War Surgery and Medicine
Although 15 officers and 182 other ranks of the New Zealand Medical Corps were taken to Italy in December 1941 after their capture in the second Libyan campaign, it was some months before any of them were allowed to care for British wounded. Most of the wounded captured in Libya, including 206 New Zealanders, were taken across the Mediterranean by hospital ship. Some went to a hospital at Bari, where conditions and treatment were poor in the extreme; others went to a hospital at Caserta, where conditions were reasonably good, and where three British medical officers and orderlies who were allowed to work from December onwards were able to bring about improvements in treatment. While the staff was wholly Italian, they did not attempt to wash any of the patients, and bed sores were quite common. There were shortages of instruments and drugs.
As a result of the battles of Minqar Qaim, Ruweisat, and El Mreir in the summer of 1942, 1800 more New Zealanders were page 465 captured and taken to Italy to join the 1600 captured in the Libyan campaign seven months before. From hospitals in Matruh, Tobruk, and Benghazi the 258 wounded New Zealanders were taken to Bari and Caserta, but these hospitals became overcrowded so that the Italians found it necessary to set up special hospitals at Lucca, Bergamo, and other towns. Captured medical personnel were transferred from camps to help staff these hospitals. Thus at Lucca 2 New Zealand medical officers and 80 orderlies were included in the staff of 13 captured medical officers and 104 orderlies who worked under Italians in looking after some 530 patients.
The captured medical officers were apparently expected to do dressings only, but conditions were such that they felt compelled to ‘infiltrate’ themselves to help at operations, where advice could be given to Italian surgeons, whose standards were low. Much of their work was done without anaesthesia. Their treatment of fractures was appalling. They never used anaesthetics for them, made no attempt at reduction, splinted them roughly with plaster-of-paris or starched bandages, and left them to unite in any position of shortening, angulation, or rotation. In cases admitted later, and by that time treated by British medical staff, incomparably better results were achieved.
Lucca was one of the better hospitals: general equipment was satisfactory and there was no shortage of bandages, gauze, and wool, but lotions for dressings were few, most dressing being done with some fish-oil preparation. There was a curious substitute for iodine. Sulphonamides were scarcely known, and the Italians seldom prescribed more than four half-grain tablets a day. (Later, when Red Cross medical parcels arrived, the British officers were able to prescribe the usual doses.) There was no chloroform, and only small quantities of spinal anaesthetic and intravenous pento-thal. There were no splints except Kramer wire, but plaster-of-paris bandages, never more than three inches wide however, were nearly always available. It took about two hours' hard work to put on a good hip spica for a fractured femur, and that with numerous Heath Robinson improvisations by the British staff. Sanitary and washing facilities were very limited in the old hospital building.
Red Cross food parcels began to arrive a few weeks after the prisoner-of-war hospital was opened at Lucca, where the food was rather better than elsewhere but still inadequate, especially in fats; and with their distribution large wounds which had been stubborn in healing commenced to heal as if by magic. Later clothing, boots, and books arrived through Red Cross channels, and patients could be discharged fully clad.page 466
After the fall of Tobruk many prisoners developed malaria in the transit camps of southern Italy, but little treatment was given. Those who reached Lucca were adequately treated as there were good stocks of both quinine and plasmoquine. Dysentery patients from nearby prisoner-of-war camps were common, and from one camp (Campo 60) sited on flat, marshy ground, there were over fifty cases of frostbite in the winter. When 120 starving and filthy Yugoslav patients were admitted after dreadful treatment by the Italians, there was a fear of typhus, but fortunately no cases developed.
Patients with major disabilities had their names sent forward by the medical officers for submission to the Mixed Medical Commission and in due course came before it for approval for repatriation. Arrangements for repatriation were protracted, and, apart from three New Zealand amputees included in a small group of British wounded and protected personnel exchanged in April 1942, not many sick and wounded were repatriated until April, May, and June 1943, when in a series of exchanges 60 sick and wounded New Zealanders and 114 New Zealand Medical Corps personnel were repatriated. A further exchange in September 1943 was prevented by the events of the Armistice in Italy, and medical officers and orderlies were taken north with their patients to Germany, where they continued their work.