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War Surgery and Medicine

Water Supplies

Water Supplies

The supply of water did not constitute a problem except in the Western Desert. In many base areas local civilian supplies met military needs, provided economies were made. It involved little for the medical authorities other than orthodox supervision and testing and arrangements for chlorination, etc.

In the desert warfare water points were established wherever possible. Units such as battalions were supplied from these points by the standard army water truck which was part of their vehicle establishment. For desert operations a pipeline was pushed out westward from Alexandria by the engineers. As the distance westward increased, sweet water in adequate quantities became more difficult to provide. In spite of the size of the system, the quantity of water could not be raised above approximately one and a half gallons per man per day for all purposes. Additional means were sought for increasing the supply, and local wells and other sources were investigated and, if at all acceptable, exploited to the maximum. Ancient Roman subterranean aqueducts at places like Mersa Matruh and other coastal sites were tapped and made to contribute. For these isolated supplies from wells much hygiene supervision was demanded. Purification was almost invariably by superchlorination, using army water-sterilising powder (bleaching powder) followed by de-tasting with sodium thiosulphate. The excessive salinity of some desert wells was reduced wherever possible by mixing such waters with sweeter supplies from other wells, or with water transported from the pipeline. A problem for the hygiene officers was that of the water sources damaged and sometimes polluted by the retreating enemy, as when the Eighth Army advanced from Alamein. The methods of pollution were common to all the desert campaigns—introduction of diesel oil, dead bodies, and filth of any kind. Hygiene personnel assisted the engineers in the repair of pumps, clearance of wells, and neutralisation of contamination. The long advance carried units considerable distances ahead of water points. This led to the daily ration being reduced to half a gallon for certain periods, and in its ‘left hooks’ the New Zealand Division had to make special arrangements to ensure an adequate water supply. The majority of units equipped themselves with many captured two-gallon containers—the ‘jerrican’—a stout metal receptacle with a good screw cap. After thorough cleansing, these containers proved invaluable for carrying unit and individual water requirements. Similar cans were later provided by the British Army.

These containers continued to be used in Italy, where the actual obtaining of water did not constitute a serious problem as in the desert. In Italy the Auto-Minor mobile water-purifying equipment page 724 was introduced and two of these units were handled by the engineers, with the Hygiene Section supervising chlorination. Individual water-sterilising outfits were very important and were used by infantry sections. Irrespective of the state of the water, it always had to be chlorinated. Careful supervision resulted in no serious outbreak of water-borne disease occurring in the Middle East Forces or in 2 NZEF.