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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Medical Units in the Breakthrough

Medical Units in the Breakthrough

In the breakthrough three New Zealand and two AFS ambulance cars and two trucks were hit and set on fire, but it was possible to get many of the wounded and medical staff on to the remaining trucks and to continue eastwards. The GOC had a rough journey in his caravan, which was hit at least twice and had its windscreen shattered, but during the height of the battle he got out of bed and viewed the action through the window, likening it to Balaclava. At 10 a.m. the GOC's party, including medical personnel, moved away from the main column and later, as arranged by ADMS NZ Division, was guided to an aerodrome, which was reached at 1.30 p.m. A fighter plane was sent off to call up an ambulance plane, which duly arrived and at 5 p.m. took the GOC to Cairo, with Corporal Wilson1 of 4 Field Ambulance as medical orderly. The General was admitted to 1 General Hospital, Helwan, in good condition.

In the first salvoes coming from the enemy 4 Field Ambulance also lost an ambulance car. The total wounded brought out in

1 Cpl W. A. Wilson; Dunedin; born NZ 8 Jul 1918; butcher.

page 337 ambulance cars, unit vehicles, and borrowed trucks was between 300 and 350 (the figures are indefinite because the truck containing 5 ADS records was disabled or destroyed), and of these it is probable that ten to fifteen were lost when ambulance cars were destroyed. The additional ambulance cars which had been taken through to 5 ADS in spite of the enemy encirclement the previous afternoon were a big factor in making the subsequent evacuation of wounded so satisfactory. One truck carrying fifteen men of 5 Field Ambulance was disabled and these men were all taken prisoner. Three AFS drivers were also missing, presumed prisoners of war.

During the breakthrough 4 ADS accompanied 4 Brigade, and Driver Robinson1 went forward in his ambulance behind the infantry making the charge. Although ordered to follow the comparatively safe centre of the attack, he zigzagged his ambulance across the whole battlefield, ignoring the heavy fire from machine guns, antitank guns, and heavier weapons, which was particularly intense on the flanks. He collected every wounded man who he saw was unable to walk, and brought his ambulance safely out laden with wounded. For this exploit he was awarded the Military Medal.

The 4th ADS travelled across the desert with 4 Brigade all next day (28 June), making only a few brief stops to treat some of the casualties received from brigade units and burying some dead. All the casualties were attended to when the ADS staged for the night at 9 p.m. and erected a canvas. About 140 cases were treated between the time of setting up the ADS and four o'clock next morning (29th). Some forty of the cases came from 5 ADS. By 4 a.m. a convoy of twenty-seven vehicles (ambulances and trucks) had been organised and was sent off with the patients to 14 CCS at Gharbaniyat. Before the ADS moved farther back with 4 Brigade in the early afternoon it had received another thirty cases, some of them sick, and these were sent to 4 MDS, whose position was then known. Shortly after 4 ADS reached the Fortress A area and had dug in, the unit admitted another thirty cases, and these were evacuated to the MDS also.

When it was proposed that the Division would fight its way back, arrangements were made on the afternoon of 27 June for 4 Field Ambulance to move back to the Fuka escarpment and there open an MDS, leaving a staging post at Point 178. Fifth Field Ambulance moved back some 8 miles during the morning near to the Fuka escarpment, whence all patients were evacuated to 15 CCS at El Daba. The unit then closed and moved in the afternoon to a point south of the Fuka escarpment, near the newly opened 4 MDS. From there eleven ambulance cars were despatched

1 Cpl C. C. Robinson, MM; Auckland; born England, 29 Mar 1918; truck driver.

page 338 with a supply column which was proceeding to a fixed point to meet the Division in its withdrawal. This ambulance convoy joined up with the divisional medical group, which had travelled all night except for short stops to attend to the wounded. The convoy then continued to move east until about 8 p.m., when it camped adjacent to Fortress A at Qaret el Abd, a fortified point in the Alamein line which was also known as the Kaponga Box.

From here 5 ADS evacuated forty patients to 14 British CCS before moving the rest of its casualties into the fortress. Here they were admitted into a specially constructed underground MDS which was to be manned for the next few days by 4 Field Ambulance, assisted by A Company 6 Field Ambulance, which had moved up to the fortress area with 6 Brigade on 27 June.

It was with difficulty that 4 and 5 Field Ambulances were found on the morning of 28 June and ordered to move back with the Division to the El Alamein line. The ADMS NZ Division was not clear as to the exact location of the two units. In a completely featureless and deserted part of the desert it was only by a stroke of good fortune that they were found. The 5th MDS, being closed, had begun to move back of its own accord, but 4 MDS was open and oblivious of the general situation, and at this time was actually the most westerly placed unit of the Division as the main body was withdrawing. Thus, this unit might easily have been captured.

Medical sections seem to have brought up the rear in the withdrawal. For instance, Captain Bryant,1 RMO 5 Field Regiment, did not reach the El Alamein area until dusk on 29 June. At first light on the 28th Captain Bryant halted his RAP and remained until mid-morning attending to the wounded of 5 Field Regiment and infantry units. By this time the brigade had long since gone on, and capture by an enemy column seemed imminent.

The three trucks carrying the wounded moved eastwards independently at slow speed. They travelled throughout the 28th and 29th, with the RMO attending to the wounded as occasion demanded. Although the patients included men with severe internal wounds and haemorrhage, no life was lost. This, combined with devotion to duty at Minqar Qaim itself, earned for Captain Bryant the award of the Military Cross.

Likewise, Driver Burling, who was attached to 5 ADS and carried wounded men in his ambulance car, was separated from the rest of the convoy after the breakthrough but resourcefully found his way back to the Alamein line. On 27 June this driver had led out an ambulance convoy from Minqar Qaim to the main dressing station and for his general initiative was awarded the MM.

1 Maj A. L. Bryant, MC, m.i.d.; born NZ 25 Apr 1917; house surgeon, Southland Hospital; medical officer 5 Fd Regt Dec 1941–Jun 1943; 5 Fd Amb Jun 1943–Jul 1944; 1 Mob CCS Jul–Dec 1944; 1 Conv Depot Dec 1944–Aug 1945.

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The action at Minqar Qaim assisted in slowing down the momentum of the enemy's advance at this dangerous stage in the Battle for Egypt. The enemy, including one of the panzer divisions, suffered heavy casualties, and in the night charge one infantry battalion was almost destroyed.