Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
At the CCS
At the CCS
The Battle of Alamein provided 1 NZ CCS at Gharbanyat with the busiest period of its life, but the unit rose to the occasion. Surgeons, doctors, sisters, medical orderlies, stretcher-bearers, and cooks all gave of their best.
The CCS and the adjacent ⅔ Australian CCS and 10 British CCS received patients in rotation. The unit started receiving at 5 p.m. on 24 October, and within three hours over 300 cases had been admitted, most being seriously wounded. At half past eight a special evacuation by road to Alexandria cleared some of the wards and the unit was able to admit a further 70 casualties. No member of the staff will ever forget that first night. Every department was working at top pressure, all wards and annexes were congested, stretcher cases were everywhere. Special attention could be given only to the very seriously wounded, while for the others there was time only to see that they were as comfortable as possible and well covered with blankets. More than anything else, the wounded appreciated hot drinks, and the Padre ensured that all of them page 235 received Red Cross cigarettes and chocolate. Morphia gave relief to those in pain but shock and exhaustion brought instant sleep to most.
The next day, Sunday, a blockage on the railway line upset the evacuation of wounded, and patients had to be taken by road to the train at Ikingi Maryut. This caused a shortage of ambulances for a while and casualties accumulated. A further 300 cases came in during the day, so that by night the hospital was again full to capacity. Overnight a heavy rainstorm brought further problems when some of the tents leaked. No one had time to stop and make repairs. Next morning a strong wind quickly dried the ground, but then there was dust to contend with.
And so the busy period continued day after day. Admissions for the ensuing week averaged over 200 daily. Extra tentage had now been erected, bringing the number of wards to ten. All the staff worked long hours. Some of the sisters and orderlies were often on duty over eighteen hours a day. The sisters were proud to be attending to battle casualties in the forward area. After such long hours on duty it was a great relief to get out of one's department and enjoy the fresh air while walking across for a quick meal at the cookhouse.
Volunteers freely offered their services for extra tasks such as stretcher-bearing. The ASC drivers and general duties teams, though not at all accustomed to nursing, were willing assistants in the wards, and by attending to routine jobs enabled the orderlies to employ their skill where it was most needed. A number of men had roving commissions and lent a hand where necessary. Considerable assistance was given by a team of Mauritians who arrived at the hospital each morning. Two or three were attached to each department and proved first-class workers. Although they spoke French only, they were quick to see what was required and were keen to learn.
Much could be written about the work of the operating theatre and of the trials and difficulties that the number of serious cases brought its staff. Naturally the most important, it was by far the busiest section of the whole unit, working non-stop for ten days and nights. The CCS had only one theatre at this time. It was an EPIP tent, and in it two operating tables were set up. Working in this very confined space, two surgical teams, under Maj T. W. page 236 Harrison and Capt A. W. Douglas,2 operated almost continuously for 72 hours in eight-hour shifts. All the operations were major ones. Then, when the work was at its peak, Capt Douglas had to go off duty with a septic finger. Col T. D. M. Stout and Maj W. M. Brown3 were attached at this time and it was possible to form three operating teams. After an eight-hour shift in the theatre, the orderlies of each team had to spend a further eight hours sterilising and cleaning up. With endless major operations, the cramped space and the heat, and with but a few hours' sleep daily, these surgical teams required extreme patience and endurance. They did a grand job and saved many lives.
When it was seen that the main theatre could not possibly cope with all the cases requiring surgical treatment, the MI tent was equipped with surgical and anæsthetic equipment and used as a small operating theatre. Maj Brown, and later Lt-Col Hunter, performed the surgery here, with the assistance of a theatre team. Long hours were worked in this small department, too, and many patients were handled. Most of the wounds treated were slight, requiring only surgical cleaning, dusting with sulphanilamide powder, and dressing with vaseline gauze.
With the ambulance convoys arriving unheralded at all hours of the day and night, and famished drivers and wounded all in need of a meal, the hospital cookhouse was almost as important as the theatre. The cooks kept up a 24-hour service and ensured that the large numbers passing through the unit were able to have a meal. Food was kept in special hot-boxes and cocoa or coffee was always available. Walking patients ate at the cookhouse, but the wards' staffs had to collect meals for stretcher cases.
The New Zealand CCS was not, of course, in the field to deal with New Zealand sick and wounded alone. Medical services were pooled and the unit was under Corps control, admitting troops from all the Allied formations that constituted Eighth Army—cheery Australians, often too long for their stretchers; South Africans, who page 237 could always be told by their solid weight; staunch Scots from the Highland Division; and English Tommies, always to be admired for their patience and philosophical acceptance of suffering. Someone could always be found to interpret for the Fighting French, but Greeks, Indians, and Italian and German wounded prisoners of war presented difficulties, particularly when their medical documents were written in their own language.
Patients did not remain long at the CCS during this busy period. All who were fit to travel went on as soon as possible, some remaining for only an hour or so. Most of the wounded were sent by train from Gharbanyat station to hospitals in the Delta area, but some went by road to Alexandria. Air evacuation had been instituted just before the battle began, and cases urgently needing specialised treatment went by hospital plane to Cairo. The landing ground was about three-quarters of an hour by road from the CCS and the air journey from there took just over an hour.