Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
Upon arrival the bivouacs were set up under the olive trees and upon whatever high ground was available. Already in this task were met the first of the difficulties that Italy was to bring to soldiers accustomed to desert conditions. In sandy surroundings it had always been possible to dig down below the surface, but here it was different. Southern Italy has a heavy rainfall in winter, and as it was obvious that dugouts would soon become mud-holes, it was necessary to raise bivouacs above mud level. This was achieved by making a building platform—a square of heavy stones packed with earth—and on these the small tents were erected.
Accustomed in the past to the many comforts of the hospital—stretchers, plenty of blankets, shelter in the wards, etc.—all the staff now keenly felt the absence of these. A bed now consisted of two blankets and a groundsheet. Later, however, extra blankets were issued and some salvage came to hand. With boxes and tins page 306 from the latter, many improvements were effected. The cookhouse was established in a small shed, but the cook's never-ending task of feeding the multitude was hindered by the lack of sufficient utensils and dixies. Petrol tins were sterilised and used as food containers while, with clever improvisation, a desert-type oven of mud, stones, and tins was built. This allowed greater variety in the menu. Rations and water were delivered daily, the latter being stored in the two-gallon tins carried from Egypt.
When all the bivouacs had been erected, everyone was put to work making roads and paths. Since the unit was to be there for some weeks, it seemed obvious that mud would become the main problem when it rained. For days everybody carried stones and rubble to form paths, principal attention being paid to the cookhouse area. Stone fences are the only kind seen in Southern Italy. One of these bordered the road past the camp, and as the paths and roads grew longer so did it become lower.
At this time the nursing sisters were not with the unit but were staging and working at 70 British General Hospital just outside Taranto. Some of the CCS nursing orderlies and medical officers were also lent to the hospital, which was experiencing an extremely busy time dealing with casualties from the Eighth Army's advance beyond Foggia.
The days now were much shorter and dark descended at 5 p.m. Winter was rapidly drawing on. Summer clothing had been handed in and battle dress and gaiters became the dress. Extra blankets were issued; anti-malaria precautions ceased. Lighting on these long nights was a problem, since lanterns were scarce and the candle ration lasted only a few hours. Many and varied were the means by which bivouacs were lit. A ration of kerosene was available and, although smoky, was burnt in a cigarette tin with a rope wick. Olive oil was also used in home-made lamps. In entertainment, too, the unit had to rely upon itself and devise its own means of spending the long nights. A mess tent had been erected by now and furnished with boxes and planks. Here card tournaments were played by the light of flickering lanterns. Quiz sessions were also held, and sometimes a lecture or informal talk was arranged by the entertainment committee.
This new country offered much of interest and in so many ways was different from other lands that the unit had visited. It was page 307 surprising to see how the old feudal system still existed, as did many other customs handed down from ancient times.