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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Attack on Fontegrande

Attack on Fontegrande

Completely blocking the advance, Orsogna was turning out to be a tough nut to crack. Actually, it was too tough a nut; but that was not realised yet.

Throughout the afternoon of the 23rd bombers had roared over Castelfrentano, and great fountains of smoke and debris sprang up from the buildings of Orsogna. In the early hours of the 24th an attempt was made to split the enemy forces and turn the Orsogna defences from the north. Following a heavy barrage, 5 Brigade advanced behind Orsogna from the east to capture Fontegrande, a hill feature to the north.

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Casualties were carried from the RAPs by tottering stretcher-bearers to the resuscitation post, whence the jeep drivers would, after reassuring the patients of the strength and security of the flimsy-looking stretcher frames, take them to the car posts over the track running along the crest of Sfasciata Ridge. At the car posts the wounded were transferred to four-wheel-drive ambulance cars for the journey to the ADS. There was heavy shelling during the day, some bursts landing on the ridge above the ADS.

The ambulance drivers and orderlies going from the ADS to the MDS had an unenviable time, traversing the Mad Mile as rapidly as possible, yet compelled to keep down the speed to avoid endangering the lives of the wounded. Often the ambulances were trailed by other vehicles whose drivers, naturally enough, wished to share the protection of the Red Cross.

The MDS at Castelfrentano worked steadily. The casualties were carried from the ambulance cars by stretcher-bearers drawn from A Company and the attached ASC, and deposited in the reception section room. The section took them in the order of their urgency, treated their wounds, and sent them to the evacuation section for nursing care until they could be despatched back to the CCS, or else sent them on to the operating theatre. There was seldom a let-up.

‘Always there were casualties lying awaiting attention,’ wrote Pte H. Brennan.12 ‘No sooner was one load dealt with than the stretcher-bearers were staggering in with another load. A man would be carried in moaning with every breath. Another, wounded in the head, squirmed continuously, like an impaled insect, until he died. A Maori, with a hole brimming with blood in his thigh, seemed ashamed because the flesh quivered away from the scalpel, and tried to hold it still by gripping firmly around the limb above the wound. Always, at about midnight, came the day's casualties from the Parachute Regiment, from whose position away on the flank it was possible to evacuate only at night.

‘All the theatres were operating continuously. There the torn, mangled, often filthy flesh was removed, to be replaced by so many clean, sharp cuts, with locked artery forceps hanging to each lip. The teams were quiet, the work going steadily forward. Under the circle of light from the cluster of bulbs overhead, all attention centred on the incision in which the surgeon was working at the time. Simultaneously, a tray of freshly sterilised instruments was being prepared for the next patient, still in reception awaiting his page 331 turn or perhaps in the heated atmosphere of the resuscitation room, where men lay on stretchers propped over kerosene heaters, and the bottles of blood on the frames attached to the recipients’ stretchers looked like thick, red jellies.

‘In the room set aside for abdominal post-operative care, men were constantly and carefully being restored to positions from which they involuntarily moved or slid down. There was a continual moaning and gasping, and a continual demand for attention. A patient would be vomiting half-digested blood over his blankets and the floor, while the orderlies would be too busy with others to attend to him. From time to time, in the middle of such scenes, there would be the arrival of a new case from the theatre.

‘With blankets and twine the sanitary squad sewed bodies into surprisingly shapely bundles, to be buried in the graveyard near the crossroads below the town. On one occasion the Germans opened fire on the cemetery area during a burial service, sending the grave-diggers diving headlong into spare graves.’

On Christmas Day 6 Brigade relieved 5 Brigade on the sector east of Orsogna. B Company, 6 Field Ambulance, left Castelfrentano on the 25th and 26th, and moved down the muddy, shell-cratered road into the valley, then north through the hills to the Moro River to relieve 5 ADS. Though the ADS area was on a slope, the ground was so muddy that the vehicles had to be manœuvred into position by bulldozers. The tarpaulin shelters were erected with difficulty and the men dug themselves into the hillside.

The rain continued through the night of the 27th, and the stretcher-carrying jeeps and Humber ambulance cars had difficulty in reaching the RAPs. However, the weather gradually improved, the rain disappearing before a bitterly cold wind that dried and hardened the ground. There were few casualties, which was fortunate, perhaps, for the ambulance drivers and orderlies, as the Germans were shelling and mortaring the roads fairly consistently.

12 Sgt H. Brennan; born Auckland, 27 Sep 1907; farm hand, Tarurutangi.