. Lt-Col Ardagh presented the flag on behalf of General Freyberg.
A few days later there was another parade when the whole unit assembled to say farewell to Col Ardagh, who was relinquishing command of 1 CCS to take up the position of ADMS 2 NZ Division. Lt-Col L. J. Hunter took over the command.
2 General Hospital Goes to Nazareth
In order to be nearer the Division, 2 General Hospital left Gerawla by train at the end of March for Nazareth. A long and tedious journey brought the unit from Egypt to Palestine, and the new site was reached at midnight on 2 April. The hospital was housed in three hotel buildings, each three or four storeys high—‘Terra Santa’, the medical and administrative block, ‘Casa Nova’, the surgical block, and ‘Adriatic’, the reception and isolation block. The male staff were quartered in a school, the sisters in a stone building, a former Italian convent for orphans, where Australians had lived previously, and the officers in a monastery.
The unit settled into its new quarters smoothly and was pleased to be working under the best of conditions. The admission of patients began on 9 April. They came by train from the CCS at Zahle on a narrow-gauge railway that ran through Damascus to Affule, about nine miles from the hospital. By the end of April there were 173 patients and by the middle of June 578—British and New Zealand troops.
The hospital was situated next to the Arab quarter, whose narrow, cobblestone alleyways were used as stock routes for the animals going to and from the homes they shared with their owners; the alleys also served as the handiest tip for rubbish and food scraps, which would not be swept away for a couple of days. These factors, and the display of uncovered food, sugar, sticky dates, meat, and cake in the markets, provided as good an attraction for flies as can be imagined. By a persistent defence the staff were able to keep the hospital and their quarters almost entirely free of them.
To most the town of Nazareth was a disappointment. The name conjured up sacred memories and hallowed associations, so that all expected something out of the ordinary—some beautiful little village nestling in the hills. Perhaps it used to be like that, but the New Zealanders found a typical ‘wog’ town, scattered on three sides of a valley. The town itself was dirty with rough, narrow streets winding tortuously beneath overhanging windows, from which at any moment might descend the household's daily refuse. Mangy dogs roamed about, pawing through heaps of refuse at the street corners. However, the people were found to be a better type and more independent than the Egyptians, and the pleasant countryside page 201 invited walks and excursions. One feature of Nazareth that will be remembered was the ringing of church bells at all times of the day.
In May 42 nurses of the NZ WWSA were first posted to 2 General Hospital. At first their accommodation was cramped, but the male staff moved from the school building to the huts of an Austrian hospice, and the school quarters, refurbished and renovated, became the home of the VADs.
The Austrian hospice was a mile from the hospital, which meant that the men when leaving for work in the morning had to be prepared not to go back until evening. Apart from the distance, which was a source of grievance, the change was undoubtedly good for the men, as they were billetted on a hillside shaded by trees and nearly always kept fresh by a breeze.
The canteen suffered in patronage from the competition of local restaurants, but the day was saved by the introduction of housie, a game not exploited by the Palestinian.
Leave to Syria was opened at the end of May, and in addition the staff were able to explore Palestine. The unit was in Nazareth in the spring, when most days were sunny and when the country was clothed in the green of growing grain, variegated by an abundance of wild flowers of every colour. Pleasant walks could be taken in almost any direction.
3 General Hospital Moves to Syria
In May 1942—the second year of its service overseas—3 General Hospital, under Col Gower, left behind the hospital it had completed in the sand at Helmieh to journey to Syria. Before its departure a plaque of the unit's insignia and motto—a tiki surmounting ‘Kia Kaha’, artistically designed in green and red—was cast and set prominently in the lawn beneath the flagpole, an enduring testimony to the unit's stay in the garrison.
It is not a simple matter to move a complete hospital, lock, stock and barrel, from one country to another. As each tent and hut was emptied, its contents were stacked in orderly piles in the hospital grounds. As Sister Somers-Cocks6 described it:
‘Great heaps of dismantled beds lay stacked to the sky; stoves, heaters, brooms, jugs, bedpans, forms, tables, chairs, case upon case—tightly packed; endless bales of blankets, sheets, pyjamas, and page 202 hospital linen; hundreds of mattresses, thousands of pillows; mosquito nets, medical stores, pots and pans and all cooking utensils; X-ray and massage equipment, theatre tables and trolleys. The list is endless. If the amount of stuff seemed incredible, the possibility of moving it all to another country and putting it all in place again seemed more so.
‘Most of the equipment went by train, and this entailed loading on to trucks, off-loading on to the train, guarding it on the train, and unloading on to trucks again to go to the new site. Some of the equipment went by road, a long, unwieldy convoy taking several days and nights.
‘The new site—Choukri Ghanum, on the slopes of the Lebanons, overlooking Beirut—was far from being complete and ready to receive a hospital. Some roads had been made and the main buildings were there, but roadmakers, plumbers, and carpenters were there by the score. Concrete mixers scraped all day, the road roller rumbled up and down, workmen jabbered and spat unceasingly. The din was indescribable.
‘Each department of the hospital had to find a new home—kitchen, ordnance, linen store, medical store and dispensary, X-ray, massage, theatre, laboratory, and office. In the new wards tired and weary orderlies, who had been working night and day during the shift, seemed to find new life—they hammered beds together and fetched and carried. Sisters and VADs swept, mopped, and scrubbed. Equipment arrived in dribs and drabs. In spite of weary limbs everyone was cheerful. On the third day the first patient was admitted—the first of a steady stream. Less than a fortnight had elapsed between the discharge of the last patients in Egypt and the admission of the first in Syria.’
On 30 May the sisters and nurses had journeyed by train and bus to rejoin the male members of the staff who had preceded them to Choukri Ghanum. On a splendid site in the hills, the hospital buildings consisted of a former French barracks, part of a mental hospital, and several stone huts which were built for wards.
The area used for the hospital was extensive, having a frontage of about three-quarters of a mile. The surgical block was at one end and medical at the other, with staff quarters in between. This meant having a reception desk, hospital office, laboratory, cookhouse, etc., in both blocks.
The main route to the Lebanons, Damascus, and Aleppo passed the sisters' mess and hospital, and for a while the country seemed full of the noise of passing traffic. The constant stream had its page 203 blessings; it was in Syria that these sisters first acquired the art of hitch-hiking.
The French barracks, which housed the surgical block, were solid concrete buildings, single-storied and rather attractive; long and wide, they were whitewashed in cream and terracotta. They were in groups of two, three, or four, and held thirty to thirty-two beds. For administration purposes three or four wards formed a block under the supervision of a charge sister, with a sister and/or nurse and orderly to each ward. Between every two wards was a small kitchen, duty room, and sluice room. Each ward had two toilet rooms, with one bath and shower.
The wards were airy and light, with plenty of shuttered windows and doors opening on to full-length verandahs on both sides. These verandahs were ideal for convalescent patients. Electric fans helped to keep the wards cool and fresh during the heat of the summer. The high humidity of the Syrian atmosphere made the heat outside more trying than in Egypt, though temperatures were not as high.
The sisters' quarters were stone huts, facing the sea, with rooms shared by two. Whitewashed, with wall shelves and recesses for wardrobes, they were really comfortable, though the blackout brought its trials during the summer. Hot water for showers was available for four hours daily, while a boiler outside the kitchen provided hot water for laundry purposes. Syrian girls were employed as maids, and with a little training proved very good and a great help.
The medical block in the permanent hospital buildings had a sewerage system—an advantage with the numbers of dysentery and typhoid cases nursed there. These main buildings were much cooler than the stone huts which completed the medical block, though the huts were well planned and very convenient to work in. Each hut held sixty to eighty patients and was complete with kitchen, duty room, etc. All these huts were not completed when the unit arrived. From the day the hospital opened the overwhelming influx of patients made business extremely brisk, so there was little time to add frills. As soon as a hut was completed beds and equipment would arrive, and after a few hours' work the ward was ready to receive patients. It was strenuous work in the heat, and it seemed that just as the last bed in the hospital was filled another ward would be finished in time to save the situation.page 204
Patients' nationalities were varied. There was some disappointment when the Division moved away and the staff found they had to care for a variety of patients, drawn from almost all the Allied countries. But, in retrospect, all felt it was good experience—it broadened the outlook, making all more tolerant of the characteristics of other peoples, and provided experience that could prove useful in after years.
Tommies were grand patients, courageous, cheerful, and grateful for the smallest nursing attention; they helped their fellow patients and were very willing workers in ward fatigues, doing dishes, serving meals, helping with the cleaning of wards, and making tea or cocoa for Sister's supper while she wrote the evening report. Other patients were Indians, Basutos, Trans-Jordan Frontier Force men, Greeks, and Poles, all rather difficult to look after because of language differences.
Return to the Desert
With the coming of summer the grape vines flourished and the development of the grapes was followed with interest by all. But the men of the CCS and the field ambulances were not destined to pick any of the 1942 harvest in the Lebanon. News from the Western Desert indicated that events were taking a dramatic turn. The daily newspapers brought up to the CCS by ‘Johnny’, the local paperboy, carried headlines indicating that all was not well.
Rommel had been building up for an offensive in the Western Desert, and on 27 May 1942 it opened. Following heavy fighting at Bir Hacheim and Knightsbridge, the Free French were compelled to evacuate Bir Hacheim. Rommel gave the Eighth Army no respite and inflicted heavy losses on British tank strength. Black days were ahead.page 205
Headquarters 2 NZ Division received orders on 14 June that the Division was to move forthwith to Egypt. Then followed that memorable thousand-mile dash that took the Division down through Syria and Palestine and up into the Western Desert to bar the way to Rommel's advancing panzer forces near Mersa Matruh.
The move was carried out with the greatest secrecy. All distinguishing signs were removed from trucks and uniforms; all main centres were by-passed wherever possible on the journey, and no one was informed of the destination or purpose of the move. When they reached the Suez Canal the men heard that Tobruk had fallen and that the Axis forces were approaching the Egyptian frontier. Vain dreams that the convoys were destined for anywhere but the Western Desert were now dispelled. Egypt and the desert sands greeted the New Zealanders once again.
2 Charge Sister Miss E. M. Sutherland; born Kyeburn, Otago, 21 Mar 1897; Sister, Dunedin; Sister 2 Gen Hosp Aug 1940-Nov 1941; Ch Str 1 Rest Home Nov 1941-Dec 1944.
3 Lt-Col A. H. Kirker; born Auckland, 15 May 1899; Physician, Auckland; Medical Officer 1 Gen Hosp Feb-Jul 1940; OC Warbrook Conv Home Jul-Sep 1940; DADMS 2 NZEF (UK) Sep-Dec 1940; SMO Maadi Camp Mar-Sep 1941; Registrar 3 Gen Hosp Sep 1941-Feb 1942; OC 2 Rest Home Feb 1942-Jul 1943; in charge medical division 3 Gen Hosp, Jul 1943-1944.
4 Lt-Col W. J. Boyd; born Dunedin, 31 Jul 1913; Medical Practitioner, Wanganui; RMO 19 Bn Dec 1939-Apr 1941; RMO 4 Fd Regt Apr 1941-Feb 1942; OC 4 Fd Hyg Sec Feb-Oct 1942; SMO Linton Camp (NZ) Nov 1943-Aug 1944; DADMS Army HQ (NZ) Aug 1944-Apr 1945.
7 Col J. D. Cottrell, OBE; born England, 26 Oct 1903; Medical Practitioner, Dunedin; Medical Officer 5 Fd Amb, 28 (Maori) Bn, 4 Gen Hosp, Jan 1940-Jan 1941; DADMS 2 NZEF Jan-Aug 1941; in charge medical division 2 Gen Hosp, Aug-Dec 1941; SMO Maadi Camp Jan-Mar 1942; in charge medical division 3 Gen Hosp, Mar 1942-Mar 1945; Consultant Physician 2 NZEF Mar-May 1945.