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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Provision of Mobile Surgical Unit

Provision of Mobile Surgical Unit

A mobile surgical unit, based on the head and chest units organised in England at the beginning of the war by Professor H. Cairns and Mr A. Tudor Edwards, was equipped in England in 1940. The unit was formed as a result of a generous gift of £2500 by Mr A. Sims of Christchurch. The senior surgeon 1 NZ General Hospital, later Consultant Surgeon 2 NZEF, Lieutenant-Colonel Stout, was given authority to purchase equipment in England and make arrangements for the construction of a special van fitted up to hold all the equipment. The surgical instruments and appliances as listed in the British units were supplemented so as to render it possible for the unit to undertake any type of forward surgery, as it was appreciated that head and chest cases would form only a portion of the cases to be dealt with.

Operating theatre equipment was obtained from Morris Motors at Oxford; surgical instruments were purchased from several firms in London, with the permission of the Ministry of Health; a lighting unit and an electric suction apparatus was also obtained. A diathermy machine was not purchased as at that time it was held that the machine would interfere with wireless transmission from aeroplanes. Special water tanks were obtained. The special van was built in Cairo on an army truck chassis, being designed to carry the equipment and to provide lighting and a generous supply of water.

The surgical instruments and other equipment were fitted into separate boxes so that, if necessary, all the equipment could be taken out of the van and carried in an ordinary truck.

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There was no similar unit in the British Army, and all the original British head and chest units had been lost in France. The surgical units organised in Spain for forward surgery were used as a basis for the establishment considered necessary for the new unit, and eventually a special establishment was finalised on 1 May 1941. Autoclaves from captured Italian stocks and an X-ray plant purchased with Red Cross funds were added.

An establishment of 5 officers and 29 other ranks, as well as 9 ASC drivers, was drawn up and tentage and ordnance equipment for a self-contained unit were requisitioned. Transport consisted of four lorries in addition to a staff car, a motor cycle, and the special van. A water cart was also supplied. The unit was able to work two surgical teams with full equipment for all types of forward surgery. It was first set up in Maadi Camp, where it carried out preliminary training. It was inspected on 22 July 1941 by the Consultant Surgeon, MEF, Major-General Monro, who reported that: ‘I regard it as a “war surgeon's dream” from the surgical point of view. Its advantage lies in its mobility, independence in regard to transport and the excellent power plant in the surgical lorry.… A closer study of the economic factors is still necessary.… It is my opinion, however, that the answer to many of the problems can be found in this N.Z. unit or one on the lines of the British unit recently assembled at 15 Gen. Hosp.’

The DMS 2 NZEF also reported that, ‘Inspection shows—


That the unit is very handsomely equipped for doing surgery,


Has ample transport,


Has reached a high state of efficiency in all departments of its work.’

The unit rapidly reached a high degree of keenness and efficiency. Some doubt, however, was expressed by British administrative officers concerning the desert-worthiness of the van. The unit was ready for service during the Second Libyan Campaign. It was agreed by the DDMS Western Desert Force that the unit should function close to an MDS. He was impressed by its completely desert-worthy conditions, and this estimate proved correct. The unit worked alongside the MDS during the fateful Second Libyan Campaign, was captured along with the other main medical units but carried on unmolested by the enemy till rescued, and then, after evacuating its patients to the medical centre behind the frontier, was attached to the British forces for the remainder of the campaign.

The unit which resembled the New Zealand MSU most was 1 Mobile Military Hospital, a gift to the British Army from the United States of America. This consisted of several very elaborately fitted-up special vans providing operating theatre, sterilising equipment, X-rays, cooking van, and supply vans, all on wheels with page 242 tentage for personnel and patients. This unit was utilised in the desert, but never in the divisional area, and was not entirely satisfactory.

The establishment of the Mobile Surgical Unit is given below:

Detail Personnel Offrs WO II S-Sgt Sgt R and F Total
Surgeons (Majors or Capts) (a) 2 2
Anaesthetists (Capts or Lt) 2 2
Medical Officer (Capt or Lt) (b) 1 1
CSM and Wardmaster 1 1
CQMS 1 1
Sergeant 1 1
Corporals 5 5
Privates 21 (c) 21
—— —— —— —— —— ——
Total 5 1 1 1 26 34
Attached NZASC Drivers 9 (d) 9
Total—Mobile Surgical Unit, including attached 5 1 1 1 35 43
Motor cycle 1
Car, 4-seater, 4-wheeled 1
Lorry, 3-ton, 4-wheeled, special body 1
Lorries, 3-ton, 4-wheeled 4
Truck, water cart 1