Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
THE 4 Field Ambulance and 4 Field Hygiene Section embarked on HMT Dunera at Lyttelton on 5 January 1940. The Dunera was a regular Army troopship owned by the British India Line and was used before the war to take drafts of British troops to Indian and Eastern stations. The other five transports conveying the First Echelon overseas were passenger liners—Orion, Strathaird, Empress of Canada, Rangitata, and Sobieski—and on them were medical groups, each including three nursing sisters chosen by the Matron-in-Chief, Miss I. G. Willis,1 to run the ships' hospitals. The naval escort for the first stage of the voyage was HMS Ramillies, HMAS Canberra, and HMS Leander.
The spacious promenade and sun decks which catered for the former tourists on these liners were lacking on the Dunera, with the result that the space available for both training and recreation was limited. Cabins were allotted to officers and senior NCOs, but most of the men were less happily accommodated in troop decks. Here the men were divided into messes at long wooden tables, averaging from 14 to 18 men to each mess. At night they slept in hammocks slung above the tables. The hammocks were stowed away, Navy fashion, at reveille in lockers in the ship's hold. Officers and senior NCOs fed in dining rooms, where they were attended by Indian waiters in a picturesque uniform of long flowing blue coat over a spotless white gown, complete with a broad waist sash and turban. In the men's messes conditions were not nearly so comfortable.
In their leisure time on the ship the men read books, played card games or ‘housie’ (the only form of gambling with official sanction), wrote letters, played deck quoits, sunbathed, or leaned over the ship's rails watching the sea. Canteens did a brisk trade in cigarettes, tobacco, chocolate, and beer.
After the men had got over the seasickness induced by the heavy seas as they passed through Bass Strait into the Australian Bight, page 15 they began to settle down to shipboard life. When the liners pulled in to the wharves at Fremantle, almost everyone was given shore leave. It was a brief stay, but the people of Perth, a few miles inland, did their utmost to make it a full one and threw their city open to the visiting troops. They took men to their homes or drove them in cars around the city and its picturesque surroundings. They provided refreshments and meals, and in the evening numerous dance halls were filled with the city's attractive girls. Few will forget Perth's warm welcome. Throughout the war this hospitality was given to all New Zealand troops on their outward and homeward voyages, especially to those on the hospital ships.
An announcement on 23 January that Egypt was the destination of the First Echelon put an end to many shipboard rumours. Lectures on Egypt, the religion and customs of its people, and the precautions to be taken against disease in that country proved very interesting.
The convoy anchored at Colombo on 30 January. No sooner had the transports moored than they were surrounded by swarms of small boats laden with a varied assortment of curios and fruit. For most of the troops it was their first experience of native vendors and their wiles. Sales were made after much haggling. Shrewd practices in the boats below drew a bombardment of pineapple tops from the troops on deck—after that the pineapples were sold with the tops removed. Men from the Dunera had shore leave on 31 January, after a long wait for passenger lighters to take them from the roadstead. Most spent the greater part of their leave sightseeing or strolling around the native quarter looking for bargains in poky little shops. Another popular leave diversion was rickshaw racing.
The voyage across the Arabian Sea from Colombo was calm and uneventful. In the Red Sea the troops could see stretches of bare, rugged coastline on each side—Eritrea and Arabia. On the run to Port Tewfik the convoy increased speed, leaving the Dunera, the slowest ship, to bring up the rear. At Port Tewfik a swarm of Egyptian hawkers tried to dispose of oranges, cigarettes, wallets, Turkish delight, and toffees. Besides the warnings given in medical lectures, the dirtiness of the boatmen and the filth on the wharf deterred most of the troops from making purchases. Scrambling page 16 amid the dirt and refuse on the wharf, small children and adults begged baksheesh from the troops and fought for coins and cigarettes thrown down to them. Most of the men were weary of life on board ship and were glad when orders came to disembark.