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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

In the Captured Medical Centre

In the Captured Medical Centre

The cooks were preparing the evening meal in the grouped MDSs on 28 November when over the eastern ridge of the wadi appeared German tracked troop-carrying vehicles, from which sprang men in page 169 slate-grey uniforms and kneeboots, armed with tommy guns, rifles, and machine guns. ‘They're Jerries!’ echoed many as the German infantrymen ran down into the wadi and, as if to show that they did not intend to be trifled with, fired a few bullets into the sand.

Again came the guttural commands that some had heard in Crete, and in the open area in front of the reception tent the units collected. After a period of confusion the medical staffs were allowed to return to their duties, and thereafter the Germans permitted them full control of the wounded in their care. Armed guards were posted in the dressing station and the two German doctors, previously prisoners themselves, took charge.

The German troops took up positions on the high ground flanking the wadi and opened fire in the direction of Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. British artillery replied and a number of shells fell among the tents, causing further casualties amongst the wounded. All next day, 29 November, artillery duels continued and, to make matters worse, the enemy set up batteries of field guns just on the perimeter of the medical area.

A conference of the medical officers of the captured group discussed all aspects of the position that had arisen and decided that Lt-Col Twhigg should take over full command of all the medical group so as to ensure the conservation and equitable rationing of food and water. The work of all the medical personnel was co-ordinated, duties allocated, and the sanitation of the area attended to. In all, 1800 men were under medical control, of whom over a thousand were patients.

They were prisoners of war—perhaps to drag out months and years in a German or Italian prison camp—but there was yet hope that the dressing station might be recaptured. All humour had not deserted the men, for many smiled amusedly when a cherub-faced, flaxen-haired German boy armed with a rifle stepped into the reception tent as a guard, and to his obvious embarrassment was approached by two orderlies, who took his rifle and trenching tool from him and examined them with affected interest and curiosity, fingering the badges and ammunition pouches of his uniform and equipment as if he were a show exhibit.

Work continued in the centres in redressing wounds and treating German wounded brought in by the units' ambulances and in staff cars. Most of the trucks had been immobilised by their drivers, who page 170 had removed the rotor arms to deprive the Germans of their use. Taking such of the transport as they could still use, the two German doctors left with their wounded on 29 November, promising to return with the vehicles and with supplies. They had been courteous and considerate and had kept their troops and artillery away from the Red Cross area. With their departure came the Italians, who were neither as polite nor as considerate, and when in the late afternoon the Germans were reinforced by motorised troops of the Ariete Division, the Italians set up gun positions on the ridges of the wadi and showed little respect for the Red Cross area of the dressing station, using it where convenient as shelter. Columns of Italian transport passed through the lines westwards, and during the night the clatter and rumble of mechanised vehicles continued around the southern end of the wadi. The Germans moved on westwards, leaving the Italians in occupation of the area.

On both 29 and 30 November artillery duelling had continued between the enemy guns on the ridges of the wadi just above the MDS and our own artillery, whose accurate shooting scattered columns of Italian transport in all directions and sent them rushing back through the dressing station and over the ridge on the far side. Any respect by the Italians for the medical area disappeared with their courage. They drove ammunition carriers and trucks between the tents and over slit trenches, and disappeared in dust. These scenes did not lack an interested audience. Men hobbled from uneasy beds to see the gala performance. This was an excellent tonic for jaded spirits, and orderlies, too, left their work to watch. Each telling shell was cheered, each disappearing truck hooted. ‘Give 'em another one, boys!’ someone called, as a particularly well-placed shell added more confusion. The wounded Italians were brought to the MDS for treatment, and work went on to the occasional unnerving whine of pieces of shrapnel falling close.

It was most unlikely that the Italians would be able to evacuate the large numbers of men in the wadi immediately for there were over 1000 patients in all, many of them seriously wounded stretcher cases, and some 600 men of the medical units. The Italians did not have the transport nor were their lines of communication secure. Some effort was made to pool and assess the food and water supplies held by the units and to conserve as much as possible by page 171 strict rationing, for if supplies could not be replenished soon the position would be grave; the water situation was already serious enough to cause alarm, particularly as the Italian MO who had assumed command of the area appeared somewhat unconcerned when the position was explained to him and the urgency of obtaining further supplies stressed.

Two light meals became the daily food ration and barely half a mug of tea or cocoa the daily fluid supply for all, both patients and staff alike, except, of course, for the two Italian officers, who did not restrict themselves in any way and demanded several cups of tea with each meal in the officers' mess they had set up. With even this bare minimum the supply of water would last only four days, so a large ground sign water was made out of sheets and displayed on the eastern slope of the wadi in the hope of attracting the attention of the RAF.

About midday on 30 November the artillery fire was intensified. On the north-western ridge was an emplacement of some fourteen guns no more than 150 yards from the dressing station's Red Cross flag, and immediately above the Mobile Surgical Unit's tents 30 enemy tanks were drawn up. British field artillery was directed on these positions and, although their shooting was amazingly accurate, a number of shells fell in the hospital area and caused casualties. The shelling continued through the afternoon and created consternation among the Italians, but in the dressing station the constant scream and burst of exploding shells and the whine of shrapnel around and amongst the tents was unnerving. Some of the men retired to slit trenches while others attempted to absorb themselves in some occupation, but for the many patients there was little cover and they were largely exposed and helpless. A shell fell in one of the MDS tents, killing a patient and wounding three others, while a direct hit on one of the Mobile Surgical Unit's tents killed an orderly and five patients, and in the 4 Field Ambulance area the shelling caused further casualties among staff and patients. S-Sgt J. C. Henley's10 contempt for danger during the afternoon, and his work organising the reception and evacuation of wounded page 172 from the operating theatre, materially assisted the patients and inspired confidence in his men and was recognised by the award of the DCM.

In the night the culmination came with heavy shell and mortar fire when counter-attacking South African troops got to within 2000 yards of the MDS but were forced back. The blast and concussion of shells as they exploded close around the slopes or among the MDS tents was followed by the whine of flying shrapnel, which cut through the tent canvas, clanged against the metal of trucks, and sometimes smashed bottles on the tables in the dressing centres. Men hugged the ground, lay in the cover of slit trenches or, constantly ducking and diving, endeavoured to continue work or to provide cover for the many wounded and helpless who could not move themselves. A fragment from a shell landing alongside an operating theatre smashed the tent pole and slightly wounded a patient on the table.

Close above, on the eastern slopes, a big gun firing over the MDS with a harsh, nerve-shattering blast brought answering fire from the British guns, whose ranging shots frequently landed among the tents. The gun was ultimately silenced, but a shell had landed in a tent of Italian wounded, a direct hit. Many were killed and several wounded. In the reception tent where the wounded were taken for treatment, a man with his leg blown off above the knee, a ghastly sight, was moaning and crying pitifully, ‘La guerra, la guerra! Male!’

In the morning, shelling and thirst again; all day the intermittent shelling kept up, and the continued scream and bursting of shells was proving most trying for the patients. Water, too, was their cry, but their requests could not be satisfied. Towards evening a large German water truck arrived, but the meagre allowance permitted the dressing station, and that only after prolonged and difficult argument, only slightly relieved the situation. That night large diesel trucks collected the Italian wounded and took them to Derna, together with a good quantity of medical supplies demanded from 6 Field Ambulance.

Italian combatant officers arrived at the dressing station next morning. Some twenty cockaded and pompous Bersaglieri, with rifles slung over their shoulders, trotted down the western escarpment at the double and were halted by their sergeant, who reported page 173 to the captain. Orders were then given for all officers and men to be paraded at once. While everybody was assembling with a precautionary haversack of minimum kit, the Italians systematically looted the whole area; bivvies and tents were ransacked and any personal gear of value taken. They attempted even to take watches from the men, but with little success, and from the QM tent they took a considerable quantity of the remaining meagre supply of rations. After a few minutes orderlies and wounded brushed the guards aside and returned to their quarters.

In the afternoon all ranks not actually engaged in the wards were paraded again and were detailed into groups for embussing in a convoy of motor vehicles, which had assembled by this time. In their selection the Italians tended to allow the medical staffs who had been looking after Italian wounded to remain behind. Thus the eleven South African medical officers and other ranks of their field ambulance, as well as two attached British officers, were retained. Permission was given by the Italian commandant for all the staff of the Mobile Surgical Unit to return to their area. The senior New Zealand medical officers strongly opposed the impending move on the grounds that they were being taken away from the wounded under their care, but on being informed that the object was to set up a reception hospital in the back areas could offer no further resistance. The men of 4 Field Ambulance were fortunate that there was not enough transport to take them away.

The medical staff detailed for removal, as well as some of the walking wounded, were hurried up the slope onto the south-western escarpment, where large diesel trucks were drawn up, and were taken away towards Derna and Benghazi.

The medical group taken away as prisoners of war (and not to a hospital unit as they had been led to believe) comprised 14 medical officers, including Lt-Cols Tennent, Twhigg, and Speight, and 182 other ranks.11

On the evening of 2 December the medical officers remaining in the medical centre reorganised their administration, with Major Furkert in charge. Lt-Col G. Dittmer, CO 28 (Maori) Battalion, page 174 a patient, led 38 patients and staff, including Capt A. L. Lomas12 of 4 Field Ambulance, in an escape by truck that night, and they crossed the frontier wire at dawn next morning. Another group of 23 led by another patient, Lt-Col H. K. Kippenberger, CO 20 Battalion, and including Maj S. L. Wilson,13 Maj A. A. Lovell, and Capt D. M. Jack,14 similarly escaped in daylight on 4 December.

Around the MDS area the shelling had quietened down; the gunfire heard for a while in the distance had diminished and receded until finally all was quiet. For two days the guns had been silent. Uncomfortable as the shelling was, it had been a reassurance of friendly forces near at hand, and when it died in the distance hopes faded too. An Italian war correspondent retailed the news according to Radio Roma: the British offensive had failed and all their forces had been surrounded. It had a possible ring of truth. For two days hopes had been high that the dressing station would be recaptured and returned to safety, but as day followed day hope gave way to despair. Men continued their duties as a routine, doing what little was now possible for the wounded, on whom the continued strain of suffering, thirst, and inadequate attention through lack of facilities was beginning to tell. The conditions tried even the strongest and fittest of the patients, but their pluck, calmness, and fortitude brought admiration from all who were in contact with them.

Patients began to die from dehydration, in spite of the distribution of extra water from the shares of those who had been taken away. Several patients died of the cold at night as supplies of kerosene for the heaters failed. In the Mobile Surgical Unit water was used and re-used in Major Furkert's operating theatre after being cleansed by a German filter. The lack of water in the theatre, where operations were steadily carried on, made conditions seem as primitive as those of the Crimea. The escape of the entire page 175 Mobile Surgical Unit staff, which would have been practicable, was considered but was abandoned because of the plight of the patients.

Up on the eastern slopes Father Forsman15 conducted Mass, while later Padre Underhill16 held an informal song service to which many gathered from the dressing station; the spirit of that little service was one of devotion and earnest prayer.

Though the position was grave, many times a lighter side forced its way through the heaviness of despair and men were quick to seize and play upon the humour in many a situation. One of the staff-sergeants, who had dared to argue with an Italian officer, was on his way to the shooting gallery when, seeing Lt-Col Speight, he yelled loudly to attract the Colonel's attention. ‘He's going to shoot me sir!’ said the staff-sergeant. ‘That's tough luck,’ said the Colonel. ‘I wonder if we can talk him out of it.’ Whereupon Father Forsman was called on to reason with the Italian and save yet another delicate situation.

The Italian troops caused many an amusing situation by their readiness to scamper down into the dressing station when shelling or the strafing Hurricanes became too hot for them, and attempts to keep the combatant troops out of the Red Cross area frequently gave rise to some doubt as to who were captors and who captives. The sight of Freddy Kennedy, the perfectly harmless cookhouse fatigue, chasing away an Italian on a motor cycle complete with light machine gun, was a little incongruous. It was a favourite pastime to rush up the slope to meet the Italians as they retreated into the wadi and tell them as forcibly as possible to get to hell out of it. Whereupon some would feign sickness or injury.

10 Capt J. C. Henley, DCM, ED; born Auckland, 21 Jul 1913; milk vendor, Auckland; NCO 4 Fd Amb Oct 1939-1942; Lt 12 Fd Amb (NZ) 1943; Adjutant Papakura Camp Hosp 1944-47.

11 Nearly all of them were taken to Italy and then on to Germany after Italy's capitulation in September 1943. Some were repatriated when protected personnel and sick were exchanged with the enemy, but most remained prisoners, though often providing medical services, until released by the Allied advance from the West in 1945.

12 Maj A. L. Lomas, MC, m.i.d. (2); born Wanganui, 30 Jun 1916; Medical Practitioner, New Plymouth; RMO ASC Jan 1940-Jun 1941: 4 Fd Amb Jun 1941-Jun 1942; OC Maadi Camp Hosp Jun 1942-Apr 1943; 3 Gen Hosp Apr-Aug 1943; DADMS 2 NZ Div Aug 1943-Apr 1944.

13 Lt-Col S. L. Wilson, DSO; born NZ, 17 Apr 1905; Surgeon, Dunedin; Surgeon 2 Gen Hosp Aug 1940-Jun 1941; Mob Surgical Unit Jun 1941-Feb 1942; 1 Mob CCS Feb 1942-Mar 1943; CO 2 CCS (Pacific) Aug 1943-Jan 1944.

14 Maj D. M. Jack; born Whangarei. 8 Mar 1914; House Surgeon Palmerston North Hospital; Medical Officer 4 Fd Amb Mar 1941-Sep 1942; 7 Fd Amb (Pacific) Dec 1942-Aug 1943; OC Malaria Control Unit Aug-Dec 1943.

15 Rev. Fr. E. A. Forsman; born Pakuranga, Auckland, 20 Mar 1909; Roman Catholic priest, Auckland.

16 Rev. M. L. Underhill, m.i.d.; born Glasgow, 28 May 1910; C of E clergyman, Raetihi.