New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy
AFTER its momentous, and to some extent disastrous, campaign in Libya in November and December 1941, the New Zealand Division was not required to undertake any further desert battles until it was flung into the line again in June 1942, after a hectic dash from Syria, to help stem the advance of Rommel's forces at the Alamein line.
The medical units, along with the rest of the Division, celebrated Christmas 1941 and New Year 1942 at Baggush before moving temporarily to the Canal Zone and later to Syria. Thoughts turned to the Pacific following the attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese on 7 December 1941 and the entry of the United States of America into the war.
On 8 January 1942 a new commanding officer was appointed to each field ambulance to replace the previous commanders who had been taken prisoner of war. Lieutenant-Colonels R. D. King, J. P. McQuilkin,1 and F. P. Furkert were appointed to the command of 4, 5, and 6 Field Ambulances respectively. The officer strength of the units remained below establishment until after the end of January, postings made at that stage being insufficient to replace losses. The timely arrival of medical reinforcements from New Zealand on HS Maunganui on 25 January, however, enabled all units to be built up to strength. These reinforcements, 10 officers and 117 other ranks, had been sent from New Zealand at short notice—and after the Japanese move in the Pacific—in response to an urgent request by DDMS 2 NZEF when news of the losses in the Libyan campaign was received. They were to be the last major reinforcement for some twelve months, as during 1942 mobilised troops were retained in New Zealand for the defence of New Zealand and Pacific islands following the southward drive of the Japanese.
Early in 1942 the possible repercussions of the entry of Japan into the war were realised in 2 NZEF in the Middle East. The threat to Australia and New Zealand as the Japanese drove southwards made it inevitable that the defence of New Zealand and nearby Pacific islands had to be considered, and the Division in the Middle East page 299 was not now the only major commitment of the New Zealand Army. The 8th Reinforcements were held back in New Zealand and, in any case, the passage of troopships to the Middle East would have been fraught with great danger.
Fortunately, the protection offered under the Geneva Convention to hospital ships and medical personnel enabled the Maunganui and other hospital ships to continue their voyages to and from the Middle East, taking over medical reinforcements as available and as required, and bringing back the sick and wounded.