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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Turning the Mareth Line

page 267

Turning the Mareth Line

Eighth Army continued with its plan to take the Mareth Line. This plan envisaged a frontal assault on the line itself and an outflanking movement through the desert from an assembly area 80 miles to the south. For this outflanking role the New Zealand Corps was formed by the addition of British armoured and artillery units and the Fighting French, who had come from Chad in Central Africa in a remarkable desert trek.

The new outflanking operation closely resembled the left hook around Agheila. It involved moves by night of 27,000 men and 6000 vehicles, tanks, and guns to an assembly area in the desert, and a race to an objective over 150 miles away across little-known and difficult country.

On 11 March NZ Corps began a secret move to the assembly area in the desert. The force first moved back to Ben Gardane, which it had passed in the advance to Medenine, then southwards to the assembly area 30 miles south-west of the hill village of Foum Tatahouine. The whole force was self-contained with eleven days' food, water, and ammunition and with petrol for 350 miles. For six days the force continued to assemble in the desert, and by 18 March it was complete.

All possible measures for concealment were taken; no Red Crosses could be displayed by medical units and no tentage erected. All sick at this time were evacuated to 4 Field Ambulance, which had been established on the Ben Gardane-Foum Tatahouine road, sufficiently far away not to draw attention to the main Corps' concentration. The unit rejoined the Corps on the first day of the move from the assembly area, being relieved by Light Section 14 British CCS.

On the night of 19 March and during the 20th the Corps advanced across the undulating desert, being slowed up by bad going and minefields. There were some bomb casualties at dusk on 20 March. The advance, held up by darkness, was resumed on the 21st, contact being made with the enemy in the afternoon. The New Zealand Corps then moved up and deployed, and by nightfall armour, artillery, and infantry were facing the enemy positions covering the four-mile-wide Tebaga Gap.

On an area suitable for air evacuation, 6 Field Ambulance established its main dressing station before nightfall. Here it remained page 268 as the nucleus of a medical centre for the remainder of the operation. On the move forward to the area the unit was strafed by four enemy planes, and a member of the attached surgical team was killed and five members of the unit wounded.

An attack launched by 25 and 26 Battalions at 10 p.m. on 21 March captured Point 201, a vital feature. Casualties began to come back to 6 MDS through 6 ADS at eleven o'clock. The route of the advance, 170 miles long, had been so rough that in the medical plan it had been decided not to attempt rearward evacuation by surface transport for any save the lightest of wounded. For this reason the MDS was ordered to hold its cases until air evacuation was possible.

From the time of the first attack the MDS was kept busy. Ambulance load after ambulance load arrived from the advanced dressing stations. The 4 Field Ambulance ADS arrived and added its shelters to those of 6 Field Ambulance. Two 6 Field Ambulance teams and the CCS surgical team operated continuously all day and through the night of 22-23 March. By the 23rd the MDS was holding 287 patients. The important thing now was to get a landing ground ready for air evacuation, and 6 Field Ambulance, with the assistance of engineers and a company of 5 Field Ambulance sent forward for the purpose, cleared and levelled a very good airstrip which was ready for use by 2 p.m. on 23 March. The company of 5 Field Ambulance then established an Air Evacuation Centre in which, at all times, 30 cases were held ready to load on planes on their arrival and thus minimise the time the aircraft had to remain on the ground. Dogfights frequently took place in that area and the Bombay aircraft on the ground were a large target. The first plane landed at eleven o'clock on the morning of 24 March. Thereafter all serious cases were evacuated by air, 402 patients being flown out by the end of March. The RAF was very co-operative and was delayed only by the high winds and dust-storms which, unluckily, were almost constant at this time.