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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Captured Medical Centre at ‘Whistling Wadi’

Captured Medical Centre at ‘Whistling Wadi’

When German troops at 5 p.m. on 28 November overran the area near Point 175 in which two companies of each New Zealand field ambulance, as well as the Mobile Surgical Unit and 4 Field Hygiene Section, were grouped, they announced that all medical personnel and wounded were to regard themselves as prisoners of war. The medical staffs, after a period of confusion, were permitted to return to their duties, and thereafter the enemy permitted them full control of the wounded in their area.

The German forces took up positions on the high ground flanking the wadi wherein the medical staffs and wounded were concentrated. They opened fire in the direction of Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. British artillery replied and a number of shells fell amongst the tents, causing some further casualties among the wounded. All next day, 29 November, artillery duels continued and, to make matters worse, the Italians set up a battery of field guns just on the perimeter of the medical area. In consequence, the medical staff had at times to take cover below ground level and their work with the casualties was greatly hampered.

A conference of the officers in the medical area discussed all aspects of the position and agreed that Lieutenant-Colonel Twhigg, CO 5 Field Ambulance, should take over full command. The most pressing problems for decision concerned rations, water, sanitation, and salvage of material which was scattered about the medical area. All food and water supplies were pooled, assessed, and rationed, according to patients held and staff, to each unit. The supply of page 276 rations was low and it became necessary to reduce meals to two a day. An estimate of the water held revealed that there would be only a pint a day for all purposes for each individual for the next two days. The meals consisted of a breakfast of biscuits, jam, and half a cup of tea or cocoa, and a meal at 4 p.m. of bully-beef stew and biscuits. No water was drawn except under supervision and then only by cooks. With the ration, all personnel received barely half a cup of tea a day. A ground sign for water was constructed out of sheets and displayed on the eastern slopes of the wadi between the Mobile Surgical Unit and 6 Field Ambulance in the hope of attracting the attention of the RAF. The total number to be sustained on the water and rations was approximately 1800 and, of these, the patients numbered 1200.

The Mobile Surgical Unit was overwhelmed with patients requiring operative treatment, which was carried out largely by Majors Furkert and Wilson. All medical officers were kept busy in the treatment of casualties. German medical personnel assisted the New Zealand staffs in the work of caring for all cases and also provided medical supplies. The German medical personnel made no attempt to aid in the slightest degree any Italian casualties who were brought in. These cases were almost wholly dealt with by the few South African medical officers who were present. A harmonious relationship existed between New Zealand and German medical officers. The latter, who had been among the prisoners but were now among the captors, were considerate, polite, and co-operative.

At 3 p.m. on 29 November the German command decided they would evacuate all their own wounded from the area. To do this they commandeered all the staff cars, ambulance cars, and other vehicles which were capable of being moved. Others which they could not move had been deliberately and secretly immobilised by ASC drivers, essential parts being removed from trucks and hidden so that the vehicles would be available should a favourable opportunity arise for parties to escape.

Prior to the departure of the convoy Lieutenant Dawson,1 6 Field Ambulance, accompanied by a German soldier, went through the enemy lines in one of the New Zealand ambulance cars and collected German wounded. Some New Zealand troops wished to detain them, but they returned to the medical area.

On 30 November the artillery fire was intensified. When the Italian positions on the high ground surrounding the wadi were shelled, the Italians withdrew within the lines of the wounded and medical staff or rushed through the lines in their transport and

1 Maj R. H. Dawson, m.i.d.; Palmerston North; born India, 24 Sep 1915; house surgeon, New Plymouth Hospital; medical officer 6 Fd Amb Jun 1941–Dec 1942; 3 Gen Hosp Mar–Oct 1944; 5 Fd Amb Nov 1944–Feb 1945.

page 277 disappeared over the eastern escarpment. An emplacement of fourteen guns was sited about 150 yards from 6 Field Ambulance's Red Cross flag on the north-western side and thirty enemy tanks were on the north-western escarpment immediately above the Mobile Surgical Unit. About midday British guns began shelling the former position. A number of shells fell in the medical area, killing and wounding a number of the New Zealand medical staff of 4 Field Ambulance and the Mobile Surgical Unit, and New Zealand and German patients of these and other units. Intermittent shelling continued all afternoon.

The work of Staff-Sergeant Henley1 in organising the reception and evacuation of wounded from the operating theatre during the afternoon materially assisted the patients and inspired confidence in his men, and his actions were later recognised by the award of the DCM.

A German field ambulance had arrived during the morning and sited itself beyond 4 Field Ambulance in the south-western end of the wadi. German doctors endeavoured to get the Italian guns moved farther from the medical area, but without avail. These doctors, however, did valuable work in keeping Italian tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, and other combatant forces out of the area. The CO 4 Field Ambulance, Lieutenant-Colonel Tennent, helped one of the German medical officers to operate on re-wounded Germans in the German field ambulance operating truck under most amicable conditions. The methods employed by German medical officers were noted to be rather crude judged by New Zealand standards.

At 3 p.m. on 30 November the German troops, using further commandeered transport, withdrew from the position, taking with them most of their own wounded. The commander of the German forces, as a mark of appreciation of the work performed by New Zealand medical personnel, left written instructions that the Italians were in no way to molest patients or obstruct their care and treatment. The Germans also labelled the remaining rations and water to indicate that they were to be left intact for staff and patients of the medical area. With the departure of the Germans, the Italian commander of the Ariete Division appointed an Italian medical officer as commandant of the medical area. This individual proved himself to be most inefficient and exercised poor control over the Italian troops in the area, and they were guilty of obstruction and looting.

Intermittent shelling continued all day on 1 December and an enemy position which had recently been set up on the eastern side

1 Capt J. C. Henley, DCM, ED; Auckland; born Auckland, 21 Jul 1913; milk vendor; NCO 4 Fd Amb 1939–42; Lt, 12 Fd Amb (NZ) 1943; Adjutant, Papakura Camp Hosp, 1944–47.

page 278 of 6 Field Ambulance, within 100 yards of its Red Cross flag, received considerable attention from British guns. The continued gunfire and the screaming and bursting of shells proved most trying for the patients. The serious water situation was slightly relieved in the evening by the arrival of an Italian water truck. After prolonged and difficult argument, permission was obtained from the commandant to draw 200 gallons of water, to be rationed equally among all patients, enemy included, and other personnel in the area. Italian troops were allowed to fill their water-bottles and containers from the truck, but New Zealanders were refused this privilege.

At 8 p.m. on 1 December a convoy of six 10-ton diesel trucks and a few other vehicles arrived and the Italians announced that they were going to move everyone at once. It was pointed out that this was impossible, and it was agreed that only the Italians should be moved. They were all classified as ‘lying’ cases and so, on their stretchers, they filled the available transport. The convoy left at 2 a.m. after much excitement, heading for Derna via El Adem.

The German field ambulance moved out early on 2 December and took most of its wounded. The Germans expressed their thanks for the way the New Zealanders had looked after their wounded and hoped that they, and not the Italians, would look after any other German wounded who were left, or who might subsequently come in.

During the morning it was obvious that the Italians were fixed in their intention of moving as many as possible from the medical area, and to this end called a parade of all ranks. While this parade was held, the Italian soldiers began a systematic and thorough looting of the whole area and also took a considerable quantity of the remaining food. At the parade nominal rolls were prepared of the medical staff and patients, and the Italian commander intimated that a proportion of these troops would be evacuated. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger, ‘Most of the men paraded got fed up with the messing about, pushed their way quietly through the cordon surrounding the parade, and returned to their tents—if they had any.’ The Italians forced our men to hand over all knives, forks, clasp knives, blade razors, cameras, binoculars, and revolvers, although finally medical personnel were allowed to retain their clasp knives. In the afternoon all ranks not actually engaged in the wards were paraded again and were detailed into groups for embussing in a convoy of motor vehicles which had assembled by this time.

In their selection the Italians tended to allow the medical staffs who had been looking after Italian wounded to remain behind. Thus, the eleven South African medical officers and other ranks of their field ambulance, as well as two attached British medical officers, page 279 were retained. Permission was given by the Italian commandant for all of the Mobile Surgical Unit staff to return to their area, and five other New Zealand medical officers also remained. The senior New Zealand medical officers strongly opposed the impending move on the grounds that they were being taken away from the wounded under their care, but on being informed that the object was to set up a reception hospital in the back areas, offered no further resistance. The men of 4 Field Ambulance were fortunate that there was insufficient transport to take them away.

The medical staff detailed for removal, as well as some of the ambulant wounded, were hurried up the slope to the south-western escarpment where large diesel trucks were drawn up for their transport, and were taken away towards Derna and Benghazi at 3 p.m.

The medical group taken away as prisoners of war (and not to a hospital unit as they had been led to believe) comprised 14 medical officers and 183 other ranks.1

On the evening of 2 December the remaining medical officers in the medical centre reorganised their administration, a South African medical officer being placed in command. A party under Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer,2 28 Battalion, with Captain Lomas, 4 Field Ambulance, and 38 patients and staff escaped by truck that night and crossed the frontier wire at dawn next morning, and another group of 23, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger and including Majors Wilson and Lovell and Captain Jack, similarly escaped in daylight on 4 December. Colonel Dittmer contacted a corps headquarters and gave information about the medical centre, and Colonel Kippenberger persuaded DDMS 30 Corps to take action. Kippenberger's group was able to direct units of 7 British Armoured Division towards the location of the captured medical units.

At 3 p.m. on 3 December a conference of all medical officers was called by the Italian commandant. Through Padre Forsman,3 the

1 They comprised Lt-Col A. A. Tennent, Capt H. C. Tremewan, Lt V. C. Martin and Lt R. A. D. Fulton (QM) and one other rank of 4 Fd Amb; Lt-Col J. M. Twhigg, Maj T. G. de Clive Lowe, Capt R. B. Beattie, Capt G. C. T. Burns, Capt W. G. Gray, Capt W. B. de L. Lusk, Lt N. G. Crossman (QM) and 81 other ranks of 5 Fd Amb; Lt-Col N. C. Speight, Capt A. G. Gilchrist, Capt F. E. Webster and 84 other ranks of 6 Fd Amb, and 17 other ranks of 4 Fd Hyg Sec.

2 Brig G. Dittmer, CBE, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Maharahara, 4 Jun 1893; Regular soldier; Auckland Regt 1914–19 (OC 1 NZ Entrenching Bn); CO 28 (Maori) Bn, Jan 1940–Nov 1941; wounded 23 Nov 1941; comd 1 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) Apr 1942–Aug 1943; 1 Div, Aug 1942–Jan 1943; Fiji Military Forces and Fiji Inf Bde Gp, Sep 1943–Nov 1945; Camp Commandant, Papakura Military Camp, 1946; Commandant, Central Military District, 1946–48.

3 Rev Fr E. A. Forsman; Auckland; born Pakuranga, Auckland, 20 Mar 1909; Roman Catholic priest.

page 280 officers were informed that the commandant admired the great technical skill displayed by all medical officers and the care and attention shown to his countrymen who had been wounded, but he sensed a feeling of obstruction and non-cooperation; further, the commandant added that medical officers must realise they were prisoners and that such an attitude must cease.

On the morning of 4 December some 150 walking wounded, with Lieutenant Dawson, 6 Field Ambulance, were taken away in trucks by the Italians to Benghazi, where those who were allowed to remain in that town were released by advancing units of Eighth Army on 24 December

In spite of Italian promises, no water or food had reached the captured medical centre by 5 December; the patients were desperately in need of water, some having developed swollen and cracked tongues. After the evening meal that day the quartermaster announced that there were only 30 gallons of water left for a total of 860 patients and the staff.

Patients began to die rapidly from dehydration in spite of the distribution of water from the shares of those taken away as prisoners. Several of the patients appeared to die of cold as supplies of kerosene for heaters failed. In the Mobile Surgical Unit water was re-used in Major Furkert's operating theatre after being cleansed by a German filter. The scarcity of water in the theatre, where operations were being steadily carried on, made conditions seem like those recorded of the Crimea. The escape of the entire Mobile Surgical Unit, which would have been practicable, was considered but was abandoned because of the plight of the patients.

However, during the night the Italians moved out and on the morning of 6 December elements of 7 British Armoured Division arrived on the western escarpment and sent particulars by wireless to their headquarters. The remaining walking wounded, totalling 200, were then sent off to the south-east, two medical officers and several orderlies accompanying them. There were then left 16 officers (10 South Africans), 5 padres, 265 personnel (43 South African), and 592 patients. The remaining equipment of the three ambulances was stacked ready to be collected later by the MSU. During the morning a company of the RASC came in with nineteen 3-ton trucks and three ambulances, and these, together with three or four of the remaining New Zealand trucks in tow, lifted approximately 510 wounded and 210 personnel and moved off south at 3 p.m. These did not include any of the Mobile Surgical Unit, which was collected later in the day. Good progress was made by the convoy and, after travelling 30 miles, an ADS of 151 British Light Field Ambulance was reached at 6 p.m. An excellent hot meal page 281 was provided by this unit. Severe cases were transferred that night to an MAC convoy of seventeen ambulance cars which moved off at dawn for 7 SA CCS.

At 7 a.m. on 7 December the remaining wounded and medical personnel of this convoy were transferred to four ambulance cars and thirty 3-ton trucks of 22 Armoured Brigade. At 9 a.m. they moved off to travel 46 miles to the rear section of 7 SA CCS, and arrived eight hours later. The patients were unloaded there and the medical personnel carried on down the axis of the Armoured Division to the frontier wire and 15 British CCS. Instructions were received for the New Zealanders to return to the Division at Baggush, which they reached on 11 December.

The Mobile Surgical Unit with its patients was relieved by an ambulance convoy under Colonel Clifton,1 then acting CRE 30 Corps. Most of the equipment belonging to all the medical units was salvaged. Four useful vehicles towing four disabled ones, all full of stores, were taken away. The patients were left with 7 SA CCS and the unit went on through the frontier by road to Baggush. The unit's surgical van had proved entirely desert-worthy, and on the move had to ‘hang back’ for the standard three-tonners.

1 Brig G. H. Clifton, DSO and 2 bars, MC, m.i.d.; Porangahau; born Greenmeadows, 18 Sep 1898; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier 1919–21 (MC, Waziristan); CRE 2 NZ Div 1940–41; Chief Engineer 30 Corps, 1941–42; comd 6 Bde Feb–Sep 1942; p.w. 4 Sep 1942; escaped, Germany, Mar 1945; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1949–52; Commandant, Northern Military District, Mar 1952–Sep 1953.