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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Return of Field Units to Egypt

Return of Field Units to Egypt

On 15-17 May the Division began the 2000-mile journey to Egypt. The medical units dispersed through the convoys provided a medical service for the five groups, admitting and treating patients en route. The route lay inland through Kairouan and along the South London Road and ‘Y’ Track to the main coast road at la Skhirra. From la Skhirra the convoys followed the coast.

Staging areas for the returning Division at intervals of approximately 120 miles were cleared of mines, and all troops were warned of the danger of mines and booby-traps in the vicinity of these areas. After the first stage, during which a number of vehicles were held up by tire blowouts, the journey was uneventful. At Tripoli a halt of one day was called for rest and vehicle maintenance. Leave was granted, but few availed themselves of it: the resources of the town had been exhausted long before. Patriotic parcels were issued and the Kiwi Concert Party put on its latest show for each group.

The convoys pushed on past Homs and Misurata and around the Gulf of Sirte. Wherever there were settlements the Italian colonists stood at the roadside and cried out for food. Families possessing attractive daughters had them standing appealingly at their gates, and they received the lion's share. However, there were some high-principled stalwarts among the troops who, resolutely crushing the promptings of their instincts, ignored the visions of beauty in distress and threw what they had to older or less attractive supplicants. The area near Nofilia and, a few miles farther east, the scene of the Christmas festivities were passed. It was difficult to realise that not five months had elapsed since they had passed that way westward.

Another day was spent checking over the vehicles in staging areas around Benghazi. The majority of the men had not seen Benghazi. Others had seen it only as prisoners of war. All wished to see it or see it again, and the leave trucks were crowded.

For the remainder of the month the Division moved steadily eastward. The road led over the high Tocra Pass and the Barce Pass, and on to Derna and the Derna Pass, from which the view of the sea and coastline was startlingly beautiful. The Bir Hacheim page 287 and El Adem turn-off was passed, and the seemingly endless column wound through Tobruk, where the harbour was still full of derelict ships and masts that stuck desolately out of the water. The half-demolished bridge outside Bardia had not been repaired, but an easily negotiable detour ran beside it. At Fort Capuzzo the dilapidated remains of Mussolini's monuments looked more pathetic than ever.

The Division crossed the border and streamed down the Sollum Pass and on past the foot of Halfaya Pass, where, six months earlier, the vehicles had waited, jammed nose to tail, while Messerschmitts strafed the troops on the top of the escarpment. Buqbuq, Sidi Barrani, and Mersa Matruh were left behind. At Gerawla much of the old tentage of the field hospital operated by 2 General Hospital in 1941-42 was still standing.

Along the desert highway the convoys travelled through scenes long familiar to the New Zealand troops. Baggush, Fuka, El Daba, El Alamein, the Burg el Arab turn-off and the El Imayid staging area, all had their memories, though El Alamein struck a strange note with its peaceful silence and vast, neatly laid-out cemetery.

After spending the last night of the journey at the Ikingi Maryut staging area, near Amiriya, the head of the 300-mile column of worn and battered vehicles moved along the desert road to Cairo and Maadi and began to disperse through the Maadi Camp area. The medical units arrived at the camp on 31 May and 1 June. The units occupied a medical area adjoining 23 Field Ambulance.

The North African campaign was over. It had been a campaign in which the medical units had been compelled to adapt themselves to widely varied conditions. The ADMS reported, with particular reference to the month of April:

‘The month has been an interesting one from the medical administrative point of view as it started with an extremely rapid advance with all the problems of distance to contend with, and ended with a set-piece battle of the 1914-18 type. The divisional medical units showed that they could cope with both types of warfare equally well, and at no time was there difficulty in dealing with casualties.’

Day leave to Cairo was immediately granted, and preliminary arrangements made to despatch the men on 14 days' special leave. The nominal rolls of those returning to New Zealand on furlough under the Ruapehu scheme were received. When the men affected page 288 were advised a series of congratulatory and farewell carousals began. The first parties left on special leave on 5 June, and throughout the rest of the month representatives of the field medical units were to be found all over the Middle East, from the cabarets of Cairo and Alexandria to the hills and old towns of Palestine and Syria. Another campaign was behind them. Where the next would take them they did not know, and for the time being they did not care.