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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

The ADS Under Shellfire

The ADS Under Shellfire

With the ADS ready to operate, the men of A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, dug themselves below ground, spurred on by desultory shelling of the nearby crossroads and the surrounding fields. As night fell the shelling increased. The Germans seemed to be ranging along all the roads in the vicinity. Scattered fires started, blazing and flickering through the olive trees, and casualties began to arrive at the ADS. Though a dark, misty night, the grove was vaguely illumined by the reddish glow cast on the mist by the fires. On the hillsides to the rear guns were flashing, their reports rolling and reverberating, while mortars fired and their bombs whiffled over and away into the mist. Up on the slopes ahead there were other flashes that could have been German guns or our own shells landing, and an occasional rocket appeared to shoot out from the monastery.

The 22nd was fine and the men finished off their digging, lining the holes with groundsheets and, in some cases, with straw from a neighbouring stack. Twenty sick and wounded were admitted during the day; soon the old familiar smell of the smoke from fires burning discarded dressings and dirty, blood-soaked clothing was drifting across the area.

There were many complaints about the company mess queue, complaints that were fated to continue throughout the company's occupation of the site. Everyone lined up at the cooks' truck for food and gathered in a tight crowd to eat, relying for their safety on the Red Crosses prominently displayed on tarpaulins and vehicles. As it turned out, the Red Crosses afforded adequate protection, though the Germans on the snowclad peak of Monte Cairo, which seemed to tower directly above the ADS, must have been hard put to restrain themselves, especially as the vehicles of combatant units were continually moving in and out of the area. In addition to Monte Cairo and Monte Cassino, the Germans held the crest of Colle Belvedere, a shoulder feature to the right, and Monte Cifalco, a high, rugged peak to the north.

Casualties and sick trickled back from the infantry lying low in the houses of the town, though at this time most of the wounded page 346 received came from the roads round about the ADS itself. On the 23rd a passing truckload of British troops received a direct hit, and three of them were carried in dead. They were buried in the ADS cemetery, a little plot set aside near the road. A few Indians passed through, quiet men who seemed grateful for the little that could be done for them.

The fine weather had faded out in mist and heavy rain, and once again everything was mud. Casualties arrived with sodden and plastered boots and clothing; and many men were evacuated sick and exhausted from days of lurking in the chilled and flooded cellars of the town below. The narrow road along the evacuation route became treacherously slippery, and two ambulance cars, loaded with wounded, left the road and partly overturned while on the way to the MDS.

Occasionally the mist dispersed for a while, then closed in again to obscure everything and delay the plans for an attack which, depending on heavy air support, required good flying weather. The jagged outlines of the Abbey loomed through the mist, and at times Monte Cairo was completely obliterated.

On the 25th one solitary splinter from a nearby shellburst hummed through the evacuation section's tarpaulin, and a search was made for the hole. When found it was encircled by a chalk line and labelled ‘The Shrapnel Hole’. Two days later there was no need to search for holes; the tarpaulin was riddled with them. A shell landed at the corner of the shelter early in the evening of the 27th, fortunately just after a number of casualties had been evacuated. Immediately there was chaos inside. The lamp was out, petrol from the punctured tins of the reserve supply could be heard trickling out in the darkness, and the truck, with tires perforated, subsided onto its rims. Cries were coming from Reception a few yards away. The evacuation section crawled out by ones and twos and were astonished to see the other shelter a mass of gleaming lights. It, too, had received a hit, and Padre Kingan and one of the men were both seriously wounded. Then, with a deafening crash, another shell burst in the fork of an olive tree a few yards to the right, shattering all the branches and sending a fresh hail of splinters through the shelters and trucks. A moment later a sergeant discovered that he was wounded in the arm and grew very concerned about deciding from which shell he had received the wound. page 347 All three casualties were evacuated, and the dressing station settled down again.

The evacuation section temporarily ceased to function, the men abandoning the wrecked shelter and going to bed. Next day the section took over a house at the edge of the area that had just been vacated by a party of Newfoundlanders. It turned out to be a good move. The house, solid, comfortable, and possessing a fireplace, provided accommodation much superior to that of the shelters. The Red Cross ground sign was draped down the wall facing the German positions, and the rooms inside furnished with stretchers and blankets.

Each night sick men and walking wounded slept in the house, though it was noticeable that the wounding of Padre Kingan, the news of which seemed to have spread right through the brigade, had robbed the casualties of some of their faith in the protection of the Red Cross.

The reception shelter was not badly damaged, and the staff busied themselves sewing patches over the holes. The evacuation shelter and truck canopy had to be replaced.

Near 5 ADS the enemy had been shelling the roads consistently. The Red Cross was out of sight of the Germans, and on the 22nd 14 shells landed in the ADS area, with two more shells nearly hitting the cookhouse next morning. Fortunately there were no casualties, though three members of the unit received minor wounds while manning ambulance cars with units of 5 Brigade.

February seeped away with units stationary amid dismal scenes of rain-blurred landscapes, dripping trees, and trampled mud. Gunfire reverberated through the hills. The enemy gunners scored many casualties amongst the troops crowded into the sector awaiting a break in the weather, which seemed to share the Germans' determination to prevent the penetration of the Gustav Line.