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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

6 MDS at Tavarnelle

6 MDS at Tavarnelle

Instructions were received at 6 MDS on the 27th to close and move forward. There were a number of casualties in the dressing station, and half of the unit went to work treating and evacuating them, while the remainder packed up. The trucks moved out at 11.30 a.m. along dusty, narrow roads to Route 2, and turned north. The MDS was reopened for battle casualties alongside the road north of Tavarnelle at a quarter past twelve. The area, which incidentally had to be shared with a colony of large, lean black ants that swarmed everywhere, was on the shoulder of a low hill and gave ample room for all tentage.

For miles around stretched beautiful, rolling country carrying crops of maize and fruit, all ripening or fully ripe. Tanks had rolled out some of the standing crops; but, in general, little damage had been done and farmers were busy threshing beans or scutching linen flax. Nearby, a communal machine was at work threshing wheat.

At Tavarnelle, where the number of casualties admitted steadily mounted, 1 NZ Field Surgical Unit (Maj A. W. Douglas) and 2 NZ Field Transfusion Unit (Capt E. E. Willoughby1) were attached to assist.

(The surgical team that, since September 1942, had been a detachment of 1 General Hospital operating with the Division was formed into an official unit of 2 NZEF on 10 June 1944 and called 1 FSU, a title which was changed to 3 FSU in October 1944, by which time Maj O'Brien2 had succeeded Maj Douglas. It was always a valuable addition to the surgical strength.)

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black and white photograph of soldiers sitting

A class at 4 Field Hygiene Section's Malarial School, Volturno Valley

black and white photograph of soldier inspecting child

Major H. T. Knights examines Italian children for malaria

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black and white photograph of nz hospital

2 NZ General Hospital, Caserta

page 373

There was a lull on 1 August; but the 2nd brought 150 casualties, and the following day only a few less. All centres and two theatres were working continuously. At one stage blood supplies ran short and twelve donors were drawn from the ASC drivers. Pressure eased a little on the 3rd, with 92 admissions, after which the days' totals fell gradually to an average of 40.

As Sgt H. Brennan says:

‘The men who had been responsible for the splendid defence of San Michele passed through the MDS at Tavarnelle, including the very gallant soldier who had staggered from his stretcher in the collecting post to engage with a Piat gun the Tiger tank that had lumbered up to make the crypt of the church untenable for the defenders. When one ambulance brought in a head injury case with both feet lashed together, the ambulance orderly was almost exhausted and calling for help to retain the patient on the stretcher. An ex-All Black passed through with an abdominal wound. A British officer had been caught by a booby trap while attending to signal wires and had both hands blown off at the wrists. A young New Zealand signaller, of the last reinforcement, was brought in on a hard-driven jeep, his wound raw and undressed—he had stepped on a box mine while attending lines and one leg was hopelessly shattered. A flood of men came from an English battery—one of them had stepped on a Schu mine, and attempts at rescue had trapped, progressively, seven men altogether. From this group five feet were removed.

‘There were pitiful civilian casualties. A father brought in his five sons, all badly burnt through lighting a pile of cordite charges and then not standing far enough away. A mother brought in four children caught by a mine, one of them with both legs shattered.

‘The blackened, swollen dead recovered from under the booby-trapped buildings at San Casciano were received. The burial gang worked over them in respirators. The engineers helped to cut the graves in the hard-packed, shingly soil beside the road, breaking it up with compressor drills. In the cemetery were buried the 14 patients who died in the MDS—the burnt and wounded trooper who died in the reception tent, the Armoured captain who fought with wonderful courage to live, and the Taranaki boy who went prowling and had been shot up by a jumpy-fingered American picket.

‘There were 50 graves in the cemetery before it was closed. A volunteer party worked on it, bringing in loads of tiles. They used these to make warm red paths among the graves and to enclose the mounds of each. The curves of the rows of crosses followed faithfully the same curve taken by the road. Two large, stone flower pots of irises stood on each side of the entrance, and a great stone pot with the same flowers stood in the very centre of the cemetery page 374 at the foot of a large cross. It was an exceedingly simple but very effective arrangement. Drivers of passing trucks used to crane out of their vehicles to watch it as they passed.

‘At Castelfrentano the unit had treated a large number of wounded, but in such a malevolent, sour season, and in such grudging daylight, there seemed nothing strange or discordant in the procession of wounded and dying; it had seemed a natural reflection of the weather. But in the lovely, diamond-bright autumn displaying the charm of Italy, the heavy sustained toll of the mangled rang with the discordant note of a cracked bell.’