Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
THE demand for extreme mobility was not an idle one. The Adriatic sector was again to be the destination of the Division in a secret move across Italy.
Preparations for the journey were completed by 26 August. On the morning of the 27th 6 Brigade left, and at ten o'clock A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, proceeded to the main road and joined the 680 vehicles of the brigade convoy. It was Sunday morning and scorching hot, and the pealing of church bells hung in the air. Civilians gazed curiously as the troops stood around the trucks in the inches-deep dust that covered the road and whitened the hedgerows.
The head of the column was already on the way, spreading along the roads at approximately twenty vehicles to the mile. Half an hour later A Company moved off and headed southwards through Siena. By the following morning, when HQ started the journey with the 2 NZ Division Troops Group, the whole Division was strung across the width of Italy.
The convoys swung eastwards at San Quirico and followed a roundabout route towards Lake Trasimene, then wound eastwards over tortuous secondary roads to strike Route 71 at Castiglione del Lago. The lake was shimmering under the moon as the stream of vehicles travelled on through the night, around the northern shores and down Route 75 past Perugia and Assisi. Gazing up the hillsides at the walls of Assisi, many would have liked to explore the historic town; but there were no halts and, moreover, because of the need for secrecy, all towns en route were out of bounds.
Passing the town signs of appropriately named Spello, A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, came to the staging area, some two miles south of Foligno, at 7 p.m. The transport ahead was pulling into the fields. Unit cooks assembled burners, and colonies of bivouac tents were appearing among the trees as the company came to a halt and made camp. After tea the commanding officer nipped in the bud many private schemes concerning nearby Foligno by announcing that, for security reasons, all ranks were confined to the area. page 383 The convoy had covered 130 miles during the day, halting only for lunch, and the troops bedded down early. Shortly after nightfall the quietness of an empty countryside lay over the encampment.
The morning was warm and moist, with a dense mist clinging to the ground and trees. Voices floated across from the road, where the vague figures of peasants, women carrying loads on their heads and men with donkeys and carts, were walking into Foligno. An old tower, with a stunted tree clinging to its ruined battlements, stood high above a nearby grove of oaks. The mist thinned out to a mere haze over the distant hills and villages, and the troops began to stir as engines started and the roar of petrol cookers arose. The leading units moved out on the second stage of the journey. A Company pulled back onto the road at 9 a.m. and followed the convoys ahead north-westward along Route 77.
Thenceforward the going was much more difficult. The column encountered steep hills and dangerously zigzagging roads as it passed along the route through Tolentino and past Macerata, to swing northwards through a region of broken country and roads deep in dust to Iesi. A Company's drivers were fortunate in covering the whole distance in daylight, the company arriving in the 6 Brigade assembly area, about a mile and a half to the north-west of the town, in the afternoon.
Headquarters 6 Field Ambulance and other units covered the last 104 arduous miles in darkness. People were awake in the villages, thrusting their heads out of windows or standing in groups in doorways, watching the darkened trucks roaring through. Dawn found 6 Field Ambulance north of Macerata. The drivers had been on the alert all night, easing their vehicles around hairpin bends above deep valleys, and now they were faced with roads deep in dust that, whirled up by the earlier convoys, had settled thickly over a wide area on either side. In the deceptive, early-morning light, the road verges were difficult to see. To fresh men the conditions would have been extremely difficult; to tired drivers they were almost impossible. Consequently, it was not surprising that two vehicles drove off the road. The orderly-room truck came to a halt straddling the edge of a steep bank, but was towed back without much delay with the aid of a Sherman tank.
The unit passed through Iesi and followed Route 76 to the coast to join B Company, which had moved up from Civita Castellana to page 384 make preparations for a divisional rest camp near Case Bruciate, north of Ancona.
During the early days of September the Division remained near Iesi, awaiting its new role. Operating as ADS in the 6 Brigade area, A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, occupied a pleasant field, half grass-covered and half planted in well-grown tobacco, and bounded by fruit-laden grape vines. The weather was fine and extremely hot, and as the only work was the treatment of a trickle of sickness cases, parties of men were transported to the beach each day. The rest of the company sprawled in the bivvies or around the radio, scattered through the vineyards and houses, or strolled along the winding lanes and up the hill through the massive gateway of Iesi. It was an attractive town and the people were friendly enough, though some claimed that, having been liberated by the Italian Arditi, they owed the Allies nothing.
The 6 Field Ambulance rest camp was east on the coast and only a hundred yards or so from the sea. A double-line railway and the coast road, Route 16, ran between the camp and the beach. Every joint in the rails had been expertly blown apart by the Germans and the power-line pylons had been neatly toppled. The difference between the rest camp atmosphere and that of a normal MDS was most noticeable. There were no ambulance cars driving up to reception during the night, and no loaded stretchers being hoisted out by waiting stretcher-bearers. There were no soldiers wandering about with bandaged arms, faces and legs, or spotted with applications of gentian violet or brilliant green. Also, there was no smoking rubbish hole, evil-smelling with burning blood-soaked dressings and fragments of clothing. Instead there was a gathering of casual, healthy-looking men, and the neat row of 180-pound tents in which they were housed, with bivouac tents hugging the boundary hedges or backed up against trees for shade.
Many times each day flights of fighters began their sorties by roaring low over the camp and beach; and occasionally a medium bomber jettisoned a stray bomb far out to sea, the splash and smoke vanishing before the report reached the shore. In the mornings the destroyers Loyal and Urchin steamed serenely past to throw the weight of their gunnery into the battle raging around Rimini. In the evenings the men, though themselves veterans of many page 385 thousands of miles of truck travel, sat along the banks at the roadside, smoking and lazily watching the stream of traffic passing up and down, or yarning with a party of South African engineers who were repairing the railway. With the assistance of the South Africans and their bulldozer, a football ground was levelled off nearby. It was smooth enough; but the freshly disturbed earth dried out in the sun and each game was played in a miniature dust-storm.