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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

The Last Battle

The Last Battle

The Axis retreat had now ended. The enemy occupied strong defensive positions in the high, rough country which meets the coast at Enfidaville. The period 14-19 April was spent by the Division in preparing for its part in the general Allied offensive, in which the Eighth Army's role was to exert heavy pressure to keep as many of the enemy as possible fully engaged on its front. There was little activity for the medical units. Patrols were active and the New Zealand infantry advanced its position slightly, but few casualties were received.

The attack was timed for the night of 19-20 April. Arrangements were made for extra supplies of blood and extra stretchers and ambulance cars at the ADSs. At nightfall on the 19th the tanks that had been squatting somnolently in the tall grass round the ADS area moved out in column, and tanks, trucks, and guns began pouring up the rough road toward the jagged hills to the north, where scattered gun-flashes flickered through a haze of moonlight.

A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, under Capt J. L. Wright, packed and loaded equipment early in the evening, and at half past nine moved forward and reopened a few hundred yards west of the Kairouan-Enfidaville road, at a point five miles due south of Takrouna. Digging in was extremely difficult, as the clayey ground, soaked by past rains, had caked to a cement-like hardness in the sun. Deep cracks ran in all directions, sheltering revoltingly huge centipedes. Similarly 5 ADS, under Maj T. J. MacCormac,2 had moved up on the morning of the 19th and occupied a site well hidden by a cactus hedge.

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The barrage opened at 11 p.m. At the ADSs all men not detailed for duty bedded down. However, sleep was out of the question; in addition to the uproar, the night was stifling and mosquitoes descended in swarms on the slit trenches. In the early hours an enemy heavy gun opened fire from the hills. The shells whined past, crashing along a track to the left. The first casualties arrived at 6 ADS at 1.30 a.m. and at 5 ADS half an hour later; from then on they came back in a steady stream, keeping medical officers and teams of orderlies working continuously throughout the night. The ambulance drivers and orderlies were having a nerve-wracking time bringing loads of wounded men from the RAPs over tracks that were frequently shelled and mortared.

Casualties from 6 Brigade were not numerous and 6 ADS was clear by 11 a.m., when 88 cases had been handled, but 5 ADS was more difficultly placed. At 4 a.m. it received advice that the RAPs were flooded with casualties, and it sent forward all available transport—three ambulance cars and six 3-ton trucks. Six additional ambulance cars were sent forward from the MDS to the ADS at 6 a.m., enabling evacuation to proceed smoothly. By half past eight 130 cases had been received by 5 ADS, and wounded continued to come in until 2.30 a.m. on 21 April, after which there were only occasional admissions. The total number of admissions to 5 ADS on 20 April was 276.

As these casualties were all transferred to 4 MDS, that unit was kept very busy. On 20 April 334 battle casualties, mostly New Zealanders, were admitted and treated. Both surgical teams worked long hours, but there was no hold-up or undue delay in attending to cases. Patients were evacuated to 1 NZ CCS, eight miles north of El Djem, along a good bitumen road. Extra ambulance cars were available, and so at no time was there undue congestion at the MDS.

At El Djem 1 NZ CCS was the most forward clearing station and acted more as a staging post. Special cases, such as ophthalmic and neurosurgical, were admitted without prior surgical treatment and dealt with by the attached 1 British Mobile Ophthalmic and 4 British Neurosurgical units respectively. Also attached were a field surgical and a field transfusion unit, both British. Evacuation was by road to Sfax, thence to 3 NZ General Hospital at Tripoli, but later upwards of 50 patients daily were loaded in transport planes returning from El Djem to Tripoli.

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On the 25th, when 6 Brigade was extending its positions, a sudden rush of casualties, commencing at 4 a.m., kept 6 ADS busy until late afternoon. It was Easter Sunday and Anzac Day. Services were held by the padres, and red poppies were placed on the graves in the ADS cemetery.

Fifth Brigade had been relieved on the night of 22-23 April, and on the 26th arrangements were made for the relief of 6 Brigade. By 3.25 a.m. on the 27th the change-over was completed. The ADSs then moved into reserve with the Division.

On 29 and 30 April the CCS made its last move forward in the North African campaign, to the north of the village of Sidi bou Ali. Here midst fields of barley, surrounded by olive groves and spiky cactus fences, the tents were erected for the last time in Tunisia. This was the thirteenth time the unit had set up since leaving Base. It was now at the end of the long 2000-mile trip from Cairo. The unit was again the most advanced CCS. Twelve miles ahead loomed the mountainous heights behind Enfidaville. From them the sound of artillery echoed back day and night.

2 Maj T. J. MacCormac, m.i.d.; born Makotuku, Hawke's Bay, 7 Jan 1915; Surgeon, England; RAMC Apr 1940-Jan 1941; Mob Surg Unit May 1941-Mar 1942; 1 NZ CCS Mar-Nov 1942; 5 Fd Amb Nov 1942-Jun 1944; Repatriation Hosp (UK) Jun 1944-Sep 1945.