Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
Detachment of 4 Field Ambulance
Detachment of 4 Field Ambulance
The 16 volunteers of 4 Field Ambulance and two men of the Mobile Surgical Unit, under command of Maj R. D. King, who had remained to care for the seriously wounded when 4 MDS and the Mobile Surgical Unit left the site near Sidi Azeiz, observed German tanks and other enemy vehicles approaching at 8 p.m. on 25 November, but this column stopped while still some distance off. At first light next morning enemy tanks had a short engagement with British armour about five miles west of the area, and the British column withdrew.page 177
‘All day long German convoys passed by our MDS. Some vehicles stopped and officers and men strode in to take a look around. In the afternoon General Rommel himself visited us. Before he left he gave orders that we were to be left alone and were to carry on with our work. German wounded were brought in, and before the end of the day we had one ward with nothing but Germans in it, some of them in a pitiful condition. One of our chaps took over this ward by himself.
‘At sunset a large convoy of RASC ambulances and trucks came over the horizon, bringing with them 275 wounded. [These had come from 6 MDS.] They had not been molested and had no idea that we had been captured. By using all available primus stoves (in the camp and on ambulances) we were able to give a cup of tea to all the patients in the convoy; but we could only give them bully and biscuits to eat. Some of the worst cases were attended to in our operating theatre, and the minor walking wounded were accommodated wherever it was possible to find room for them—some with the Germans, others in the morgue. The stretcher cases remained in the ambulances. There were no guards on our camp, and the convoy pulled out the following morning (27th). It arrived safely at a South African CCS.
‘The same morning a party of Italian motorised infantry arrived. They strutted around like bantam roosters, chattered a lot, and generally made nuisances of themselves. They would have perhaps gone further but for the fact that Maj King was able to make them understand that we were to be left alone, on the instructions of General Rommel, who had visited us the previous day. This was quite enough. The Italians left in undignified haste.
‘It took three of us all morning to redress the wounds of the Germans. Many of them were worse than they should have been owing to lack of proper primary treatment. One chap had to be literally peeled off his stretcher. He was stuck to it by his own blood….
‘In addition to our MDS with its three canvas wards, operating theatre, and odd tents, there was a ward left by the Mobile Surgical Unit. This was unfortuantely rather isolated from our own camp. In it were 28 mixed post-operative surgical cases, all of them fairly serious. One corporal and one orderly of the Mobile Surgical Unit looked after them. They even did the cooking and the burials. This ward greatly increased the work of the Major, the only MO in the camp. He was doing a great deal of operating, many of the more serious dressings, interviewing enemy visitors, supervising the whole camp, and generally keeping everyone cheerful. We had 150 patients and there were only 18 of us. The Major seemed to work without any rest.
‘On the third day, just as we were starting the morning dressings, four armoured cars came over the horizon. A British voice page 178 with a typical oath ordered us to put our hands in the air. With Bren, anti-tank, and .303 guns pointing at us we did not hesitate. As there were quite a number of German and Italian wounded strolling about, the fact that we were British took quite a lot of explaining. The armoured cars were on patrol and could do little for us. Shortly after, a New Zealand Bren-carrier patrol called in. The day passed quietly. Everyone was hopeful and wonderfully cheerful.
‘Towards evening the RASC ambulance convoy returned. It brought food, water, petrol, and cigarettes. What a feed we had that night! It seemed like Christmas. Throughout the night the whole staff worked to prepare patients for the evacuation. Fresh dressings were given to all cases. Anxious moments, when enemy tanks passed close to the area, held everyone in suspense, as the number of extra vehicles must have been obvious. However, closer investigation was not made. Next morning all the stretcher cases were loaded on the ambulances before breakfast and drivers fed their patients. After breakfast all hands helped pull down the tents, which were loaded on to the trucks together with all the equipment. The convoy left the area quietly in the morning, although enemy vehicles were still visible in the east. Then followed an uneventful trip of six hours to a South African CCS, where we handed over our 123 patients. These included 47 German and Italian prisoners.’
Maj King was awarded a well-deserved DSO for his services in this campaign.
At a 13 Corps medical conference on 5 December at Conference Cairn, Maj King was asked to form an MDS for 5 Brigade with the composite group he had gathered about him. Maj Wilson and Capt Jack joined him when Lt-Col Kippenberger's party reached Conference Cairn, and when the new 5 MDS went to Tobruk with 5 Brigade it received some equipment and reinforcements from men of 5 and 6 Field Ambulances who had been released from enemy hands. Two British medical officers were also posted to the unit.