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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Sfasciata Ridge

Sfasciata Ridge

After days of rain and mud, which postponed all projected operations, it was decided that 5 Brigade, with 18 and 20 Armoured Regiments under command, would attack to cut the Orsogna-Ortona road. Zero hour was set at 1 a.m. on 15 December. On the 14th a section of B Company, 5 Field Ambulance, left Castelfrentano by jeeps and ambulance cars and travelled to the foot of the Sfasciata Ridge, where an ambulance car post was established. From there equipment was carried by jeep westward along the ridge. The forward resuscitation post was set up on the ridge and ready to operate by 12.30 a.m. Half an hour later the attack started, and at 1.30 a.m. the first casualties were arriving. On the 15th, 115 casualties were treated and seven blood transfusions given. page 328 On the muddy slopes it often took six men to carry one of the wounded, and additional stretcher-bearers were required. More of B Company and the men from the brigade band shared in the toil. During rush periods assistance was given by the medical officers of 18 and 20 Armoured Regiments, Capts S. B. Thompson8 and E. O. Dawson.9

The stretcher-bearer reinforcements were roused from their beds in their snug Castelfrentano houses at 2.45 a.m. on the 15th. They set off on foot, down the hill and across several valleys and streams, arriving at the 23 Battalion RAP at half past four, where they spent the rest of the night bedded down in a ditch. Heavy gunfire continued until daybreak, making sleep impossible. At 6 a.m. the men were placed in relay stretcher squads between the 21 Battalion RAP and the resuscitation post. Shortly afterwards casualties, mostly Maoris, began trickling back from the RAP. About seven o'clock biscuits and bully beef were sent along. German aircraft bombed points here and there, and the region was lightly shelled more or less continuously. The situation was distinctly unpleasant, and did not improve when American aircraft came over and bombed the region, killing one New Zealander. By 3.30 p.m. the RAPs were clear and the stretcher-bearers returned, some to the ADS and others to remain at the resuscitation post.

The first casualties reached 6 MDS at 2 a.m. and kept it moderately busy; three operating teams were at work by 9 a.m.

Night after night these men of B Company, 5 Field Ambulance, went forward, carrying back from the RAPs, until by the 22nd, the whole company was up on the Sfasciata Ridge and a full ADS was established. Engineers had been at work improving the track up to the location, and it was now accessible to ambulance cars. S-Sgt H. W. Burley10 worked ahead of the skeleton ADS assisting and directing the stretcher-bearing, and was awarded the Military Medal.

page 329

Castelfrentano settled down to another spell of comparative quietness. Women plodded up the tracks from the fields with loads of laboriously gathered firewood. The old men stood and talked in front of the AMGOT office. Soldiers in their leather jerkins and rolled-up balaclavas, and girls with New Zealand badges pinned to their coats and jumpers, strolled in the street. Casualties were few, though the Germans methodically shelled gun positions and road junctions each night and occasionally bombarded the town. When not being bombed Orsogna looked quiet and peaceful, and many civilians asserted that the enemy had withdrawn. Members of 5 ADS doubted this when they turned out to play a game of soccer in a field below the town and were immediately scattered by airbursts.

By this time 4 Field Hygiene Section, under Maj H. T. Knights,11 had installed its hot-shower plant in a house about a mile to the south of the town, and in spite of the miserable, bitterly cold weather the showers were always crowded. Privacy was unnecessary. Italian women filled cans and buckets from a canvas water tank at the front of the house, without so much as a casual glance at the naked men darting in and out of the doorway. In another house on the Orsogna side, the NZ YMCA opened a canteen where soldiers could buy tea and biscuits and read ancient copies of New Zealand illustrated papers. The Mobile Cinema Unit had arrived and was screening films to crowded houses of New Zealanders and Tommies in the local theatre, a hall at the southern end of the school building.

8 Capt S. B. Thompson, DSO; born Christchurch, 19 Dec 1916; House Surgeon, Christchurch Hospital; Medical Officer 1 Mob Surg Unit Nov 1941-Mar 1942; RMO 18 Bn Mar 1942-Feb 1944; 2 Gen Hosp May 1944-Jan 1945.

9 Maj E. O. Dawson; born Australia, 2 Feb 1917; House Surgeon, Christchurch Hospital; Medical Officer Maadi Camp Aug 1941-Jun 1942; RMO 20 Bn Jun 1942-Jun 1944; 4 Fd Amb Jun 1944-Jun 1945; Repatriation Hospital UK Jun-Sep 1945.

10 WO 1 H. W. Burley, MM, m.i.d.; born Auckland, 9 Aug 1916; Methodist minister; NCO 5 Fd Amb 1941-44, RSM Apr 1944-Feb 1945.

11 Maj H. T. Knights, m.i.d.; born Auckland, 23 Jan 1908; Medical missionary, Belgian Congo; Medical Officer 3 Gen Hosp Mar 1941-Jun 1943; OC 4 Fd Hyg Sec Jul 1943-Dec 1944.