Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
2 General Hospital Arrives
2 General Hospital Arrives
On the morning of 1 October 1940, the members of 2 General Hospital on the Ormonde at Port Tewfik picked their way cautiously down the gangway with their equipment. A train took them on a four-hour journey to Maadi siding, which they reached as darkness fell. A route march in the darkness brought them into Maadi Camp. The nursing sisters continued on in the train to Helwan, where they took up residence with the sisters of 4 General Hospital, to which unit they became attached for duty.
Immediately on their arrival it was arranged that the staff of 2 General Hospital should take over the Helwan hospital and release those members of 4 Field Ambulance and 1 General Hospital who were running the hospital. The transfer began on page 43 4 October and was completed by the 8th. From that date 2 General Hospital functioned as the Base hospital at Helwan, with Col F. M. Spencer as CO, Miss D. I. Brown as Matron, and Miss M. Chisholm,12 Assistant Matron.
At the change-over certain key men of the staff of 4 General Hospital stayed on for three weeks while the new arrivals became accustomed to the strangeness of the country and its ways. Theory had to be put into practice, and the conditions of work differed considerably from those which had been visualised. However, the members of the unit rapidly adapted themselves to the new conditions. Life was certainly busy, for there was much scrubbing and cleaning to be done. Workmen were still everywhere, spreading brick dust and cement over freshly scrubbed surfaces. A cheerful courage was needed, for the midsummer heat was enervating to a degree, and nature's small pests were trying to the most equable tempers.
The hospital filled rapidly with many medical cases—mostly very ill dysentery patients, for these were the days before sulpha-guanidine drugs—consequently nursing duties were heavy. The number of patients in hospital on 8 October was 428, including 85 Australians, and the equipped beds 477. During the month new wards were opened over the dining hall and in the north wing to raise the number of equipped beds to 559. The unit thus settled in to steady work immediately on its arrival in Egypt.
Specialist advice at the outpatient department was freely sought by other forces in the area. During October 367 outpatients were seen, including 144 from a brigade of 6 Australian Division at Helwan.
With the increased nursing staff, it was possible for the sisters of the First Echelon to take leave. They appreciated the opportunity for a rest, for they had worked hard under trying conditions.
The Moslem season of Ramadan was celebrated during October. During this period the native population fast during the day and eat only after the firing of guns at sundown. On the first night this gunfire was most disturbing to the sisters of 2 General Hospital, page 44 who wondered if the enemy was not nearer than they had imagined. They were relieved to find that, though they were prepared to be brave, there was no cause for alarm. Oft-repeated calls to prayer from the mosque (aided at times by sturdy echoes from the men's quarters nearby) became very wearying, too, after the novelty had worn off a little. The season of Bairam followed, and the village was gaily decked with streamers and bunting.
Air-raid warnings were nightly occurrences, and on occasions the bombing was not far away from the hospital area. PAD exercises became a regular routine. The sisters quickly adapted themselves to this new life in a military hospital and by the end of the month were well established. November passed rapidly, and with the cooler weather work seemed lighter and easier.
Gradually the constructional work at the hospital was completed. The new operating-theatre block—a spacious, well-lit block, built on the existing sun roof of one of the wings of the hotel—was opened in December. It was modern in design and well equipped. Other departments such as Dental, Laboratory, X-ray, etc., were established also, and the unit became a self-contained, well-organised Base hospital by the end of the year.
The easing of work in November was fortunate as the hospital was thoroughly prepared for the influx of wounded and sick from the first British offensive in the Western Desert. Three convoys brought in over 300 patients between 14 and 18 December—British and Australian troops and Italian prisoners. The admissions went smoothly. Within two and a half hours of the arrival of a convoy of 180 men in ambulances from the hospital train at Cairo main station, all patients were in bed between clean sheets after their long journey from the ‘Blue’. Later the patients would be heard chatting about some of their experiences, saying with a grin to the orderly, ‘Hell, you should have seen them running’. Of the battles which went on into the New Year and which brought many Australian patients, the hospital staff had but a dim picture, but all were busily employed looking after the sick and wounded from the battlefield entrusted to their care.
Splendid co-operation between the surgeons and the other medical officers, and excellent work on the part of the staff, enabled the two operating theatres and plaster-room to function simultaneously and smoothly. It was fortunate that the new theatre block had page 45 been completed and equipped. With the experience thus gained, the surgical staff felt able to cope with any subsequent influx of wounded without worry. During the campaign 215 Italian prisoners were admitted—they were mostly exhaustion cases.
Christmas in all the New Zealand hospitals in their years overseas was always a notable and happy occasion. The hospitality of the people of Cairo and Maadi, both Egyptian and European, was a great help in making Christmas Day as bright and cheerful for the patients as it could possibly be under war conditions in a foreign land. Entertainment at Maadi on Christmas Eve, at the Gezira Club on Christmas afternoon, and at the Kiwi Club, Helwan, on Boxing Day afternoon, were three big events for the up-patients. A band and orchestra helped to bring cheer to those not well enough to leave their beds.
By good fortune parcels from New Zealand arrived a day or so before Christmas and were ready for distribution to patients and staff on Christmas morning. In addition, Lady Lampson's British Red Cross Committee provided a parcel for every patient in hospital. There were also gifts of food, fruit, and flowers from many other local people. One present deserves some reference—that of the Helwan Mamur (Chief of Police) and his officers. About mid-day on Christmas Eve, three turkeys bedecked with ribands were paraded on the hospital terrace, as if acting guard over a crate of oranges and armfuls of greenery. They had been brought as a gesture of goodwill from the local police force. Christmas dinner provided the final festive touch, the fare and its cooking being most favourably commented upon by all.
12 Principal Matron Miss M. Chisholm, RRC; born Masterton, 23 Oct 1902; Sister, Wellington; Sister-in-charge Camp Hospital, Trentham, Oct 1939-Jan 1940; Charge Sister 4 Gen Hosp Jul-Oct 1940; Asst Matron 2 Gen Hosp Oct 1940-Apr 1941; Matron 3 Gen Hosp Apr 1941-Nov 1943; 1 Gen Hosp Dec 1943-Aug 1944, Feb-May 1945; Principal Matron May-Dec 1945.