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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Establishing Helwan Hospital

Establishing Helwan Hospital

Arrangements were made for the NZEF to have its own general hospital at Helwan, a village some 18 miles up the Nile from Cairo. Here civilisation seems to perish on the edge of the desert, where numerous wadis cut their way into the hills. A railway line runs out to Helwan from Bab-el-Louk, and over its double tracks thunders what must be one of the most profitable trains in the Middle East—the Bab-el-Louk Express. Surely in no part of the world do they pack so many into a train, for the steps, sides, and even the roof of each carriage have their quota of shouting, gesticulating natives.

Helwan was a health resort where the idle rich formerly came to take the sulphur baths. Towards the middle of July 1940, the first New Zealand hospital in the Middle East was established in the Grand Hotel. The Grand Hotel was a notable old place. Its crumbling grandeur had housed many distinguished visitors. Kaiser Wilhelm was reputed to have spent his honeymoon there.

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The hotel was a rambling, stone structure of three stories, with the inevitable flat roof, from which was obtained a fine view of the Nile as it wound its way over the desert. It looked more like a streak of bitumen than a river, and the feluccas with their white sails appeared in places to be sailing over a sea of sand. The Pyramids of Sakkara seemed only a few hundred yards away but actually were over ten miles off. Back toward Maadi was an escarpment from which the Tura caves frowned down upon the Nile. It was from these caves that the stones for the Pyramids of Giza were quarried.

When, on 24 July 1940, the Matron (Miss D. I. Brown4) and four sisters arrived at the Grand Hotel, tradesmen were busy building, altering, and banging about generally in an endeavour to transform an hotel into a hospital. Midsummer, with its heat, flies, mosquitoes, and ants, combined with the dust and dirt, made the task of restoring order out of such chaos seem insurmountable. Delay in the arrival of equipment did not make matters easier. On the 26th five more sisters were transferred to Helwan from 2/10 British General Hospital, and the work of scrubbing walls and floors, benches and beds continued, and gradually order reigned.

The three floors of the hotel were divided into wards, the administration offices occupying the entrance lobby and part of the lounge. The dining salon, a large ornate room, became the up-patients' dining hall. On Sunday church services were held there, and patients and staff sat in the morning heat with their minds back in New Zealand as the Padre asked a blessing on loved ones far away at home.

Underneath the buildings rambled a group of cellars, admirably suited for housing the many departments that make up a hospital. A visit to the steward's store in those days could be intriguing, for it occupied the hotel's wine and spirits department, and the old labels had not been removed from the shelves. Bully beef tried hard to look important behind such labels as Contrexevine, while Heinz tomato sauce reposed behind Kersshuassar and kindred labels.

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The remaining sisters, with the patients from 2/10 British General Hospital and from Maadi Camp hospital, were transferred to Helwan hospital on 31 July, and from that day the unit began to function as 4 NZ General Hospital, with 300 beds, under command of Maj E. L. Button.5

The 4 Field Ambulance members on detachment at the British hospital were transferred to Helwan as a nucleus of experienced staff, so that the hospital might function efficiently pending the expected arrival from New Zealand of a complete hospital unit—2 General Hospital, under command of Col F. M. Spencer. Helwan hospital remained in the possession of 2 NZEF until the force was disbanded and it became well known to all New Zealand soldiers.

Australian patients, suffering from heat exhaustion, were among the first direct admissions early in August, and Australian medical officers and orderlies helped to augment the staff. The work was hard, because of shortage of staff, and difficulties were many. Lack of equipment, bad drainage, unsuitable cooks, all added to the work, while the number of patients mounted rapidly.

The heat of this first summer in Egypt was trying. The sisters missed the luxury of the British hospital they had left, but were very happy and content, for they felt that at last they were building a hospital that really belonged to New Zealanders. In the heat of August further wards were prepared and opened. The operating theatre block was begun and a start made with installing a lift. When, months later, the lift was finally in working order, it greatly facilitated the moving of patients.

Twelve members of the QAIMNS were attached to the staff during August and September and their assistance was greatly appreciated. After the arrival of twelve members of the NZANS from 1 NZ General Hospital in England on 17 September things became less strenuous. Day by day life settled into a more normal routine.

The sisters lived in a villa, a short distance from the hospital, Villa Mafous by name, a big, single-storied old home, with a delightful garden at the back. Gubalieh, a rather charming little villa with a curious old grotto in the garden, was also used as page 37 accommodation for sisters until, in later months, it was pressed into use as a ward. Then, as the hospital grew in dimensions and more staff arrived, Villa Levi and Villa Schlom—more commonly known as Corner House and White House—were also used as living quarters by the sisters.

With the development of the hospital in Helwan, there sprang up many clubs where the up-patients and staff could while away leisure hours. To New Zealanders the best known was the Kiwi Club, situated less than half a mile from the hospital on the edge of Helwan township. Established by the Red Cross and run by ladies of Helwan and Maadi, the Kiwi Club, from the day of its inauguration (10 August 1940), proved most popular with the patients and staff and, indeed, with all who were privileged to visit there. A replica of a Kiwi adorned its gates, and in its grounds some brave little garden plots did their best to get the better of that yellow dryness that is Egypt. From the shady, cool seclusion of the long, low-lying club room, made the more restful by the large lounge couches, cane easy chairs, and bowls of fresh flowers, one could drink tea and watch the sun-worshippers playing miniature golf outside. For the patients, especially, it was a pleasant place to pass away hours of inactivity. For the staff, too, it became a popular rendezvous for evening social or dance functions.

The ‘Homestead’, in the opposite direction from the hospital, was also a popular rendezvous. Here again were much-appreciated comforts to bring relief from hospital life. After some opposition and seemingly endless setbacks, Mrs. Spence, wife of the Rev. G. A. D. Spence,6 one of the New Zealand chaplains, and her willing helpers, had cause to feel proud of their achievement. Their efforts were appreciated by many a soldier and hospital patient at Helwan.

But the life of 4 NZ General Hospital as a hospital unit was a short one. By September 2 NZ General Hospital was on the way to the Middle East from New Zealand, and with 1 NZ General Hospital about to leave England for the Middle East also, the days of the small unit were numbered. So much hard work that beginnings always entail, with so little result to be seen, had been page 38 put in by these pioneers at Helwan hospital. Now, with difficulties almost overcome, they were rather sorry to hand on to others the work they had begun. That their efforts were appreciated is shown in a special tribute to 4 NZ General Hospital by General Freyberg. In a letter to Col MacCormick, DMS 2 NZEF, he wrote:

‘… I wish to say that I am particularly pleased with the work done in establishing No. 4 NZ General Hospital. I realise that owing to the shortage of staff this work was effected under difficult conditions, and I feel that the present efficient running of the Hospital is a tribute to the high standard of the NZANS, NZMC, and attached personnel….’

4 Matron Miss D. I. Brown, RRC, m.i.d.; born Napier, 24 Apr 1905; Sister, Auckland; Sister-in-charge Camp Hospital, Ngaruawahia, Oct 1939-Jan 1940: Sister-in-charge NZANS, First Echelon, Jan-Jul 1940; Matron 4 Gen Hosp Jul-Oct 1940; Matron 2 Gen Hosp Oct 1940-Jun 1943.

5 Lt-Col E. L. Button, OBE, ED; born London, 9 Mar 1903; Surgeon, Wellington; CO 4 Gen Hosp Jul-Sep 1940; in charge surgical division 3 Gen Hosp, Mar 1941-Oct 1943; CO 1 Mob CCS Oct 1943-Jun 1944.

6 Rev. G. A. D. Spence, OBE, MC, m.i.d.; born Feilding, 8 Feb 1901; Presbyterian Minister, Wellington; SCF 2 NZEF, Apr 1944-Oct 1945; wounded 17 Jul 1942.