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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Disembarkation at Taranto

Disembarkation at Taranto

At 9 a.m. on 9 October the transports steamed slowly through the boom between the two stone moles that encircle Taranto harbour. A British monitor, several cruisers, surrounded by their anti-torpedo nets, and three or four American landing craft were moored in the stream, while an assortment of small merchant ships unloaded at the wharves. The Reina del Pacifico came to anchor off a mile-long stretch of impressive waterfront buildings, fronted by a busy, tree-lined promenade and a beach with wooden bathing sheds and small-craft wharves. A swing-bridge over a canal or the neck of a lagoon, and connecting what was evidently the old and newer towns, carried a constant stream of pedestrians. On the old town side, right on the water's edge and evidently designed to guard the entrance, was a heavily-turreted, wide-bastioned castle, obviously of great age. Behind the quay on the new town side stood a low hill, up which stretched the town, a tightly-packed mass of three-storied houses. The streets visible from the ships were busy with pedestrians and army wheeled traffic.

Grape sellers put out from the shore in dinghies. Standing in the boats, facing their course and pushing against the oars with short rapid strokes, they headed for the ship at a surprising speed. page 299 The AMGOT paper shilling was the lowest denomination in the possession of the troops; and both they and the boatmen seemed hazy about its value in grapes.

Lighters arrived promptly, and by midday two loads had left the Reina del Pacifico. By that time the 6 Field Ambulance personnel were hoping to get a meal before going ashore. However, a long, unhandsome craft named the Messina, evidently an adapted train-ferry and resembling several tiers of wharfing, was brought alongside by two tugs. In answer to a hail, the captain announced that he could take 7000 men, and the burdened crowd poured down the jigging gangway onto the sun-warmed decks of the Messina and left for the shore, where the troops were marching through the old town to the divisional bivouac area, five miles to the north.

On the quay there was the usual confusion with its attendant delays; but finally, at half past one, the unit set off on its march to the bivouac area. The district through which the route lay presented a dismal scene. Many buildings were badly battered, and roads were torn up where the drainage system had been disrupted by bombs. The inhabitants looked poor and bedraggled, underclothed and underfed.

Breakfast had been early, it was a hot day, and the road ran uphill. Hungry and fed up, the troops were exhausted by the time they had tramped two and a half miles up the Taranto-Martina road and a mile and a half along an undulating cart track that ran over lightly wooded hillsides to the Santa Teresa track junction, where, adjacent to a large house occupied by HQ 2 NZ Division, a dressing station and evacuation point was to be established.

Meanwhile, the Messina had returned to the Reina del Pacifico with unloading parties, including a 6 Field Ambulance party detailed to look after the medical equipment. The crates were slung up out of the holds and over the rails by the ship's derricks, many showing the result of the handling received from inefficient Egyptian stevedores. Suspended cases streamed yellow and white tablets and assorted items of medical stores from between broken boards. Others touched down with a rattle of broken glass. The party collected the gear and stacked it in a space allotted to the unit, and moved to the rail to chaffer with the grape vendors.

Another ship was occupying the berth allotted to the Messina, which was compelled to back in between a merchant steamer and an page 300 unloading barge. The only gangways available, found after an exhaustive search, were two twelve-inch scaffolding planks. Over these every item of equipment from the Reina del Pacifico was manhandled ashore. One of the tarpaulin shelters, a difficult six-to-eight-man lift at any time, almost found a destination in the Gulf of Taranto.

The unloading was finished by electric light, and the 6 Field Ambulance gear stacked ready for loading on trucks. The men had a meal of bully beef, tinned fruit, jam and bread from the many broken cases that strewed the wharf, and then, on being told that there was no transport to take them or the gear to the camp, they settled down to sleep among bales and cases, with the bustle of unloading still going on about them.