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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Second Echelon—Voyage to United Kingdom

Second Echelon—Voyage to United Kingdom

The ships which conveyed the Second Echelon overseas were the Empress of Britain, Aquitania, Empress of Japan, and Andes. These were all passenger liners. The convoy, which sailed on 2 May 1940, was joined off the coast of Australia by other ships. Its destination was ostensibly the Middle East, though there was still some doubt about this at the time of its departure. When the convoy was proceeding towards Colombo from Fremantle on 15 May its course was changed to take it to Capetown and thence to the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom Government's War Cabinet had decided that, in view of the anticipated declaration of war by Italy, it would be inadvisable for the convoy to continue to the Middle East.

As with the First Echelon, medical officers, nursing sisters, and orderlies were posted to each ship to staff ships' hospitals and give medical treatment. The wearing of rubber-soled tennis shoes on transports was a source of trouble, just as it had been with the previous echelon. The medical officers of the First Echelon had recommended sandals but the Defence Purchase Division, on the score of cost, and also because of the lack of suitable leather, decided against any change.1 Foot troubles were the inevitable consequence, in spite of precautions, in this and succeeding drafts going overseas. Besides developing fungoid infections on the feet, troops also found difficulty in getting their feet used to army boots after being some weeks on board ship, and after the first few route marches overseas, the number of cases reporting sick with blistered feet was very high.

Ship's hospital accommodation proved adequate on all ships in spite of upper respiratory infection, common in the camps in New Zealand, being prevalent aboard. Among these cases a gradual progressive increase in severity was noted and the onset of broncho-pneumonia was not unusual. The isolation hospitals for treatment of venereal disease also had a small number of patients. German measles broke out on some of the ships, its incubation period corresponding with infection arising at Fremantle. Its incidence was much higher on the Australian than the New Zealand ships. Lack of space prevented quarantine measures and further cases developed after disembarkation.

Medical supplies generally were adequate, although demands for particular drugs called for their replenishment at Fremantle and Capetown. Plaster-of-paris bandages on the Empress of Britain were found to be useless, the tins being obviously many years old. Medical equipment was incomplete in important details, but medical officers were able to remedy the deficiencies from their personal instruments.

As the convoy drew near to Great Britain in June 1940 at the page 40 time of Dunkirk, first-aid posts were established at strategic points on the ships and surgical teams appointed to act in the case of enemy air attacks, but fortunately no such emergency arose.

1 Leather sandals were issued for use on shipboard from 1941 and also for use overseas later.