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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Concentration of Dressing Stations

Concentration of Dressing Stations

The wadi in which 6 MDS was sited was a large shallow gully, half a mile or so in length and one to two hundred yards wide, and it provided good shelter for a large dressing station. Although two convoys of wounded were evacuated—150 in trucks and 279 in a British motor ambulance convoy—at times casualties unavoidably had to be left lying around the area with no cover. The position was considerably relieved when the MDS was later joined in the wadi by almost all of the Division's medical units—the Mobile Surgical Unit on 25 November, 5 MDS and 4 Field Hygiene Section on the 26th, and 4 MDS (with 150 patients and less a detachment of its staff, under Maj R. D. King, left at Sidi Azeiz with seriously wounded) on the 27th. In making the decision to concentrate these divisional medical units, Col Kenrick took into consideration the number of wounded to be treated, and also the fact that some degree of security was afforded by the proximity of the MDS site to HQ 2 NZ Division with its small reserve of tanks. Enemy armoured columns were moving towards the Egyptian frontier, upsetting lines of supply and threatening isolated units. The plan for dressing stations every 25 miles had to be abandoned.

The combined units formed a quite considerable tented colony. Even so, the dressing station was still hard pressed, for in four days almost 1300 men, sick and wounded, New Zealand, British, South African, and German and Italian prisoners, were brought in for treatment; and after the two convoys at first evacuated, one of which narrowly escaped capture, the lines of communication back had been cut by the enemy, and the MDS was obliged to hold and care for its rapidly growing numbers of patients until the Division had forced its way through to the Tobruk garrison and established a corridor through which convoys could pass. Then the patients were to be evacuated by hospital ship from Tobruk to Alexandria. When 5 Field Ambulance arrived in the medical area it remained packed in anticipation of an early move into Tobruk, where it was to set up an MDS.

page 164

As considerable numbers of German wounded were being admitted, Lt-Col Speight arranged for the release of two German medical officers and a number of medical orderlies from the prisoner-of-war cage to assist with the treatment of German casualties. The German officers messed with the MDS officers and proved pleasant and co-operative in every way.

During 27 and 28 November remnants of some South African and British medical units joined the MDS centre. Tentage was allotted to these medical officers, and they were asked to attend to the increasing numbers of Italian wounded coming in. An attempt was made to pass the Italian wounded to the German medical officers for treatment but they politely sent them back. The New Zealanders found that the German medical orderlies avoided all contact with the Italians.

The MDS centres working constantly, day and night, had been almost vainly endeavouring to give treatment and some measure of care and attention to the wounded men who so urgently required it. The reception centre was frequently choked with waiting cases, stretchers with wounded covering the entire floor of the large tarpaulin shelter, with many more outside; men with gaping, horrible wounds and piteously smashed and broken bodies, but there was hardly a murmur from them; their courage and endurance was amazing. Blood transfusions could be given only sparingly, but wounds were dressed and fractures splinted. Day and night in the theatre, with the thick smell of blood, ether, and antiseptic in the air, work continued. Case after case followed from the preoperative tent next door, and the little steriliser boiled continuously. The evacuation centre had spread itself into tentage of every description, shape, and size. Tents of the ambulance units, German tents, and even the crude shelter of odd pieces of canvas accommodated the many hundreds of patients, but blankets were all too few among so many for the bitterly cold nights in the desert. The nursing orderlies could not hope to give these men the care they really required. Food had to be strictly rationed and water was so scarce that Red Cross invalid foods could not be prepared for the serious cases.

At 11 a.m. on 28 November General Freyberg visited the MDS and expressed his firm belief that within a very short time access to Tobruk would be open and the wounded (then totalling 862, page 165 including 96 prisoners) would be evacuated there with all possible speed. This news, which was made known to all troops, materially improved the morale of the wounded, whose condition in many cases was becoming serious. Many men had already been subjected to exposure before they had been brought in.

About four o'clock a tank battle developed about a mile and a half away to the south. The tanks held in reserve at HQ 2 NZ Division joined in this engagement and left the Headquarters and the main dressing stations practically unprotected. The battle drew away to the south-west, and at five o'clock all appeared to be quiet. A quarter of an hour later, just as it was becoming dusk, the medical units and the guards at the adjoining prisoner-of-war cage, containing about 1500 prisoners, were suddenly and unexpectedly attacked from the south-west by German armoured forces and were all captured.

black and white map of libyan campaign

Libyan Campaign, 1941