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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

The Medical Units

The Medical Units

From the medical point of view the chase following the breakthrough was relatively unimportant, very few casualties occurring in the Division. In the first forty-eight hours after the move forward the Division's wounded were reported to be only forty. However, 6 Field Ambulance was called upon to treat 126 battle casualties (including 33 prisoners of war) on the morning of 6 November. Most of these cases came from a skirmish which developed about 7 a.m. near the area in which 6 Field Ambulance was laagered. In this action 26 Battalion captured 500 Italians and some Germans, and released about fifty men of 22 British Armoured Brigade who had been captured by the enemy the night before. In addition, there were a few New Zealanders brought back from a minor clash with the enemy farther forward. Treatment of the wounded was limited to the giving of blood transfusions and the application of splints, no operations being performed. By noon all were evacuated by 16 MAC and NZASC trucks. Sixth Field Ambulance moved on at 2 p.m. to the region south of Baggush, where several of the unit's trucks got stuck in the mud.

When 6 Brigade occupied Mersa Matruh on 9 November, 5 Field Ambulance, less one company, accompanied it. The sickness cases from the Division, plus occasional battle casualties, were handled en route to Sidi Barrani by 6 MDS. They were carried with the unit until a sufficient number accumulated, and were then sent back in convoys to seek a stationary medical unit. At one stage seventeen ambulance cars and eight 3-ton trucks in three separate convoys were simultaneously away from the unit, but all rejoined it without incident. By 10 November 1 NZ CCS had moved up to the old site of 2 NZ General Hospital at Garawla and opened there.

In the advance from 8 to 11 November it was necessary to carry petrol for 200 miles and rations and water for six days. CO 6 Field Ambulance commented that this placed an unfair strain on unit vehicles, especially as the extra petrol for the ambulance cars attached had to be carried on them. As a result the chassis of three page 405 trucks were bent, this pointing to the need in such long journeys of extra transport being provided for field ambulances as it was for battalions. The accumulation of transport at the bottom of Halfaya Pass as units advanced was a sitting target for enemy planes, but fortunately the RAF had control of the air.

On 12 November 6 Field Ambulance established an MDS south of Bardia and continued to serve the Division, holding an average of over one hundred sick, mostly infective hepatitis cases, and performing minor operations. Evacuations were first made to 1 Mobile Military Hospital, and then on 22 November to 1 NZ CCS, which had moved up from Garawla to Tobruk. Attached to 6 Field Ambulance were 2 NZ FTU and 2 NZ Surgical Team. These had accompanied 6 Field Ambulance in the breakthrough, as it had appeared possible that evacuation routes might be interrupted, necessitating the holding of casualties, but happily no such emergency arose.

When 4 Field Ambulance, 4 Field Hygiene Section, and 1 Mobile Dental Unit arrived in the Bardia area on 19 November, 4 Field Ambulance opened a divisional rest station again, and the last two units operated in their usual capacity. On 22 November 5 Field Ambulance accompanied 6 Brigade when it went from Mersa Matruh to Bardia to rejoin 2 NZ Division, but on 25 November 5 Field Ambulance moved on to Tobruk to set up adjacent to 1 NZ CCS and assist in holding and treating patients until 500 cases were accumulated, sufficient to necessitate the provision of a hospital ship.

Both 4 Light Armoured Brigade and 9 Armoured Brigade passed from command of 2 NZ Division on 12 November, and with them went 14 Light Field Ambulance and 166 Light Field Ambulance.

From Tobruk on 15 November 6 Field Ambulance salvaged an operating table and autoclave which added considerably to the efficiency of the unit. In Tobruk, too, the valuable stock of an Italian medical store was taken over by DDMS 10 Corps.

An Italian mobile shower unit was salvaged, repaired, and put into operation by 4 Field Hygiene Section. This equipment gave the unit a complete disinfestation plant when used in conjunction with its ASH portable disinfestor. In quiet periods the unit henceforth provided hot showers for the Division. Such hot showers were commenced on 27 November, water being drawn from a cistern of several thousand gallons located by 4 Field Ambulance. The water, if conditions demanded, could be sedimented, filtered, superchlorinated, and used again. This was done for the first two days the shower unit was in use, and it was found that the wastage averaged one pint a man. It was possible to provide hot showers for 1000 men a day with the equipment.

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Thenceforth the campaign in North Africa was to be carried on in winter and completed in spring. The change of seasons was marked by the issue of battledress to the troops from 17 November onwards. Occasional wet spells in November turned the desert into a quagmire and made living conditions in the open most trying. With the advent of colder weather, colds and upper respiratory tract infections were rather more prominent. Infective hepatitis was still much in evidence but was showing a steady decline. Preventable disease generally was at a very low level.