Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
The first medical unit to go to Greece was 1 General Hospital. It had been spared the trials of Amiriya, going direct from Helmieh to Alexandria by train and embarking on the Ulster Prince on 6 March. The sisters were left behind to follow three weeks later. An uneventful journey across the Mediterranean brought the unit, under Col McKillop, to Piraeus on 8 March. Two days later 4 Field Hygiene Section reached Greece on the heavy cruiser HMS York. Also on board the York was Col Kenrick, ADMS 2 NZ Division.
On several mornings during their stay at Amiriya the men of 4 Field Ambulance had heard in the early hours the regular thump of marching feet, accompanied by snatches of song or whistled tunes. Then, on 11 March, it was their turn to leave. At the ungodly hour of 3 a.m. they fell in silently in embarkation order. They rejoiced that they did not have to carry rifles as did the ASC drivers. An order or two and they marched along a pitch-black road. ‘How about a cup of “chai”?’ was a call to the cooks of a neighbouring unit busy about their fires.
Silently, for the most part, they laboured under their loads as far as a railway siding. Then followed a shoving and a striving to page 65 get through the doorways into ancient carriages of the Egyptian State Railways. There were seats for all. From this vantage point they watched dark-skinned Empire troops plodding along the tracks with gear strung on and around them in very unorthodox fashion.
NZ General Hospital at Helwan
Scene near hospital area, Pharsala
Once they started on their way, familiar scenes passed in review—desert camps, cheery Aussies grinning and calling, orchards, unkempt villages, desolate wastes of sand and barren salt flat, marshlands in which natives poled flat-bottomed fishing boats. Myriads of mosquitoes clouded doorways and windows; fortunately either humble males or, if females, not thirsty for blood, for they left the men in peace. Against a background of distant sea, gulls wheeled and dived about a drainage outlet.
A halt speedily brought vendors of newspapers and inferior chocolate biscuits. One member of the unit bartered an Army blanket for a bottle of Dewar's whisky, and received the punishment he deserved. The label might have been Dewar's, but not the contents. Too deadly even for hardened throats, most of it went overboard.
Slowly the train passed through dingy warehouse areas while curious native workers stood at vantage points. Masts of shipping rose above the shed tops, and presently all were tumbling out on the quay at Alexandria. For days all had heard of the great liners waiting for them in the harbour. They looked around and found that by no means did the nearby vessels measure up to the rumour's standard. Shepherded along the quay past abstracted officers clutching sheaves of papers, they went up the gangway in single file to board the Greek steamer Ionia, a vessel of under 2000 tons.
With 22 officers and 777 men accommodated in the holds and on the decks, the ship was uncomfortably cramped. There was only one galley and, with such limited cooking facilities, practically no heated food, apart from tea, was available to supplement the dry rations, of which four days' supply had been brought aboard. Deck dwellers peered down the hatch at men, mess gear, and packs pressed together in the holds, where past passengers—sheep—had left their trademark, and where the smelly air was hot and stifling.