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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Medical Services with Prisoner-of-war Repatriation Group

Medical Services with Prisoner-of-war Repatriation Group

In the middle of 1944 plans had been made for the establishment of a medical service in England with the New Zealand Repatriation Group being established to care for New Zealand prisoners of war as they were released in Europe. In August 1944 two medical officers, six sisters of the NZANS, and twenty other ranks were chosen from the New Zealand Medical Corps in Italy to go to England as the nucleus of a camp hospital staff. This medical group embarked at Naples on 4 September and reached Liverpool on the 14th, actually disembarking on 18 September.

While the medical group was awaiting disembarkation there disembarked ahead of them 116 New Zealand prisoners of war who had been repatriated from Germany on medical grounds. These repatriated men went to Headquarters 2 NZEF (UK) Reception Group, Aylesbury, to which destination also went the medical staff for the camp hospital, except the sisters who were posted to the Connaught Military Hospital until December 1944.

Only two of this first group of New Zealanders to be repatriated to England required immediate hospital care, and most were allowed to go on leave. Upon their return from leave arrangements were made for the supply of artificial limbs and specialist treatment. All were medically examined by the camp medical staff and preparations made for their return home. On 5 November forty-seven embarked page 673 for New Zealand on a transport, and on 14 November fifty-five embarked on the hospital ship Oranje for New Zealand.

In October Brigadier Twhigg, who had been DDMS 2 NZEF (IP), arrived from New Zealand to take over the medical command in the United Kingdom. Brigadier Twhigg had been recalled hurriedly from New Caledonia, where 2 NZEF (IP) was disbanding prior to return to New Zealand, and was sent by air to the United Kingdom, arriving there on 2 October. There were some grounds for urgency in view of General Montgomery's plan to advance immediately to the Rhine. This plan was not followed. General Eisenhower's plan to proceed through Belgium and Holland was adopted and, because of setbacks, it was obvious when Brigadier Twhigg reached the United Kingdom that hostilities would not end for some months. The New Zealand Military Liaison Officer, Brigadier Park,1 then arranged with Army Headquarters, New Zealand, for Brigadier Twhigg to be appointed ADMS (UK), with supervision of the medical services of the Reception Group. As ADMS (UK) he was able to act as medical liaison officer, an office which Brigadier Park had long been keen to establish, and for which there was considerable justification. With the war in Europe continuing, and with the further prospect of prolonged hostilities in the Far East, there was ample opportunity for liaison work. This involved War Office conferences, consultants' and service meetings at the Medical Branch of the War Office, and contact with the liaison officers of Canadian, Indian, South African, and Australian forces. In addition, United Kingdom hospitals were visited for consultation regarding New Zealand patients, and to make arrangements for the post-graduate training of New Zealand medical officers.

In the early part of October 1944 2 NZEF (UK) Reception Group moved to Old Park Barracks, Dover, where it was accommodated in modern barrack buildings built in 1939 and only slightly damaged since then by bombs and shellfire. Group Headquarters, including the ADMS's office, occupied one administration building, and in Freyberg Wing all repatriated personnel were quartered.

Pending the completion of arrangements for a building for the Camp Reception Hospital, a few patients were admitted to British hospitals. Early in December approval was obtained for the taking over of buildings adjoining the Emergency Medical Services hospital, Dover, to accommodate the New Zealand Camp Reception Hospital. About the same time ADMS 2 NZEF (UK) and his page 674 office staff established themselves at New Zealand Military Headquarters, London, and conducted the medical administration of the Reception Group from there. Another medical officer had been made available from 2 NZEF in Italy to take command of the reception hospital.

Steps were taken to prepare the EMS buildings at Dover for the purposes of the Camp Reception Hospital, the buildings and their facilities being most suitable. However, just as the hospital was preparing to open in February 1945, the Reception Group was transferred to the Margate area, Isle of Thanet, Kent, at the request of the War Office, which desired the Old Park Barracks to be vacated.

It was considered advisable to transfer the hospital also. Suitable accommodation was found and made available at the Isolation Hospital, Haine, which was centrally located to the rest of the Reception Group. At this time it was decided to change the title of the hospital to New Zealand Military Hospital (UK) owing to the misleading nature of the previous title when applied to an establishment which was intended to function as a military hospital and not merely as a camp reception station.

The hospital staff completed the move from the EMS hospital, Dover, to the Haine hospital, near Ramsgate, on 19 March 1945 and set about establishing a 60-bed hospital for use by 9 April. The buildings, constructed of brick were in the form of semi-detached wards, with a main administration block. The entire hospital had been used to house British troops, and much labour was called for from the small medical staff to produce a hospital standard of cleanliness. By 8 April seventy-six beds were available for occupation. A section of the British Red Cross Society ambulance unit, comprising five ambulance cars and drivers, was made available to the Reception Group, and the supply of comforts arranged through the Joint Council of the Order of St. John and New Zealand Red Cross Society. Volunteer civilian helpers gave a measure of assistance in lighter work on the hospital buildings.

On 9 April the first patients, six, were admitted to the hospital from British units in the Kent area. Next day the first group of repatriated New Zealand prisoners of war to be admitted arrived, and occupied all the available beds. Steps had to be taken to prepare additional wards in the hospital buildings. By 25 April five wards had been opened and the hospital had been raised to a 200-bed status, with a suitable establishment. Sisters from QAIMNS and RAMC personnel were attached to the staff pending the arrival in May of reinforcements from 2 NZEF in Italy. The last were made available as readily and in as large numbers as possible, having due page 675 regard to the commitments of the New Zealand Medical Corps in Italy, where it was under strength in both officers and men. The sudden expansion found the hospital temporarily short of equipment.

During April 250 New Zealand repatriated prisoners of war were admitted to the hospital, of whom 201 were still patients at the end of the month. The average period in hospital of the repatriates was approximately fifteen days. The number of New Zealanders in British military and EMS hospitals at 30 April was ninety-one, the majority having been direct admissions from British reception camps or from ports and airfields.

The repatriated prisoners of war, who began to arrive in appreciable numbers at the New Zealand Reception Group early in April, continued to arrive in a steady stream throughout the month, the total arrivals being 1427. Returning ex-prisoners of war came mainly through British reception groups, but a proportion reached the New Zealand Reception Group direct from Manston airfield which was the airport destination for New Zealanders.

As a result of privations and hardships immediately prior to repatriation, the general condition of the returned prisoners of war was poor, and a high proportion was found to be suffering from varying degrees of malnutrition and avitaminosis. Of the number reporting to 2 NZEF (UK) Reception Group, approximately 18 per cent required hospital treatment, the percentage being higher among those who reported during the first two weeks. Some of the later arrivals had been held in British reception camps in Europe and the more seriously ill cases were admitted to military hospitals there, with the result that the hospital admission rate in the United Kingdom dropped to between 10 and 15 per cent.

In April a medical headquarters was established in Margate close to the reception and transit wing of the Group. At this headquarters was the office of ADMS 2 NZEF (UK) and a medical examination centre providing facilities for four medical-board rooms. The task of carrying out routine medical examinations on all men and of providing medical care was an arduous one for the five medical officers, which was the total number at first available for such work. There was also a sudden expansion of the hospital because of unexpected sickness which taxed the resources of all ranks on the staff, including NZANS sisters. For specialist opinions the New Zealand medical services was largely dependent on the facilities and personnel of British hospitals.

In regard to the pressure on planned hospital arrangements it should be noted that the British, Canadian, Australian, and South African authorities on the whole met with the same experience with returning ex-prisoners of war. The Canadians at the end page 676 of April began to use a general hospital, and the South Africans increased their hospital beds from 200 to 300. The Australians had set up no military hospital of their own in the United Kingdom and their ex-prisoners of war were scattered among as many as twenty-seven EMS hospitals throughout the country.

During May 1945 New Zealand ex-prisoners of war to the number of 4060 arrived in the United Kingdom, and the New Zealand Military Hospital (UK) was kept running to capacity practically throughout the month. It was necessary to transfer some ninety-five cases to nearby hospitals to make provision for any future emergency intake of patients. No attempt was made to increase the Military Hospital (UK) beyond the capacity of the buildings available at the institution at Haine. By arranging for the quartering of the staff, other than female personnel, in neighbouring requisitioned buildings, a total capacity of approximately 250 beds could be provided, of which 100 beds were suitable only for cases which required mainly rest and special diet and little in the way of nursing. During May the medical staff at the hospital received valuable assistance from three attached Canadian medical officers who rejoined their own corps after the arrival of six medical officers, seven NZANS sisters, six WAAC nurses, and nine NZMC other ranks from 2 NZEF in Italy. Some medical officers and other ranks from repatriated NZMC personnel also volunteered for duty with the Reception Group.

As the Director of Hygiene, War Office, pointed out at a conference of the senior medical officers of Dominion forces on 2 May 1945, events had not followed the anticipated plan. The original medical arrangements were based on Germany capitulating as a whole. When this occurred, prisoners of war were to stay in the camps and be supplied with food and arms from the air. After their camps had been reached by the Allied armies, the prisoners of war were to be moved to staging camps, and thence to ports for passage to the United Kingdom by sea.

When repatriation did actually occur, the situation proved very different from what had been envisaged. Firstly, the forced march of a large proportion of prisoners of war led to a higher incidence of severe malnutrition than had been expected from previous experience. Secondly, prisoner-of-war camps in Germany were overrun and the inmates released before the cessation of hostilities. Thirdly, the prisoners of war were transferred rapidly from operational areas to the United Kingdom by air, often without examination and sorting on the Continent.

The fact, also, that elaborate emphasis had been placed on the psychological aspects of the problem was thought to militate against adequate provision being made for the emergency circumstances that page 677 did arise. In point of experience all the Dominion forces found that the men appeared psychologically normal, and it was thought preferable to allow them to go on recuperative leave without psychiatric investigation. The only possibly untoward symptom noticed by ADMS 2 NZEF (UK) was the difficulty experienced in getting them to go on their twenty-eight days' leave after they seemed fit to leave hospital.

Analysis of Medical Condition of all New Zealand ex-Prisoners of War Evacuated from Europe to the United Kingdom, 1945
Treatment Required Orthopaedic General Surgery Ophthalmic ENT General Medical Malnutrition Total Unfit Total Fit Grand Total
Officers 13 31 54 8 21 17 144 217 361
Other Ranks 197 362 379 241 383 138 1,700 4,362 6,062
210 393 433 249 404 155 1,844 4,579 6,423

Note: The number of individual soldiers covered in this table is probably about 6000 as a number of those unfit had more than one class of disability. The figures are not complete for all New Zealand ex-prisoners of war as complete records were not available at the time of the survey in August 1945.

In June the work of the hospital at Haine was of a more routine nature. The crisis expansion was largely completed in May, which was also the month of the greatest numerical intake into the Reception Group. The occupied beds declined to 150 on 5 June, but rose again to 212 by 22 June. This rise was due, firstly, to the transfer from other hospitals of patients fit to travel, and secondly, to the admission of men with minor medical and surgical disabilities whose treatment had been deferred during the earlier rush period until the completion of leave.

On 10 July many of the more seriously ill were cleared to the hospital ship NMHS Oranje, which took sixty-four hospital patients to New Zealand via Italy and Egypt. However, coincident with the reduction of the numbers of ex-prisoner-of-war patients, the hospital undertook the admission of British troops to afford some relief to the EMS hospitals of the area, which had co-operated so well with the New Zealand organisation in its period of strain.

In the following months to September the demands on the hospital steadily declined as more of the men departed for New Zealand, mostly on transports. In September the winding up of the Reception Group came in for consideration. It was decided to close the hospital at Haine and open a 30-bed camp reception station at 1 NZ Transit Camp, Folkestone, Kent, to provide hospital facilities for leave parties visiting the United Kingdom from the New Zealand forces in Italy. The transfer to this new hospital was made in the second week of October and the hospital served the needs of leave personnel until the cessation of the leave scheme, when the camp reception station was officially closed and its staff returned to New Zealand at the beginning of 1946.

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1 Brig R. S. Park, CB, CBE; Auckland; born Dunedin, 18 Feb 1895; Regular soldier; Lt NZ Fd Arty 1917–19; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1939–46; comd 2 NZEF (UK) 1941–46; appointed New Zealand representative on Joint Planning Staff, Chiefs of Staff Committee, London, Feb 1942; Commandant, Northern Military District, May 1947–Feb 1950; Commander K Force (Korea) Aug 1950–Nov 1953.