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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

With the Third Echelon to Egypt

page 19

With the Third Echelon to Egypt

As units of the Third Echelon, 6 Field Ambulance (234 strong) embarked on the Orcades on 27 August 1940 and 2 General Hospital (205 all ranks) on the Mauretania. Also in the convoy was the Empress of Japan, and the escort was the cruiser Achilles. Later they were joined by the Aquitania, from Sydney.

On board the Orcades it was a lazy life, neither training nor duties being at all heavy. There were roll-call parades and occasionally a short period of physical training, but it was more or less a do-as-you-please existence, and the ship's two swimming pools were very popular, particularly when the convoy neared the tropics. The staffing of a ship's hospital and a general treatment room did not call heavily on the unit and duties were taken in rotation.

After a neighbourly welcome at Fremantle, the voyagers had their first contact with the East when one morning the convoy sailed into the open harbour of the peninsula on which stands Bombay. The country was flat with a few quaint hill features and dotted with palms and banyan trees. The city itself presented a contrast. Its mosques and domed roofs were Oriental, while beyond the city itself tall, smoking chimneys and factory buildings gave an industrialised western appearance. All around in the harbour and in the open sea were many long-masted dhows and other small craft, and as the liners steamed into the harbour natives in these small boats came alongside to barter, throwing up small articles in ebony or ivory for coins thrown down to them.

At this time Italy had not long entered the war, and with bases in East Africa her air force and navy could prove troublesome to transports in the Red Sea and in parts of the Indian Ocean. As it was thus not advisable to risk the large liners of the convoy on the final stage of the journey to Egypt, a new convoy of smaller transports replaced them. In the new convoy room could not be found for the whole contingent, and 6 Field Ambulance, together with a draft of 550 reinforcements, was obliged to wait at Bombay until transport could be arranged.

On the two-mile march along the waterfront in the tropical heat to quarters in the Brabourne stadium, those new to the countries of the East who took their living conditions at home for granted received a shock. The evident poverty, filth, and stench in many page 20 places were appalling, and maimed and starved beggars in rags seen along the route brought feelings of revulsion.

Troops on the Mauretania and Orcades were transhipped to the Ormonde and Orion respectively. The staff of 2 General Hospital were ferried across to the Ormonde and the patients from the little ship's hospital on the sun deck were settled into the new ship. The unit fitted itself with a struggle into Section 11, E Deck—their dining-cum-sleeping quarters for the next two weeks.

Then there was a rush for leave. By taxi and gharry men travelled to the city, sampling the cool drinks and ices at the Services Club, and then sallying forth to new sights, sounds, and smells. Some bought postcards, sandals, shorts, fly swats; others fathomed the relative values of rupees, annas, and pies in the Bazaar—a foretaste of the economics of the Mousky in Cairo; some went past the stadium to the seafront with its streets of modern flats. A tropical storm caught many in its deluge and prompted an early return to hammocks on the Ormonde.

The more crowded and less comfortable quarters on this ship were not popular with the men, although the staff of 2 General Hospital were relatively fortunate in their billets. As a protest against their living conditions and the food, a demonstration by the troops on the Ormonde delayed its departure from Bombay with the rest of the convoy on 19 September. However, the complaints were adjusted and the transport rejoined the convoy next day. The course was then west. Distant land rose on the skyline and the Red Sea was entered. Brown headlands and islands showed up. Mail closed on board—a sure sign that a port was near. On 28 September the anchor was dropped at Port Tewfik. In the harbour the troops stayed until 1 October, with nothing much else to do than look over the side at the oil tanker and water-boats replenishing the ship.

The ten days 6 Field Ambulance spent at Bombay were, for most, very uncomfortable. Plunged suddenly into a hot, sticky, and trying climate, the men were without proper tropical clothing, their sleeping quarters on the stadium steps were provided with quite inadequate toilet facilities, and the food was deplorable, almost uneatable. To make things more uncomfortable, a monsoon downpour turned the sleeping quarters into a cascade. It rained solidly page 21 for a day and a half and there was no option but to move out of the flooded stadium. The covered stand of the Aga Khan racecourse a few miles out provided dry quarters, even if they were otherwise little more satisfactory. The officers were more comfortably off as most of them were accommodated in hotels in Bombay.

Some delay was still expected before transports would be available, and so, to avoid the trying heat of Bombay, the unit was moved to a camp at Deolali, about 100 miles from Bombay, in the hill districts, where conditions generally were very much more satisfactory. Here they spent another fortnight. Within a short time of their arrival, another downpour thoroughly soaked everyone and everything before the men had been allotted their tents, but it was the last of the rains. The climate at Deolali was much more agreeable than that of Bombay.

After the luxury conditions on the Orcades, the men were not prepared for those prevailing on the Felix Roussel when they embarked in October. This ship was dirty; its Lascar crew were dirty, too, and conditions were in every way deplorable. As there was little ventilation to the troop deck, the men slept out on the open decks, but here they were caught by torrential rains and thoroughly soaked. In the fore galley cooks from the unit made a gallant attempt to provide meals, but they were incapacitated during the first few days of the voyage and everyone had then to be content with hard rations.

Off Aden the convoy was joined by another twenty ships and the escort of armed merchantmen was reinforced by the cruiser HMS Leander. In the Red Sea Italian planes made repeated bombing attacks on the large convoy. They were over almost every afternoon, but with little success. Then, in the early hours of the morning of Trafalgar Day, two Italian destroyers attempted an attack. The cruiser and merchant cruisers slipped off into the night and gunfire was heard well in the distance. Next morning the destroyer Kimberley was towed back to the convoy by the Leander with a gaping hole amidships, having sunk an enemy destroyer, damaged another, and silenced a shore battery that had joined in the action. The convoy kept steaming on slowly and safely.

The Felix Roussel left the convoy to call at Port Sudan for a few hours to take on water. While she was at the wharves, two Italian planes came out of the sun, and almost before anyone was page 22 aware of their appearance a bomb had shattered a goods shed on the wharves with a terrific blast and scattered the natives in all directions. One bomb fell in the sea just beyond the water barge alongside the Felix Roussel, shaking the ship with the blast as if she had been hit and throwing men off their feet, while another also fell into the water close by. The experience was shaking, but the troopship resumed her journey unscathed and steamed up the Suez Canal alone to Port Said.