New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy
The ADS with 6 Brigade
The ADS with 6 Brigade
A Company 6 Field Ambulance (Captain Staveley) came under command of 6 Infantry Brigade Group on 18 November to provide an ADS. On 22 November, having passed to the command of 30 Corps, the brigade group moved 10 miles west of Sidi Azeiz on the Trigh Capuzzo ready to move on Gambut. That evening orders came for 6 Brigade to secure Point 175 on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. An attack was launched at midday on 23 November and during the afternoon some progress was made, at the cost of very heavy casualties, but the enemy still held the high ground of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment farther to the west.
The field ambulance company had travelled all through the night of 22–23 November with 6 Brigade and its first call to action came as it pulled up for breakfast. Elements of 6 Brigade had clashed with a section of the Afrika Korps. Working from the trucks and ambulances, with heavy shelling around the area, the men of A Company treated many wounded, mostly German prisoners whom they were obliged to leave behind, with water and a Red Cross sign, to be picked up by others. Moving on again in the afternoon the ADS set up in an unnamed wadi 7 miles east of Sidi Rezegh. Here again the unit experienced some shelling, and then four German tanks attacked nearby troops and the ADS became involved. Hurriedly the staff pulled down their tentage, threw it aboard the trucks, and moved with all speed to the protection of Brigade Headquarters. Here some tentage was erected again in an effort to deal with the numerous casualties. From the attack on Point 175 many casualties were admitted, and the staff worked at high pressure throughout the night and in the early morning were able to evacuate the wounded.page 270
Approximately 200 wounded were evacuated independently along the line of evacuation of 30 Corps by 6 ADS. The convoy consisted of twenty-one vehicles, including three ambulances (one of them German), a captured staff car, and 3-ton trucks, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel McNaught1 and Captain McBride,2 of 25 Battalion, both wounded. An armoured car escort was provided. On reaching the supposed position of the CCS, after travelling 15 miles, it was discovered from DADMS 30 Corps that the CCS was some 17 miles farther back. After the convoy had resumed its journey, another convoy in open formation came across its front; this turned out to be an English regiment. A few minutes later the ambulance convoy was machine-gunned by enemy aircraft and a line of enemy armoured cars appeared behind the English regiment. The latter opened fire with machine guns and light artillery or mortars. Several vehicles were hit, but there were no additional casualties among the men. Eventually, the convoy found 7 South African CCS and arrangements were made to have the serious cases taken out of the vehicles and the walking cases attended to. While this was happening, however, a brigadier arrived at the CCS and ordered it to close down and move back. The wounded were placed on board again and the convoy moved on to 15 British CCS, some 23 miles farther back, at the frontier. When it arrived there at 5.30 p.m., it had completed 72 miles during the day. As the CCS could not feed all the men, it was arranged for a field ambulance which had followed the convoy to the CCS to feed the remainder. The more serious cases were taken to the operating theatres throughout the night and most of the walking cases were attended to at the dressing tent. Quite a number, nevertheless, did not receive attention, and little was possible at any of the staging posts. Owing to the shortage of blankets on that and the two succeeding nights, these men were extremely uncomfortable. On 25 November everybody had to be evacuated and the convoy moved on into Egypt to stage for the night at Alam Dignash, where a meal was provided. On 26 November the convoy reached Minqar el Zannan and all the serious cases were distributed between 14 British CCS and 1 Mobile Military Hospital. Next day the wounded were put aboard ambulance trains at the ambulance railhead. The patients showed remarkable fortitude on their long journey. Two men died on the way.
1 Lt-Col G. J. McNaught, DSO, ED; New Plymouth; born Wanganui, 26 Nov 1896; schoolmaster; NZ MG Corps 1916–19 (2 Lt, 1919); CO 29 Bn (UK) Jun 1940–Mar 1941; 25 Bn Sep–Dec 1941; wounded 23 Nov 1941; headmaster, New Plymouth Boys' High School.
On the morning of 24 November 6 ADS set up again in the wadi east of Sidi Rezegh, later known as ‘Whistling Wadi’. More wounded flooded in, including a convoy of 200 from 5 South African Brigade which had been overrun by the enemy armour. Work went on into the night, when Headquarters and B Companies of 6 Field Ambulance arrived to set up an MDS and take over the 250 patients. A Company had already evacuated 200 cases, so it had treated some 450 cases in the previous twenty-four hours.
The next day the company moved westwards again in the wake of 6 Brigade. On the evening of 25 November while 4 Brigade attacked Belhamed, 6 Brigade attacked Sidi Rezegh. Heavy casualties were suffered and partial success gained. Another attack was made the following night and Sidi Rezegh was taken, but the enemy still held the southern escarpment from which he could shell the brigade positions. From these actions the ADS was kept busily employed in treating and holding the wounded. Evacuation to the MDS by ambulance cars proceeded smoothly until the night of 27 November, after which date the casualties were held because of the uncertainty of the position.
By 28 November, counter-attacks by German armour had upset the general situation, although by this time a link-up had been made with the Tobruk garrison. On the night of 28 November, in a night move down the escarpment, the ADS set up across the Trigh Capuzzo near Belhamed. On the two following nights the company was able to evacuate large convoys of wounded, in every available 3-ton truck and ambulance, through to Tobruk. In all, some 600 casualties were sent to Tobruk hospitals in two convoys. It was estimated from convoys and burials that 1150 casualties passed through the ADS during the campaign, including 250 South Africans. Many of these were from a heavy action which developed on 30 November. The enemy had captured Point 175 from the remnants of 21 Battalion on 29 November and then on 30 November launched a heavy attack against 6 Brigade, which was severely depleted and much exhausted and had little with which to hold the German armour. Sidi Rezegh fell to an overwhelming force and 24 and 26 Battalions were overrun. The remnants of 4 and 6 Brigades joined forces and reorganised in anticipation of further attacks.
On the evening of 30 November, after despatching the second of the convoys of wounded to Tobruk, the ADS was obliged to move as a tank attack in the direction of the company's position was believed imminent. The ADS set up again on the slopes of Belhamed, but below the level of the main escarpment.
At dawn on 1 December an enemy force of forty to fifty tanks supported by infantry advanced north-westwards from Sidi Rezegh. page 272 Part of the force turned eastwards to attack the positions of 6 Brigade while the remainder advanced on Belhamed. The attack broke on the south-eastern slopes of Belhamed where the ADS, the guns of 6 Field Regiment, and Division Battle Headquarters were in position. The ADS was soon overrun, and was later escorted to the rear by enemy infantry. The company's casualties in this action were two men killed and a number wounded.
Just when the capture of 4 and 6 Brigades seemed almost a foregone conclusion, British tanks put in an appearance and saved the day. Later, the remnants of both brigades achieved an anxious but successful withdrawal to safety.
Most of the captured ambulance company were made to proceed on a long march across the desert to the west and were later taken in trucks to the prison camp at Benghazi. Captain Staveley, who had been wounded in a leg, four of the company and six stretcher-bearers were taken to the German hospital at El Adem, some 15 miles west of Sidi Rezegh, where they found Sergeant Nicholas1 in charge of several wounded men. On the night of 2 December the hospital grounds were bombed and machine-gunned by the RAF. Bombs were dropped alongside some buildings, but no direct hits were made on any building used as a ward. The tide of battle was turning again in favour of the British forces and during the night the Germans began a general evacuation. During 3 and 4 December they evacuated the wounded so that only twenty-five British wounded remained, together with a small German medical staff as well as Captain Staveley and five men of A Company 6 Field Ambulance. Then, on 8 December all the remaining Germans left. The entire staff remained with the patients until an infantry patrol from a British battalion reached them on 10 December. Later that day, staff and patients were taken to Tobruk, where Captain Staveley was admitted to hospital, and the five remaining personnel joined the newly formed 5 MDS.
Captain Staveley was awarded the Military Cross for his work and devotion to duty and Sergeant Nicholas the Military Medal.