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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Battle of Alam Halfa

Battle of Alam Halfa

Then, on the night of 30-31 August, there was heavy shelling around the ADSs area. Rommel's attack had begun. The Germans advanced round the southern tip of the Eighth Army line, where the New Zealand defences were. The main column directed to the north-east was opposed by the main strength of British armour, and when within range of the New Zealand Box was hotly engaged by our artillery and armoured cars. The light column was attacked persistently and successfully by Eighth Army's light forces, while the RAF kept up a devastating day and night assault. The enemy forces could find no weak spot in the defence and sustained heavy losses. There was no alternative for them but to withdraw, and as this operation proceeded 13 Corps took the initiative. The New Zealand Division, with 132 British Infantry Brigade under command, attacked southwards on 3 September with the object of disrupting the withdrawal. Eighth Army had had its first major success for a long time.

In these operations the enemy had moved from the south to the east of the Box defences, and at times it seemed to the men of the ADSs as if the battle would go over the top of them. Shells burst close with a shattering blast and shrapnel penetrated the tarpaulin tents. Unnerving as the fire was at times, the dressing stations escaped without serious damage. By night enemy bombers were overhead incessantly dropping flares, butterfly bombs, and incendiaries. An incendiary struck a water cart and burnt its way through cab and flooring. Full ambulances came in from the RAPs in the early hours of 3 September, and Bren carriers, tanks, and trucks also brought in wounded, many of them not yet attended to. The evacuation tents at the ADSs were filled to overflowing with men lying shoulder to shoulder on folded blankets spread on the ground. There were not enough stretchers, and many patients page 219 walked across from reception tents supported by orderlies. The wards presented a sight that would be horrible to the ordinary eye but which was now commonplace to the medical staff. Flies clustered thickly on the bloodstained bandages. A dust-storm raged most of the day.

Midway through the morning 20 Stukas dive-bombed nearby gun positions, but no bombs landed in the medical area. Three urgent calls for ambulances followed. Several trucks arrived to take back walking wounded, then an MAC convoy, and later the ambulances from the MDS. By noon the action had quietened considerably and most of the patients had been sent back to 4 MDS, 22 miles away. For the ADSs the worst was over, but for several days wounded continued to come in, some of them men from the Buffs and West Kent regiments.

The first ambulance car had arrived at the MDS at 8.15 a.m. on 3 September as the wounded could not be taken out through the minefields in the darkness. It brought a verbal request for more cars at the ADSs. All those immediately available had already been sent, but further help was summoned in the form of trucks from 5 Brigade and MAC and AFS cars. By afternoon there were 67 ambulance cars and ten trucks working on the line of evacuation. By midnight 4 MDS had handled 561 patients, as many British as New Zealanders. Lt-Col Furkert arrived at 7 p.m. in response to a request for a further surgical team in addition to Maj S. L. Wilson's CCS team, already attached, and the two unit teams. A British transfusion unit took charge of the pre-operative and resuscitation tent. All departments of the MDS worked continuously all night and well into the following morning. In the operating theatres there was a thick atmosphere of blood, ether, and steam from the sterilisers.

From 25 August to 11 September, when the Division was withdrawn from the line, 4 MDS treated 909 battle casualties and 915 sick, of whom 378 and 494 respectively were New Zealanders. In a remarkable period of work from 27 June 4 Field Ambulance, under Lt-Col R. D. King, had borne the brunt of the work of the field medical units and had admitted 5026 patients. In this period the 4 MDS staff performed 250 major operations and the attached surgical teams 199, a total of 449, and some of the patients were nursed for several days before they were fit to be sent on to the page 220 CCS. The special sections—Reception, Operating, and Evacuation—handled the very large numbers without any breakdown or loss of efficiency.