Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
CHAPTER 21 — CLOSING DAYS
IT was hard to believe that it was all over. But as the days passed and no more battle casualties arrived at the medical units, the staffs began to realise that their work was nearing an end. The cease fire did not mean cease duties for the medical units: there were still the sick and accidentally injured to be treated. But never again would ambulance cars from forward units line up at the reception tent. No more would the pre-operative ward be full of wounded soldiers waiting for operation and the freedom from pain that only anæsthetic could bring. No longer would the surgeons spend tiring days and nights in the theatres removing splinters and bullets, setting fractures, or amputating limbs. When the full significance of all this was realised, it was accompanied by a sense of relief and a deep feeling of satisfaction in services unfailingly rendered to comrades in need. Thanksgiving services in the units added a final spiritual touch.
Relaxation was a natural consequence, and the consistently fine weather in May and June helped to promote it. There were cricket matches, swimming parties, and sports meetings. At a divisional regatta the men of A Company, 5 Field Ambulance, distinguished themselves by winning two races in a German reconnaissance boat they had salvaged. At a trotting meeting in Trieste crowds of troops watched some keen finishes as New Zealanders drove Italian horses in the Sangro Stakes, Cassino and Florence Handicaps, Rimini, Faenza and Senio Stakes, and Trieste and New Zealand Handicaps. There were frequent picture shows and opera performances.
Venice was second only to Rome in the interest it held. Both cities had been spared the ravages of war and all civilian amenities were intact, while both had a wealth of historical interest. As in Rome, the New Zealanders had a club in a lavish hotel—Hotel Danieli—which was luxuriously furnished. Only a proportion of page 430 the men was able to stay here, but leave camps, including that run at Alberoni on the Lido island by 5 Field Ambulance, catered for all the Division.
New Zealanders cruised along the canals or lagoons in gondolas. They saw the San Marco church with its gold mosaics, the Palace of the Doges, the Bridge of Sighs, the pigeons in Saint Mark's Square, surveyed the city from the top of the Campanile, crossed to the Lido, the famous millionaires' playground, which had lost much of its magnificence.
After the novelty of riding in gondolas had worn off, the men discovered that Venice, as in its heyday of the fourteenth century, was a centre of commercial activity. The universal currency in Italy, cigarettes, was here to a certain extent supplanted by chocolate. This commodity, replacing the golden ducats of bygone ages, became the ‘open sesame’ to many transactions. Silk, lace, glass mosaics, and other fancied goods, cheap after the liberation of the city, rose sharply in price within a few weeks. These souvenirs for their folks at home, the men hoped soon to be able to present in person.
At the Hospitals
In the summer months the staffs of the hospitals found conditions easier as the number of patients decreased, especially after battle casualties had been discharged or invalided to New Zealand. They, too, could have more leave and recreation. In Italy swimming at the beaches was popular, but most of the members of the units were keen to see Rome, Florence, and Venice before they set their faces towards home, and many had the opportunity to do so. Back in Egypt the staff of 2 General Hospital found the heat very trying at first, but it was comforting to think that the next winter would not be spent in Italy, and that all might arrive home in time for New Zealand's summer.
As the 6th and 7th Reinforcements were farewelled by their units, there were many staff changes and promotions. Important promotions after the end of the war in Europe were those of Brig Gower to succeed Brig Kenrick as DMS 2 NZEF, Miss Chisholm as Principal Matron after Miss Mackay, and Miss Robertson1 as page 431 Commander of WAAC after Miss King. Col Caughey became CO 3 General Hospital, and Miss MacKinnon2 Matron of 1 General Hospital. Later, Col Edmundson became DDMS 2 NZEF and Miss MacKinnon Principal Matron.
Move to Lake Trasimene
In the third week of July the Division moved in ten flights from the Trieste area to the shores of Lake Trasimene in central Italy. The convoys passed through Trieste for the last time and wound on around the coast road, high above the lovely blue waters of the gulf. Some of the trucks made ominously hard work of the pull up the hill near Miramare. The medical units' transport was now very old and unreliable. The two-wheel-drive ambulance cars were still in fair order; but the trucks that had carried such heavy loads over thousands of miles, and the four-wheel-drive ambulance cars that had received such a thrashing in the forward areas during every battle had almost finished their useful life.
Crowds of Italians gathered at the Monfalcone factory road fork to watch the columns pass. Day after day the line of vehicles unwound from the areas around Trieste and streamed southward across the Isonzo, the Tagliamento, the Piave, and numerous smaller streams to the staging area at Mestre. Most of the men availed themselves of the showers at the old rest camp in the aluminium factory, and made for Venice without waiting for the evening meal.
The Division was extended over 450 miles as the convoys moved out from the staging areas each morning. From Mestre the route was the main highway through Padua, Rovigo, and Ferrara to Bologna. The Po was crossed with considerably less trouble than on the upward trip. Bologna was flooded and the streets awash. For many it was the first view of the battered city, and the wrecked buildings and streets deep in water made it a depressing sight. The staging area was in a sodden field some distance out of the town. Natural depressions and the ruts made by earlier convoys were page 432 full of water, and the first few unwary trucks became hopelessly bogged. Others sought firmer spots and made themselves fairly safe for the night.
Route 9 was now carrying a staggering volume of both military and civilian traffic. The old winter line at battered Castel Bolognese was passed, and the convoys circled around the outskirts of Forli and settled down on the very familiar road to Rimini. Italian workmen were rebuilding the many destroyed bridges; the bridge over the Montone River was already restored. After a halt for lunch in a seaside area at Fano the journey was continued, units making their sixth trip along Route 76 through Iesi and the Red Pass, where the Howe bridge was still standing, and on over the dusty, up-and-down road of the Esino Gorge to Fabriano and the Santa Maria staging area below the town.
The next stage was the formidable Fabriano Pass over the Apennines. The convulsed tangle of a road was dusty, and the long, merciless slog soon began to take its toll of vehicles. Trucks halted with radiators boiling long before the summit was reached. On the other side Umbria was looking fresh and green, and the convoys held to a comfortable speed that allowed the men to enjoy the countryside. From the high country approaching Perugia the scene was beautiful. The farming country was so rich in the bursting green of trees and crops that it resembled thick emerald velvet. Somewhere in the midst of it the upper reaches of the Tiber and its tributaries flowed, hidden by the trees. Thin wreaths of smoke appeared as silver threads against the green and merged into a faint haze in the farther distance.
Then the Division swung south near Magione, on Route 75, to run down to the concentration area on the southern shores of Lake Trasimene. The concentration area was a stretch of light, sandy soil in a district suffering from an intense drought that made living conditions far from pleasant. No rain had fallen for five months, and every puff of wind drove clouds of dust through the scattering of stunted oaks under which the bivouac tents were clustered. It was quite unnecessary to warn troops against swimming in the vicinity of the towns and villages, whose sewage effluents were discharged into the lake. The lake level was low and the water thick and repulsive.page 433
The high wind and the dust and oppressive heat were reminiscent of Amiriya at its worst. High winds seemed to be a climatic feature of the region. Each day the sultry heat haze of the morning would suddenly let go in a screaming gale of almost cyclonic proportions. On 8 August, after an evening lull, the storm raged on throughout the night, culminating in a terrific electrical storm at dawn.
The disbandment of 4 Field Ambulance was announced on the 9th, and the unit held a wind-up dinner five days later. The 8th Reinforcements had already left and the remnant of 4 Field Ambulance was absorbed by other units.
Rumours regarding the future of the Division were shaken and curiosity intensified by news that reached the units during the afternoon of the 10th. Japan had indicated a willingness to surrender. All ranks eagerly awaited a definite statement, and on the morning of the 15th it came: the Japanese had surrendered unconditionally. There were mild celebrations.
That day 6 Field Ambulance moved to Mondolfo, on the Adriatic coast just north of Senigallia, where rest camps provided some relief from the trying conditions at Lake Trasimene. To 6 Field Ambulance's rest camp came parties from 5 Field Ambulance, which was running an MDS for sick in the Lake area, and sending patients to 1 Mobile CCS at Assisi. Then there was a period of stagnation. The weeks went by, and most of the men, whatever their reinforcement, wistfully concentrated their thoughts on the chances of being home before Christmas.
In the last week of September the 9th Reinforcements left for Southern Italy on their way home. Winter was approaching, and at Mondolfo the month faded out in miserable weather. The battalion leave camps had all vanished from the inland slopes, but the 6 MDS canvas flapped in the high wind as the men sloshed through the mud and suffered the rain that drove in from the Adriatic.
Disquieting rumours about a move to winter quarters in the north seeped down—first the Division was going to the Siena area, and later this was changed to Florence. On the last day of September A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, moved to Florence with 9 Brigade. Then the company handed in its equipment and ceased to exist, its men being dispersed to other units, including a new page 434 unit, 4 Rest Home, for which two villas on the Via Torre del Gallo were taken over. The CCS moved to Florence too, and there in October the unit became 6 General Hospital under Lt-Col Bridge. The 4 Field Hygiene Section had many duties in Florence until December, when it merged into the Hygiene Section for the force going to Japan.
As they were in the process of winding up, 5 and 6 Field Ambulances did not go to Florence. For them there was a brief, busy period of greasing, wrapping, ticketing, and packing medical equipment. Break-up functions brightened things up temporarily. At 6 Field Ambulance's farewell evening on 6 October, Lt-Col Edmundson briefly traced the history of the unit over its life of five years, and thanked members for the unsparing service they had given. Two days later Col Edmundson was appointed DDMS 2 NZEF, and the day after the medical equipment was despatched to the Medical Stores Depot, Bari, and the few remaining men posted to other medical units. Six men were detailed to man medical posts at staging camps along the route through France for those fortunate enough to be given a chance to see the United Kingdom before they returned to New Zealand. The final Letter of Disbandment was sent to the Senior Medical Officer 2 NZ Division, Lt-Col Pearse,3 and 6 Field Ambulance's long life with the Division was brought to a close.
In the final operational report of 5 Field Ambulance, the commanding officer (Lt-Col D. P. Kennedy) placed on record an appreciation of the work of officers and men, both NZMC and NZASC, whose work and, in some instances, whose lives had built the unit. Tribute was paid to the pleasant co-operation with units of the Division and other Allied forces. One of the basic functions of the medical services was the collection, treatment, and evacuation of sick and wounded. For this 5 Field Ambulance was mobilised, and it was felt that, at the conclusion of its duty, the unit had sincerely endeavoured to do this. The success which was achieved was a tribute to the officers and men who had served with 5 Field Ambulance.page 435
‘Now that the time has come for the Eighth Army to disperse. I want to thank and congratulate all ranks of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force on the splendid contribution you have made to victory…. Your Division has played its part with the greatest distinction, and your splendid fighting qualities have achieved successes that have often been decisive to the operations of the Army as a whole…. You leave the Eighth Army with the affection and the good wishes of all who have fought with you through the long and arduous campaigns of the past four years. We shall miss you much. Good luck to you all.’
At Senigallia 1 General Hospital was the first of the three hospitals to close down—on 3 November. At Helwan 2 General Hospital (with Lt-Col Owen-Johnston as CO and Miss C. M. Lucas4 as Matron) closely followed when its operations ended on 22 November, but at Bari 3 General Hospital continued until 9 January 1946. Miss M. J. Jackson5 had succeeded her twin sister as Matron, and Lt-Col C. R. Burns6 became CO after Col Caughey. At San Spirito the Convalescent Depot functioned until January.
By that time the hospitals had a proud record of service—they could all count their patients in tens of thousands. Between April 1941 and January 1946 3 General Hospital admitted 46,000 patients, while 1 General Hospital between September 1941 and October 1945 (that is excluding the periods in England, Helmieh, and Greece) admitted 40,516. The 2 General Hospital total of 32,481 was equally, if not more, impressive, as that hospital was equipped and staffed for only 600 beds as against the 900 beds of the other two hospitals.
There were very few members of 2 NZEF who were not patients in at least one of the hospitals at some time or other, and many page 436 made the acquaintance of all the hospitals. They could all testify to the efficient service always given, and those who made up the staffs of the hospital units have good reason to be proud of their records.
The floating hospitals played their part, too, in the taking of invalids, both wounded and sick, back to New Zealand and caring for them on the journey. The Maunganui in her 17 voyages, mostly on the New Zealand run, carried 5677 patients. The Netherlands Hospital Ship Oranje, which was partly staffed by New Zealanders, under Lt-Col G. F. V. Anson,7 being a much larger and faster ship, carried home over 2500 New Zealanders in a few trips, besides taking many thousand British patients to South Africa and the United Kingdom.
To England, Egypt, Greece, Crete, Western Desert, Palestine, Syria, Tripolitania, and Italy went the hospitals. On their different sites, by careful planning coupled sometimes with rapid improvisation, they were able to meet all the problems of caring for the sick and wounded. Whatever New Zealand hospital they were in, whatever the location, whatever the accommodation and whatever the season, patients always felt that they were receiving the best of attention possible in the circumstances, and for their part, by their cheery co-operation, they gave every encouragement to the staffs of the hospitals in their service for the sick and wounded.
What of the future? Men may ask,
What of the future? What of the task
For you who served in these dark years?
Fear not—let faith o'ercome your fears.
But rest not! There's a task to do,
A mighty task for all of you,
For when you've ended strife for gain,
The world is yours—to build again.8
2 Matron Miss I. MacKinnon, m.i.d.; born NZ 14 Jul 1909; Sister, Palmerston North; Sister, First Echelon; 2 Gen Hosp Jul 1940-Nov 1941; 1 Gen Hosp Nov 1941-Jun 1943; Charge Sister 2 Gen Hosp Jun 1943-Jun 1945; Matron 1 Gen Hosp Jun-Oct 1945; Matron 6 Gen Hosp Oct-Dec 1945; Principal Matron Dec 1945-Jan 1946.
3 Lt-Col V. T. Pearse, MC, m.i.d.; born NZ, 12 Nov 1913; Medical Practitioner, Dunedin Hospital; Medical Officer Maadi Camp Nov 1941-Jun 1942; 6 Fd Amb Jun-Oct 1942; RMO 25 Bn Feb 1943-Jul 1944; DADMS 2 NZ Div Nov 1944-Oct 1945; SMO 2 NZ Div Oct-Dec 1945.
4 Matron Miss C. M. Lucas, m.i.d.; born Dunedin, 12 Mar 1905; Sister, Ashburton Hospital; Sister, First Echelon; 1 Gen Hosp Oct 1940-Dec 1942; Charge Sister 2 Gen Hosp Jun 1943-Sep 1945; Matron 2 Gen Hosp Sep-Nov 1945.
5 Matron Miss M. J. Jackson, ARRC; born Auckland, 11 Jan 1900; Sister, Auckland Hospital; Sister 3 Gen Hosp Jan 1941-Mar 1943; Charge Sister, 1 Mob CCS Mar 1943-Jul 1944; Matron 5 Gen Hosp Jul 1944-Jul 1945; Matron 3 Gen Hosp Aug-Dec 1945.
6 Lt-Col C. R. Burns, OBE; born Blenheim, 27 May 1898; Physician, Wellington; Medical Officer 1 Mob CCS Feb-May 1945; 1 Gen Hosp May-Oct 1945; in charge medical division 1 Gen Hosp Jul-Oct 1945; CO 3 Gen Hosp Oct 1945-Jan 1946; SMO J Force and CO 6 Gen Hosp May 1946-May 1947.
7 Lt-Col G. F. V. Anson, OBE; born Wellington, 22 Nov 1892; Anaesthetist, Wellington; Surgeon, Royal Navy 1917-18; wounded 1917; Medical Officer 2 Gen Hosp Aug 1940-Feb 1942; SMO Maadi Camp Feb 1942-Sep 1943; OC British Troops NMHS Oranje Sep 1943-Aug 1945.