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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Field Ambulance Equipment and Training

Field Ambulance Equipment and Training

Equipment to enable 4 Field Ambulance to function as a mobile field ambulance was not received until May 1940. Small groups of the unit, however, had during April proceeded out into the desert to establish and work an advanced dressing station for the training operations carried out by combatant units. The exercises emphasised the need for frequent practice in the field to master all the functions of a field ambulance. Practice blackouts and air-raid alarms pointed to the need for the unit to be prepared to deal with air-raid casualties.

During the next few months more units of 4 Brigade Group moved up into the desert for the defence of the Baggush Box and maintenance of the lines of communication, until by 1 September most of them were in the desert, stationed for the greater part at Baggush. On 29 August Headquarters Company 4 Field Ambulance moved to Maaten Burbeita, 34 miles east of Mersa Matruh, to establish an MDS, and on 2 September A Company moved up to Ikingi Maryut, where it took over an ADS from 19 Indian Field Ambulance. Most of the patients of the Camp Hospital, Maadi, had been transferred to 4 NZ General Hospital, Helwan, earlier in August in preparation for this move to the Western Desert. Seven men under command of the base medical officer took over the camp hospital on the departure of 4 Field Ambulance. B Company rejoined 4 Field Ambulance early in October, when 2 General Hospital relieved it at the Helwan hospital.

The role of 4 Infantry Brigade, together with various British and Indian units under command of 4 Indian Division, was to defend a perimeter around Maaten Baggush and Maaten Burbeita. There were 4800 men in 4 Infantry Brigade Group plus certain non-divisional troops, such as the Railway Construction Company, in the Western Desert. The MDS of 4 Field Ambulance served the troops in the area, and A Company later rejoined the unit from Ikingi Maryut. A route of evacuation for casualties was established by unit ambulances to the ambulance train at Sidi Haneish station. Thence they went back along the lines of communication to 2/5 CCS at El Daba, 2/5 General Hospital at Alexandria, and 4 (later 2) NZ General Hospital, Helwan.

From Alexandria a single railway line and a tarmac road ran along the coast to Mersa Matruh; the road extended further to Sidi Barrani. Thence all transport was obliged to use desert tracks which quickly cut up into loose sand in which progress was slow and arduous.

No ambulance trains were at first available. A temporary arrangement was made for an ambulance coach to run daily with the page 63 passenger train from Mersa Matruh to Daba and there empty into the CCS and return to Mersa Matruh. When patients had to be evacuated to base hospital at Alexandria, another coach was despatched from Alexandria to Daba to pick them up. Later, ambulance trains ran daily from Mersa Matruh, stopping at Garawla, Sidi Haneish, and Fuka to pick up sick from field ambulances and the Royal Air Force, unloading minor sick patients for treatment at the CCSs at Daba and, after taking on others for evacuation, proceeding to Alexandria and Cairo.

The possibilities of evacuating casualties by air were explored by ADMS Western Desert Force but it was reported that, although all senior medical officers were in favour of air evacuation for special cases from forward areas, the RAF considered that the scheme was impracticable because of maintenance difficulties, the need of protection for ambulance planes, and the problem of preparing suitable landing grounds near the front.

On 13 September the Italian forces pressed their advance beyond the frontier of Egypt to Sollum and later to Sidi Barrani. Before numerically superior forces, the British troops gradually withdrew to prepared defences at Mersa Matruh. On 15 September, following an air raid during the night, a number of casualties, all British, were admitted to 4 MDS for treatment. By 18 September the MDS held 31 patients, and by the end of September there were 64. The enemy air force was making frequent day and night attacks on troops, camps, and supply dumps in the Western Desert and on the railway line from Alexandria to Mersa Matruh.

Members of 4 Field Ambulance, especially A Company, were given training under mobile conditions with battalions of the brigade group, in view of the apparent imminence of extensive offensive action. During October the unit, which was nearly forty under strength, evacuated 634 patients sick and wounded—mostly sick. Of this total 289 were New Zealand troops and 345 British. In addition, many patients were detained under treatment and, on recovery, were discharged directly back to their units.

During this period in the desert opportunity was taken by 4 Field Ambulance to view the arrangements in the field made by ambulance units of 7 Armoured Division. Officers were impressed by their methods of dispersal, the set-up of the MDS and the ADS, their use of large tarpaulins (40 feet by 40 feet as a minimum) for providing quickly erected and efficient lightproof coverage for patients, and their arrangement of equipment in their panniers.

It was realised that several additions to equipment would be necessary because of the changed functions of a field ambulance in mobile warfare in the desert. The unit's equipment scale was designed to meet those conditions met in France during static war- page 64 fare in a closely inhabited country, where buildings were nearly always available to house casualties awaiting evacuation. In desert warfare the conditions were entirely different. There were no buildings, war was not static, and field ambulances might be called upon to hold casualties for lengthy periods pending evacuation. Hence, the old equipment scale of three small tents had to be supplemented with coverage that was capable of quick erection and removal.

As a result tarpaulins were provided for 4 Field Ambulance and became standard equipment. They were used with a truck, such as the operating truck, as the principal support for the tarpaulin, one side of which was spread over the vehicle and the other sides pinned to the ground. Poles inside the tarpaulin raised it sufficiently high off the ground to provide coverage for twenty to thirty stretchers. The open end of the truck faced inwards so that the equipment was easily available for use inside the marquee-like structure. Such a structure could be erected in a few minutes.

Lessons learned in a training exercise in November 1940 included navigation, by day and by night, and the art of dispersal, and further practice was received in the rapid establishment of both main and advanced dressing stations. The unit was now highly trained, although further improvement was thought desirable in the collection and transportation of a continuous flow of casualties from a battalion.

On 7 November 4 Field Ambulance was relieved of all British patients, who were transferred to 215 Field Ambulance which had now opened up in the neighbourhood. The hospital work of the unit was thus cut by half. On the night of 18–19 October 4 Field Ambulance was bombed by enemy aircraft and the ASC drivers attached suffered four casualties—one killed and three wounded, one of whom subsequently died of wounds.