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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy



A full report on this subject was submitted by Colonel Ardagh, ADMS 2 NZ Division, and a shorter report by Lieutenant-Colonel King, OC 4 Field Ambulance. Colonel Ardagh stressed three main factors in the successful working of a divisional medical service and in the efficient treatment of battle casualties:


Early collection and evacuation from place of injury to the nearest station providing surgery.


Provision of resuscitation at ADS and/or MDS.


Provision of efficient surgery as nearly as possible within the optimum period of six to twelve hours.

His report ran:


Early evacuation cannot be ensured without an adequate supply of ambulance cars on the line of evacuation, RAP to ADS to MDS. It can fairly be said that, unless casualties can be collected quickly, given initial treatment including shock therapy, and evacuated early to the nearest station providing surgery, the benefits of modern surgery and skilled surgical teams will be largely negatived; the result will be, in proportion to the delay past the optimum period, increased loss of life, limb or function, with relatively much lengthened periods of recovery and convalescence in general. It is well known that wounds in modern warfare are accompanied by considerable shock, apart from haemorrhage, and that if wounded are left lying out in the field or around RAPs for any length of time, with the attendant nervous strain from the proximity of shell or bomb explosions, this shock is considerably aggravated, just as loss of body heat and dehydration are accentuated by the delay in receiving resuscitation. The supply of ambulance cars necessary to deal with busy periods and thus avoid this delay can be effected by increasing the establishment to 20 cars for Field Ambulance as is the case in Light Field Ambulances, or by attaching extra cars whenever a Division is going into an active role.

2 NZ Div. has right through this campaign had sufficient cars attached by DDMS Army or Corps to make this quick evacuation possible, permitting at least one car with each RAP and nine cars at each ADS.


Resuscitation which includes administration of fluids, warmth, comfort and especially relief of pain, with, in more severe cases intravenous use of blood and/or plasma must be available at an ADS, unless an MDS underground could be close enough to dispense with the necessity for an ADS. In the period July to August this was most essential at certain periods where travel was rough, as many patients transfused at the ADS would not otherwise have survived the rough journey to the MDS.

At the MDS, with surgical teams attached, resuscitation is necessary on a large scale, not only to prepare serious cases for operation, but to fit them for the journey, often long and rough, to the CCS or, in rarer cases to fit them for air ambulance evacuation to Base Hospital.

page 372

It is the definite and considered opinion of all surgeons and experienced Field Ambulance officers that ‘whole blood’ even if held in the refrigerator for 14 days is much superior to ‘plasma’, inasmuch as not only does it produce a quicker response, but maintains the improvement much longer. With this end in view and also in order to conserve supplies of blood, the administration of plasma may be used in conjunction with whole blood.

The attachment of a Transfusion Unit to the MDS is a big advantage as it supplies a skilled team to attend solely to intravenous therapy, thus relieving the MDS staff and surgical teams in busy periods of much work, and it ensures an adequate supply of blood kept at the correct temperature in the special refrigerator. The alternative is an easily available ‘Blood Bank’ provided by Corps. A shuttle service of blood between MDS and ADS was provided in August and in the recent battle and undoubtedly saved a considerable number of lives by early administration at the ADS.1


It will be accepted by all that at least lifesaving surgery should be done at the most forward operating centre for even the delay of an hour or two will deprive the patient of prospects of recovery and this is especially so in the penetrating abdominal wounds. In these cases provision should be made to nurse them in hospital beds and so hold them for the necessary period varying from 2 to 10 days. In static conditions, or in an advance this is always possible, for if the MDS has to move, sufficient personnel to continue nursing these patients in situ can be provided, and throughout most of the campaign as many as 20 patients at a time were held in the MDS, nursed in beds with an additional saving of life thereby. If a retirement should be ordered, or a sudden retreat enforced, it would obviously be necessary for the MDS to evacuate these patients, or to carry them with the Field Ambulance in ambulance cars. The alternative of leaving them with the enemy would not be voluntarily considered as it is certain that the enemy would in any case move them and would be unlikely in doing so to give them as good treatment as our own units.

Where the tactical situation makes it possible, or where the route of evacuation is long and rough as in the period June to September, more than merely life-saving surgery can and should be done at the MDS, except on rare occasions such as the period 23 Oct. to 4 Nov. when the CCS was distant from the MDS only two hours on a smooth main road. Once the optimum period is passed even a short delay of a few hours in providing surgery, and even in less serious wounds, lessens the prospects of quick recovery and control or prevention of wound infection, and increases the risk and degree of loss of function, as well as necessitating for such patients much longer periods of hospitalisation and convalescence.

So far in the desert campaign from June last it has always been possible and beneficial to the wounded to provide resuscitation, surgery and nursing at the open MDS without in any way impeding the ability of the Field Ambulance to close, move or open when and as required.

Lieutenant-Colonel King stressed the necessity of having attached to our active MDS two surgical teams, one of which should be a light section of a CCS with facilities for post-operative nursing. He considered the surgical team should contain three medical officers to allow a measure of relief. Strong support was given to the attachment of an FTU to the MDS and the highest praise expressed for page 373 the work done by Captain Muir and his staff. He stated that on 4 September no fewer than seventy-nine vehicles were used for the evacuation of casualties in 2 NZ Division's area and from the MDS to the CCS, all but ten of them being ambulances, and they were fully employed.

The lessons learnt are clearly enunciated in these reports, and could be summarised as:


The importance of a considerable increase in the provision of ambulance cars in the forward areas.


The great value of early blood transfusion with the attachment of an FTU to the operating MDS.


The need for the attachment of at least two surgical teams and a nursing section from a CCS to the MDS to ensure skilled surgery and post-operative nursing.


Early air evacuation is dangerous for abdominal cases and chest cases with any respiratory distress. It is eminently suitable for all other cases.


Wireless inter-communication between medical units is desirable in mobile warfare.


The value of sterilised dressings forwarded from the base.

1 CO 6 Field Ambulance in January 1943 said: ‘“Blood Forward” is the greatest single advance of the last year.’

Importance of Hygiene

Though circumstances were admittedly difficult at the time, it seems that the importance of the hygiene unit in the safeguarding of the health of the Division was not fully appreciated. When conditions were the most difficult in the history of the Division from the sanitation point of view, 4 Field Hygiene Section was allowed to remain at its weakest—depleted in numbers, without equipment and without transport, and, until August, dispersed among medical units. The unit was not re-equipped with vehicles until the end of October, when it was sited next to 1 NZ CCS, and the whole unit did not rejoin the Division until it was in the Bardia area.

It is recognised, however, that the steady supply of fly-traps and poisons, latrine lids, and the constant inspections by the hygiene personnel diminished the number of flies and checked the incidence of excremental disease. On 10 September the ADH 13 Corps stated that the sickness rate in the Division was the lowest in 13 Corps' area. This position contrasts with that obtaining in the enemy lines.

The enemy's deficiencies in hygiene and sanitation, with consequent deterioration in the health of his troops, played an important part in the outcome of the Battle of Alamein. A captured enemy report of 13 October from the headquarters of Panzerarmee to Field Marshal Rommel (then in Germany) stated: ‘The personnel situation has deteriorated considerably, and reinforcements have been page 374 few. The sickness rate has been particularly high in 164 Lt. Div. At present all its regimental commanders and adjutants are ill, and some companies are under the command of NCOs.… It is hoped however that the position will gradually improve, especially in the case of jaundice.’

General Alexander, in a despatch published in The London Gazette on 5 February 1948, said:

These arrivals (of enemy reinforcements) which averaged about 5,000 men a week,1 were unable to keep pace with the very heavy sick rate. Possibly owing to the congestion of troops on the ground, greater than ever known before in the desert, and to an inadequate medical and sanitary organisation, especially among the Italians, diseases such as Dysentery and infective jaundice were extraordinarily prevalent among the Axis troops. Some units suffered up to as much as 25 per cent of their strength. Thanks to the efficiency of our own medical services our sickness did not rise above normal for the time of the year, and to nothing like the extent on the enemy side of the line. The most prominent Axis casualty was the Army Commander. Rommel had been in poor health since August, and in September he left for Germany, technically on leave. It appears, however, that he was not intended to return and he was replaced by General Stumme.

1 This figure is now thought to be unduly high.


For a week or so in September most of the troops had a spell at Burg el Arab on the sea coast. Swimming was a popular pastime, while brigade bands and the Kiwi Concert Party entertained and YMCA canteens and Naafi stores were open. Short leave of a few days in Cairo or Alexandria was granted to a percentage of men from each unit. All this helped to set them up again, and a month's training in the desert followed to prepare for the coming offensive at Alamein.

Messages of Appreciation

When the New Zealand Division withdrew for a spell from the Alamein line the DDMS 13 Corps, Brigadier E. Phillips, took the opportunity of sending the following message of appreciation to ADMS 2 NZ Division, Colonel Ardagh, on 10 September:

The New Zealand Division has been now in this Corps for some three months; during this time we have been through some arduous times together which have entailed much hard work, accompanied by no little danger. The three NZ Field Ambulances under your command have nearly all the time been the nodal point of evacuation and through the Main Dressing Stations have passed United Kingdom and Indian troops in addition to your own. Throughout all this time there never has been one other word than that of praise from the patients for the sympathetic care and attention they have received, while the Casualty Clearing Stations and General Hospitals have expressed over and over again their admiration page 375 at the way in which patients from the New Zealand Field Ambulances had been treated and the excellent state in which they arrived at these Hospitals.

Sickness Figures, Alamein, 1942
Eighth Army (Admissions to Field Medical Units) Panzerarmee Afrika (Admissions to Army Medical Stations)
Sep Oct Nov Sep Oct Nov
Dysentery/Diarrhoea 1,793 1,391 1,293 4,832 4,014 1,508
Digestive 933 816 517
Skin diseases 927 944 622 1,516 1,048 701
Infective hepatitis 449 1,438 1,861 799 957 505
Pyrexia not yet diagnosed 1,073 847 591
Diphtheria and tonsils 679 424 206
Accidental injuries 858 825 736 489 611 489
Other diseases 4,384 4,883 3,078 2,739 2,900 1,659
—— —— —— —— —— ——
Total 10,417 11,144 8,698 11,054 9,954 5,068
—— —— —— —— —— ——
Strength of Army 177,000 52,000?
Sick rate per 1000 59 63 48 200 191 97