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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

The Sangro Crossing

The Sangro Crossing

Although the skies remained heavy and low with cloud, and the wind bleak and cold, the rain ceased at last and the river began to fall. Throughout the 26th and 27th medium and fighter-bombers of the RAF flew over to batter the German defences. At 7.30 p.m. on the 27th the stretcher-bearers from 5 and 6 ADSs went to the battalion positions. Two and a half hours later they moved forward in pitch darkness with the files of infantrymen, squelching through the mud and wading across the icy streams of the Sangro riverbed. The main stream was waist-deep, with a swift, powerful current. Struggling with the stretchers, and almost paralysed by the cold, it was only with difficulty that they managed to keep their feet.

The battalions reached the northern bank and waited in silence until 2.45 a.m., when the artillery barrage opened and the infantry advanced to the attack. The medical officers and stretcher-bearers followed up and established the RAPs in suitable farm buildings. The teams attached to the 25 Battalion RAP found themselves approaching the crest of the low hills that rise from the bank of the river. Coming under shell and machine-gun fire, they were compelled to move back down the slope. The 26 Battalion RAP, with two stretcher-bearer teams attached, occupied a farmhouse at the foot of the heights, where they were sheltered from machine-gun fire but came in for a considerable amount of shelling. One ADS team only was attached to each of the 21, 23, and 24 Battalion RAPs.

The men from the ADSs worked with the RAP personnel, treating casualties brought in by the regimental stretcher-bearers, until about 2.30 p.m. They then assisted in the search for casualties left lying in the wake of the advance. Two teams went out to collect a number of wounded reported lying in minefields to the rear of 26 Battalion RAP. It was nerve-wracking work, each man treading with involuntary but futile caution in the darkness. Only one man was page 320 unfortunate enough to tread on a mine. Evacuated with ankles shattered and extensive body wounds, he died in the CCS a week later.

Throughout the night engineers had worked on the construction of two bridges, a Bailey bridge for 5 Brigade and a pontoon bridge on the 6 Brigade sector. At 8.10 a.m. the pontoon bridge received a direct hit which destroyed one span, killed nine men, and wounded several more. It was then subjected to continuous, accurate shellfire that made further progress impossible. The Bailey bridge was completed and had to suffice for both brigades, constituting a disheartening bottleneck. For the casualties accumulating at the RAPs the delay was serious. As the morning wore on it seemed that some of the more urgent cases would have to be carried back across the river, an operation that might have ended in disaster.

However, at half past ten the first ambulance car appeared at the 26 Battalion RAP, and at the sight of one load of casualties leaving for 6 ADS the situation seemed less desperate. After another long wait, ambulance cars and jeeps began to arrive at all RAPs. The stretcher-bearers carried on searching for wounded. Finally, their work finished, they made their way back to the ADS by twos and threes, helping walking wounded across the river en route.

Inside the shelters, with sterile instruments laid out ready and stretchers mounted over stoves for the treatment of shock, the orderlies on duty at the ADSs awaited the first casualties. A few, wounded by mines in the riverbed, arrived at 8.30 a.m., but the rush did not start until the evacuation from the RAPs across the river began. Many were in poor shape, urgently needing warmth and blood transfusions.

The stream of wounded continued throughout the day. There was no further shelling in the vicinity of 6 ADS. The German gunners seemed to be concentrating on the destruction of the Bailey bridge; but, in spite of heavy fire, it escaped damage. Admissions eased off during the night, and the orderlies were able to catch up on a little sleep. By ones and twos the stretcher-bearers arrived exhausted, and turned in. On the 29th, casualties merely trickled through. Among them were Italian civilians, Germans, and conscripted Poles in German uniform.

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Having failed to destroy the bridge by shellfire, the enemy began bombing and strafing it, but again was unsuccessful. The RAF took a hand in this activity, and soon dogfights were in progress over the river.