New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy
Attack on Ruweisat Ridge
Attack on Ruweisat Ridge
Some 14 miles south of Alamein was the long, low Ruweisat Ridge ranging from 150 to 200 feet above sea level. It was an important ridge and became the scene of furious fighting. By 11 July the enemy was established on its western end and 5 Indian Division on the eastern end, while 2 NZ Division held the ridge at Alam Nayil. The capture of Ruweisat now became a major objective of the Eighth Army. The New Zealand Division and 5 Indian Division launched an attack against its western end on the night 14–15 July with the object of seizing the crest of the ridge for observation. The assaulting troops were fairly heavily engaged from enemy outpost positions, but by daylight had established themselves on the ridge. However, enemy tanks prevented most of our anti-tank guns and other supporting arms from moving up to give close support. During 15 July our infantry held on to the ridge under constant enemy shell and mortar fire, but the absence of armoured assistance prevented our final consolidation on the objective. Then an armoured counter-attack overran most of 4 Brigade, whose tank support had not come forward. The 19th and 20th Battalions suffered heavily, as did 21 and 22 Battalions in 5 Brigade's night advance. During the night of 15–16 July a withdrawal was ordered.
Captain Thompson, the MO attached to a NZ Brigade, followed up the attack on Ruweisat Ridge with his RAP truck. When enemy tanks overran another battalion and despite heavy fire, he continued to pick up stretcher cases and attend to the wounded. The truck was then captured and taken west, still collecting wounded. Captain Thompson decided he would go no further so he stopped the truck and instructed his orderlies to unload the stretcher cases. The enemy threatened him and endeavoured to make him pick up enemy wounded only and go on. An opportunity offering, Capt. Thompson ordered the truck to be immobilised and the part removed buried. This was done and the enemy was convinced that the truck had broken down. Capt. Thompson then spent the day tending the wounded and frustrated every attempt on the part of the enemy to remove them. He was an inspiration throughout the day to those near the truck. Finally about 1900 hours Capt. Thompson ordered the truck to be loaded and drove back to our lines with all his party and the three enemy who had been left page 345 to guard the truck. Throughout the day, despite shelling and tank and machine-gun fire, Capt. Thompson's complete disregard for his personal safety was an example to all.
Our active New Zealand MDS was strongly reinforced for the battle by the attachment of British surgical teams from 15 CCS, which had withdrawn to Alexandria. A British FSU (the Greek unit) under Major G. Taylor was working for two days from 10 to 12 July and again from the 17th onwards. Major Keller was operating from 13 to 17 July, when he was temporarily replaced by Major R. Wilson. Some teams were attached till 8 August.
After the attack on Ruweisat Ridge 4 Field Ambulance was moved forward on 15 July, but owing to the uncertain battle situation did not open and withdrew east again the following day to open an MDS at Deir el Hima. Thereupon 5 Field Ambulance closed and moved into reserve. On this day 4 Brigade was withdrawn and replaced by 6 Brigade, which had arrived from Amiriya with 6 Field Ambulance under command. The latter unit, less one company forming an ADS for 6 Brigade, remained closed at Abu Shamla. Following the withdrawal of 4 Brigade, the ADS company of 5 Field Ambulance with 5 Brigade was replaced by a company from 4 Field Ambulance and the whole of 5 Field Ambulance was placed under command of 4 Brigade, with which it moved back to Maadi Camp.
The MDS was staffed by 4 Field Ambulance from 16 to 27 July, when the unit was relieved by 6 Field Ambulance. During this period 2183 cases were admitted and treated. By 17 July a number of units of 4 and 6 Brigades were located close to and almost entirely surrounding the MDS. Requests by ADMS 2 NZ Division for their removal had met with no response. Then at noon on 17 July German bombers circled the area, heavily bombing the surrounding troops but obviously intentionally avoiding the Red Cross. The combatant units were then moved to more distant locations. Colonel Ardagh followed the matter up strenuously with AA & QMG 2 NZ Division, requesting that all units be informed that, unless otherwise decreed by the tactical situation, they must keep their flanks at least half a mile clear of any MDS showing the Red Cross.