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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Medical Arrangements for ‘Left Hook’ at Mareth

Medical Arrangements for ‘Left Hook’ at Mareth

The divisional plan was to utilise the MDSs of the field ambulances as forward operating centres, and to retain the serious casualties at the MDS for evacuation either by air or later by road when the road communication to Medenine through the Matmata Hills had been opened up and cleared of the enemy. Two New Zealand surgical teams and the New Zealand field transfusion unit were attached for this purpose and adequate supplies of medical stores and also of blood and plasma were available. Three New Zealand field ambulances were available for the two brigades, with extra British light field ambulances to serve the attached troops. Adequate transport and ambulance cars were attached. A landing ground was to be cleared near the active MDSs.

On the move to the assembly area and during the lying-up period from 11 to 19 March, when all possible measures for concealment were taken, no Red Crosses could be displayed by medical units and no tentage erected. All sick at this time were evacuated to 4 Field Ambulance under Lieutenant-Colonel King, which had been established on the first day of the move on the Ben Gardane-Foum Tatahouine road. It was sited sufficiently far away not to draw attention to the main Corps concentration. The unit rejoined the Corps on the first day of the move from the assembly area, being relieved by Light Section 14 CCS, which set up just east of Wilder's Gap.

The medical dispositions for the outflanking move were an ADS with each infantry brigade, 168 Light Field Ambulance with 8 Armoured Brigade, 6 Field Ambulance, under Lieutenant-Colonel Fisher, with the Reserve Group immediately behind Main Corps Headquarters, and 4 and 5 Field Ambulances and 4 Field Hygiene Section following the ADMS, Colonel Furkert, and Rear Corps some 25 miles behind. Some bomb casualties occurred at last light on 20 March and 6 MDS remained behind next day to deal with page 428 them. On the afternoon of 21 March DADMS 2 NZ Division, Major R. A. Elliott, found an area suitable for air evacuation, and 6 Field Ambulance was ordered to move up there near Oum Ech Chia and establish its dressing station before nightfall. Here it remained as the nucleus of a medical centre for the remainder of the operation. On this move forward 6 Field Ambulance was strafed by four enemy planes and a member of the attached 1 CCS surgical team (Lance-Corporal Pate)1 was killed and five members of the unit wounded.

The 6th ADS was sited in front of most of the artillery positions, only 400 yards from the infantry start line. Shells landed close enough for fragments to pierce the ADS tarpaulins. The ADS was busy all night with casualties after the attack was launched at 10 p.m. on 21 March, but most of the patients were Italians, who came in by the score. During the night butterfly and heavy bombs were dropped on surrounding areas and the resultant casualties, together with wounded from the attack, kept the ADS occupied from 11.30 p.m. and all the next day, and well into the night of the 23rd. Late in the afternoon of the 22nd more artillery moved into the ADS area right in front of the dressing station. The guns could not move farther away from the Red Cross zone, so the ADS moved back a mile and a half to a better location.

The Light Section 14 CCS had been left as a staging unit at Wilder's Gap but the route of the advance, over a distance of 170 miles, was so rough that it was decided not to attempt rearward evacuation by surface transport for any save the very lightly wounded. For this reason the MDS was ordered to hold its cases until air evacuation was possible.

Admissions to 6 MDS began with a few at 3 a.m. on the 22nd, and then from 5 a.m. casualties came in steadily all day. The two operating teams from 6 MDS and the CCS surgical team, under Major S. L. Wilson, operated continuously all day and all night and part of the next day.

To assist 6 MDS, 4 Field Ambulance, with 1 General Hospital surgical team under Major K. Bridge attached, was ordered forward on 22 March. It left its B Company with 6 MDS to take the overflow of patients, and moved 7 miles farther forward to a position about 10 miles south of the Roman Wall. The following morning it received here some patients from 168 British Light Field Ambulance MDS. Later, on the 23rd, it moved back 3 miles as 6 MDS was then full, and opened there. It was joined by

1 L-Cpl G. Pate, m.i.d.; born NZ 29 Jan 1917; commercial traveller; killed in action 21 Mar 1943.

page 429 2 FTU, under Captain Powles.1 There was a steady stream of patients, and the surgical team and two unit operating teams worked through to 3 a.m. on the 24th, and continued at high pressure for the next two days. It was important to get an efficient landing ground for air evacuation, and 6 Field Ambulance, with the assistance of a company of 5 Field Ambulance sent forward in error instead of a company of the field engineers for the purpose, cleared and levelled a very creditable strip which was ready for planes by 2 p.m. on 23 March. The company from 5 Field Ambulance then established an air evacuation centre, in which at all times thirty cases were held ready to load planes on their arrival and so minimise the time they had to remain on the ground. (‘Dog fights’ took place in that area frequently and the Bombay aircraft on the ground were a large target.) The first plane, a Lockheed Lodestar ambulance plane, landed at 11 a.m. on 24 March and made two trips during the day. On 25 March the Lodestar and two Bombay troop-carriers each made two trips and evacuated seventy patients. Thereafter, air evacuation was utilised for all serious cases, and 402 patients out of a total of 1190 sick and wounded were taken out by air from NZ Corps by the end of March to Senem airfield near Medenine. The RAF was very co-operative and its aircraft were delayed only by the high winds and desert storms which, unluckily, were almost constant at this time.

While plans were being made for the full-dress attack by NZ Corps in combination with 1 Armoured Division, 6 MDS was holding over 200 patients. Accordingly, on 24 March ADMS 2 NZ Division despatched a convoy of ten ambulance cars, carrying very lightly wounded only, back along the axis to Light Section 14 CCS at Wilder's Gap. By now 4 MDS was receiving the fresh cases and had 1 General Hospital surgical team working with it, while the transfusion unit was moved from 6 to 4 MDS.

Air evacuation was proceeding but was hampered by adverse weather. Accordingly, to clear medical units as much as possible before the main attack, a convoy of 3-ton trucks left at dawn on 25 March carrying all lightly wounded cases fit to travel by this means. They had been intended for Light Section 14 CCS at Wilder's Gap, but DDMS 10 Corps had ordered that unit up to Bir Soltane, and the trucks had to continue and do the whole 170-mile trip to the CCS area at Ben Gardane. Fortunately, a cook's truck was sent with the party. The CCS had presumably been shifted up to be ready to evacuate patients by the Hallouf road to Medenine as soon as it had been freed from the enemy. This convoy enabled 4 Field

1 Capt C. P. Powles; Wanganui; born Palmerston North, 28 Jul 1913; assistant pathologist, Wellington Hospital; medical officer Maadi Camp Jan–Oct 1942; 1 Gen Hosp Oct 1942–Mar 1943; OC 2 FTU Mar–Aug 1943.

page 430 Ambulance to empty out completely (save for a few abdominal cases) to the air evacuation centre and to 6 Field Ambulance.

The attack was to start at 4 p.m. on 26 March, and ADMS and DADMS NZ Corps had a conference with DDMS 10 Corps early in the afternoon of that day. It was agreed that NZ Corps would collect and hold its own wounded and that 6 Field Ambulance would become a holding unit, leaving the acute work to 4 Field Ambulance. Wounded from 8 Armoured Brigade were to be collected by 168 Light Field Ambulance, serious cases being sent to 4 Field Ambulance and light cases being held until 27 March. In order to accompany the Corps when a breakthrough was achieved, 5 Field Ambulance under Lieutenant-Colonel McQuilkin was kept on wheels. The company of 5 Field Ambulance which had been functioning as air evacuation centre was ordered to rejoin its parent unit, and 4 Field Hygiene Section under Major Kennedy took over its duties. This was a most satisfactory arrangement, the Hygiene Section having adequate cooking facilities and sufficient tents from its shower section to hold enough cases to avoid delay in loading planes. The MDS was only one and a half miles away and severe cases were sent direct from there and not held at the air evacuation centre overnight. Ambulance cars and extra stretcher-bearers were supplied by 6 Field Ambulance as required. The planes brought up ample blankets and stretchers to replace those sent back with patients, and the supply of blood by air was satisfactory.