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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

VIII: British Red Cross Medical Supplies

VIII: British Red Cross Medical Supplies

Until the middle of 1942 the medical parcels sent by the British Red Cross consisted of a general parcel containing cotton wool, safety pins, soap, aspirin tablets and ointment, and a disinfectant parcel. Special parcels containing thermometers and dressing scissors were also sent. It was rightly assumed that dressing trays and kidney bowls were available in Germany, but they were not at all easy to procure.

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After 15 June 1942 the War Organisation of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John reorganised the sending of medical parcels. From then on there was an invalid food unit consisting of two parcels – milk and food – and a medical stores unit consisting of four parcels. To each camp and independent hospital was sent a supply of both invalid food and medical stores units. The contents of some of the parcels were distributed from central camps to medical orderlies with small working parties. In the medical stores unit ‘Medical 1’ was a soap and disinfectant parcel, ‘Medical 2’ contained soda bicarbonate, Dover's powders, lung balsam, ferri sulphate, zinc ointment, cascara, zinc oxide powder, formalin throat tablets, ammoniated mercury ointment, flexoplast, lint, cotton wool, gauze, ascorbic acid tablets, pile ointment, sulphapyridine tablets, magnesium trisilicate, oxide plaster; in ‘Medical 3 and 4’ there were some supplies the same as in ‘Medical 2’, while additional ones were kaoline poultice, A. and D. Oleum Vitamin, TCP burns, aspirin, Bemax, sulphanilamide and toilet paper.

A small local reserve of medical stores units was established in each camp and independent hospital, and a reserve of eight weeks' supply of medical stores units and invalid food units was constituted at Geneva. This latter reserve was to be drawn on only if it transpired that the normal supply direct to camps and hospitals was inadequate. No local reserve of invalid foods was suggested in camps or hospitals because the unit itself, for packing reasons, had a surplus of 13.2 per cent over the composition considered necessary for current requirements. This supply was addressed direct to Senior Medical Officers to remain a store essentially at their disposal.

It is important to note that the composition of the invalid food unit was based on the assumption that every prisoner, whether well or ill, received a normal food parcel. It was intended not as an addition to the normal food parcel, but as a substitute for such parts of it as the particular ailment of the invalid did not allow him to consume. That meant that the unwanted part of the normal food parcel would either be consumed wastefully by someone else or would become surplus. The British Red Cross Society took steps to impress on all camp leaders and senior medical officers that the latter was the course which must be insisted upon. This resulted ultimately in an accumulation of a considerable reserve of normal food parcels.

Special Supplies

When visiting camps the protecting power would inquire if any equipment was required from England. In 1943 it even requested that prisoner-of-war hospitals ask for more.

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A medical officer could make reasonable requests to the British Red Cross Society, London, and expect to have them answered. For example, a microscope was sent to Captain Cribb, RAMC, and used in the laboratory of the hospital at Cosel. In Lazarett Lamsdorf ward sterilising was first done in bowls on the kitchen stove. From England six small electric sterilisers were sent for the six wards of this 450–bed hospital. Some artery forceps were also sent to increase the existing stocks.

Perhaps the most useful equipment sent to eastern Germany was leather and metal for the fashioning of artificial limbs. With able guidance from Lieutenant-Colonel T. H. Wilson, RAMC, an artificial limb workshop was established in Stalag VIIIB-344, Lamsdorf, where remarkable work was done. One of the men in this workshop, Private Weston, RAMC, went to work in an artificial limb factory at Neisse, Upper Silesia, in May 1944. There he worked with German tools and British Red Cross equipment making standard protheses for limbless prisoners of war who were awaiting repatriation in the ‘repatriation’ compounds of Stalag VIIIB. Meanwhile, in the camp workshop itself, Private Wood, RAMC, and his team fashioned excellent walking calipers, splints for dropped wrists and dropped feet, or finished ‘plaster’ beds for those with the spinal caries, etc. These men became craftsmen whose work was of immense value to patient and medical officer alike. Their craftsmanship naturally extended to obtaining some of the German supplies as well, thus enhancing the scope of their effort.

Occupational Therapy

One most important part of the British Red Cross Society's immense activity was the steady supply of occupational therapy materials which it sent regularly to such hospitals as Kloster Haina (for the blind), Königswartha and Elsterhorst (for tuberculosis), and Lazarett Lamsdorf with its general, TB, and mental wards and its large repatriation compound. Raffia, tapestry, weaving, embroidery, woodwork, plastic materials, lino, etc., were most useful.

The Germans in Silesia naturally were offended when the kits of carpentry tools arrived, and released them from their Abwehr office only on the understanding that they were returned to German care each night. As usual, such a rule quickly became honoured more in the breach than in observance; but, after any escape from camp, or at the time of any Abwehr search, all British Red Cross tools would be thoroughly checked by the Germans.

Red Cross Commissioner, United Kingdom

The Joint Council of the Order of St. John and the New Zealand Red Cross Society had a Commissioner in the United Kingdom page 149 throughout the war in the person of Dr Bernard Myers. Frequent meetings took place during the war at British War Organisation headquarters in London, when the various Red Cross or Joint Council commissioners from the Dominions met the heads of the War Office to discuss matters concerning prisoners of war.

Over a million food parcels were sent to New Zealand prisoners of war by the Joint Council in New Zealand, thus enabling the men to be issued with a parcel weekly in normal times. Owing to the war conditions delays were not infrequent and, when he heard of them, the Red Cross Commissioner did what he could to have things put right. By a wise arrangement British and Dominion prisoners of war had some variation in diet by sometimes receiving British, New Zealand, South African, Canadian or American Red Cross parcels. Each parcel had its attractions and this method of variation tended to avoid monotony. The International Red Cross Committee organised and carried out the tremendous task of delivering food and other parcels intended for each prisoner of war.

The International Committee also arranged the exchange of prisoners of war – the sick who had been passed by Mixed Medical Commissions and some of the protected personnel.

The Red Cross Commissioner was able to arrange, on occasions, for the despatch of drugs, sera, vaccines, or instruments urgently required by a prisoner-of-war medical officer. In addition, material for games and recreation was sent to the camps by arrangement with the branch of the War Office concerned. The co-operation of the Universities of Oxford and London enabled study courses to be sent to the prisoners of war, the British Red Cross supplying the textbooks.