Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific
XVI: Hospital Ships
XVI: Hospital Ships
After the departure of troops overseas there naturally arose the question of the return of the sick and wounded from the overseas force, the number likely to be returned and the means of transporting them back to New Zealand. In April 1940 the DGMS (Army and Air), Colonel Bowerbank, set out in an appreciation the arrangements to be made for the return of casualties and gave an estimate of their numbers. He advocated the provision of a hospital ship rather than hospital carriers or ambulance transports, and suggested to the Adjutant-General, Colonel Mead,1 that RMS Maunganui would be very suitable for conversion to a hospital ship; he also stated that in the latter half of 1941 two hospital ships would be required. Army Headquarters deferred any definite action until more was known of the location of 2 NZEF and the intensity of the operations in which it was likely to be involved. The GOC 2 NZEF and the DDMS were asked, if possible, to give a forecast of the numbers to be evacuated, and in the meantime inquiries were made from the Australian authorities whether it would be possible to arrange for New Zealanders to be returned in one of their hospital ships. The Australians, who were converting the Manunda into a hospital ship at the time, offered their co-operation.
In September 1940 Colonel Bowerbank again emphasised that consideration should be given to the provision of a hospital ship, and difficulties experienced in evacuating invalids from Egypt reinforced the argument.
A draft of ninety-three invalids sent by Indian hospital ship under War Office arrangements left Egypt in August, but after disembarking in India did not reach Wellington until 2 December 1940. The invalids included four tuberculosis and six mental cases. When it was learnt in October that most of these invalids were still in India, a conducting party from 2 NZEF of a medical officer, a nursing sister and five medical orderlies was sent from Egypt to India in page 293 November to be in readiness to proceed to New Zealand with this draft when conditions permitted. The DDMS 2 NZEF was of the opinion that, if this rather unsatisfactory arrangement for evacuation persisted, it would be desirable to send one of the general hospitals or a smaller unit to India.
After this experience proposals for the transhipment of even minor sick at Bombay were not entertained, and slight cases were sent back direct to New Zealand on returning transports throughout the war.
In August 1940 HQ 2 NZEF cabled Army Headquarters that a New Zealand hospital ship would be required by December. In September 2 NZEF was able to arrange with the AIF for invalids to be evacuated on the Australian hospital ship Manunda, expected to arrive in the Middle East in October, and stated that a New Zealand hospital ship would not be necessary until February 1941 unless there were heavy casualties before the end of 1940. Action by Army Headquarters was limited to inquiring from the Australian authorities what their arrangements were and whether provision could be made by them for New Zealand casualties. In a cable of 21 October the Prime Minister of Australia told the Prime Minister of New Zealand that plans involved the use of the Manunda for severe cases and returning transports for slight cases, and that Australia was prepared to provide for New Zealand casualties as far as Sydney. It was, however, pointed out that while these arrangements might be adequate under existing conditions, an increase in strength of the AIF and its participation in battle might render the provision of a hospital ship by New Zealand highly desirable.
Inquiries were then made from the War Office whether a hospital ship was available for purchase or charter. The War Office indicated in November that it was having difficulty in meeting its own requirements and suggested that New Zealand should provide two hospital ships of 350 beds, or one of 700 beds, to cater for its estimated peak monthly totals of 355 casualties requiring evacuation by hospital ship. The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs then suggested that the Maunganui appeared suitable for conversion to a hospital ship, and that possibly another suitable ship might be found on the Indian register. The New Zealand Government did not want to take the Maunganui off the New Zealand-Australia run for conversion if a suitable ship could be obtained elsewhere, but by the end of the year no substitute could be found. Agreement could not be reached on proposals to take over the Awatea or the Aorangi.page 294
On 3 January 1941 Brigadier Bowerbank reported to the Prime Minister that the Maunganui would be suitable as a hospital ship, and was in fact the only ship available, and that conversion should be proceeded with as a matter of great urgency. The decision was made by the Government, and on 10 January the first of a series of conferences between senior representatives of the Army and other Government departments arranged with officials of the Union Steam Ship Company the details of the conversion, which was put in hand forthwith.