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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy


page 144


BACK in Egypt the hospitals received the casualties from the campaigns in Greece and Crete. On 23 April instructions were received by 2 General Hospital to make preparations for the possible admission of large numbers of battle casualties from Greece. Fortunately, 3 General Hospital at Helmieh was just ready to receive patients; this unit took 120 medical cases from 2 General Hospital, and with normal discharges the number of patients at Helwan was reduced to 250. On 24 April the unit took over the section behind the sisters' quarters, Gubalieh, dug in tents, and erected a tented hospital. The first casualties from Greece arrived on 23 April when 70 patients were transferred from 26 British General Hospital, Kephissia. Some of the medical officers and orderlies from 2 and 3 General Hospitals and Maadi Camp Hospital were sent off to disembarkation ports to assist with the wounded, but these cases were all accommodated at first in British hospitals, where they received their initial treatment. One hundred and thirty-one more patients from Greece were admitted to 2 General Hospital on 20 May.

Two convoys of Australians had arrived from Tobruk on 14 May. With 757 beds equipped, 2 General Hospital now had a total of 669 patients. Authority was received on the 29th for 2 General Hospital to expand to 900 beds, and the erection of extra tented wards was pushed ahead in the Gubalieh area. However, on 31 May, when the arrival of a convoy of 375 casualties next day was announced, there were only 830 beds in the hospital. To tide over the interval before new wards could be equipped, the unit found accommodation in the cinema opposite the hospital. The convoy duly arrived and the total of patients jumped to 967; 48 hours later all were transferred to actual hospital accommodation.

The first patients admitted to 3 General Hospital were 18 casualties from Greece. They arrived on 23 April. From then on patients were admitted in large numbers, both from Greece and from the Western Desert. The German Afrika Korps had made its first appearance in the desert in March, and the British troops lost the page 145 territory gained during General Wavell's offensive against the Italians.

colour map of mediterranean

Central and Eastern Mediterranean

Large convoys were admitted to 3 General Hospital during May, testing to the full the efficiency of a staff new to their duties. On the 29th 290 battle casualties were admitted from Crete, but the largest convoy was one of 302 patients from the Western Desert. This was the largest convoy admitted in the history of the unit.

Throughout this busy period developmental work continued, and at times it became difficult to find enough equipped beds to meet the influx of sick and wounded. An epidemic of influenza among the 5th Reinforcements resulted in 261 patients being admitted, and the hospital was placed in isolation for 14 days. A further complication was an epidemic of sandfly fever among the staff. Very few escaped infection, and at one stage 42 members of the unit were in hospital with this complaint. Despite all these difficulties, large numbers of patients were received and cared for, and although the hospital had begun operations by dealing mainly with medical cases, it was able, when required, to deal with large numbers of surgical cases.

The Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Rt. Hon. P. Fraser, arrived in Egypt shortly after the evacuation of Greece, and visited the wounded in the hospitals, speaking to the men individually or in small groups for a few minutes each. He also inspected the hospitals and expressed himself as very satisfied with the attention given the sick and wounded.

The Wounded From Greece and Crete

Not many seriously wounded came from Greece. Most of them were in hospital in Athens and had to be left behind. Those who were admitted to hospitals in Egypt seemed to suffer as much from mental stress as from physical injury. There was an airfield near one of the hospitals and aircraft sometimes flew low over the wards. On the approach of a plane some of the men, not knowing what they were doing, would take cover under their beds. Some were rather bewildered and shocked and found it hard to realise they were safe.

The wounded from Crete brought back with them harrowing tales of battle-tired men. As the sisters sponged them or dressed their wounds, the men spoke of waves of parachute troops, of page 146 enemy control of the air, and of the merciless ground strafing of individual targets. The wounded arrived at hospital tired, haggard, and unkempt, but in a surprisingly short time, with rest and good food, they had regained their normal confidence.

Hospital Ships

The more seriously wounded were invalided back to New Zealand on the Maunganui, which arrived at Port Tewfik on 22 May on her first voyage as a hospital ship, with Col D. N. W. Murray1 in command and Miss E. M. Lewis2 as Matron. To take most of the wounded men the ship was kept in port until 10 June, when she took on board 338 New Zealanders and 40 Australians for the journey home. Between January and April the ship had been refitted at Wellington as a floating hospital, thoroughly up-to-date in every way and fully equipped with the latest medical and surgical appliances. Her interior was as impressive as her striking outer appearance, with its gleaming whiteness relieved by a green band round the hull and huge Red Crosses on each side. The operating block—main theatre, plaster room, and X-ray department—was an object of special pride, often admired by the staffs of other hospital ships.

The patients had come from Cairo by hospital train overnight, and embarkation began early on 10 June. The system of embarkation had been well planned beforehand and in three hours all the patients were on board, including 79 stretcher cases. Surprise was expressed by the British embarkation officers that loading had been completed so quickly. During the morning General Freyberg and Brig MacCormick talked with the patients on the ambulance train and on the ship.

Whether walking or on stretchers, the patients came on board with broad grins, pleased at the thought of going home. Guides page 147 or stretcher-bearers took them to their beds in the wards, whose cool green and cream walls were a restful contrast to the glare of the desert. The sisters ensured that the men were comfortable. The first meal on board was a revelation. An abundance of New Zealand produce kept fresh in the freezing chambers made the patients realise what they had been missing.

The Maunganui finished taking on oil and water in the afternoon and set sail on her month's voyage to New Zealand, calling at Colombo and Fremantle, where the men able to go ashore were entertained by local residents. Then came a welcome for all at Wellington, where the patients passed into the care of the Casualty Clearing Hospital at Aotea Quay. After a few days the Maunganui turned her nose again to the Middle East for the second of her steady round of voyages. On the way to Egypt the medical staff cleaned up the ship and prepared for the next intake of sick and wounded.

Before the Maunganui reached Port Tewfik again in August the Netherlands hospital ship Oranje had called there for a load of Australian and New Zealand patients. The Oranje, a magnificent new ship, large and fast, had been made available to Australia and New Zealand to bring home sick and wounded from the Middle East. Fitted out earlier in the year as a hospital ship, she had a composite Dutch, Australian, and New Zealand medical staff. The New Zealand complement remained on board throughout the war, though later the ship was mainly engaged in taking British invalids to the United Kingdom. On 7 August the Oranje embarked 199 New Zealand and 431 Australian patients.

2 General Hospital

June was a particularly busy month at 2 General Hospital, with 1127 admissions, including 360 battle casualties. In nine months the hospital had admitted 7560 patients, and in addition a large number had attended the out-patient department. Dealing with these admissions called for the co-operation of all ranks, and the quality of the work done was of a high order. Col Spencer paid the following tribute to his staff in his monthly report to DDMS 2 NZEF:

‘The medical officers, I consider, have maintained a very high clinical standard, both surgical and medical; the work of the sisters has been consistently good and thorough, as is borne out by the page 148 testimony of many hundreds of patients; but I should like to draw special attention to the solid and unremitting toil of the NCOs and medical orderlies. In spite of the addition of natives for the more menial tasks, the brunt of the ward work has fallen on the corporals and privates of the unit. Always understaffed in the wards, with a very big turnover of patients, they have worked on at their daily tasks with hardly even a grumble. This has called for much hard physical exertion due to the nature of the building and the carriage of patients, packs, and meals up and down two to four flights of stairs. It would be invidious to single out any special department, but I feel that equal praise should go to the cooks, clerks, orderlies in charge of linen, pack, and ordnance stores, ward and medical orderlies.’

The weather during July was very trying and showed its effects on staff and patients alike. A succession of hot and sticky nights made sleep difficult and unrefreshing. Constant war was waged against bed-bugs in all staff quarters, though fortunately the hospital itself was almost entirely free of them. In some of the new tented wards, however, the patients were particularly troubled for a few nights.

During July the unit said goodbye to ten men who were posted to the newly formed Mobile Surgical Unit. These men were carefully selected and were among the best in the unit. This was the first serious encroachment on the original staff of the hospital, which had trained and worked in harmony to such good purpose.

The Field Ambulances

On its return from Greece 4 Field Ambulance went to Helwan Camp, the re-mustering camp for all New Zealand troops evacuated. Here the unit set up tentage for a camp hospital on the area previously occupied by 6 Field Ambulance. At Garawi, a mile or two beyond Helwan, an isolation camp hospital was established by A Company for the nursing of influenza patients from the 5th Reinforcements. At the end of May 4 Field Ambulance provided a party of four medical officers and 40 men to assist in receiving wounded from Crete at the Alexandria wharves and in the adjacent staging camps.

After the return of the medical units from Crete, a week's leave was granted to all those who had taken part in the campaign, a much-needed rest and break; and for three weeks duties or training were almost negligible and there was frequent day leave to Cairo. page 149 During this time 5 and 6 Field Ambulances moved to a camp at Garawi.

Garawi was not encouraging; it seemed like the last place on God's earth. The new CO 6 Field Ambulance, Lt-Col Speight,3 suggested that it would be an excellent breaking-in ground as the unit, when it went into the Western Desert, would be likely to find few worse places. It was a completely tented camp, out in shelterless, blazing desert, swept each afternoon by hot winds and blinding and stinging sandstorms. The summer of 1941 was said to be the hottest Egypt had experienced for 50 years—the same was also said of later summers. There were no canteen or entertainment facilities in the area, and the nearest Naafi and cinema were at Helwan Camp, a two-mile walk, and an infrequent and unreliable bus service covered the five miles or so to Helwan township. The place seemed to all intents and purposes completely cut off from the outside world.

The following account of life in 6 Field Ambulance by Pte A. Ashley-Jones4 describes what was more or less common to all three field ambulances at Garawi and Helwan before the Libyan campaign:

‘The life had its compensations in some small measure and, in throwing the men largely on their own resources for entertainment and in occupying their spare time, helped to mould together into a unified body again those of the original unit and the large number of reinforcements soon drafted in to build up its normal complement. A canteen was soon operating within the unit, run by representatives of the companies, and a small library started. Sports were confined to cricket and athletic training with an occasional trip to Maadi baths for swimming. Even in the heat enthusiasts would turn out for an inter-company cricket match or to train for one of the proposed athletic meetings. In the early afternoon, “siesta” period held sway and everyone lay on flimsy, cane-trellis bedsteads, completely or almost completely unclothed, and perspired through the terrific heat of the afternoon.

‘Several athletic meetings were held between companies of the medical units, and finally considerable enthusiasm centred on the page 150 divisional meeting held in early August at the Farouk Stadium in Cairo, at which the unit was represented in several events.

‘The training programme that had come into operation in late June was not exacting. There was little equipment of any sort so it had to take the form of physical training, lectures, and route marches, with periods of somewhat irksome parade-ground drill. But even the routine training had its lighter moments, and the dramatic presentation of Major Lovell's lectures on anatomy and physiology provided emotional as well as intellectual stimulus.

‘Physical training was the early-morning routine at 6 a.m., after an early cup of tea. The sergeant who officiated usually called in vain for the older members to turn out and had to be content with a parade of reinforcements. Games and exercises frequently gave way to a short run to the showers close by. One morning the Egyptian newsvendor, a regular visitor to the lines, wishing to take part in callisthenics, removed his dirty “nighty” and displayed, to the surprise of all, not only a fine physique but also a set of immaculate underwear.

‘Occasionally the monotony of camp life was broken by a minor celebration, a ceremonial parade, or a trip to Cairo, where the recently established New Zealand Forces Club, with its fine appointments, provided the enormous quantities of ice cream, fruit salad, and iced drinks needed to meet the demands of the soldier's ever-present and unquenchable thirst. On one occasion, to dispose of accumulated canteen profits, the unit indulged in a dinner of quite elaborate proportions, followed by an informal smoke concert. Some of the items would hardly have graced a drawing room. As those who preferred Bach or Beethoven to the strains of bawdy lyrics could listen at almost any time outside the sergeants’ mess to Sgt Dudley Ford's pianoforte renderings of the works of the masters, and as those of a more religious turn of mind had frequent opportunity to express their devotions in informal song service, nobody could really object to the more riotous element expressing itself occasionally in a little harmless revelry.’

Replacing 4 Field Ambulance, 6 Field Ambulance in August 1941 took over the administration of Helwan Camp Hospital. With permanent hut accommodation and a YMCA hut, a Naafi, and a cinema close by, Helwan Camp seemed, after Garawi, like a return to civilisation.

The honour of presenting a cheque to the Naval Welfare Fund from the New Zealand Division fell to L-Cpl D. W. Sampson of 6 Field Ambulance. This voluntary contribution from all ranks was in recognition of the Royal Navy's assistance in the evacuation of page 151 Greece and Crete and was presented to Admiral Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, at Alexandria.

1 General Hospital Reorganised

When 1 General Hospital returned from Greece it went to Maadi Camp. The unit counted its casualties and found them to be 79 prisoners of war and two killed. It heard with pride of the good work of its small group on Crete. The fate of the unit hung in the balance for a time—it might have ceased to be a hospital—but the decision was made to re-form it. Members of the staff who had been helping other medical units were recalled, reinforcements were posted, and a search for fresh equipment began.

In August Col Stout, who had been acting CO, and Col Boyd became Consultant Surgeon and Consultant Physician, 2 NZEF, respectively, while Col Pottinger was appointed commanding officer of the hospital. On 8 September Brig MacCormick inspected the unit and expressed his pleasure at its reconstitution, making mention of Quartermaster-Sergeant Rhind's5 good work in collecting the equipment.

Early in September the order came for the transfer of the administration of the hospital at Helwan to 1 General Hospital. It was desired to give 2 General Hospital an opportunity to take its turn as the ‘mobile’ general hospital of 2 NZEF, and it was felt that a change of conditions might benefit the health of the staff.

With mixed feelings the staff of 2 General Hospital prepared to leave the hospital where they had worked for nearly twelve months. Though loth to leave the institution, most welcomed the change and the possible opportunity of establishing and running a field hospital. The conditions under which they had been working were as near to those of a civilian hospital as would be possible in an army on active service, and there was a danger of becoming too set and stale. But, in the words of the commanding officer, Col Spencer:

‘The monotony of the same daily toil week after week, and the heat of the summer months, when the hospital was full to capacity and staff was short, never affected the efficiency or thoroughness of our work—calls for extra duty, night or day, were answered without exception with energy and cheerfulness…. For us there page 152 is none of the élan of a combatant unit. The success of a hospital is dependent on a spirit of service to one's fellows—service which is freely and cheerfully given under all circumstances. It is this spirit which has built up the name of 2 General Hospital, and I rest confident that the same spirit will enable us to answer any call made on us in the days to come for the utmost well-being of the sick and wounded who may find themselves under our care.’

On 15 September an advanced party from 1 General Hospital moved to Helwan, the change-over being completed on the 18th. The work of the hospital in its care for 530 patients continued without interruption. 1 General Hospital was to remain at Helwan until April 1944. The hospital had been expanded to 900 beds and preparations were made for emergency expansion to 1200 beds.


At this time two innovations that had a marked effect on the future of the NZANS were introduced. One was the abolition of the rank of staff nurse and the adoption of ‘pips’ instead of stripes as badges of rank. The psychological effect on the masculine mind of this added prestige was both interesting and amusing.

Then, too, the first application from a sister of the NZANS for permission to marry was received. The pros and cons of such a step being taken by a sister on overseas service gave Headquarters much thought before the policy to be adopted was decided on. However, at length permission was given, and to 2 General Hospital fell the honour of the first ‘mess’ wedding. The reception at the Kiwi Club, Helwan, was attended by the sisters of both 1 and 2 General Hospitals and a number of friends from New Zealand units.

In the years to follow, many such functions were celebrated. A wedding in the mess could be coped with in the same easy, happy manner as all mess social functions. To all members of the NZANS, and later of the WAAC, who married overseas, went the sincerest best wishes of their fellow sisters and nurses.

Expansion of 3 General Hospital

By the end of July 1941 the work of 3 General Hospital at Helmieh had so increased that it was necessary to provide more accommodation, and the establishment was increased from 600 to page 153 900 beds. The number of occupied beds remained comparatively steady, with convoys of admissions being offset to some extent by the evacuation of Grade E patients to New Zealand.

The first anniversary of 3 General Hospital on 28 October 1941 was celebrated by a dance and social evening in the Garrison Hall, Helmieh. Most of the staff there had sailed with the unit from Wellington, not many changes or additions having then taken place. Since its arrival in Egypt in March the unit had worked hard tending sick and wounded, mainly New Zealanders, but also British and Australians, and had continued the task of developing and improving a barren site into a garden hospital. During the year over 4800 patients had been treated. Little did the unit realise that there were another 40,000 patients to follow.

1 Col D. N. W. Murray, CMG,* DSO,* m.i.d. (3); born Auckland, 28 Aug 1876; Medical Practitioner, Auckland; South African War 1900, Corporal RAMC; 1 NZEF 1914-19, Egypt, Gallipoli, France, Germany; CO Mounted Fd Amb; CO 2 Fd Amb; President Travelling Medical Board, Anzac Corps, France; ADMS NZ Div. Germany; Commandant Second Army Medical School, France; CO Military Hospital, Auckland, 1919; OC Troops HS Maunganui Apr 1941-Feb 1942; died Auckland, 4 Sep 1945.

* First World War.

2 Matron Miss E. M. Lewis, RRC, m.i.d.; born England, 14 Feb 1882; Matron, Blenheim Hospital; 1 NZEF 1916-19, Sister, Egypt, and Hospital Ship Assaye; Matron HS Maunganui Apr 1941-Feb 1942 and Aug 1942-Nov 1944.

3 Col N. C. Speight, CBE, ED; born Dunedin, 6 Jul 1899; Surgeon, Dunedin; Medical Officer 1 Conv Depot Mar-Nov 1940; 2 i/c 4 Fd Amb Nov 1940-Jun 1941; CO 6 Fd Amb Jun-Nov 1941; p.w. Libya, Nov 1941; repatriated Apr 1942; ADMS 4 Div (NZ) Nov 1942-Mar 1943; ADMS 3 Div (Pacific) Mar 1943-Nov 1944.

4 Sgt A. Ashley-Jones; born Paraparaumu, 5 Mar 1913; public servant, Wellington.

5 Lt R. S. Rhind, m.i.d.; born Lyttelton, 9 Sep 1896; clerk, Lyttelton; NCO 1 Gen Hosp May 1940-Feb 1942; Quartermaster 1 CCS Feb-Nov 1942, 3 Gen Hosp Nov 1942-Jun 1943.