Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific
I: Prisoners from Second Libyan Campaign
I: Prisoners from Second Libyan Campaign
APART from the end of the campaigns in Greece and Crete, the two other occasions when large numbers of New Zealanders became prisoners of war were at Sidi Rezegh in November 1941 and forward of the Alamein line in June and July 1942. Some 2000 were taken on the first occasion and 1800 on the second, and most of them were later taken to Italy. From Libya in 1941, 15 officers and 182 other ranks of the New Zealand Medical Corps were taken to Italy, but in June and July 1942 the only members of the corps captured were 1 RMO and 15 other ranks of 5 Field Ambulance, the latter group in the break-out from Minqar Qaim.
In December 1941 the medical personnel from the captured medical centre near Sidi Rezegh were shipped to Italy, some staying at Crete on the way. Those disembarked at Taranto or Bari went to a transit camp on the outskirts of Bari, and those disembarked at Naples to a transit camp at Capua. In subsequent months they were dispersed to other camps. They arrived in Italy in the middle of winter into camps ill prepared to receive them and when the food supply of the Italians themselves generally was limited. Their discomforts were many – underfeeding, poor and overcrowded accommodation, insufficient clothing and extreme cold.
Most of the prisoners were housed in huts, though in the early stages some men were forced to occupy tents made of Italian ground-sheets buttoned together, and when snow lay on the ground conditions were miserable. Many of the huts were flimsy constructions letting in the wind and rain and without any heating. Straw mattresses and blankets, but sometimes only two, were provided, and men's clothing was limited to the little in which they were captured. Overcrowding was general throughout the camps, air space sometimes being as little as a third of that regarded as a normal standard, and sanitation arrangements were often primitive. Personal hygiene was difficult, with showers limited to about one a month and no change of clothes available. Camps were infested with lice. Sickness such as dysentery and pneumonia became common. Medical attention by the Italians was very poor and very few drugs or medicines of any sort were available.page 122
The diet supplied to prisoners of war in Italy was almost completely lacking in essential vitamins and poor in first-class proteins and fats. The daily food allowance (in grammes) was: bread, 200; meat, 34; macaroni and rice, 66; peas and beans, 30; sugar, 15; olive oil or lard, 13; cheese, 40; tomato essence, 15. The value in calories worked out at 1081, less than half the normal requirement. Had it not been for the distribution of Red Cross food parcels the general health and physical condition of all would have suffered severely. These parcels contained an excellent variety of concentrated foodstuffs with a calorific value of 12,000–15,000 calories. In some of the camps in 1942, however, Red Cross parcels were rarely received; one medical group received only one and a half food parcels per man in four months in Italy, whereas normally from the middle of February onwards the issue was one parcel to every four prisoners about every eight days. Without Red Cross foods all prisoners lost weight rapidly, felt the cold intensely, and had little energy for exercise. Cigarettes were issued only at infrequent intervals.
Medical facilities were inadequate according to New Zealand standards. At Bari camp, for instance, an Italian medical officer was in charge of the medical arrangements, and in spite of repeated requests, British medical personnel were not permitted to care for their fellow countrymen. Medical men were employed on labouring jobs when employed at all. Any cases of sickness of more than a minor nature were sent off to the local Italian hospital, at which British medical personnel were not allowed to work. Dental facilities were likewise inadequate. A New Zealand dental officer, Captain Skegg,1 with a few instruments which he had in his kit, did all the necessary temporary work and extractions under difficult conditions. Medical supplies, drugs and bandages were very scarce in medical inspection rooms, and efficient and adequate treatment often impossible. Red Cross medical comforts parcels were received occasionally and these helped to overcome the shortage to some extent.
Treatment of Wounded
Most of the wounded who were captured by the enemy in Libya in November 1941 were later released by our own forces, but among the prisoners taken to Italy there were some 200 New Zealanders who were wounded. Most of them were taken across the Mediterranean by hospital ship, some going into a hospital at Caserta and some to a hospital at Bari. At Caserta conditions seem to have been reasonably good as regards accommodation, and the Italian staff page 123 did their best. From December onwards three British medical officers and some orderlies were allowed to work in the hospital and were able to bring about improvements in treatment, although there were shortages of instruments and drugs. Red Cross comforts parcels were of great assistance as they supplied all the soap and supplemented shortages of toothbrushes and paste and toilet paper. During the period when the hospital was entirely staffed by Italians no attempt was made to wash any of the bed patients, and bed-sores were quite common. Sanitary conditions generally were inadequate, a state of affairs which the prisoners found to be common throughout Italy. Food in hospital was better than in the prison camps but was still far from adequate, but Red Cross food parcels provided supplements. Tea, sugar, margarine, chocolate, and condensed or powdered milk were the most appreciated items.
Other hospitals were no better, and in Bari hospital there were indications of neglect of prisoners and a definite shortage of food.