Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific
II: 1 Netherlands Military Hospital Ship Oranje
II: 1 Netherlands Military Hospital Ship Oranje
In 1941 the Netherlands Government offered to the Governments of Australia and New Zealand the MV Oranje, a ship of 22,000 tons, for use as a hospital ship to convey Australian and New page 303 Zealand sick and wounded from the Middle East. This offer was gladly accepted by the two governments.
The ship, which had been completed in Amsterdam only in 1939, was partially converted in Batavia to its new purpose and sailed to Sydney to be fully equipped and completed as a hospital ship. In April 1941 the New Zealand War Cabinet sent the DGMS (Army and Air) and the DQMG to inspect the Oranje and discuss the staffing and equipment with Australian officers.
A conference of representatives of the Australian and New Zealand Military Forces, the Minister of the Army for Australia, and the Consul-General of the Netherlands Government was held at Sydney in April 1941.
According to the offer, the Netherlands Government was to be responsible for the whole of the cost of conversion, including all material, surgical equipment and medical stores, and for the whole of the upkeep whilst the Oranje was engaged as a hospital ship. The ship's staff comprised officers and crew of the Netherlands Mercantile Marine, and the medical establishment consisted of medical officers, nurses and other ranks of the Netherlands medical service, and a small supplementary staff of thirty, made up of Australian and New Zealand medical personnel. The Officer Commanding Troops (principal medical officer) and the officer in charge of the medical and surgical divisions were to be Dutch medical men specially selected by the Netherlands Government. It was agreed that the OC Troops would be in complete charge of all medical personnel and responsible for the general conduct, care and treatment of all sick and wounded soldiers from the time of their embarkation on the ship until their disembarkation. The Dutch matron was to be in charge of all female nursing and voluntary aid staff, and responsible to the OC Troops for their conduct and discipline.
Two senior medical officers, one Australian and one a New Zealander, were appointed to the staff by the respective Directors-General of Medical Services to be in charge of the administration and discipline of the members of the staff from their own countries. One was a surgeon and the other a physician, and they were available for consultation and advice on all matters affecting Australian and New Zealand sick and wounded.
The Oranje became the world's largest and fastest hospital ship and was able to carry over 600 patients. She left Sydney for Suez on her first voyage as a hospital ship on 2 July 1941 and called at Batavia, where the Netherlands staff embarked. Notification had been made through Stockholm to the German Government that the Oranje had sailed, and the Germans had acknowledged receipt of page 304 the communication, but word had not been received by the Netherlands Government that the German Government agreed to the use of the Oranje as a hospital ship. Consequently there was considerable delay at Aden, but finally authority was granted for the Oranje to proceed to Suez, where New Zealand and Australian sick and wounded were embarked on 6 August. New Zealand invalids carried on this voyage totalled 193, and Wellington was reached on 1 September.
At the outset it was realised that with three different nationalities constituting the staff of the hospital ship there were incipient difficulties of multiple control. Differences in temperament and language added to the problems of administration, as also did differences in procedure and disciplinary control.
At the conclusion of the first voyage, however, the Director-General of Medical Services reported that in all respects the voyage had been a complete success. After the second voyage most of the Dutch medical staff was withdrawn for service in the East Indies as Japan had entered the war, but the Dutch OC Troops and matron remained in control of the medical staff, which comprised mainly Australians and New Zealanders in almost equal proportions and only a few Dutch.
In 1942 the titles of the Australian and New Zealand OsC Troops were changed to liaison officers, which was the original intention. Both these officers then noticed a definite deterioration in their status and authority in the tripartite control. The standing orders of HS Oranje had made the liaison officers responsible for the discipline and control of their respective troops, but the OC Troops now showed a tendency to interfere.
In 1943 the Australian Forces were returned from the Middle East to Australia and the Australian medical staff was then withdrawn from the ship, the New Zealand staff increased, and a British medical staff later embarked. The medical staff was then made up of 12 from the Netherlands, 44 from the United Kingdom and 76 from New Zealand.
When the Australian medical staff was withdrawn for service in the Pacific theatre and was replaced by a British staff from the United Kingdom, there were added difficulties in having two disciplinary organisations in the one unit. The British wing was jealous of its individuality and maintained its company administration as a close corporation. Some of the British were regulars and were jealous of the New Zealanders who held key positions in so many departments of the hospital.
It was realised, even during the New Zealand-Australian regime, that tripartite control was cumbrous and undesirable, leading to jealousies and indecision, and was uneconomical in personnel. When page 305 the situation deteriorated under the New Zealand-United Kingdom regime, it was realised that it could not continue indefinitely. New Zealand desired to remove its staff but, at the urgent request of the War Office, consented to allow it to remain, partly in the hope of the ship being made available when required for New Zealand use, and partly because of the shortage of British staff.
Early in 1945 the United Kingdom withdrew the officer in charge of the United Kingdom troops and thereafter the British troops came under the disciplinary control of the New Zealand Army Liaison Officer. This removed one cause of disharmony and greatly improved the internal working of the unit.
Early in 1944 the Oranje underwent alterations at Durban whereby her bed accommodation was considerably increased to enable her to take as many as 870 patients. During 1944 and most of 1945 the ship was considered as being completely within the British pool of hospital ships, and operated under the direction of the War Office. Her speed and her versatility of accommodation rendered her a most valuable unit in the pool. On one voyage there might be a preponderance of severe surgical cases, and yet at short notice she could on the next voyage receive a load containing a large proportion of pulmonary tuberculosis or psychiatric cases. During this period she was running mostly between the Mediterrancan ports and the United Kingdom, with an occasional trip down the east coast of Africa to Mombasa and Durban. On the latter trips she carried sick and wounded both ways, repatriating South Africans, often coloured, and returning with British sick who had been evacuated to South Africa during the period the Mediterranean was closed.
The Oranje's speed was a great asset. At cruising speed Gibraltar could be reached in two days from Avonmouth, Naples in four, Port Said in six, and Durban in only sixteen. Very long voyages could be made without calling for fuel or water, as her fuel capacity was large, and all fresh water was made on board by condensation of sea water distilled by the heat of the exhaust gases.
The very speed of the Oranje, useful though it was for the evacuation of sick, provided quite a problem for the staff on short voyages. For example, the Oranje was sometimes engaged on the Naples-Liverpool run for weeks on end. The voyage took four days, and in that time the orderly room had to work day and night to prepare a complete nominal roll under all the various headings required for disembarkation. Then on arrival disembarkation had to start immediately in groups whose composition was not known to the staff until after the Embarkation Medical Officer came up the gangway. Disembarkation complete, the ship usually turned round page 306 for Naples within twenty-four hours, leaving four days for the staff to clean the ship, get the laundry done and prepare for another large load.
The New Zealand Medical Corps staff completed its duty in the Oranje on 26 November 1945. In all, the Oranje brought back from the Middle East 2542 New Zealand sick and wounded and carried over 15,000 sick and wounded altogether. The hospital ship rendered a sterling service.
In 1945 assistance in the return of invalids to New Zealand was given by several British hospital ships, which had also during the course of the war carried New Zealand battle casualties on the lines of communication on the North African and Palestine coasts and across the Mediterranean from Italy. Altogether, with the Maunganui as the mainstay and with the help of the Oranje and Wanganella and other Allied hospital ships, a creditable record was maintained in the evacuation of sick and wounded from 2 NZEF throughout the war.page 307page 308