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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

The Battle Begins

The Battle Begins

The artillery opened fire at 9.40 p.m. on 23 October. Gun flashes floodlit the desert and the air reverberated with the continuous concussion of the gunfire. By the time A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, page 231 reached its position the barrage was thundering overhead and the men set to work immediately to erect and sandbag the tents. The tense atmosphere of battle, the incredible noise, the throbbing air, and the unnatural light spurred them on, and the dressing station was very soon established and ready for operation. Nearby were some dugouts left by South Africans, and the men were able to use these for themselves. The enemy must have been stunned by the terrific weight of the barrage, for he threw little back.

At ten o'clock the infantry went forward under the barrage. Men wounded in the advance from the infantry start line to the first minefields reached 6 ADS by midnight, but it was not until the early hours of the 24th that the ambulances were able to get through to the battalion RAPs and clear the wounded, who were by then accumulating. The task of the ambulance car drivers was most difficult; the desert tracks between the ADS and the several RAPs, though lit in parts, were ill-defined and difficult to follow, and were congested with armour, particularly in the narrow gaps leading through the minefields. Tanks moving up prevented the ambulances from making their way through, and by the time they were able to reach the RAPs and set out on the return journey, the enemy, reviving somewhat after the initial stunning shock, was beginning to hit back. Returning amid bursting shells and whining shrapnel, the ambulances relayed their wounded back to the ADS, and the little dressing station became a bustle of activity.

With a clearer passage for the ambulances, the wounded began to pour into 6 ADS, which for a time was taxed to cope with the flood of casualties. Medical officers and orderlies were dressing wounds in a frantic rush, bandaging, splinting, and administering drugs, giving blood transfusions to those whose condition was low, and even performing some minor surgery where it was deemed urgently necessary. But still the number of men awaiting attention accumulated—they lay on stretchers on every available square foot of space. In the holding wards, too, men who had received attention lay everywhere awaiting evacuation to the MDS, for it was impossible to get them away before first light; armour in a densely packed mass was moving up past the ADS during the early hours of the morning, and ambulances could not find a passage through the congestion.

page 232

By 6 a.m. it was possible to send the first of the wounded down the desert track to 5 MDS, under Lt-Col McQuilkin, and all vehicles that could be used, ambulances and three-tonners, were despatched fully loaded with wounded. To clear the congested treatment tent for those awaiting attention, the wounded were loaded on the ambulances direct from the reception centre at first, and soon some semblance of order was restored in the dressing centre. By midday six extra ambulance cars were secured to assist the evacuation and the dressing station had returned to smooth-running routine.

All day the ADS worked steadily. That night the barrage opened again and there was a further heavy flood of casualties, but a continuous relay of ambulance cars plying from RAP to ADS, from ADS to MDS, created a smooth-running chain of evacuation, and the capacity of the ADS was not again overtaxed. With tank engagements on the 25th, 6 ADS was receiving casualties mostly from the British armoured units; a light dressing station from 166 British Field Ambulance joined the ADS to assist in treating these casualties.