Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
WHEN the Division's vehicles began to arrive in Italy at the end of October, the medical units used their three-ton lorries for carting stones. In any low-lying areas the winter rainstorms, the churning of thousands of Army boots, and the revolving wheels of trucks produced morasses of mud. While the Division waited to move forward, and indeed during the whole of the winter as the units moved to successive areas, roadmaking became a standard activity. Many an ancient stone wall contributed to the paving around the cookhouses and the entrances to medical units and wards.
When the third flight of vehicles arrived in the middle of November, the medical and other units were able to complete preliminary arrangements for the first of many moves eventually covering the whole length of Italy. The drivers who accompanied the vehicles had a few stories to tell. Some of them were at sea for 23 days, and after zigzagging all over the eastern end of the Mediterranean had sailed through the Strait of Otranto, in full sight of the German-held Albanian coast, to berth in Bari harbour for the night of the town's first air raid. At the first air-raid warning a smoke-screen was put up from the wharves. Half an hour later, when the smoke had completely dispersed, the raiders arrived. The troops were kept below decks, where they sat in the holds listening to the clamour of the anti-aircraft batteries on shore, the ships' machine guns and six-pounders, and the clatter of shrapnel on the steel plating above their heads. Apparently no damage was done, beyond the destruction of the balloon barrage by the anti-aircraft fire.
Fourth Field Ambulance, under Lt-Col J. K. Elliott, was the first to receive its transport—or, rather, part of it—and the beginning of the month found the unit redistributing loads and giving the vehicles a general cleaning up in readiness for the move with 4 NZ Armoured Brigade to the divisional assembly area at San Severo. The arrival of the vehicles was extremely haphazard; in fact, the priority vehicles—orderly room, dispensary, and ‘Q’ trucks and others—did not come to hand until the unit had been in San Severo for a week. Damage was considerable, few vehicles page 311 reaching the unit intact. The dental truck was dropped from a sling on the wharf at Bari, killing an Italian, and became a total loss. The HQ cookhouse was also extensively damaged.
The Division, coming again under command of Eighth Army, had been given the role of crossing the Sangro River and attacking a line along the heights to the north on which the enemy was now falling back.
Repacking of the 4 Field Ambulance vehicles for the move to the concentration area around San Severo was completed on 2 November. Skies were a dreary grey next morning when the convoy pulled out from the Taranto area. In a journey marked by many halts, the trucks passed olive plantations, vineyards, a countryside made picturesque with conical trulli huts, and hill villages with balconied houses huddled round the cobbled village square. Passing through Altamura, the unit reached the first staging area on high moorland country late in the afternoon. It was an empty, wet landscape, swept by bitterly cold winds.
The southern part of Italy was virtually untouched by the war, and it was not until Foggia was reached next day that the first physical signs of the war were visible in the ruined buildings of a bombed section of the town. Even then, it was not until the old familiar mine notices were met on the roads and byroads between Foggia and Lucera—Verges Swept, Safe Lane—and the convoy passed the burnt, crashed fighter plane lying in a field, that the New Zealanders knew that they were back again in the same war which led them through Greece and Crete, Libya, and through the desert to Tunisia.
San Severo was reached on the afternoon of the 4th. It was bleak and cold. The work of establishing an MDS in a derelict roadhouse, a two-storied building, began immediately on arrival. Companies pitched their tents on the western side of the building, concealing them as far as possible with camouflage nets. By evening the MDS was holding five patients.
Fourth Field Ambulance left San Severo on 13 November for Furci, via Serracapriola, Termoli, and Vasto. With the exception of demolitions and an occasional derelict tank, few signs of battle were seen en route. The convoy had a painfully slow trip because all main bridges had been blown and rivers had to be crossed by means of one-way Bailey bridges. The country from the Trigno page 312 River northwards lay between the mountains and the sea and was broken and hilly, with devious, winding roads and hilltop villages. The soil was heavy and formed thick mud, and the siting of units depended entirely upon the possibility of getting vehicles off the road. In wet weather this became almost impossible. Units soon learned to observe the fundamental rules of fitting chains to vehicles before leaving the roads, parking above road level, and pointing the vehicles downhill towards the road.
The ancient hill villages in this part of Italy have narrow, oneway streets easily blocked by transport. In the cold, wet weather general at this time, buildings were a necessity both for nursing patients and billeting troops. The rather poor villages in the divisional area offered little in the way of suitable buildings for ADSs and still less for MDSs.
At Furci no suitable building existed. A Company therefore set up a small dressing station under canvas, while HQ remained on wheels. The tents proved moderately satisfactory as they were pitched when the ground was dry and the floors covered with straw. The ambulance was camped at an altitude of 1500 feet in attractive, extensively cultivated hill country to which numerous, quaint hilltop towns and villages added a touch of the picturesque. Sparsely wooded, the slopes offered broad vistas of hill and dale.
Fifth Field Ambulance, under Lt-Col McQuilkin, had moved up to Lucera on 9 November, when it opened an MDS, and then on the 15th advanced twelve miles further to San Severo, where its role was to hold a large Fascist Youth Centre building for the CCS. Again it was partially occupied, and this time disgustingly filthy. The previous occupants had apparently dumped their rubbish out of the windows, for the yards and passage-ways were piled high with an accumulation of rotting debris. Infuriated fatigue parties were immediately detailed to clean up the building and surroundings. On the 17th the cleaning up, scraping, and scrubbing were still going on. Heaps of rubbish were burned and the work of disinfecting the place was begun.
Meanwhile, flights of transport had been arriving in Italy, and at San Severo the last of the unit vehicles caught up. The precious lighting-plant trailer had been badly smashed, but the engine was useful in augmenting the very poor lighting in the building. The page 313 MDS had become an unofficial transit camp, accommodating odd medical parties and vehicles passing through to their units.
Much to the annoyance of everyone, when the CCS arrived on 20 November there were complaints about the dirty condition of the building. The 5 Field Ambulance comment was that it was a pity the CCS had not arrived first. The CCS took over, and the field ambulance moved forward on the 20th. Turning inland south of Vasto, the unit reached San Buono, where the MDS was opened on the 21st. It was a Sunday and the day of a saint. The celebrations became thanks for liberation. Bells in a belfry right above the MDS rang all day.
With the departure of the units of 6 Brigade Group from the Taranto area on 13 November, A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, was left isolated. The men wandered through the vacated areas, investigating the salvage heaps and unearthing a quantity of useful equipment. The local Italians also availed themselves of the opportunity, and peasant women trudged through the olive trees in the direction of Statte with great burdens of firewood and discarded home-made utensils. There was an occasion when one group thoroughly earned their booty. Two members of A Company discovered a number of gas containers about twenty yards up wind from the band of industrious peasants, and with the childlike, irresponsible curiosity that comes of long years in the ranks, they immediately set about igniting them. In a matter of seconds the tear gas had enveloped the Italians and their donkey cart, and they staggered bewilderedly in all directions, doubled up, hands pressed to eyes, uttering shrill, plaintive cries. The unfortunate donkey seemed to lose interest in life completely; standing limp, with his head hanging to the ground, he looked the very embodiment of utter misery.
The soldiers might have been expected to feel at least a shade of regret; but such was not the case. Deciding that they had been granted the chance of a lifetime, they carried the remaining generators back to the company lines, where they ignited them and threw them into bivvies in which their comrades dozed, and scattered and infuriated inoffensive groups of card players and natterers. One NCO, more thoughtful than the rest, protested and pointed out that the Italians might spread a rumour that the New Zealanders were preparing to use chemical warfare.page 314
The 6 Field Ambulance MDS, under Lt-Col Fisher, remained in Taranto until 19 November, when it vacated the museum building. It had performed an important task, having admitted 493 patients, and had been directly responsible for the retention in Italy of many men who would otherwise have been evacuated.
The port and warship anti-aircraft guns at Taranto had opened up during the evening of 17 November and hammered away for about 20 minutes. The reason was not known, and there was no sign of aircraft or bombing. In fact, the only explosion heard at the MDS occurred when one of the officers took a drink from the wrong bottle and hurriedly spat out a mouthful of benzine over a burning pressure lamp. The resultant ‘Whooff!’ rattled every window in the building.