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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Functioning of Medical Units

Functioning of Medical Units

For the attack A Company 5 Field Ambulance under Major Dempsey was located just off Star track and behind a slight escarpment but in front of the artillery. A Company 6 Field Ambulance, under Major R. A. Elliott, moved up the Boat track and was likewise in front of the artillery. The ADS companies reached these sites just before the barrage opened and dug in and sandbagged the dressing posts. Sixth Field Ambulance was able to make use of slit trenches and dugouts already in the area. The first casualties were page 386 admitted to 5 ADS at 10.30 p.m. while the first at 6 ADS were admitted at midnight.

Although not many casualties had been expected to arrive until dawn, a steadily increasing number poured in during the night. At 1 a.m. on 24 October ambulances began evacuating cases from 5 ADS to 5 MDS 6 miles away—some 5 miles being along a road. The evacuation from 6 ADS to 5 MDS did not start until first light, it being impossible to do so beforehand as densely packed armour was moving behind the ADS until that time.

plans for field hospital

5 NZ Field Ambulance Reception Tent (3 IPP tents) for battle casualties

The task of the forward ambulances working between the ADS and the RAPs was most difficult. The desert tracks were ill-defined and difficult to follow, and were congested with armour, particularly on the narrow tracks leading through the minefields. These latter tracks had, however, been lighted and marked by the engineers and could readily be picked out. The method of sending one ambulance forward with each RMO was welcomed both by the RMOs and the ADS. Communication between the RAPs and ADS was much easier, facilitating a call for more ambulance cars if necessary.

The task of the ambulance car drivers is illustrated by the citation giving Driver Henderson1 the DCM. This soldier was the driver of an ambulance car during the night 23–24 October 1942 and during the subsequent operations. He drove his car up the brigade routes

1 Dvr E. A. Henderson, DCM; Invercargill; born NZ, 4 Nov 1913; lorry driver.

page 387 under heavy fire and collected wounded in the early stages of the attack; and his was one of the first vehicles through the gap in the minefields. During the first and subsequent nights he passed many times up and down these tracks, where many vehicles were being destroyed by mines, and his vehicle was often the only one moving in the forward areas and under heavy fire. He used his knowledge thus gained to guide up other ambulance cars and was thus instrumental in saving many lives.

The American Field Service drivers with our units also shared the risks. Evan Thomas, writing of the American Field Service at the Battle of Alamein, said:

Three of my sections were attached to 5 and 6 New Zealand Field Ambulances (one at 5 ADS, one at 6 ADS and one at 5 MDS).… On the night the battle started (the 23rd) I was asked to deliver a case of fresh blood to 6 ADS.… It wasn't until 1.30 that our Field Service cars were called on to start working, and then five cars were ordered to 24 Bn RAP. I decided to go along as a spare driver. We drove westward on a dusty track crowded with tanks and Bren carriers getting ready to move out and cover the infantry positions at dawn. It was touchy work by-passing the concentrations of armour, since it was, of course, necessary to leave the proper path of the track at times and take a chance of running into a slittrench or perhaps a stray mine. However, we found the 24 Bn RAP truck without mishap and loaded three of our cars quickly. I was about to settle down and wait for more casualties to fill the two remaining cars, when a very excited padre came rushing up and told me that 25 Bn was a few hundred yards to the west and needed ambulances in the worst way.… It took us two hours to find 25 Bn, and by the time we got there, it was a good three miles west of where it should have been according to our informant. We had to work our way through and around tanks, across the British minefields, across what had been no man's land, and across the German minefields, before we reached our destination. We had to wait for an hour, in company with a great number of tanks, on the east side of the German minefield, while the engineers cleared a lane. When we did get there we found that neither the battalion doctor nor his RAP truck had put in an appearance. The battalion had just taken its second objective, but the wounded were still scattered all over.1 I found a young captain who said they really hadn't had time to collect their wounded and suggested we do that.… I had a good chance to find out just what a nasty job a stretcher bearer had. At one time Brook Cuddy and I accompanied two New Zealanders out in front of the infantry positions and had the unpleasant experience of finding ourselves sitting among a group of mangled bodies while an enemy machine-gun sprayed a stream of tracer in our direction.… We drove back to the ADS just as dawn was breaking. Once again we had to fight our way past the tanks and through the narrow minefield lanes.2

Casualties began to arrive at 5 MDS before 12.30 a.m. on 24 October and Major McKenzie's attached surgical team was doing

1 25 Battalion did not in fact reach its objective on the night of 23-24 October. See also pp. 3845 for account of the RMO's work during this action.

2 From Ambulance in Africa by Evan Thomas. Copyright 1943, Evan Thomas. Reprinted by permission of the publishers, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc.

page 388 abdominal surgery before 1 a.m., and worked continuously for sixteen hours. For the next thirty-six hours there was very little let-up. In the first twenty-four hours 5 ADS admitted and transferred 456 patients and 6 ADS 343 patients. On 24 October 839 cases were handled by 5 MDS, of whom 504 were New Zealanders, while on 25 October nearly 500 were dealt with, and on 26 October a further 300.
plans for field hospital

6 NZ Field Ambulance Reception Tent, 1942

Extra transport had been allotted to the dressing stations for the attack, for example, five AFS cars were attached to 5 ADS, but in the sudden rush still more transport was needed. Four extra cars were sent forward to 6 ADS on the morning of 24 October. Each RMO in 5 Brigade took an ambulance forward with him and 5 ADS had a further four ambulances in reserve to work forward. Arrangements had been made for 3-ton trucks to patrol the axis through the minefields and collect walking wounded. These did not function as they were not allowed up until after dawn. Their place was taken by an ambulance car, which ran continuously from 1 a.m. until midday on 24 October. One ambulance was lost in a minefield and the other two ambulances were used to evacuate from whatever RAP was holding the most cases. Reports from RMOs indicated that, although there were times when many more ambulances could page 389 have been filled, they were able to evacuate steadily and were never holding large numbers for long. Three-ton trucks were used in evacuations from ADS to MDS. The trucks could accommodate in reasonable comfort a large number of walking wounded, who formed over half the cases, thus relieving the strain on the ambulances.

military plans

Plan of evacuation for Battle of Alamein, 23 October 1942

page 390

The ADS cars were not allowed to go beyond the MDS but were returned immediately to the ADSs with stocks of blood, blankets, and comforts. This was appreciated by the ADS commanders. But the MDS had difficulty regarding evacuation to the CCSs. These were only 30 miles away and there were apparently enough ambulance cars (AFS ambulances, 1 British MAC cars, sixteen NZ Section MAC cars, and six 3-ton trucks) but the turn-round at the CCS was too slow. At one CCS there was an interval of three hours between arrival and departure on the return trip. When the cars, sent away before 9 a.m., had not returned by mid-afternoon, there were 300 casualties waiting at the MDS to be evacuated. However, the situation cleared magically after ADMS 2 NZ Division had seen DDMS Corps. As the sun declined forty ambulance cars pulled in to the MDS and these, plus the returning cars, cleared before nightfall every case fit to go. The next day there was an adequate fleet of ambulance cars available at any time.

On 24 October ADMS 2 NZ Division obtained permission for Major S. L. Wilson's surgical team from Light Section 1 NZ CCS to proceed to 5 MDS. This team set up at the MDS at 5 p.m. and worked continuously for fourteen hours. During 24 October nearly ninety blood transfusions had been given by 5 MDS. The unit fortunately had plasma, serum, glucose saline, and blood in abundance, as well as a profusion of medical comforts and Red Cross supplies. The treatment of 839 cases in twenty-four hours was a record for a New Zealand MDS during the war, and yet in only one department—evacuation—was there the slightest anxiety. All men worked continuously with extraordinary efficiency, and attached ASC personnel gave great assistance. The value of training manifested itself abundantly in those few days in late October.

Casualties continued to arrive, and throughout the night of 24–25 October and on 25 October 6 ADS admitted heavy casualties, mostly from British armoured units which were engaged in tank battles. After an initial rush on 25 October, 6 ADS managed to clear all casualties by 2 p.m. and thereafter evacuation kept up easily with reception. The Light Section of 166 British Field Ambulance arrived to assist at 5 p.m., but the heaviest work was then over. The staff of 6 ADS was tired and feeling the strain, its total of cases having reached 600 by 6 a.m. on 26 October. Thereafter, casualties were much lighter. This was also the experience of 5 ADS, whose admissions on 25 October totalled 94, on 26 October 68, and on 27 October 43.

At dusk on 26 October over thirty enemy planes dropped some bombs on front-line areas and bombed artillery positions behind. Wounded from this raid were brought in to both ADSs by AFS cars.

page 391

On the night of 27–28 October 1 South African Division took over 2 NZ Division's section of the line and the New Zealand brigades withdrew for rest. The ADSs accompanied their respective brigades but 5 MDS remained in its former position, being called upon to treat only a few casualties.

In his operational report Lieutenant-Colonel McQuilkin summed up the activities of the MDS in these words: ‘No praise is too great for all the personnel—officers, nursing orderlies, stretcher bearers, drivers, clerks, theatre staff, cooks—all were eager and efficient. On these few days they showed their worth and reaped the reward of long dull periods of training and minor activity—the satisfaction of a job well done.’