Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific
II: Prisoners from the Pre-Alamein Period
II: Prisoners from the Pre-Alamein Period
As a result of the battles in the Western Desert in June and July 1942 at Minqar Qaim, Ruweisat and El Mreir there were 1800 more New Zealanders captured by the enemy, among them some 231 wounded. The wounded left on the ground at Minqar Qaim were promptly treated by German surgeons, but at Ruweisat many wounded were left by Germans unattended at RAPs for some hours – in fact some of the walking wounded were able to escape to British lines under cover of darkness. It seems, however, that the Germans had a large number of their own casualties to treat and were handicapped by limited medical supplies, and that in later battles the seriously wounded were attended to promptly.1 At rear medical units the wounded were treated adequately and were admitted to hospitals at Matruh, Tobruk and Benghazi. Thence they were taken by hospital ships to Italy and went to hospitals at Caserta and Bari, which, with the sick from the prisoner-of-war camps in Italy, became overcrowded. Although wards were sometimes set aside in Italian military hospitals for British prisoners, the Italians found it necessary to set up special hospitals at Bergamo and Lucca in July 1942, and later at Bologna, Altamura and Nocera. At the same time most of the British medical officers and chaplains were transferred from officers' camps to the hospitals. Thus all the eleven medical officers at Camp 35, near Salerno, were sent to Lucca on 11 July to be employed in minor capacities. Orderlies were also sent to the hospital, which soon held 530 prisoner patients, with 13 medical officers and 104 orderlies to look after them.
1 British prisoners taken in North Africa were handed over to the Italians for custody.
At Bergamo the hospital was housed in a large modern building with excellent equipment and a number of separate wards. British medical officers and orderlies treated the patients, but were still under Italian control. By the end of the year there were over 300 patients, mostly from Bari and Caserta. At Bologna a large school building was used; it also was well equipped and by the beginning of 1943 held 450 patients.
The overcrowding at Caserta hospital in the latter half of 1942 caused a considerable falling off in food supplies and medical attention. Although theoretically on a reasonable ration, the patients received only a fraction of it and, like all other prisoners, depended greatly on the food from Red Cross parcels. In November 1942, in spite of the transfer of over 400 patients, there still remained some 1300. At Bari hospital the food shortage was felt more acutely as no Red Cross parcels were delivered before May 1942.
The hospital building (Ospedale) at Lucca, where Captain Webster, NZMC,1 worked, was very old and had virtually no modern facilities. The wards were overcrowded, each ward holding about double the number of patients that we would consider desirable. Hot weather, bad drainage, infected wounds and innumerable flies made the smell almost unbearable. The Italian medical officers and orderlies did their honest best for the patients, but their best was not very good. Their knowledge of medicine, with a few exceptions, was 20 or 30 years behind ours. Their refusal to give British medical officers any position of authority was not only very galling but also greatly handicapped their efforts to help the patients. Slowly and gradually over the ensuing months, as a result of Italian inefficiency and slackness, the British medical officers were able to do more and more, until in the latter months they were doing almost all of the work, and most of the surgery was done by Captain Webster. This undoubtedly helped the patients, not only physically but also in their morale. With few exceptions the behaviour, discipline and morale of the patients were always worthy of the highest praise.
1 Maj F. E. Webster; Auckland; born NZ 20 Jan 1903; medical practitioner; p.w. 28 Nov 1941; repatriated Sep 1944.
Food for patients was adequate but not too appetising – largely carbohydrates, but some meat every day. It was deficient in fats. For medical officers and orderlies the food was considerably less, again mostly carbohydrates and a small ration of meat twice a week.
It was literally astounding to the medical officers to see how rapidly large wounds healed after the arrival and distribution of the Red Cross food parcels. These gave the patients a welcome change of first-class and varied foods. They were likewise essential not only to the health but also to the lives of the orderlies. The rations for prisoners of war in Italy were inadequate to maintain life, and without these Red Cross food parcels very many prisoners would have slowly died of starvation. The ration issued was theoretically the same as that for base troops and Italian civilians, but whereas they had access to the ‘black market’ the British prisoners, with few exceptions, did not have this access, and in addition the full amount of their ration seldom reached them.