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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

V: Working Parties

V: Working Parties

Many orderlies were sent to Reviers1 on larger working parties. It became the aim of those in charge of prisoner-of-war medical arrangements, partly on the insistence of senior British medical officers, to provide a British MO for any camp with a population of over 500 men. At Arbeitskommando E/3, Blechhammer, the medical staff under the medical officer consisted of a fully trained RAMC nursing corporal, a secretary-interpreter also in charge of medical records cards, two orderlies responsible for dressings in the MI room and operating theatre, a male charge-nurse in charge, and two others in the 24-bed Revier. There was also a night orderly, one Revier cook, two masseurs, two sanitary men, and four orderlies to staff RAPs out on the Baustelle, or place where the men worked. The MO aimed to give each medical orderly a day off a week and a week off a year. In 1943 it was possible for those on vacation to spend that week in Lazarett Cosel, where they could join the orderlies there in their walks and games, in an entirely different atmosphere and relieved of responsibility.

Smaller camps, often miles from anywhere, had only medical orderlies to care for the sick; and the work these men did, in running sick parades, bullying truculent German guards into keeping sick in camp, making important medical observations and decisions, even diagnosing appendicitis or successfully treating pneumonia, is worthy of the highest commendation. One could only fully appreciate what these men accomplished by knowing them and by seeing the fruits of their labours.

Small working parties of about fifty men often occupied bunks in a barn. Large working parties of say 1000 men were housed in page 143 German army pattern prefabricated wooden barracks. These were excellent huts, built entirely of sections for floor, walls, windows, doors, ceiling and roof. Each was fitted with a circular iron stove for heating, with an iron chimney passing through the ceiling in an asbestos-lined tunnel. Men obtained the materials to add most useful ovens to the stoves.

Although each hut was supposed to house only twenty prisoners of war or sixteen guards, after 1943 most housed twenty-four prisoners of war. To ease the crush, the men used to dismantle their double bunks and cut off the wooden side boards so as to make the beds each six inches narrower. Similarly, the men were sized in pairs and the length of the beds cut down to the exact length of the occupants.

When the prisoners of war from Italy were taken to camps in Germany the overcrowding in most stalags and larger working parties became acute. This was further accentuated in the last two months of the war when prisoners of war from East and West were all concentrated in the Nuremberg-Moosburg area.

The Blechhammer working parties' huts were originally erected on the sandy dredgings of the Adolf Hitler Canal, which ran east from the Oder River to the great industrial area around Gleiwitz, and served to link the great upper Silesian industrial belt and coalfields with the Oder River canal system. There was no attempt at organised surface water drainage, with the result that the clay and sand quickly made mire in any rainy weather. By May 1942 the Germans were persuaded to lay cinders, which served to make the camp drier. At that time, too, the prisoners themselves began bringing into the camp bricks and cement, ‘acquired’ mainly at weekends. They managed to lay water channels which took storm water and waste ablution water away from the camp.

For the larger working parties at Blechhammer the latrines were of the usual German prefabricated variety, that is, two parallel concrete troughs over which a prefabricated barrack was erected.

Around Blechhammer the bath-houses were a feature. In one working party barracks there were two bath-houses for 760 men, an abundance of taps and troughs, and two shower rooms with perennial hot water. Two orderlies were kept in camp as camp staff to stoke the fires and clean these bath-houses.

The smaller working parties in the woods often improvised a fire under a copper, but regular baths or showers were rare.

On many major working parties water was never a problem, although all were ordered to drink only boiled water, particularly in the summer months. Smaller working parties frequently had to page 144 rely on tanks filled from roofs, or from wells, and again boiling was the best method of sterilising. A water cart of the British Army pattern was not seen.

1 Medical posts.