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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

The Field Ambulances

The Field Ambulances

On its return from Greece 4 Field Ambulance went to Helwan Camp, the re-mustering camp for all New Zealand troops evacuated. Here the unit set up tentage for a camp hospital on the area previously occupied by 6 Field Ambulance. At Garawi, a mile or two beyond Helwan, an isolation camp hospital was established by A Company for the nursing of influenza patients from the 5th Reinforcements. At the end of May 4 Field Ambulance provided a party of four medical officers and 40 men to assist in receiving wounded from Crete at the Alexandria wharves and in the adjacent staging camps.

After the return of the medical units from Crete, a week's leave was granted to all those who had taken part in the campaign, a much-needed rest and break; and for three weeks duties or training were almost negligible and there was frequent day leave to Cairo. page 149 During this time 5 and 6 Field Ambulances moved to a camp at Garawi.

Garawi was not encouraging; it seemed like the last place on God's earth. The new CO 6 Field Ambulance, Lt-Col Speight,3 suggested that it would be an excellent breaking-in ground as the unit, when it went into the Western Desert, would be likely to find few worse places. It was a completely tented camp, out in shelterless, blazing desert, swept each afternoon by hot winds and blinding and stinging sandstorms. The summer of 1941 was said to be the hottest Egypt had experienced for 50 years—the same was also said of later summers. There were no canteen or entertainment facilities in the area, and the nearest Naafi and cinema were at Helwan Camp, a two-mile walk, and an infrequent and unreliable bus service covered the five miles or so to Helwan township. The place seemed to all intents and purposes completely cut off from the outside world.

The following account of life in 6 Field Ambulance by Pte A. Ashley-Jones4 describes what was more or less common to all three field ambulances at Garawi and Helwan before the Libyan campaign:

‘The life had its compensations in some small measure and, in throwing the men largely on their own resources for entertainment and in occupying their spare time, helped to mould together into a unified body again those of the original unit and the large number of reinforcements soon drafted in to build up its normal complement. A canteen was soon operating within the unit, run by representatives of the companies, and a small library started. Sports were confined to cricket and athletic training with an occasional trip to Maadi baths for swimming. Even in the heat enthusiasts would turn out for an inter-company cricket match or to train for one of the proposed athletic meetings. In the early afternoon, “siesta” period held sway and everyone lay on flimsy, cane-trellis bedsteads, completely or almost completely unclothed, and perspired through the terrific heat of the afternoon.

‘Several athletic meetings were held between companies of the medical units, and finally considerable enthusiasm centred on the page 150 divisional meeting held in early August at the Farouk Stadium in Cairo, at which the unit was represented in several events.

‘The training programme that had come into operation in late June was not exacting. There was little equipment of any sort so it had to take the form of physical training, lectures, and route marches, with periods of somewhat irksome parade-ground drill. But even the routine training had its lighter moments, and the dramatic presentation of Major Lovell's lectures on anatomy and physiology provided emotional as well as intellectual stimulus.

‘Physical training was the early-morning routine at 6 a.m., after an early cup of tea. The sergeant who officiated usually called in vain for the older members to turn out and had to be content with a parade of reinforcements. Games and exercises frequently gave way to a short run to the showers close by. One morning the Egyptian newsvendor, a regular visitor to the lines, wishing to take part in callisthenics, removed his dirty “nighty” and displayed, to the surprise of all, not only a fine physique but also a set of immaculate underwear.

‘Occasionally the monotony of camp life was broken by a minor celebration, a ceremonial parade, or a trip to Cairo, where the recently established New Zealand Forces Club, with its fine appointments, provided the enormous quantities of ice cream, fruit salad, and iced drinks needed to meet the demands of the soldier's ever-present and unquenchable thirst. On one occasion, to dispose of accumulated canteen profits, the unit indulged in a dinner of quite elaborate proportions, followed by an informal smoke concert. Some of the items would hardly have graced a drawing room. As those who preferred Bach or Beethoven to the strains of bawdy lyrics could listen at almost any time outside the sergeants’ mess to Sgt Dudley Ford's pianoforte renderings of the works of the masters, and as those of a more religious turn of mind had frequent opportunity to express their devotions in informal song service, nobody could really object to the more riotous element expressing itself occasionally in a little harmless revelry.’

Replacing 4 Field Ambulance, 6 Field Ambulance in August 1941 took over the administration of Helwan Camp Hospital. With permanent hut accommodation and a YMCA hut, a Naafi, and a cinema close by, Helwan Camp seemed, after Garawi, like a return to civilisation.

The honour of presenting a cheque to the Naval Welfare Fund from the New Zealand Division fell to L-Cpl D. W. Sampson of 6 Field Ambulance. This voluntary contribution from all ranks was in recognition of the Royal Navy's assistance in the evacuation of page 151 Greece and Crete and was presented to Admiral Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, at Alexandria.