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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Voyage of Second Echelon to United Kingdom

Voyage of Second Echelon to United Kingdom

When 5 Field Ambulance and 1 General Hospital embarked with other units of the Second Echelon at Wellington on 1 May, they went aboard the Aquitania and Empress of Britain respectively. The other ships in the convoy were the Empress of Japan and Andes. The naval escort consisted of HMAS Canberra, HMAS Australia, and HMS Leander.

At 6 a.m. on 2 May the Aquitania and Empress of Britain moved away from the wharves and out into the stream. It was a quieter farewell than the First Echelon had received. After waiting all night in the hope of a last glimpse of the men going overseas, relatives and friends were allowed on the wharf for a last-minute exchange of goodbyes. The Trentham Camp Band farewelled each ship with ‘Roll Out the Barrel’, popular at that time.

Rough seas in the Tasman for the first two days of the voyage caused some seasickness amongst the troops. The men were given time to settle down before training was begun, the first parades on board being for the allotment of boat stations and boat-drill practice.

On 5 May the convoy was joined off Sydney Heads by the Queen Mary and the Mauretania carrying part of the Australian contingent, and on 7 May by the Empress of Canada from Melbourne. In excellent weather the troops carried out shipboard training, consisting largely of deck games and physical drill. Lectures were frequently given on medical subjects. Entertainments, including concerts and community sings, were held regularly throughout the voyage.

The convoy anchored off Fremantle on 10 May. The biggest ship of the New Zealand section, the Aquitania, lay at anchor in the roadstead two miles off shore, while the other ships berthed at the wharves. By special arrangement a pleasure steamer, a tug, and a Dutch oil tanker were obtained to transport the men on the Aquitania to the wharf, although it was impossible to give all of them leave.

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As with the First Echelon, the people of Perth and Fremantle were again generous in their hospitality. At a number of halls in both cities light refreshments were made available free to the troops, cars were lent for sightseeing tours, dances were organised, and the men welcomed to private homes.

At midday on 12 May the convoy sailed from Fremantle, headed north-west for Colombo. On the 15th, when the ships were just south-west of Cocos Islands, orders were received for the course to be changed. The convoy then steamed in a westerly direction towards South Africa. Naturally this change in course gave rise to a great deal of speculation on board: whether the convoy had been diverted because the troops were needed in the United Kingdom, or because the ships were needed in the Atlantic, or because of the dangers of the Red Sea passage in the likelihood of war with Italy; there were rumours, too, of the presence in the northern Indian Ocean of an enemy raider.

When Cape Town was reached on the morning of 26 May, the Aquitania was again unable to berth and seas were too high for the troops to be taken off by launch, so with the Queen Mary the ship sailed on the 27th for Simonstown, about 25 miles away. The men on these ships could not be granted as much leave as those on the transports berthed at Cape Town. Here Lt-Col Kenrick left 5 Field Ambulance, flying overland to Cairo to take up the position of acting ADMS, 2 NZEF (ME), during the absence of Col K. MacCormick2 in the United Kingdom to make medical arrangements for the Second Echelon. Maj J. M. Twhigg took over command of the unit.

At Cape Town everyone enjoyed leave during the four days spent there and all were most hospitably entertained. Just before setting sail once more, eight sisters transhipped from the Empress of Britain to the Mauretania to assist in nursing the Australians, amongst whom an epidemic of measles had broken out. A lighter arrived at the ship's side and, with little ceremony, they were hustled off. It was a very choppy sea, and when they arrived page 18 alongside the Mauretania they found they were to clamber aboard, in true sailor fashion, by means of a rope ladder. From the lighter it seemed miles to the top of that ladder. Their hearts sank within them, and with a final look at the ship's heaving side they decided it couldn't—and wouldn't—be done. Kind-hearted sailors finally lowered a bosun's chair and in this, one by one, the sisters ascended to the deck, feeling that medals had been awarded for less hazardous episodes.

The convoy left Cape Town and Simonstown on 31 May without the Empress of Japan, whose troops had been transferred to the Empress of Britain and the Andes. Hotter weather was experienced as the ships headed north and the Equator was crossed on the evening of 5 June.

At Freetown, Sierra Leone, the ships anchored in the stream on 7 June, but no leave was granted. A diversion was caused by the natives who came out to the ships in bumboats and dived for coins. They greatly appreciated the cheese sandwiches thrown to them, but foamed at the mouth when soap was substituted for the cheese.

Italy's entry into the war on 10 June did not affect the convoy's course to the United Kingdom. Between the Canary Islands and the Azores on 14 June, an escort consisting of HMS Hood, the aircraft-carrier Argus, and six destroyers joined the convoy. At one time the ships took evasive action against submarines thought to be in the vicinity, and the destroyers were very active. Passing through St. George's Channel, between Wales and Ireland, on 15 June, all ranks had deeply impressed on them their nearness to the war zone. Early in the morning the convoy passed a large quantity of wreckage, and at midday a large blazing tanker was sighted.

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, 16 June, the convoy arrived safely in the Firth of Clyde and came to anchor at Gourock. The first glimpse of Scotland was magnificent on this lovely sunny day. The sparkling waters of the Clyde, backed by the old buildings of the town, and the rolling downs of the green hills, with an old castle on the point, painted indelible pictures on the memory. In the evening the long twilight softened the colours and added to the allure of the lovely scene, while a rising moon made magic of the night.