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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Working of Medical Units

Working of Medical Units

Before the actual start of the advance, 6 Field Ambulance on 13 January moved near to Pilastrino and set up an MDS. At that time the unit was 40 miles ahead of 2 NZ Division, with only an armoured-car screen between it and the enemy positions in Wadi Zemzem. Evacuations were made by MAC to 1 NZ CCS at Tamet. B Company 4 Field Ambulance established an air evacuation centre at Sedada when the Division reached there. This was taken over by 8 SA CCS, upon which 6 Field Ambulance closed and moved forward on the divisional axis. In a series of leapfrogging movements, all our medical units maintained a chain of evacuation, and air evacuation units worked from Bir Dufan and Tarhuna as well as Sedada, and later from Castel Benito. Air evacuations were effected within a matter of hours of the advancing units reaching the landing grounds, and avoided the dangers of ambulance-car evacuation over rough country on this 200-mile sweep. Where cases were not fit for page 414 air evacuation immediately, detachments of medical units remained to nurse them while the main bodies of units moved ahead to form further staging posts. The chain of evacuation worked excellently. An abundance of ambulance cars with short runs between staging posts, and also adjacent airfields, made evacuation very easy indeed. Wireless played an invaluable part in the smoothness of operations. Casualties were extraordinarily light as the enemy did not stay to fight. Mine and booby-trap casualties, however, were frequent and caused both serious and multiple injuries. The attached surgical units were able to remain temporarily in the rear of their parent units to attend to the very few requiring surgery.

Air evacuations from the landing grounds at Sedada, Bir Dufan, and Tarhuna for the period 17 to 24 January totalled 277 battle casualties and 60 sick. These were British and New Zealand patients from the inland column. In addition, some patients from the inland column sent from 6 Field Ambulance at Pilastrino on 15 and 16 January to 1 NZ CCS were evacuated by air from Tamet. The evacuations from there from 17 to 19 January were 48 battle casualties and 71 sick, including patients from both the coastal and inland columns.

The 1st NZ CCS had moved to Sirte on 4 January and to Tamet on 14 January so as to be near the landing ground there. It was largely servicing the coastal army and dealt with a steady stream of casualties for the first few days of the advance. Its staff had been greatly strengthened by the attachment of a British FSU under Major Lowden on 23 December, a British FTU under Major Waterston on 7 January, and a British neurosurgical unit under Major Eden on 13 January. (A British mobile ophthalmic unit under Major Dansey-Browning had been attached since October.)

The CCS dealt with 154 battle casualties and 331 sick at Sirte and 287 battle casualties and 468 sick at Tamet. The great majority of the patients were evacuated by road to Nofilia, staged there, and then were taken on to Marble Arch, and finally to Benghazi, a total distance of 360 miles. Only limited accommodation on Red Cross planes was available as air transport for the evacuation of patients, as Tamet never fulfilled the expectation of being the terminus of air supplies. This was due mainly to almost constant enemy bombing before the advance started.

The essentials for successful air evacuation in the circumstances were regarded to be the early notification to medical units of selected sites for landing grounds (the liaison work performed by New Zealand medical officers on the landing grounds was of great value and led to a recommendation that in future a medical officer should be attached to the air reconnaissance party), and a prior arrangement page 415 whereby ADsMS were prepared to place a section of a field ambulance at once near the selected site and notify all concerned by the quickest means possible. Our medical units seemed to have a flair for making contacts and gaining knowledge of developments, and also in arranging with the pilots of transport planes to take the cases.

In regard to air evacuation in this advance, the senior air officer in charge of air evacuations remarked to ADMS 2 NZ Division: ‘It was marvellous the way your medical units got so quickly on to landing grounds for air evacuation. The RAF were thrilled with it and felt at last it really had been a great success.’

The majority of the casualties were sent back by transport plane, but ambulance planes were also utilised for serious cases from the forward areas. The planes available for evacuations were DC3s, which took ten stretchers (18 of USA pattern) or twenty-eight sitting, and also took equipment; Lockheeds, which took fifteen sitting cases with equipment; and Bombay Red Cross planes able to take six lying and two sitting cases, but with little room for equipment.