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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

The General Hospitals

The General Hospitals

During the Tunisian campaign our New Zealand general hospitals were operating on the Canal, at Helwan, and at Tripoli, and they all received battle casualties evacuated from the forward areas. The majority of the serious cases were dealt with at 2 NZ General Hospital, sited at El Ballah on the Suez Canal, 649 battle casualties being admitted during the second quarter of the year, whereas only 135 casualties were admitted to 1 NZ General Hospital at Helwan. No. 3 NZ General Hospital admitted 740 cases during the latter part of the campaign, the majority being transferred from the British hospitals in Tripoli.

Since the New Zealand Division had moved from Syria 3 General Hospital had remained under Ninth Army, handling patients other than New Zealanders, except for a small number evacuated from page 448 forward areas and sent from Alexandria to Beirut by hospital ship. At first it was considered inadvisable to press for another move by 3 General Hospital in case the Division should return to Syria.

In November 1942, as Eighth Army advanced, the GOC 2 NZEF favoured a move of the hospital to Alexandria. To suit the overall requirements of GHQ MEF it was agreed to leave the unit in Syria in the meantime.

On 31 January 1943 General Freyberg signalled GHQ MEF requesting that 3 General Hospital be transferred from Syria to the command of Eighth Army. This led to instructions being issued by Ninth Army on 6 February 1943 for the hospital to close and pack forthwith in readiness for a move. When it was relieved by 43 British General Hospital, 3 General Hospital moved early in March to Qassassin, in the Suez Canal area, in accordance with GHQ MEF arrangements. However, 2 NZEF still desired the hospital to be located at Tripoli, and in spite of some opposition from GHQ MEF this further move was effected.

The location selected for the hospital was at Suani Ben Adem, south of Tripoli. It was 2 miles from NZ Advanced Base, near the Castel Benito–Suani road, and a short distance from Castel Benito airfield. The area had been used as a prisoner-of-war camp prior to the Allied occupation of Tripoli, and included a large stone Italian fort which later became the administrative block, with the wards in tents. It was well sheltered by gum and acacia trees, which also served to relieve the severity of the surroundings. The site was an excellent one for handling the casualties from the Division.

The main body of the unit reached the new site on 19 March after travelling from Alexandria to Tripoli in HS Dorsetshire. The equipment was unloaded from ship to lighter in Tripoli harbour, which was then subject to air raids, and all of it had reached the site safely by 5 April. On the roof of the hospital building Red Crosses were painted so as to be readily visible from the air. Much skill and ingenuity was displayed by the staff of the unit in setting up the hospital without the services of engineers. Although the hospital was not quite ready, 100 patients were admitted by urgent request on 10 April and by 14 April 300 beds were occupied. By 30 April 520 of the 900 equipped beds were occupied, chiefly by New Zealand battle casualties from the Division as it advanced in Tunisia. Serious cases were evacuated from 1 NZ CCS by air but the bulk of casualties came by road, which was by then in good repair. From Tripoli patients were evacuated by hospital ship to Alexandria, although selected cases went by air to Cairo.

The condition of the patients on arrival at the hospital at Tripoli page 449 is given in the following extract from its quarterly report to 30 June 1943:

Battle casualties generally have arrived in very good condition with wounds adequately excised and clean. Fractures have travelled well. There have been no cases of gas gangrene requiring treatment in the hospital over the quarter. Of the abdominal cases with colonic wounds exteriorised only one case appears to have had adequate spur formation with a view to assist in early closure of the colostomy. Abdominal cases have convalesced well. Cases with penetrating wounds of the chest as a group have given rise to most problems in convalescence.

Though neither 1 nor 2 General Hospitals was called upon to follow up Eighth Army in its advance from Alamein to Tunis, each unit worked hard dealing with the casualties that came back to Base.

Battle Casualties Admitted NZ General Hospitals
1 Gen Hosp 2 Gen Hosp 3 Gen Hosp
Oct–Dec 1942 522 581 147
Jan–Mar 1943 140 174 74
Apr–Jun 1943 135 596 740

No. 1 NZ General Hospital received air convoys of three to four serious cases every two or three days, and air transport to Heliopolis proved an absolute godsend to the badly wounded men, who also stood the road journey from there to Helwan very well.

No. 2 NZ General Hospital treated large numbers of serious cases, including compound fractures, joint and feet injuries, and many abdominal and thoracic cases.

There were remarkably few deaths at the base hospitals, only three following battle wounds, all these being due to severe infection. There were only three cases of secondary haemorrhage and two amputations, which shows a marked absence of severe infection. There was no death reported in the abdominal cases reaching the base hospitals.

In his report of June 1943 the Consultant Surgeon 2 NZEF stated that the Tunisian casualties had been very satisfactorily treated, both in the forward areas and at the Base. There had been very little serious sepsis and very few late deaths. Large numbers of abdominal cases had survived and had been evacuated to New Zealand. A number of these had had preliminary treatment for closure of colostomy before evacuation. Late complications were uncommon. There was very little serious sepsis among the fracture cases, and little or no sepsis complicating wounds of the knee joint. Splinting of these cases in the forward areas had been very well done, as had the primary splinting of fractured arms and legs. In several cases, patients had been left in their primary splints throughout their page 450 treatment. Secondary haemorrhage and late amputations were both uncommon. As regards the head wounds, little operative treatment for late complications had been required at the base hospitals.