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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Wavell's Offensive Begins

Wavell's Offensive Begins

On 9 December 1940, British and Indian troops and elements of 6 Australian Division began an offensive against the Italian forward positions in Egypt with very marked success. The Italian forces were driven into general retreat leaving thousands of prisoners, including casualties. When the offensive began, adjacent British ambulance units moved forward to establish advanced dressing stations to deal with the wounded, leaving 4 Field Ambulance MDS at Maaten Burbeita as no New Zealand combatant units were actively engaged.

It was a bitter disappointment to the New Zealanders when, in late December, they handed over their transport to the Australians who were on their way forward to open the second phase of the first Libyan campaign. During 1940 the New Zealanders had trained hard, looking forward to the day when they would take page 41 their part in the drive westward against the Italians. The diversion of the Second Echelon to the United Kingdom had delayed the plan for forming a complete New Zealand division in the Middle East, and until that was done the New Zealanders were not permitted to take a combatant part in the campaign.

During their stay in the Western Desert the troops had ample opportunity for sea bathing on a pleasant beach only a short distance from the 4 Field Ambulance lines. The climate was more invigorating than near Cairo and the men felt much fitter. Unit funds, whose use had previously been restricted, were made available to buy extra rations from the Naafi at El Daba, from the Australians, and from Alexandria. This was due largely to Padre Bicknell's9 efforts; before New Zealand Red Cross comforts began to arrive, he was also able to obtain supplies from the British Red Cross for patients in hospital at Baggush. Recreation facilities in the desert were limited, but games of football were played and community singing and band programmes enjoyed; there were also concerts by neighbouring units, some of the artists later becoming members of the Kiwi Concert Party. The highlights of life were the days when air mail and parcels arrived from New Zealand.

Christmas Day was celebrated in a happy spirit by all ranks of 4 Field Ambulance. Extra rations had been provided, gift parcels from the New Zealand Patriotic Fund Board had been distributed, and unit cooks excelled all their past efforts. Then, early in the New Year, the unit prepared to move back from Maaten Burbeita to Helwan Camp.

9 Maj N. E. Bicknell, m.i.d.; born Melbourne, 11 Jan 1904; Salvation Army officer, Wellington; wounded 13 Dec 1942.