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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

The Break-through

The Break-through

Let Driver Swan continue his story:

‘At eleven o'clock we were told to move into position, as the enemy was due to attack at any time, and we were to move off and attempt a break-through. We felt sorry for the infantry boys, as they had repulsed some strong attacks during the day and were preparing to do it again. We were placed on the outside column of a nine-row front, and at a given signal the whole formation moved off, none of us knowing just what to expect. Shortly after moving off the convoy was engaged by ineffective mortar and machine-gun fire, so the whole formation swung to the right and had only travelled a short distance when suddenly all Hell broke loose as we ran into the enemy. What made us do it no one knows, but all the trucks closed in together and made a beautiful target for the enemy, who was using every type of weapon he could bring to bear. He was firing tracer tank shells close to the trucks, and his machine-gun fire, which was trained between the rows, took a heavy toll of the boys who panicked and jumped off the vehicles to run for better cover. An incendiary shell hit an ambulance carrying wounded, behind my truck, causing it to go up in flames and light up the whole area, but fortunately the patients all got out and made a run for it, so we moved up to the front of the convoy and then swung right, and headed for some smoke that was hanging low over the ground. As we were nearing this a 3-ton truck came roaring up, and as it drew level there was a loud report and it went up in flames, and by the light of this we could see men being knocked down by the transport everywhere. We could do nothing about it so kept on going, and eventually caught up with a small group of vehicles containing two of our ambulances and trucks from several other units. When we considered we had travelled a safe distance from the battle and it was safe to stop, we pulled up to find out just where we were and what direction we would have to take; and it was during this halt that I discovered that an armour-piercing tank shell had gone through the left mudguard of my truck, grazed both tires, and come out through the back mud-flap. If this shell had been aimed a few inches to the left, it would have meant the end of my truck, and my spare driver would probably have been seriously wounded. After a while we moved off again and travelled due east by the stars throughout the remainder of the night. Dawn found our little convoy miles from anywhere.

page 209

‘After a breakfast halt the medical orderlies attended and fed the wounded, and we buried two soldiers who had passed away during the trip, then set off once more and travelled most of the day, stopping occasionally to attend to the patients.’

In the break-through four New Zealand and two American Field Service ambulance cars and two trucks were set on fire or disabled, and 15 men of 5 Field Ambulance and three AFS drivers were taken prisoner. It was possible to get some of the wounded and medical staff from the disabled vehicles on to trucks which continued eastwards. Over 300 wounded were brought out. General Freyberg experienced a rough journey in his caravan, which was hit at least twice and had the windscreen shattered, but during the height of the battle he got out of bed and viewed the action through a window, likening it to Balaclava. During the day (28 June) the GOC was sent by air from El Daba to 1 General Hospital at Helwan, where he made a quick recovery.

During the break-through by 4 Brigade, Dvr. C. C. Robinson3 went forward in his ambulance behind the infantry making the attack. Although ordered to follow the comparatively safe centre of the attack, he zigzagged his ambulance across the whole battlefield, ignoring the heavy machine-gun fire. Every wounded man unable to walk he loaded on his ambulance, and brought it safely out laden with wounded.

On 28 June the divisional medical group, which had travelled all night except for short stops to attend to the wounded, was joined by eleven ambulance cars from 4 and 5 MDSs, these units having also moved east to the Alamein Line. When the convoy reached the line at 8 p.m., most of the wounded were sent on to 14 British CCS at El Hammam, while some were admitted to the MDS established in the Kaponga Box earlier that day by 4 Field Ambulance. Coming into the Box with 6 Brigade, A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, under Maj R. A. Elliott, took over the dressing station on 30 June, and 4 Field Ambulance set up its MDS again some 15 miles to the east.

The delaying action at Minqar Qaim was an important factor in slowing down the momentum of the enemy's advance into Egypt. The enemy spearhead, one of the panzer divisions, suffered heavy casualties, and in the night assault one German infantry battalion was almost destroyed.

3 Cpl C. C. Robinson, MM; born England, 29 Mar 1918; truck driver, Auckland.