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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

4 Field Ambulance Moves to Western Desert

4 Field Ambulance Moves to Western Desert

At the end of August and beginning of September, 4 Field Ambulance, now under Lt-Col P. V. Graves, moved with other New Zealand units to the Western Desert, leaving a detachment to run the Maadi Camp hospital. One company took over an ADS7 from 19 Indian Field Ambulance at Ikingi Maryut. At Maaten Burbeita, on the coast of the Mediterranean, about 30 miles east of Mersa Matruh, HQ Company prepared an MDS8 to receive patients from surrounding units (4 NZ Infantry Brigade and British units). Much hard work was done by all ranks in setting up the MDS—a totally different layout from what was visualised in previous Territorial training and the RAMC manual. The terrain was desert sand—a barren waste separated from the coast by white sandhills with much solid rock underground—and arduous work with pick and shovel was necessary to provide protection from air attack for patients and staff. Accommodation was provided for 58 patients in three marquees, well dug in. Strict economy was necessary in the use of water, which was drawn from Maaten Baggush oasis.

After five months in Egypt, New Zealanders in forward positions in the Western Desert felt that the term ‘on active service’, with which their letters home had been headed since leaving New Zealand, at last had some meaning. The enemy air force made frequent day and night attacks on troops, camps, and supply dumps in the Western Desert and on the railway line from Alexandria to page 39 Mersa Matruh. Bombing raids were almost part of the daily and nightly routine for the men stationed at Mersa Matruh, but these air attacks did little damage. The planes glided in from the sea with engines cut off, released their bombs at 10,000 feet, and then started their engines and ‘hared back’ over the border.

The thousands of square miles of desert between the Nile Delta and the Egyptian frontier held a community that was unique. Moreover, in some respects the country seemed designed for warfare. There were neither villages nor farms to be destroyed. Long ago nature had scorched the earth. Nomadic Bedouin groups were the sole inhabitants. Later, as preparations were made for battle, they folded their tents and, driving their camels, donkeys, and goats before them, moved away over the horizon.

On 13 September the Italians pressed their advance beyond the frontier to the village of Sidi Barrani, 80 miles west of Matruh. Before their much larger force the British gradually withdrew to prepared defences at Mersa Matruh. On 15 September, in consequence of an air raid the previous night, a number of casualties, all British, were admitted to 4 MDS for treatment.

The role of 4 NZ Infantry Brigade, together with various British and Indian units under command of 4 Indian Division, was to defend a perimeter around Maaten Baggush and Maaten Burbeita, with HQ Company of 4 Field Ambulance establishing an MDS for the area. A route of evacuation for casualties was established by unit ambulances to the ambulance train at Sidi Haneish station, and thence back along the lines of communication to ⅖ CCS at El Daba, ⅖ General Hospital at Alexandria, and, for New Zealand cases, 4 General Hospital at Helwan. By 18 September the ambulance held 31 patients, and by the end of the month there were 64. The possibility of evacuating casualties by air was explored by the ADMS, and it was reported that although all senior medical officers were in favour of air evacuation of certain special cases from forward areas, the RAF considered that the scheme was impracticable because of maintenance difficulties, the need for protection of ambulance planes, and the problem of preparing suitable landing grounds near the front.

The training of A Company, which had rejoined the unit from Ikingi Maryut, was pushed ahead with all speed, since there was ample evidence that events were rapidly moving towards full-scale page 40 operations against the Italian forces well within the frontier of Egypt. Most was made of the opportunities for giving sections some training under mobile conditions with battalions of the brigade group.

At the beginning of October several additional medical officers were posted to 4 Field Ambulance, while 37 members of B Company rejoined the unit when 2 General Hospital took over the hospital at Helwan.

Developments in the Western Desert made it apparent by 13 October that the British offensive might begin at any time, and the opportunity was taken to send all the officers and many NCOs and men of the unit to forward areas for reconnaissance.

As a result of an enemy bombing raid on the oasis of Maaten Burbeita during the evening of 19 October, the unit suffered its first casualties. One driver was killed and three other drivers severely wounded, one of whom later died.

During October 634 patients, British and New Zealand, were received and evacuated by 4 Field Ambulance. On 7 November all the British patients were transferred to a British field ambulance which had opened in the neighbourhood. The hospital work of the unit was thus cut by half. More intensive field training was immediately begun, the three companies of the unit performing hospital duties in rotation.

7 Advanced Dressing Station.

8 Main Dressing Station.