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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

CHAPTER 3 — Salonika Transit Camp, 1941

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Salonika Transit Camp, 1941

I: Hospital Arrangements

THE transit camp at Salonika, northernmost town and port of Greece, was occupied by many 2 NZEF men in their first days of captivity. It was called Frontstalag 183 and was in a dilapidated old army barracks.

All who passed through it, whether they stayed a month or two, or even just a day, remember this transit camp for its starvation diet, filthy conditions of existence, the all too frequent shooting affrays, the heavy labour under strict German guards, and also the badly equipped hospital.

Eleven medical and dental orderlies, some of them New Zealanders, were selected from the 300 British prisoners of war collected there in May and ordered to form the nucleus of the British medical staff, which would take over the hospital from Serbian medical officers when the British prisoners of war started to come through from the main collecting base at Corinth in southern Greece.

Two concrete huts in a corner of the compound had previously been a small hospital. One hut was used as a dysentery ward, the other partly for surgical and partly for medical patients. It was decided that these wards with their sixty-five beds would not be sufficient to take the influx of sick that was expected, so the nearest barrack, a double-storied building, was quickly prepared to accommodate about 160 patients. It was split into two main wards on the ground floor, with six small rooms and a medical inspection room upstairs. Water was not laid on. Iron trellis beds with wooden slats and straw mattresses were all the patients had to lie on. The staff managed to get two blankets for each bed and a few sheets and pillows.

On 12 June the first draft of men arrived, and each day brought more and more until at one time 12,000 men were crowded into the camp. Three British doctors, headed by Captain Cochrane, RAMC, arrived and also four medical orderlies and a group of the British Friends' Ambulance Unit, bringing the total staff of the hospital to 5 doctors and 30 orderlies. The staff worked long hours, on many days from five in the morning until after eight at night. There was always too much work to do and too few to do it all.

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Men from Corinth camp were transferred by train to Salonika transit camp, but they were forced to march 30 miles over the Lamia Pass. They arrived exhausted, as conditions at Corinth camp had been deplorable, and many soon fell easy prey to disease and sickness. All through June the medical inspection room gave over 400 treatments a day. The two small buildings were overcrowded with enteric cases. One large ward in the improvised hospital was filled with all the other medical cases. These included men with slight wounds which had become aggravated on the march, skin complaints, poisoned feet, cuts, sandfly fever, jaundice, nephritis and tonsillitis.

A large ward of sixty beds was prepared to take malaria cases. The location of the camp was right in the centre of a malaria belt, and the men were without mosquito nets or ointments. The Germans issued 10 grains of quinine a day to each prisoner of war. This undoubtedly saved many thousands from malaria.

The small wards upstairs were soon occupied by cases of typhoid, typhus, pneumonia and beri-beri. The patients were of many nationalities – Scots, English, Australians and New Zealanders. Then came the Serbs, Indians, Palestinians, Cypriots, Arabs and Greeks.

The diet given to hospital patients consisted of the same food as that received by the men in the camp – mainly three-quarters of an Italian biscuit measuring about five inches square and a cup of German mint tea for breakfast, and a pint of barley, bean or lentil soup for dinner. (Three-quarters of this was water and, as the big meal of the day, it did not encourage sick men back to health.) Tea consisted of one-sixteenth of a loaf of bread and mint tea. The Greek Red Cross supplemented the hospital diet with vegetables and extra bread, some milk and a few eggs.

Medical supplies were hard to get from the Germans, drugs impossible, and it was only with captured supplies which were handed over by the Germans that the staff could carry on.

Many and varied were the illnesses encountered under these appalling and trying conditions – malaria, sandfly fever, Malta fever, intermittent fever, kala azar, pneumonia, bronchitis, tonsillitis, tuberculosis, diphtheria, enteritis, jaundice, beri-beri, neuritis, nephritis, septicaemia, impetigo, typhoid, typhus, poliomyelitis, epilepsy, debility, etc.

The days grew hotter as June crept by. By the middle of July the heat was very trying on the starving men. Malaria was taking its toll and the ward was full. Beri-beri affected everyone; at one time over 600 men in the camp were suffering from it. The complete lack of vitamin B brought suffering to hundreds. Their feet began to page 118 swell and sometimes their hands and faces. The little energy they had was further depleted. The men dragged themselves around the compound. Many, however, were forced to go out to work, carrying heavy timber, rolling drums of petrol into trucks. Some men came forward with tins of marmite and a little spread on bread had good results. Praise must be given to these few who gave vitamins to help others, denying themselves what they could well do with to keep up their strength. Sandfly fever was raging through the camp and each night many cases were admitted.

In August many prisoners arrived from Crete and with them came more sickness, including poliomyelitis. Enteritis was a common complaint. There were cases of typhus, typhoid and pneumonia. The water supply was cut off for three to five days at a time.

II: Evacuation to Germany

Most surgical cases were sent to a Greek hospital under control of the Germans. Towards the end of July wounded arrived from Kokkinia hospital in groups of 200 to 300 at a time, on their way through to Germany. The first party consisted of the blind, the limbless and jaw cases. Then came those with fractured limbs, some still in plaster, others barely a week out. After from two days to a week at Salonika they were sent in trucks from the hospital barracks to railway trucks and carriages. Many lay for eleven days in trucks with just straw for a bed, no blankets, very little food and no medical treatment. There was no toilet and few bottles or pans accompanied the wounded. Some were lucky in getting to Germany on a German hospital train, but too many had to go by cattle truck and carriage.

Another barracks was opened up to accommodate these ‘through’ patients. The bed state at one time was over 800 patients. Captain Cochrane, assisted by Captain Cook, NZDC,1 persuaded the Germans to let one portion of a barracks be used as a convalescent hospital and here, with extra food, mainly vegetables supplied by the Greek Red Cross, many patients were given a better chance of recovering their health.

The jaundice cases soon developed oedema, believed to be due to the polished rice in their diet. The hospital became so full at one time that further jaundice patients could not be admitted. Beri-beri cases would line up every night to receive a spoonful of yeast. This relieved the oedema but the supply of yeast was soon exhausted.

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September was the month of highest mortality, twenty-seven men dying over the thirty days. They were taken away in pine boxes fashioned by carpenters in the compound, and were buried in the old Greek cemetery where lie some Anzacs from the First World War. A military funeral was accorded each of them by a party of prisoners of war. In the period of six months, seventy-nine deaths were recorded out of many thousands who passed through the camp, the hospital handling over 3000 of the men.

As patients arrived from Athens and moved on to Germany, so the list of sick diminished, many of the patients going on with the wounded. Medical personnel moved on with these parties. At the end of September the whole camp was practically cleared of prisoners of war, leaving only a few cooks, the camp sergeant-major and his staff and two doctors and ten orderlies. The staff lived in a small compound through the chill of October and the cold of November. The infantile paralysis cases improved. Diphtheria patients regained strength and the staff was able to relax a little from hard months of toil. By early November Red Cross parcels arrived and each man received one a week. It seemed like a magnificent Christmas the day each received the first parcel, and was a turning point in the health of all.

Half-way through November a hospital ship arrived from Athens with almost the last of the wounded. They stayed until 20 November, when a German hospital train was ready to leave for Germany and British sick and wounded travelled by it. Practically all the hospital staff, except one doctor and two orderlies who followed later, left by this train to take up further hospital duties in various hospitals in Germany.

During a ten-day trip from Salonika to Stalag VIIIB, Lamsdorf, Upper Silesia, the following rations (as recorded by Captain Borrie) were issued:

Friday, 10th October, 1941: We each received 4 small 4 oz. tins of Schwein Fleisch [pork] and 2½ loaves of bread, said to be rations for 4–6 days. The Greek Red Cross left baskets of grapes and tomatoes on the train.

Monday, 13th October, 1941: Each received a cup of ‘ersatz’ coffee in Belgrade. The Serbian Red Cross left bread on the train.

Wednesday, 15th October, 1941: At Szowbathely, Hungary, ‘am now very thin’ – have lost a lot of weight these past 2 weeks. My buccal pads of fat are now very small, and I can easily and distinctly palpate all my teeth through my cheeks.

Thursday, 16th October, 1941: At Vienna – from German Red Cross, received one pint hot thick pea soup, served in cartons. In the afternoon, issued with ?th of a loaf of bread per man, and one small tin of Schwein Fleisch.

Friday, 17th October, 1941: At Nuremberg – issued with mint tea and ?th loaf per man.

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Saturday, 18th October, 1941: Beyond Dresden – at 9.30 p.m. given 1 loaf of bread between 17 men.

Sunday, 19th October, 1941: Breslau – 2 large bowls of pea soup and a cup of ersatz coffee, issued by the German Red Cross.

The dry diet in that 10 days was 3 and ?th loaves of bread, 5 small tins of Fleisch (each about 100 grams weight); besides some grapes and tomatoes from the Greek Red Cross. Fluids consisted of drinks of ersatz coffee, etc., at Belgrade, Vienna, Nuremberg and Breslau, with soup at Vienna and Breslau.

1 Maj C. C. Cook, m.i.d.; Masterton; born Invercargill, 10 Oct 1909; dental surgeon; p.w. May 1941.