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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

In Action

In Action

During 15 December the Division got behind the enemy. Its task was to destroy any trapped enemy forces, and while 6 Brigade, with an ADS, moved north to cut the main road, 5 Brigade formed a line page 249 farther south, facing east, to prevent a withdrawal by the considerable force of Germans still east of the brigade position. There was, however, a wide gap between the two brigades which could not be filled.

Sixth Field Ambulance halted for the night behind 5 Brigade's positions on a low ridge. Next morning no one seemed to have any idea of what was happening, and most of the ambulance men waited around their trucks in mingled uncertainty and boredom. Others resorted to the New Zealander's one unfailing pastime: the thud of boots against leather began to be heard and footballs sailed from group to group. The 25-pounders nearby opened fire. Machine guns opened up also and sounds of firing came from the east, appearing to grow closer. Then enemy gunners began to reply to the 25-pounders. Shells landed at the foot of the ridge, working back until they were raising fountains of earth amongst the transport on the crest. The position was becoming uncomfortable. Moving off the ridge, 6 Field Ambulance withdrew to a flat sandy area about a mile back and halted. Here the tarpaulin shelters were set up to receive casualties.

To the north 6 Brigade was in action. The troops made their first contact with the enemy during the evening of the 15th, when a carrier patrol, some 1000 yards ahead of the column, encountered a German position south of the road. The patrol was thrown into some confusion by mortar and anti-tank fire. The strength of the enemy was not discovered, but it was decided to attack the position. B Company. 6 Field Ambulance, under Maj Duncan, retired some distance under mortar fire and set up the ADS in a small valley. It was an unpleasant situation. At intervals throughout the night, bombs fell close to the ADS. The sound of enemy transport retreating along the road could be plainly heard.

A few casualties were admitted and treated during the night and more were brought in after dawn. Evacuation was risky, as between 6 Brigade and the 5 Brigade position where 6 MDS was located there was a ten-mile gap, through which many of the enemy could not be prevented from making their escape. During the morning Lt-Col Furkert attempted to reach 6 ADS but was confronted with retiring German forces. A retreating enemy column captured an ambulance car driven by AFS driver Charlie Perkins, with his orderly and three patients. Driver Perkins could have escaped by page 250 making a dash for it, as it was unlikely that the Germans would fire on a Red Cross vehicle. However, the unavoidable jolting would have endangered the lives of his patients and he was obliged to submit to capture. Early in the afternoon Lt-Col Furkert reached the ADS and an unavailing search was made for the missing ambulance.

The 16th was a hard day for 6 MDS. On the 15th, 5 Field Ambulance was in reserve with Divisional Administration Group, some ten miles to the east. Because of the risk of enemy columns breaking through to the south at this point, the group was moved a further ten miles east during the night, with the result that throughout the action all cases were evacuated to, treated, and held by 6 Field Ambulance.

Battle casualties and sick began to arrive in the morning, and by afternoon the tarpaulin shelters were full to capacity. Orderlies of HQ and A Companies worked throughout the day and night; the unit operating team, with two operating tables continuously in use, and the attached surgical team both worked until midnight. Minefields and impassable country prevented ambulance cars reaching the road. Hence it was decided to detach A Company, with six ambulance cars and four ASC trucks, to carry the patients back by the desert route, south and east, and then north along the Marada Track to El Agheila. The MDS was closed at first light on the 17th, patients were loaded and sent away and equipment packed, and at 11 a.m. HQ moved to join the Division, which by this time was proceeding west towards Nofilia.