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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Hygiene and Sanitation

Hygiene and Sanitation

A remarkable feature of the period after the Division's return to the desert was that the Field Hygiene Section was not with the Division as a complete unit from the end of June until 19 November. When the main body of 4 Field Hygiene Section reached the Mersa Matruh area at the end of June, it had to hand over its vehicles to 27 (MG) Battalion as transport was in short supply and the Division was to adopt a mobile role. As they would be an encumbrance, the workshop and disinfestor sections of the unit were sent back to Maadi. The ten NCOs and men remaining with the Division were attached to 4 and 5 Field Ambulances and the OC, Major W. J. Boyd, became liaison medical officer on the staff of the ADMS. After 5 July there were left with the Division only the five NCOs and men with 4 Field Ambulance.

Before the end of July the Division was beginning to be pestered by a fly plague. At the end of July six members of 4 Field Hygiene Section were recalled to the Division, making eleven NCOs and men attached to the medical units, but still without transport or equipment. Sanitary appliances had to be improvised from discarded petrol tins and ammunition boxes, the only tools available being broken bayonets and tent mallets. The workshop at Maadi lent its support by the wholesale construction of fly-traps and incinerator latrine lids, made according to the unit's own design, and by making up gallons of fly poison, which began to arrive in quantity in the middle of August. On 11 August the members of the unit in the Division were reformed as a unit at Headquarters Rear Division. Activities of the section at this period were not confined to 2 NZ Division, assistance being given to the new British divisions which had just arrived from the United Kingdom. Having little idea of field sanitation and not being acclimatised, these units were experiencing a fairly heavy incidence of dysentery.

In August the blistering heat of summer, the dust, and the flies were at their peak. Despite the most vigorous counter-action, the flies clustered everywhere. To some extent the fly problem was uncontrollable owing to unburied dead lying beyond the reach of page 365 burial parties, and to the prevailing wind blowing directly from the Italian lines and bringing flies with it.

The area then occupied by the troops had been fairly thickly populated by native tribes and was therefore so contaminated that fly-breeding was encouraged. The coastal sector, particularly along the railway, had always been the most thickly populated area, and this suffered most from flies. Vehicles had a great attraction for flies, and each one of the thousands of trucks running from the coastal sector, particularly from supply points, contributed its not inconsiderable quota to those already living and multiplying in the divisional area.

Hygiene measures within the Division were made as complete as possible from the first. Owing partly to lack of materials and partly to the rocky nature of the ground, deep-trench latrines were not practicable except in certain rear areas. Shallow-trench latrines were used and changed every twenty-four hours, with the copious use of oil and cresol following burning-out with petrol. All refuse was burnt before burial. Fly netting at first was in short supply and was issued only to cooks' trucks, RAPs, and dressing stations. Flytraps and poisons were not available in the initial stages at Alamein, but were put to good use when they were forthcoming early in August.

To make matters worse a cloud of mosquitoes, A. Pharoensis, covering an area at least 10 miles in diameter, was blown by an east wind from Wadi Natrun and the Delta over the battlefield on 28 July, and no one was exempt from their voracious bites, which raised nasty blisters on the skin. Fortunately, when the wind changed the mosquitoes disappeared. Later, inquiry in Alexandria revealed that the mosquito phenomenon was not unknown, and it was obvious that the mosquitoes had been wind-borne.