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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Defence of Egypt

Defence of Egypt

Egypt throughout the ages has been of great strategic importance. The construction of the Suez Canal added considerably to the country's value in this respect, especially to a great maritime power like Great Britain. New Zealanders were highly conscious of this, as they had been called upon during the First World War to help in its defence and to use it as a base for operations in Galiipoli and in Palestine. At that time a New Zealand force had also fought against the Senussi in the Western Desert, a force with which Brigadier Puttick,2 commander of 4 Brigade, was associated.

The defence of Egypt in 1940 became still more important after Italy's declaration of war in June 1940, as Italy had powerful forces in Libya and also in Eritrea and Abyssinia, and the possession of Egypt would have proved of the greatest value to her. The fall of France greatly increased the Italian threat, all the Italian troops in Africa being freed for action against the forces in Egypt. Convoys of troops and equipment from Britain had also to go round the Cape page 61 as the Mediterranean route was menaced by the Italians, and this meant grave delay in building up the forces in the Middle East.

The shortage of medical equipment and supplies in Egypt made this delay a serious one to the medical services, and as all our New Zealand equipment was to be supplied from Great Britain it was of particular importance to our force. The defence of Egypt was to call for adaptation of the organisation and administration of medical units to meet the medical problems associated with the extreme mobility and long range of the fighting, the absence of roads, and the shortage of water.

British operations against the Italians at first were restricted to bombing and frontier raids, whilst the Italians bombed bases in the Western Desert and Alexandria without causing much damage. This period lasted till the Italians moved forward into Egypt in September 1940.

The already-prepared passive air defence (PAD) scheme for Maadi Camp was put into effect in June. At night troops dispersed in vehicles to prearranged positions in the surrounding desert without confusion or incident under a rigid blackout. The tents occupied by 4 Field Ambulance were dispersed and dug in, while collective slit trenches were dug and sandbagged. The hospital tents for patients were not dispersed, although shelters were dug for the patients and the tent walls strongly sandbagged. In a hill adjacent to the field ambulance area, an operating theatre was provided in a ‘dugout’. This was completely sandbagged and made lightproof.

On 18 June New Zealand units comprising 18 Battalion, 19 Battalion, 4 Reserve MT Company, and a detachment of Divisional Signals left Maadi for Garawla, near Mersa Matruh, 300 miles away, to be attached to the Western Desert Force. Three medical officers and three ambulance cars accompanied the force, and 4 Field Hygiene Section went with it to supervise water supply and sanitation, but returned to Maadi on 22 June.

Arrangements were made for the sick—and possible wounded—to be evacuated to 2/5 British CCS at El Daba, and, if they were likely to want more than ten days' treatment, they were to be sent from there to 2/5 British General Hospital, Alexandria.

On 24 and 25 June the acting ADMS NZ Division, Lieutenant-Colonel Kenrick, made a tour of inspection of the area and conferred with Colonel F. G. Smythe, ADMS Western Desert Force. Colonel Kenrick was satisfied that, while the troops were living under trying conditions, the medical arrangements were functioning satisfactorily. The water ration for the force was two gallons a man a day for all purposes, but fortunately most of the troops were near the sea and took full advantage of the sea bathing and also washed their clothes in sea water.

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2 Lt-Gen Sir Edward Puttick, KCB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Greek), Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Timaru, 26 Jun 1890; Regular soldier; NZ Rifle Brigade 1914–19 (CO 3 Bn); wounded Mar 1918; commanded 4 Bde, Jan 1940–Aug 1941; 2 NZ Div (Crete) 29 Apr–27 May 1941; CGS and GOC NZ Military Forces, Aug 1941–Dec 1945.