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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Voyage Across the Mediterranean

Voyage Across the Mediterranean

The voyage of 6 Field Ambulance can be taken as typical of those of all the New Zealand medical units. The lighters carrying the unit drew alongside a towering, 17,000-ton transport and the troops were instructed to go aboard through one of the luggage ports in her side. What with the steeply-sloping gangway, the low entrance, and the tall packs, they had to be manhandled through like so many sheep. It was impossible to stoop low enough to get page 297 the packs under the top of the door without losing balance, so main packs were left on the lighter to be heaved aboard later. Carrying only hand luggage and side-packs or ‘iggri bags’, the men were guided along the shaft-like ship's corridors to their quarters on the lowest deck of the forepeak cargo hold.

With no natural light, poor ventilation, and permeated with the typical troopship's lower-deck atmosphere of perspiration and sour staleness, added to which was the hold's own native smells of cheese, garlic, and dried fish, the quarters were not regarded with any great enthusiasm. To make matters worse, most of the hold was taken up by mess tables and rifle racks. Hammocks were slung close together over the tables, with the ends of one row inserted between the ends of the next. After a brief inspection the older hands left to seek open-deck hammock sites. At tea-time the food proved unexpectedly good; but the messes were difficult to organise and there were long periods of waiting, both for the men at the tables and for the winding queue of mess orderlies.

The convoy of three transports, with an escort of five destroyers, moved from its moorings in the early morning of 6 October, and passing the smashed hulls and protruding masts of wrecked and sunken ships in the harbour, steamed slowly out through the boom. The troops lined the rails, gazing back at the domes and minarets of the mosques and the magnificent buildings along the corniche, gleaming white and distinct in the sunlight and clear air of the warm Egyptian morning. There was a rapid flicker of morse from a destroyer as it surged past the Reina del Pacifico, and the three transports swung into line abreast and picked up speed. The first contingent of the New Zealand Division was on its way. A few hours later a message from the GOC was read over the loud-speaker system, telling the troops that they were bound for Italy and the prospect of battles under conditions very different from those of the campaign just ended.

Alexandria slowly faded from sight, and the coastal dunes of the Western Desert, the scene of so many memories, appeared for a few hours to the south and then sank below the skyline. The voyage was a succession of still, warm days, the convoy continuing in line abreast inside its cordon of destroyers, each ship towing its hauled in barrage balloon and slipping through a sea disturbed only by the hissing bow waves. Land was sighted on the 7th, and after a page 298 certain amount of discussion was identified as Ras et Tin, the western promontory of the Gulf of Bomba. Just before dusk on the same day, a convoy of some thirty merchant ships with escorting destroyers steamed past. In spite of orders forbidding the carriage of pets, Lulu, 6 Field Ambulance's pet hen, suddenly put in an appearance. She had been carried aboard in a box as a bivvy.

Mount Etna and Sicily were sighted to port at dusk on the 8th, and soon the hills of Italy's toe rose into sight. Daylight on the 9th showed the convoy sailing close to and parallel with the coastline, and the ship's rails trebly lined with men examining and commenting on the countryside, its gently sloping hills and clusters of houses whose red roofs glowed like dull embers as they caught the morning sun. Trees appeared plentiful, both in ordered rows and blocks and straggling natural woodland; and the differing depths of colour in the patterned plots of green and brown told of intense cultivation. There was a promise of moist, cool winds and green fields after the arid dunes and escarpments of the desert.