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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

The Mountain Sector

The Mountain Sector

During the first two weeks of April, the sorely tried infantry brigades of 2 NZ Division were withdrawn from Cassino, the holding of which had been no easy task, to take over from 2 Polish Corps the less arduous task of defending a part of the line across the Apennine Mountains. 6 Infantry Brigade took over the Monte Croce sector, while 5 Infantry Brigade rested at Isernia; but 4 Armoured Brigade remained in the Cassino sector, and 4 Field Ambulance stayed with it to hold the sick and evacuate its casualties. The 6 Brigade positions were dominated by Monte Mare to the north, Monte Cavallo to the north-west, and Monte San Croce to the west, features which afforded the enemy observation not only of the positions themselves but also of various points on the tracks leading up to them, and denied close observation of the enemy approach along the Atina road.

This group of mountains was a key position in the Allied defence system. San Pietro formed a pivot where the front line turned from east-west to north-south through Cassino, and its loss would have taken the Germans through to the rear of the Allied infantry and artillery to the south.

The terrain in 6 Brigade's mountain sector presented new problems to 6 ADS at Mennella in the collection of casualties, as two of the RAPs were rather inaccessible. Mules were used in places, but fortunately the sector was quiet and casualties light.

After travelling on 20 April with the 5 Brigade convoy down Route 85, and along the divisional axis through Pozzilli and Filignano and over the mountains to the Rapido Valley, B Com- page 357 pany, 5 Field Ambulance, under Maj J. W. Bartrum,7 moved under the cover of darkness into the devastated town of Sant’ Elia, to find the ruins populated by many dead mules and one very bomb-happy cat. The ADS was established in a building previously occupied by 185 British Field Ambulance. Of solid construction and possessing a spacious basement, it was ideally suited for the purpose.

black and white photograph of medical unit

5 Field Ambulance ADS near Mount Porchia, Cassino

black and white photograph of entry into maori battalion rap

Entrance to Maori Battalion RAP in crypt at Cassino

black and white photograph of ambulance parked outside building

5 Field Ambulance ADS at Sant’ Elia, with ambulance cars parked in the shelter of buildings

black and white photograph of medical unit ambulance

6 Field Ambulance MDS at Pozzilli, near Cassino

Evacuation of casualties from the RAPs on the rugged Terelle sector, in which 5 Brigade replaced a British brigade, presented great difficulties, and it was found necessary for B Company to establish a forward ambulance car post. A party moved across the valley during the night of the 20th and set up on the opposite slope. All accommodation was in sangars, shelters made by laying tree trunks and branches across depressions and from banks and covering them with turf, ammunition boxes full of earth, or anything else available. Shortly after the work was completed, the area was mortared and one of the staff was wounded. During the following evening another party of eight stretcher-bearers went forward from Sant’ Elia, and under cover of darkness made their way up to the 21 Battalion RAP. Their job was to carry casualties from the RAP to a dugout some 400 yards along the track, where a team of bearers from the car post was stationed. Casualties from 23 Battalion were carried by regimental stretcher-bearers for some 300 yards to a point marked by a fallen tree. From there, car post bearers carried them over the remaining 800 yards. All carrying was done at night, and often the Germans were mortaring around the steep, narrow tracks used by the stretcher squads.

The post was subjected to intermittent mortar fire day and night, and treatment had to be confined to ensuring the patients' comfort and dressing the wounds of casualties who had not passed through the RAPs. Things were little better at the ADS. The town swarmed with flies; yet nothing could be done about the refuse and dead animals as any movement brought shellfire. In fact, on the 22nd 30 shells crashed into the area immediately surrounding the ADS, just as a convoy of American Field Service ambulance cars was arriving. Four ambulance cars were hit and many tires riddled. One driver was wounded and evacuated to the CCS.

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The shelling and mortaring in the vicinity of the 21 Battalion RAP and the car post became so intense during the next few days that a more frequent changeover of men was found necessary. There were not enough stretcher-bearers to provide the required relief every four or five days, and men from all sections were sent. The ASC arranged a change of drivers every two days. All reliefs were carried out in daylight. The Germans did not molest vehicles carrying the Red Cross, and its use was not abused.

7 Maj J. W. Bartrum; born Wellington, 23 May 1913; Medical Practitioner, Auckland Hospital; Medical Officer Maadi and Kfar Vitkin, Jan-Jun 1942; RMO 21 Bn and Engineers Jul 1942-May 1943; 5 Fd Amb May 1943-Apr 1944; 3 Gen Hosp Dec 1944-Aug 1945; CO 1 Conv Depot Aug 1945-Jan 1946.