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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Another Left Hook

Another Left Hook

From El Agheila the enemy had gone back 200 miles to a defence line near Buerat. Early in January 1943 preparations by 2 NZ Division for another left hook were completed on the same pattern as for the Agheila operation, vehicles being loaded with water, petrol, ammunition, and food for eleven days. On 3 January the Division concentrated in the desert south of Nofilia and grouped for the next advance, while 5 Brigade moved up near to Wadi Tamet to prepare a new landing ground for the Desert Air Force. Here on 5 January an enemy air raid resulted in ten being killed and 30 wounded. The casualties were treated by B Company, 5 page 255 Field Ambulance, ADS to the brigade, surgery being performed by 2 Field Surgical Unit attached to 151 Light Field Ambulance, two miles away. When the Desert Air Force moved up to the landing ground a few days later, enemy dive-bombers and fighters, which had been dominating the forward area, were soon driven back by Spitfire squadrons.

Then, on 12 January, 2 NZ Division moved forward to Wadi Tamet to lie up in broken country, with all vehicles camouflaged.

black and white map of advance positions

Advance to Tripoli

Medical arrangements for the final advance to Tripoli were similar to those for the Agheila operation. This time 4 and 5 Field Ambulances accompanied the Division, and 6 Field Ambulance served as a Corps MDS. The advance began on the afternoon of the 14th. At first light on the 15th the Division was in contact with the enemy, as also were 7 Armoured Division and 51 (Highland) Division to the north. Following an armoured screen, 6 Brigade, which was the leading formation, probed the approaches to Wadi Zemzem. With the brigade was A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, under Maj R. A. Elliott, but casualties were few; for page 256 the ADS the most eventful part of the day was when enemy guns landed shells among the ADS vehicles while trying to hit a nearby battery.

In the evening the company moved forward and down a defile into the wide bed of Wadi Zemzem, where it halted for the night. There was continuous firing ahead, and salvos of heavy shells were landing close by, sending up clouds of dust and debris. Occasionally shells, evidently armour-piercing, whistled past and landed without exploding.

Progress was slow on the 16th and confined to short moves between long halts, with the sound of tank fighting ahead where the Divisional Cavalry and the Scots Greys were meeting stubborn resistance on the escarpment south of Sedada. About 5 p.m. enemy aircraft bombed the column in front, leaving a number of vehicles ablaze, and working back strafed the stationary transport to the left of A Company. From this raid the company received about a dozen casualties, who were treated and evacuated. The advance was delayed on the 17th. The escarpment was cleared, but the road down to Sedada was blown up and made impassable. All morning, while an alternative route down a defile was reconnoitred and engineers cleared the mines, A Company waited behind 6 Brigade, finally moving forward in single file until ten miles past Sedada. Again the leading elements of the column were bombed and a number of severe casualties brought back.

Movement continued slowly and with difficulty on the 18th and 19th, the ground becoming rough and stony. The transport bumped and jolted over protruding edges of eroded rock strata, with engineers working ahead clearing anti-tank mines, S-mines, and booby traps. Forward elements encountered a formidable escarpment north of Beni Ulid, and there was a delay for the whole afternoon of the 19th while a negotiable route was reconnoitred.

At nine o'clock 6 Brigade was given the task of proceeding through Beni Ulid up the main road to Tarhuna. The road was thickly planted with mines, and the ADS, moving slowly toward the Arab town, received word that the engineers had mine casualties ahead. As the road was packed with transport, Capt J. L. Wright2 page 257 went on with ambulance cars and blood. He treated the casualties and held them on the roadside until the company passed in convoy at ten o'clock. The casualties were carried forward in the ambulance cars until, two hours later, a halt was made 20 miles past Beni Ulid. The edges of the road had not been cleared of mines, and as it was impossible to evacuate the wounded back against the stream of traffic, the shelters were erected and medical officers and orderlies worked until 3 a.m. applying splints and plaster bandages.

Evacuation still presented some difficulty in the morning, as it was discovered that the 5 Field Ambulance MDS, to which the ADS had been evacuating, had passed through with 5 Brigade during the night, that brigade having taken the lead. Finally, the casualties were sent to 4 Field Ambulance, which was handling air evacuation at Sedada airfield.

There followed two days of slow going, with long delays as the forward troops picked their way through the rough country. Movement at night required particular care, as even in bright moonlight it was difficult to distinguish the edges of the many steep-sided wadis. Drivers would suddenly become aware of other vehicles immediately below on some wadi floor. The Division passed to the south and west of Tarhuna, following on the heels of the enemy toward the Garian-Tripoli road. The heights of the Gebel Nefusa loomed ahead, smudged with clouds of dust where the RAF bombed the columns retreating through the passes.

The bombing was continued throughout the night. On the following morning, the 22nd, the company moved on to the Tarhuna-Garian road that led westward through the hills, past Tazzoli, a small colonial settlement, where the troops had their first glimpse of Italian civilians. The road wound around hillsides and through valleys, and the column, now in single file, moved slowly west and then north-west, onto the coastal plain and the Azizia road. The Division poured onto the plains to the south of Tripoli on 22 January, by which date two other Eighth Army spearheads were almost the same distance from the city. In face of these combined threats the enemy withdrew from Azizia on the night of 22-23 January, and the next day an endless stream of vehicles began to roll into Tripoli.

page 258

In a series of leap-frogging movements, the medical units maintained a chain of evacuation during the left hook, and air evacuation units worked from Bir Dufan, Tarhuna and Sedada landing grounds. Wounded were evacuated by air within a few hours of the advanced units reaching the landing grounds, and the dangers of ambulance car evacuation over rough country on this 200-mile journey were avoided. Between 17 and 24 January 337 patients were flown out. Where patients were not fit for air evacuation immediately, detachments of medical units remained to nurse them while the main bodies moved ahead to form further staging posts. An abundance of ambulance cars, with short runs between staging posts, and the proximity of airfields made evacuation very easy indeed. Wireless played an invaluable part in the smoothness of these operations, although casualties were light as the enemy did not stay to fight.

2 Lt-Col J. L. Wright, m.i.d.; born Dunedin, 19 May 1915; Medical Practitioner, Dunedin Hospital; Medical Officer RNZAF Oct 1940-Jun 1941; 2 Gen Hosp Sep 1941-Jan 1942; 6 Fd Amb Jan 1942-Dec 1944; 3 Gen Hosp Dec 1944-Aug 1945; SMO Maadi Camp Aug-Dec 1945.