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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Enemy Air Raids on Canal Zone

Enemy Air Raids on Canal Zone

During the greater part of 1941, especially after the close of the Crete campaign, the Canal Zone was subjected to sporadic and sometimes relatively intensive nuisance raids from enemy aircraft based on Crete and the Dodecanese. No sooner had the Convalescent Depot's equipment been brought up to strength and the physiotherapy department developed, than this disturbing and locally disruptive enemy activity made itself felt in the Moascar region. There was sporadic night bombing of the Ismailia district during the full moon. Other nearby areas suffered and attempts were made by the enemy to sow mines in the Suez Canal. This led to considerable disruption of the Convalescent Depot's routine, and also to a call by Canal Zone Headquarters for convalescent personnel to supply larger armed parties for security duties. The bombing of Ismailia was rapidly followed by the mass evacuation of Egyptian civilians and the almost total cessation of contract services such as dhobi, swill, garbage, and the like. The Egyptian staff in Naafi canteens, supply depots, and other installations was similar depleted, until emergency transport could be arranged to take them nightly to the purely Egyptian towns like Zagazig which were immune from enemy attack. Those who witnessed the evening trains pulling out of Ismailia station, with the native camp employees, their families, and impedimenta clinging to every available space from the couplings of the carriages to the cooler parts of the engine, may well have occasion to recall this as affording a sense of humour and relief from the irritations of the disturbed tempo of convalescent life. Nevertheless, a nuisance value was attained by the enemy. With the increasing intensity of the raids, the Convalescent Depot itself suffered direct hits, as for example that on the MI Room, and its staff helped to extinguish fires in nearby lines and RE dumps, the New Zealanders distinguishing themselves in the course of these duties.

On the night of 4–5 August bombing raids on Ismailia called for assistance from members of the staff of the Convalescent Depot to help the Egyptian hospital cope with the influx of civilian casualties. Surgical teams arrived later from British military hospitals outside the area.

On 11 August there was a concentrated and sustained air raid on Abu Suweir aerodrome nearby. At the Convalescent Depot slit trenches had been prepared, tents were dug in, and considerable attention was given to PAD preparations. On 14 August flares and page 248 two sticks of bombs were dropped in the area around the depot headquarters and a direct hit was scored on the medical inspection room, which was completely wrecked except for the end housing the dental department. A fire which began in a group of native shops near the massage department was dealt with, and this undoubtedly saved the depot from considerable bombing which subseqently was concentrated around a fire in an adjacent area.

Despite the ordeal, personnel in the depot behaved with extreme coolness. Stretcher parties functioned normally between bombings and brought into the treatment centre the five casualties which occurred in the depot. These were mainly light wounds from shell fragments, but one man received a serious chest wound. Three of the more serious cases were evacuated to 54 General Hospital by ambulance. In no case did casualties occur among men in slit trenches.

After these raids the Area Commander instructed that as many troops as possible should be dispersed at night (an instruction which one group of New Zealand convalescents had earlier anticipated). Some 300 convalescents with a small cadre of staff were transferred each night to Chevalier Island, where a reception hospital was subsequently opened to obviate sending patients to general hospitals in the district for minor sickness. Under these conditions the depot scarcely functioned along intended lines. Sleep was interrupted and a few men started to sleep out of camp. Morale tended to suffer, and some who might otherwise have readjusted themselves well from mild anxiety states were found to exhibit marked exacerbations of their symptoms. A decision was made to return the less stable of these to the quieter Maadi area, 180 in this category being evacuated in three days. This reduced the numbers in the Convalescent Depot to a point at which there were barely sufficient A grade or B1 grade men to supply the necessary number of pickets and guards for depot buildings, stores, and other duties for which the Convalescent Depot had been made locally responsible.

At the end of the first week in September there were heavy air raids. The 54th British General Hospital was severely damaged and rendered untenable. The continued bombing raids, apart from the risk to personnel, had minimised the value of 1 Convalescent Depot as an institution for recuperation from injury and illness. The main factors were the loss of sleep and a general atmosphere of disturbance and uneasiness. The expedient of removing some of the patients and staff to another location at night afforded only partial relief. It was felt that removal of the whole depot to Maadi Camp would provide, at least for the time being, a location free from air raids. No other site being available, it was decided that the depot should be established at Maadi during the winter months and that page 249 possibly by March 1942 some alternative location might be found. The move took place on 10 October 1941.

Coinciding with the transfer of the depot, Lieutenant-Colonel Tennent was appointed CO 4 Field Ambulance and relinquished his command to Lieutenant-Colonel Noakes, whose appointment was to continue until the end of the war in Italy in 1945.

An investigation of the functioning of the Convalescent Depot with regard to the type of case likely to benefit by treatment there was carried out by the Consultant Surgeon and Consultant Physician in September. They considered that patients who were incompletely diagnosed, severe cases with disabilities difficult to assess, hysterical cases and possible malingerers, and those for whom no special treatment was required and whose ultimate fitness was doubtful, should not be sent by the hospitals to the depot. Those thought suitable were the more normal cases likely to make uninterrupted progress and men awaiting return to New Zealand. It was considered that it was unfair to the staff of the depot to send them chronic and difficult cases, which were much better retained and dealt with at the hospitals.

A visit was paid at that time to 2 British Convalescent Depot at El Ballah, where no sick men were admitted and massage was not encouraged, but where all men were fit for concentrated physical training prior to return to their units. The distinction in the administration of the RAMC depots and our own persisted throughout the war, both systems having their special advantages.