New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy
During the battle for the Paula line a steady stream of casualties was admitted to 6 MDS at Tavarnelle from 28 July. On 29 July two theatres were operating continuously. Again on the afternoon of the 30th, after a comparatively quiet morning, there was an page 589 inrush of patients which kept the theatre working through the afternoon and night until dawn next day. Next day there was still a steady stream, so that for several days the unit had been admitting wounded and sick at the rate of 120 to 130 a day. On the evening of 31 July Lieutenant-Colonel Hawksworth1 arrived to take over command of the unit from Colonel Fisher, who had been promoted to the command of 1 General Hospital.
In July 6 MDS had admitted 1479 patients—1107 sick and 372 wounded. The unit was closed on only two days during the month and on those two days it travelled over 200 miles. It had moved six times in twenty-one days—from open MDS to open MDS over 18 miles of winding hill road on 25 July, reopening in two and a half hours, and from battle MDS to battle MDS over 7 miles of road on the 27th, reopening in two hours. For the unit it was one of the busiest months of the Italian campaign.
The final battle for Florence continued to cause 6 Field Ambulance to work at high pressure. On 1 August the admissions had dropped to 93, but next day the total leaped to 150, taxing the unit's capacity almost to the limit; and on 3 August there were 130 admissions, after which the pressure eased. However, the unit was on a site ample in area, with a good vehicle circuit through it and an uninterrupted evacuation route which enabled the stream of heavy casualties to be smoothly handled. There was a number of British patients as well as New Zealanders, and also civilian casualties.
An account written by Sergeant Brennan2 of 6 MDS gives us a vivid picture:
The men who had been responsible for the splendid defence of San Michele passed through the MDS here, including the very gallant soldier who had staggered from his stretcher in the RAP to engage with a Piat gun the…tank that had lumbered up to make the crypt of the church untenable for the defenders. Another ambulance brought in a head injury case with both feet lashed together. The ambulance orderly was almost exhausted and was calling for help to retain the patient on the stretcher. An ex-All Black footballer passed through with an abdominal wound; and a British officer, still deafened by the blast, had been caught by a booby trap while attending to signals wires and had had both hands blown off at the wrists. A young New Zealand signaller, of the last reinforcement, was brought in in a hard-driven signals jeep, his wound raw and undressed—he had stepped on a box mine while attending lines and one leg was hopelessly shattered. He was badly shaken and unstrung. We had a flood of men from an English battery; after some quite trouble-free days at a site one member had stepped on a Schu mine and attempts at rescue had trapped, progressively, seven men altogether. We removed five feet from this group.page 590
We received the blackened swollen dead recovered from under the booby-trapped buildings at San Casciano—the burial party worked over them in respirators. One grave held 24 inches of vertebrae recovered from a brewed-up tank. The engineers helped to cut the graves in the hard-packed shingly soil beside the road, breaking it up with compressor drills.
Fourteen deaths took place at the MDS and the bodies were buried in the cemetery down by the roadside. Into it went the horribly-burnt and wounded trooper who had died in Reception. Quite logical and conscious when brought in, he had answered to a question as to whether he had any pain in the stomach: ‘I ought to have; I've been eating green apples.’ Into it, too, went the Armoured captain who had fought to live with wonderful courage. And the Taranaki boy who had gone prowling and had been shot up by a jumpy-fingered American picquet.
There were 50 graves in it when we closed it down. A volunteer party worked on it, bringing in loads of tiles. They used these to make warm red paths among the graves and to enclose the mound of each as though the soil was flowering through them. The bounds of the plot were marked with planted tiles put in battlemented fashion, and the curves taken by the crosses followed faithfully the curve taken by the road. Two large stone flower pots of irises stood on each side of the entrance and a great stone pot with the same flowers stood in the very centre of the cemetery at the foot of a large cross. It was an exceedingly simple but very effective arrangement. Drivers of passing trucks used to crane out of their vehicles to watch it as they passed.
1 Lt-Col W. Hawksworth, OBE, m.i.d.; born Nelson, 3 Mar 1911; medical practitioner; medical officer 5 Fd Amb Aug 1940–Jun 1941; 6 Fd Amb Jun 1941–Jun 1942; 1 Gen Hosp Jun 1942–Jul 1944; CO 6 Fd Amb Jul 1944–Jun 1945.
2 Sgt H. Brennan; Tarurutangi; born Auckland, 27 Sep 1907; farmhand.