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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy



Medical Supplies

All New Zealand medical units left the forward base with fourteen days' reserve of medical supplies. This, together with captured medical stores, proved adequate for requirements in most cases. In the latter stages of the action there was, however, some shortage of stretchers and blankets.

At a conference after the campaign it was recommended that there should be some increase in certain supplies to field ambulances, such as Kramer splinting, pentothal, sulphonamides in powder and tablet form, anti-tetanic serum, plaster-of-paris, and morphia in solution in capped bottles. An increase in the number of panniers and medical companions was also suggested, and instruments sufficient for emergency operations.


Motor ambulance cars proved desert-worthy, but it was apparent that, when operating over such a wide area, more than eight cars to each field ambulance were required. Twelve was considered to be a more suitable establishment, and all should be marked with large Red Crosses. Stretcher-carrying appliances in 3-ton trucks proved invaluable.

Evacuation of Wounded

Events made it quite clear that, if the evacuation of wounded was to be carried out satisfactorily, either the complete lines of communication should be secure or else ambulance cars should be despatched with an adequate escort of armoured forces to protect them. Moreover, if wounded could not be safely evacuated but were held at main dressing stations, the field ambulance necessarily became more and more immobilised and more vulnerable to attack.

Further, in warfare in the open desert it was considered that evacuation should be carried out in daylight only. If evacuation by night was attempted the wounded suffered unnecessarily from the rough going, and there was a greater likelihood of the motor ambulance convoys being shot up by enemy columns operating in the rear.

The possibility of evacuating casualties from forward areas by Bren-gun carriers was thought worthy of further investigation as, when under fire, some RMOs found this the method of choice.

Location of ADMS

Theoretically, it was normal for ADMS NZ Division to be located at Rear HQ NZ Division, but in actual practice it was nearly always page 297 necessary for him to be at Advanced HQ NZ Division. In this case the DADMS NZ Division was left at Rear Headquarters.


The lack of wireless communication produced serious complications. Contact between the different medical units was often lost and an ADS sometimes did not know the location of the MDS. The MDS also was often out of touch with the administrative officer either of the Division or the Corps. In what amounted to an enormous no-man's-land, no other means of communication was practicable. The plight of our captured medical units would have been much less serious if they had been able to apprise the staff officers of their difficulties.

Utilisation of Field Ambulances in Desert Warfare

An investigation into the utilisation of field ambulances in desert warfare was undertaken by GHQ MEF after the Second Libyan Campaign. It was concluded that the infantry field ambulance was insufficiently mobile or flexible, and that it should be capable of holding and treating a considerable number of patients. Suggestions included an increase in ambulance cars to fourteen, a reduction in the number of stretcher-bearers, and the elimination of some of the G.1098 equipment.

It was considered that, when a field ambulance was called upon to function as part of an independent brigade group, a surgical team with its own transport and equipment should be attached; and that in any case one officer at least in a field ambulance should be capable of undertaking major emergency surgery. This would also entail the provision of surgical instruments sufficient for the purpose.

Some of these recommendations were later implemented when supply and other difficulties were overcome.

* * * * *

The experience gained in the Libyan campaign at some cost was applied in later campaigns. Fortunately, the same unequal and unforeseen conditions were not repeated, except for a day or so at Minqar Qaim in June 1942; and then the shorter lines of communication, together with fewer wounded, enabled the ADSs to accompany the Division in its break through the surrounding enemy, taking the wounded with them back to the Alamein line.