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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

1 General Hospital Hard-pressed

1 General Hospital Hard-pressed

While 2 General Hospital had travelled to Gerawla in the Western Desert, to Nazareth in Palestine, and to El Ballah in the Canal Zone, and while 3 General Hospital went to Beirut, 1 General Hospital had remained at Helwan as the main Base hospital. The unit had had its share of travel in going to England, and its share of adventure in its battle experiences and losses in Greece and Crete.

Throughout its first eight months at Helwan the number of patients in hospital varied from 500 to 750, and when conditions were critical in the Western Desert in July 1942 the bed-state rose to 890 and remained above 800 for some months. Six major convoys were received during July, and by the end of that month 444 battle casualties had been treated since the New Zealand Division rushed from Syria to Mersa Matruh in June.

In the latter part of July several small convoys were received by air ambulance. Patients brought by this form of transport were often admitted to the hospital within 48 hours of being wounded, after passing through the field medical units. The first air ambulance to use Helwan airfield with patients for the hospital, which page 227 was only a mile away, landed there on 5 August. Later, the planes reverted to the use of Heliopolis aerodrome on the other side of Cairo.

black and white photograph of operation theatre

4 Field Ambulance desert operating theatre for El Mreir casualties

black and white photograph of soldier receiving blood

A blood transfusion in the desert, after Ruweisat

black and white photograph of unit receiving wounded soldiers

5 Field Ambulance MDS receives Alamein wounded

black and white photograph of operation in progress

An operation by 1 CCS surgical team in the same MDS

The serious jaundice epidemic in the Division in September and October 1942 stretched the hospital's accommodation to the utmost. On 2 October there were over 1000 patients in hospital. Extra tents were erected in ‘Spencerfield’ and jaundice patients admitted there direct. On 4 October there were 1149 patients, by the 8th 1256, on the 11th 1288, until the highest total of 1327 in-patients was reached on 20 October. The number of jaundice patients imposed a great strain on the medical division of the hospital. Large numbers of less seriously ill cases had to be transferred to Maadi Camp Hospital. The total number of jaundice (infective hepatitis) cases treated during October was 721, and there were about 400 in hospital at one time. The average bed-state for the month was 1136, the highest average ever reached by 1 General Hospital.

The majority of the sick and wounded from the desert came by ambulance train through Alexandria to Cairo main station. From here they were taken the 17 miles to Helwan by motor ambulance cars from 1 General Hospital and Maadi Camp Hospital. Waiting in the station yard for the train to arrive would be dozens of ambulances drawn up in line, doors hanging open. When the train arrived, stretcher parties passed to and from the platform carrying the wounded to the ambulances under the interested gaze of Egyptian loiterers. With their quota of patients the ambulances then headed for Helwan hospital, where the unit was expecting them—everyone from Colonel to Private soon got the message when a convoy was due. The patients were speedily transferred from the ambulance cars to the wards, where the sisters saw that they were washed and put to bed between clean sheets. After their long journey the men were so weary and tired that, after they had been fed, they soon dropped off to sleep. Then would begin treatment to restore them to health again, a process that might take many hours of attention over weeks or months.

A cable by General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence in New Zealand on 9 August 1942 testifies to the able service rendered by the hospitals and other medical units.

page 228

‘Have just finished visiting our General Hospitals at Beirut, Canal Area, and Helwan following personal experience of greatest skill and care at No. 1 while recovering from my wound. I feel at the present moment when there are so many battle casualties in our hospitals that you would be reassured to know something of the wonderful work of our Medical Services in looking after battle casualties…. Skill of doctors and nurses is of the highest standard and all serious cases have special day and night nurses.

‘DMS reports wounded arrive in excellent condition due to quick evacuation, including evacuation by air ambulances now in use, and to high standard of medical attention by our field ambulances, whose excellent equipment and efficiency has greatly impressed the medical mission at present visiting the Middle East.

‘Wonderful spirit of efficiency and devotion to duty is evident amongst all doctors, sisters, and attached services, both in the hospitals and in the field.

‘Finally, the great work of the Medical Services receives continual inspiration from the magnificent spirit of our wounded.’