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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

IX: Repatriation of Sick and Wounded Prisoners of War and Medical Protected Personnel

IX: Repatriation of Sick and Wounded Prisoners of War and Medical Protected Personnel

As prisoners of war members of medical units were entitled to repatriation as protected personnel under the Geneva Convention, which also included similar provisions for sick and wounded prisoners of war. Repatriation was finally arranged on an exchange basis in a neutral country. The first medical group to be repatriated were 4 medical officers and 22 other ranks, NZMC, and 5 NZDC personnel and stretcher-bearers, who were repatriated from Italy in April 1942 via Smyrna. They reached Alexandria on 11 April. Most had been taken prisoner at Sidi Rezegh in November 1941. In conformity with the British custom it was decided that in 2 NZEF repatriated medical personnel should be employed on a front other than that on which they were taken prisoner. This group was therefore returned to New Zealand in June and some saw further service in the Pacific theatre.

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In April, May and June 1943 three further similar drafts of protected personnel were repatriated from Italy. The medical personnel numbered 5 officers and 138 other ranks, while sickness cases also returned were 4 officers and 33 other ranks. In Egypt hospitalisation and medical boarding was arranged for all invalids. At this stage the policy was revised and protected repatriated personnel who desired to remain in 2 NZEF were allowed to do so, it being decided that protected personnel were in a different category. A small number volunteered to remain in the Middle East, but most were returned to New Zealand.

After the capitulation of Italy in September 1943 small numbers of prisoners made their escape and reached Allied lines in Italy in the succeeding months. Some required hospital treatment and medical boarding.

The Germans at first refused to consider repatriation for anyone but consented after their huge losses at the close of the North African campaign. No fit medical officers were allowed to leave Germany.

On 3 November 1943 the first group of invalids and protected personnel to be repatriated from Germany reached Cairo via Spain. The New Zealand invalids numbered 6 officers and 159 other ranks, including amputees and blind, and protected personnel consisted of 1 officer and 218 other ranks. A like number of Australians was also involved in this repatriation, and as there was no AIF medical organisation in the Middle East at that stage, the hospitalisation, accommodation and return of the Australians was gladly accepted by 2 NZEF medical services. Some were also sent to the United Kingdom via Spain at this time.

All those who were repatriated could tell tales of trial and hardship but their morale was high. They were all unanimous that Red Cross parcels were a major factor in keeping them alive in the period of their captivity. Their appreciation of the Red Cross was such that one group of New Zealanders voluntarily subscribed no less a sum than £1814 to the New Zealand Red Cross Society within a few days of their return to Egypt.

In May 1944 another group reached Egypt from Germany via Spain. It included 1 officer and 13 other ranks as protected personnel and 47 invalids. Repatriation of a much larger number of medical personnel, including officers, was planned for May 1944; and in fact all arrangements were made for the great changeover in British medical staff that would necessarily ensue. At the last moment the repatriation of all fit medical personnel was stopped. The only medical officers from Greece and Crete to be repatriated before the end of the war were those who were recommended by the page 151 Mixed Medical Commission, which came once every six months. Then on 8 February 1945 a further group of eighty-two invalids reached Egypt following another exchange with Germany of sick and wounded prisoners of war.

By March 1945 the Russian advance liberated some thousands of Allied prisoners of war in camps in Poland and East Prussia. Of these, seventy-three New Zealanders reached Egypt via Odessa in March 1945, while there were three medical officers and some other ranks in a group which reached Naples through Odessa on 2 April 1945. With the rapid final advance into Germany a small number of prisoners of war was flown south to Italy in succeeding months, but the bulk of New Zealand prisoners of war reached England by air from western Europe in May 1945. The hospitalisation and medical boarding of the latter group is covered in the section on the New Zealand Medical Services with the Repatriation Group in the United Kingdom.