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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Medical Care

page 30

Medical Care

IN LIBYA and Cyrenaica the Italians treated wounded prisoners of war atrociously—through neglect rather than active brutality. Five days after being taken prisoner, a group of New Zealand doctors, who had been formally thanked for their services to the Italian wounded whom they had treated along with our own in a captured New Zealand field hospital, were separated from the men they had been looking after and sent to Italy. Their protests were silenced by glib promises of rejoining the wounded later, but the latter were left to fend for themselves with practically no medical attention.

In Italy itself some of the wounded were distributed through different military hospitals, where, if they received bad treatment, it was no worse than that given the Italian troops. Each camp also had its hospital. In addition some special prisoner-of-war hospitals were established. Nominally at least all medical care of prisoners of war was in Italian hands, but prisoner-of-war medical officers and orderlies were able to take over much of this work, usually greatly improving the condition of the wounded or sick. In December 1941, in Tuturano, a transit camp, medical treatment was especially poor, a dose of bismuth being prescribed indiscriminately for dysentery, influenza, lumbago, and rheumatism. Requests that men should be taken into hospital were ignored. The prescription of a few stock remedies (partly due to Italian shortage of drugs) for all complaints and complete ignorance of cross-infection among the Italian orderlies were common to many camps. Repatriated or escaped medical officers made two main complaints about the treatment of prisoner-of-war patients: the lack of necessary equipment, medicines, and drugs, and the low standard of Italian medical practice. The special Red Cross parcels of drugs and comforts for the sick saved the lives of many men.

A New Zealand doctor was on the staff of a prisoner-of-war hospital at Lucca (Campo 202). Although the British doctors in this hospital began with ill-defined ancillary duties (‘The Italian authorities apparently expected us to act as dressers.’), they eventually took over the running of the hospital almost entirely. Many stupid and hampering regulations were overcome by ‘our gradual encroachment’. This doctor credited the Italians with sincerely sharing his own desire for the welfare of the 500 patients, though their medical methods were astonishingly callous. The terrible condition of some Yugoslav patients, who had been living on four ounces of bread and some cabbage soup daily, showed that British prisoners were apparently receiving the best treatment Italy could give. Nuns were attached to this hospital, and their help with the feeding and welfare of prisoners was invaluable.

A complaint made by medical officers was that the Italians persistently treated them as prisoners of war and not as protected personnel. They had to fight all the time for the status and privileges allowed them as non-combatants under the Geneva Convention: for instance, the right to take two walks a week under guard. But their right to repatriation, together with badly wounded prisoners, was recognised. Patients for repatriation went before a combined Italian and neutral medical board. At Lucca the patients voluntarily submitted to being examined first by an unofficial British medical board, so that the candidature of those who had obviously no chance of passing the board would not prejudice the chances of those who had every right to expect repatriation. Every wounded prisoner hoped for repatriation and it was a difficult and invidious task to select who should go. Once they had made their own selection the doctors’ attitude was to get everybody page 31 past the board, and by judicious exaggeration of patients’ infirmities a number of border-line cases were passed. About 220 New Zealanders were repatriated from Italy to the Middle East. An Italian hospital ship took them to the Turkish port of Smyrna, where they were transferred to a British hospital ship for passage to Alexandria.

Many doctors and orderlies remained in Italy to carry on the work they knew to be vital to the health of prisoners of war. The men who were repatriated were able to report on hospitals and camps in Italy, and in some instances protests made through the protecting power, Switzerland, secured amelioration of the conditions of those who remained behind.