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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Across the Po

Across the Po

During 24 April forward infantry of 2 NZ Division crossed the formidable barrier of the River Po in assault boats. Opposition on the far bank was slight and a start was made to bridge the river, a distance of some 500 feet. The bridge, the Eighth Army's first over the Po, was completed on 25 April (Anzac Day), and that evening 6 ADS crossed this notable river, being the first medical unit to do so. The main body of the Division crossed on 26 April. Because of the difficulty of getting vehicles back across the river against the ceaseless stream of essential fighting transport, it was decided that 6 MDS would cross the Po and establish itself in Trecenta.

Sixth MDS was at Mirabello when, at 1 p.m. on the 26th, there came instructions to despatch a skeleton section across the Po and establish the MDS for battle casualties at Trecenta. The theatre and resuscitation section double-banked their loads on one truck to reduce the size of the convoy, and together with reception, evacuation, dispensary, orderly room, water cart and cookhouse, page 419 moved out behind the commanding officer's jeep a few minutes before two o'clock. In spite of the traffic they made good time, passing along a good road through areas where white flags still hung from houses. Across the Panaro the roadsides were stacked with German dumps; and there were many grim examples of the accuracy of the Desert Air Force. Ammunition and gun and mortar positions had been blasted out of existence by direct hits. At one dump Italian women were hard at work opening the charges and taking the silk containers from around the cordite, which was spilled in an untidy heap like so much spaghetti. A dropped match would have created a tremendous amount of work for any medical unit that happened to be in the vicinity.

Ever-increasing quantities of smashed and burned enemy equipment was strewn around. Across the Panaro the speed improved for a while, then the sections turned off along an elevated side road from which they suddenly emerged on the stopbank of the Po, and headed toward the overworked pontoon bridge on which streams of transport were converging. Bofors guns lined the riverbanks, and in a plantation on the other side a battery of 25-pounders was blazing away steadily. The area outside the stopbanks had been blasted and torn. Trees had been ripped down to the stoutest of branches, and the houses among them were now rounded heaps. The ground itself was scorched and bare, while the space inside the stopbanks was churned and torn by overlapping bomb craters, with heaps of equipment and coils of wire and cables half buried under the erupted earth and piles of railway sleepers and bridging panels.

The broken end of a German pontoon bridge, still covered with camouflage netting, dragged in the water. Amphibious lorries and the pontoon ferry carrying tanks crossed and recrossed the river as the convoy made its way down the path carved in the stopbank. Detachments of 9 Brigade were marching up to the bridge, and squads of men galloped across the track between lorries. Crossing the bridge was like driving on an unending upward incline as the heavy load over the rear wheels of the lorry forced down the pontoons.

Over the river the countryside was heavily wooded, and between towns the convoy ran along dusty roads through luxuriant plantations. Groups of people gathered at every street corner and in every square to stare and wave at the stream of vehicles. After page 420 three hours of varied going the HQ detachment reached Trecenta, where a section of the ADS, packed up and ready to move, was awaiting its arrival. Patients were already waiting for treatment, and the MDS was opened immediately.

It was fortunate that the MDS building, the home of one of the wealthier citizens, was one of the most suitable that the unit had yet occupied, as the sections were soon flooded with patients and working day and night. All types of sick were handled and all needed surgery was performed. In addition, evacuation across the crowded pontoon bridge was still almost impossible. Several ambulance cars were taken across in returning tank ferries; but frequently the MDS was compelled to hold patients long after everything possible had been done for them. Fortunately, on the 27th, 3 FSU, under Maj Cawkwell4 and 2 FTU, under Maj Howden,5 reached Trecenta and took some of the pressure from the unit teams. The situation was eased on the 28th, when 4 MDS set up as a staging post just south of the Po.