New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy
1 NZ General Hospital, Helmieh
The finding of a suitable location for 1 NZ General Hospital before that unit's arrival in Egypt was fraught with a number of difficulties. In the low-lying Nile Delta no location could be considered. Alexandria was considered unsuitable on account of bombing raids. Buildings in Cairo were almost unobtainable and most of the suitable sites on the Suez Canal had been taken. Tel-el-Kebir was put forward as a possible site, but it was an arid and extremely hot summer location, as those of 1 NZEF well remembered from 1916. Eventually, a site near 2/10 General Hospital at Helmieh was decided upon. It was part of the New Zealand camp site at Zeitoun in 1914–18. An administrative block, quartermaster's stores, kitchens, dining rooms, and bath-house were complete and ready on the site. An operating theatre of standard army design had to be built.
The advance party of 1 General Hospital, which had been working at Helwan hospital, made preliminary preparations at Helmieh before the arrival of the unit on 17 November. Upon arrival, the staff of the unit erected tents to enable a 600-bed hospital to be established. Hospital extending tents were used, each ward being formed of two parallel groups of sections, joined at one end by a single section forming a square service tent. This small tent acted as a ward kitchen, duty room, sterilising room, and treatment room. The tents were all dug well below ground level and surrounded by mud-brick walls, as a protection to bed patients in the event of enemy air attack. The sunken floors were paved with smooth stones, and brick facing walls built to hold back the sand. Assistance was rendered by working parties from infantry battalions in Maadi. Native contractors engaged in the erection of the operating theatre, X-ray and physiotherapy block, made slow progress.
Huts were made from rather flimsy shelters formerly used as stables by British garrison troops. These were constructed of rush walls at the back and on either side and had a flat roof, the front being open. The walls inside and the ceilings were plastered and the floors concreted. An area in the middle of the open front was bricked up to form a duty room and kitchen, leaving a wide entrance door on either side. A protective wall of mud bricks 4 feet high was then built outside the huts. The absence of rain and the extreme heat page 71 of summer made them a satisfactory method of temporary housing for the patients.
Drainage presented a difficulty. This was solved by digging down to 12 feet below ground level, where a porous sand sub-stratum was encountered. A sump of this depth had to be provided for each ward for the disposal of water used for washing patients. Dish water had to be disposed of through a separate drainage system.
The equipment for the hospital began to arrive on 23 November. The ordnance equipment had suffered considerably by damage and loss in handling on the voyage from England. The medical equipment was drawn in Egypt.
Construction work was still in progress when instructions were received on 13 December to prepare to admit patients. Casualties from the offensive in Libya were beginning to tax the available hospital accommodation. On 12 December DDMS BTE requested the DDMS 2 NZEF to make arrangements for the admission of casualties to New Zealand general hospitals, although the main body of New Zealand troops was not engaged. Colonel MacCormick gave his assurance that 2 General Hospital would take up to 250 cases and 1 General Hospital up to 200 cases of lightly wounded and sick. Both institutions responded splendidly. By 15 December 2 General Hospital had taken 117 British and 85 prisoner-of-war casualties, and on that date 1 General Hospital admitted 81 patients who were transferred from 2/10 British General Hospital.
By the end of January 1941, 1 General Hospital had seven tented wards equipped with forty beds each, and five huts equipped with twenty-four beds. All this and other subsidiary work earned high praise from the DDMS BTE, who requested permission to send the commanding officers of all other hospitals to see what excellent arrangements had been made. This was the first hospital in the Middle East with tents sunk and protected against air raids.
In one period of ten days 300 patients, mostly Australian, were admitted, and the total in hospital reached 376 on 31 January. During February there were 241 patients admitted. On 24 February orders were received for the hospital to be cleared. All patients were discharged or transferred in two days and all equipment packed and loaded on a train in three days. The unit had been chosen to proceed with New Zealand troops across the Mediterranean to Greece. (The site at Helmieh was taken over by 3 NZ General Hospital on its arrival in Egypt on 23 March 1941.)