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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Detachment of 4 Field Ambulance

Detachment of 4 Field Ambulance

The medical party under command of Major King, who had remained to care for the large concentration of casualties at the former site of 4 MDS near Sidi Azeiz, observed German tanks and other enemy vehicles approaching at 8 p.m. on 25 November, but this column did not then advance into the immediate vicinity. At first light next morning, 26 November, enemy tanks had a short page 273 engagement with British armour about 5 miles west of the area, and the British column withdrew. The Germans then investigated the New Zealand unit, and a German medical officer who spoke English interrogated both German and New Zealand patients. This enemy party confiscated an assortment of medical supplies.

At 8.30 a.m. an ambulance car with a badly wounded British member of a tank crew, accompanied by his RMO, was escorted in by two German motor cyclists. The medical officer remained with the detachment all day giving anaesthetics and doing dressings, and then left to try to rejoin his unit.

At 4.30 p.m. General Rommel himself visited the medical area. When assured that German casualties had received similar treatment to that accorded British and New Zealand patients, he gave instructions against interference by his own troops in any medical work undertaken by Major King and his staff. Rommel left twenty-two severely wounded Germans for treatment. These men had all been wounded two to three days previously and they had received very little, if any, skilled medical treatment. Their treatment was undertaken in spite of the growing shortage of supplies, both medical and water, and other difficulties.

At 5 p.m., a convoy of 7 MAC under Lieutenant Bennett, in complete ignorance of the German occupation, pulled into the medical area with a convoy of 279 patients from the MDS of 6 Field Ambulance. It was decided that continued evacuation must be attempted next morning and, in view of this, stretcher cases remained overnight in the ambulance cars and other patients in open trucks were given shelter under cover of tents and other canvas. Major King, an RAMC officer, and the medical orderlies worked all night checking the condition of each patient and administering morphia where required.

Next morning, at 6.45 a.m., the MAC convoy with 304 patients moved off in an attempt to get through to a CCS, but within an hour it was stopped by an Italian column. This column made the convoy change direction but the captors made off at the approach of British armoured cars. Progress was slow and uncertain, but eventually the convoy reached areas clear of the enemy and made contact with 7 SA CCS.

Parties of Italians entered Major King's camp and one party attempted to take the staff away as prisoners, but it left when told by Major King that Rommel had said they were to be left alone. Another party took away the two remaining ambulance cars and one orderly. (The latter rejoined Major King a few days later at Sidi Omar with the two cars and the two Italians as his prisoners.) Water was getting short, but 16 gallons was collected from tent page 274 tops during a shower of rain. Both British and German armoured cars visited the camp during the 28th.

At dusk on 28 November the convoy of ambulance cars returned bringing food and water. Throughout the night the whole staff worked to prepare patients for the evacuation. Fresh dressings were given to all cases. Anxious moments, when enemy tanks passed close to the area, held everyone in suspense, as the numbers of extra vehicles must have been obvious. However, no closer investigation was made, and at 9.45 a.m. on 29 November the medical convoy left the area, although enemy transport was still visible to the east. A route was set to the south-west, with a small section of British armoured cars covering the rear. After changing direction to due south for some 48 miles, the convoy contacted 7 SA CCS at 4.30 p.m. and the patients, numbering 123, including 30 Germans and 17 Italians, were admitted. Major King had admirably maintained this medical section through a difficult and arduous period, and with the assistance of his medical staff successfully organised the clearance of all patients, tents, and equipment.

On learning that 5 ADS were prisoners at Sidi Azeiz, Major King then went back with Lieutenant Bennett's convoy to evacuate the ADS. The unit was found at Capuzzo and the patients were evacuated to Sidi Omar. Contact was then made with 13 Corps at Conference Cairn and instructions received for the detachment to join up with 5 Brigade, which had been detailed for further service with the corps. Available for service with the brigade were B Company 5 Field Ambulance under Captain Edmundson and Major King's detachment, plus a few New Zealand medical personnel who had escaped from the composite medical centre near Sidi Rezegh—including Major Wilson1 of the MSU and Captain Jack.2 While B Company formed an ADS for 5 Brigade, King's group became 5 MDS, and when it reached Tobruk on 9 December it was joined by five men of 5 and 6 Field Ambulances released from enemy hands. Two medical officers from 62 General Hospital were also attached under instructions from DDMS 13 Corps. Some equipment was obtained in Tobruk and some Italian equipment was salvaged from the first site outside Tobruk, where an Italian medical unit had been. The transport was mostly South African vehicles which had been picked up in the desert.

Actions early in December had led to the final relief of Tobruk page 275 on 5 December. The enemy then retreated towards Gazala, where he established a line to the south-west and there made a stand for five days until he was once more driven into retreat. For this action 5 Brigade came under 13 Corps, along with 4 Indian Division and British and Polish units, and the composite medical unit formed an MDS for 5 Brigade, evacuating casualties to Tobruk.

The MDS, moving forward as the advance proceeded, dealt with a considerable number of casualties, both New Zealand and enemy. Blood and plasma, as well as intravenous drips, were given by the MDS, and early surgery and immobilisation of serious fractures were carried out. Evacuation to 62 British General Hospital, Tobruk, was undertaken by 7 MAC. The help given by the officers from 62 General Hospital was much appreciated, and the small composite unit of 57 men earned great praise from Brigadier Wilder, the brigade commander. After the Gazala battle the unit retired with the brigade, travelling by road through the wire at Sheferzen and then by the coastal road to Baggush.

1 Lt-Col S. L. Wilson, DSO; Dunedin; born Dannevirke, 17 Apr 1905; surgeon; surgeon 2 Gen Hosp Aug 1940–Jun 1941; Mob Surgical Unit Jun 1941–Feb 1942; 1 Mob CCS Feb 1942–Mar 1943; CO 2 CCS (Pacific) Aug 1943–Jan 1944.

2 Maj D. McK. Jack; Auckland; born Whangarei, 8 Mar 1914; house surgeon, Palmerston North Hospital; medical officer 4 Fd Amb1940; RMO Pet Coy May–Sep 1940; 4 Fd Amb Sep 1940–Sep 1942; 7 Fd Amb (Pacific) Dec 1942–Aug 1943; OC Malaria Control Unit -Dec 1943.