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A Medic's Memory Lane...


Stu Morris outside "The Field Hospital"

Reflections by Medical Corporal Stuart Morris.

3 Squadron R.A.A.F (239 Wing R.A.F.),
May 1942 – October 1944

It was at Gambut Airfield (East of Tobruk) in April 1942 that 212 new ground staff from Australia replaced a similar number of time-expired staff of 3SQN R.A.A.F.  New Medics were Lou Kemp, Stuart Morris and Andrew Cromer.  These 212 new men were therefore involved in the 1942 retreat into Egypt, as well as the Alamein Campaign and subsequent advances westwards all the way to Tunisia (and to Malta for some) and the invasions of Sicily and Italy.  Stuart arrived home on 28th October 1944.

A TOUGH DAY...

Advancing westward after Alamein (November 1942) we were in a convoy, having left Gazala and moving to Martuba Airfield, inland from Derna.  Snowy Cromer was my passenger in a left-hand-drive Canadian Ford truck.  (Used to transport medical supplies, camping gear etc.)

Not long on the road, I had an urgent need to leave the convoy as I had an attack of 'Gyppo Guts' and it was 5 to 10 minutes before I was able to get back on the road behind the rest of our squadron’s vehicles.

I managed to slip into a very long and crowded convoy of Army service trucks ... 5-tonners I think; they had canvas tops probably at least 10ft high, travelling nose-to-tail.  We were going down a slight incline and I could see ahead for probably at least three miles with a rise in the distance.  From my left-hand driving position I could see that we had a clear mile or two with no oncoming traffic (North Africa; right-hand traffic).   There was a fair chance of passing a hundred or more vehicles to catch up to the Squadron, so I abandoned the right-hand lane and started to accelerate down the slope.  After a hundred yards or so we were tooted loudly from behind by someone who obviously was in a hurry.  I asked Snowy to see what the trouble was.  Snowy said, "It’s a jeep with a couple of [239 Wing] officers."

I asked Snow to signal the nearby truck driver who let us back into the convoy.  As the jeep flashed past, Snowy said, "The passenger is Mr. Terry and there’s an army bloke sitting on the far side behind the driver.  He looks like a Communications type."  At that time we were about a hundred yards from the bottom of the dip and it seemed only two or three seconds before there was a terrific explosion.  Even hidden as we were behind the truck in front, we could see debris flying probably 50 or 60ft into the air on both sides.

I commented, "That could be the end of the Wing fellas."  It was obviously a very powerful mine.  This turned out to be an anti-tank mine.

As Mr. Terry was Australian (formerly Adjutant of 3 Squadron before we arrived), I felt impelled to go to him and almost by reflex action I slipped my truck out to the right before the convoy packed up.

I jumped out, grabbed my medical kit and ran.  My first sighting was the remains of the jeep, which (bystanders told me afterwards) had been blown (spinning sideways) over the top of a 12ft high truck, landing on its wheels about 12ft clear of the bitumen.  My flashing glance (maybe 1/10 second) revealed no windscreen, no seats; the rear area seemed to be flat metal which bore the mangled remains of the driver – something I will never forget.

I saw the sprawled figure of Mr. Terry and ran on to him, about 30 yards from the explosion.  He was wearing his great-coat – it was a cold morning.  He was lying on his back and appeared to be breathing.  (I couldn’t tell if real or reflex breathing.)

I was in the act of checking his tongue and loosening his tie when a Scottish voice alongside me asked, "How is he, laddie?" As I turned my head, I saw his rank – (Captain - Army) and I said, "He may be breathing but I’m not sure.  Are you a doctor, sir?"

He replied, "Yes I’ll have a look at him." Then he added, "I’m sorry to ask you to do this but will you please run across and check the Army boy.  You’ll need to be very careful because we are in the middle of a mine field."  I experienced no fear.  I thought, "Please God help me," and as an athlete I ran flat-out with long strides.

He also had a great-coat on.  I felt it had helped to hold him together.  Actually it seemed that every bone was shattered / pulverized.  He had been blown at least 40 yards.  There was no visible sign of wounds or life.  This all tied-in with his having been sitting on the far side of the jeep when the mine exploded under its front left hand wheel.

I ran back and reported, "He’s dead sir."  

At that moment our Wing Medical Officer appeared and called to me, "Hurry on there Corporal, hurry - we have to get Mr. Terry to hospital."  

He appeared to be very agitated and I replied, "With respect sir, I don’t think we have time.  – Which hospital?  Our field hospital is too far.  It may even be packed- up and on the road.  But you have a transfusion set in your ambulance over there..."  (About 20 yards.)  

He accepted my lead (which was a statement not a question), "Yes," he said, "we must transfuse him against shock."  

Even under this pressure I remember thinking cheekily: At least he’s read the text book! 

Unfortunately, while we were in the process of setting up the transfusion equipment, Squadron Leader Terry’s weak pulse had ceased.  At one stage I felt I had been let down by the Wing Doctor – he just wasn’t with it.  But as we proceeded, I felt a flood of compassion for him, as I reflected that probably about an hour earlier he'd been having breakfast with his two (now deceased) Squadron Leader friends.  (This was later confirmed.)

Back in the truck with Snow and moving on towards Martuba, it dawned on me that if we hadn’t been pushed back into the convoy, our truck would have hit the mine, which apparently had been laid overnight, and Snowy and I would be dead.


The wrecked jeep and temporary grave of Barney Terry.  (Photo: Jim Kinnear Collection.)

After two miles I saw the small village of Derna on the coast.  - This was another emotional interruption to my day.  I recalled how my eldest brother Max  (of the 6th Battalion, 6th Div, A.I.F.) had suffered, a couple of years earlier, severely-crushed legs when run over by an Army service truck while he and his platoon were having a few hours sleep (under instruction) prior to the dawn raid on Derna.

Before I had left Melbourne, heading for 3SQN in the Middle East, Max had told me, "If you get up beyond Tobruk and suddenly see Derna down on the coast, you’ll know where I was smashed up, half-way between the road and Derna.".

CLICK TO ENLARGE

Our day wasn’t ended even when Snowy and I reached our medical unit at Martuba.  Standing near our treatment vehicle were three armed-jeep commando vehicles – these men had been behind enemy lines since early September.  It was now 16th November and they had acquired many desert sores etc.

Their mission was to blow up enemy aircraft that night, but they observed 239 RAF Wing's occupation, which opened up the opportunity to seek medical treatment.

I wasn’t very pleased when our doctor came to speak with us.  His welcome was, "What have you been doing getting lost while we (himself, Theo and Lou) have been treating these Commandos!"  

I eyeballed him and said, "I’d like a quiet word," – and moved out of ear-shot of the visitors.  I asked, "Are these blokes Long-Range Desert Patrol?"

He replied "Yes".

My comment: "I hope you’ve had them checked out to see if they’re ours or theirs...!"  (We'd all been instructed to watch out for ‘bogus’ visitors.)

He went pale, "I didn’t give it a thought."  Then added, "You’d better get the D.R. to rush over to Wing and have them checked out."  Alec Archer, dispatch  rider (motor bike), did a quick job and in due course the visitors were cleared.  

It had been a pretty tough and emotional day!

"REST DAY AT ANTELAT"

Our next move forward was to Antelat towards Benghazi, again I was the advance-party medic.  For some reason – maybe a quicker Army advance than expected - it was decided that our Wing planes would bypass Antelat and go ahead to Belandah near Agedabia.

We were given a "rest day at Antelat", before rejoining the Squadron at Belandah.  While most of us were enjoying a day in the sun, some of the armourers decided to clean machine guns, working in a gun-pit left by earlier airmen or anti-aircraft gunners.

Suddenly there was a horrible sound – the stuttering,  ripping sound of a machine gun  being accidentally triggered.  One of our younger armourers was nearby and was hit in the chest by a number of bullets.  [Editor's note: Corporal Riley was the armourer killed in this incident.  4th of December 1942.] 

I responded immediately to the sound and the call for help but sadly there was nothing that could save his life.  On this occasion, my help with the burial took some pressure off his colleagues (but was not easy).

 

MINE DISASTER AT MARBLE ARCH...

In the El Agheila area, Army action was drawing to a crescendo.  Allied forces had been held up in the marshy country beyond El Agheila while 3 Squadron were based at Agedabia.  The hold-up took about two or three weeks before there was a breakthrough.  Once that occurred, the Allied forces were chasing the Germans very rapidly in the westerly direction.

The arrival in the region of a squadron of US C-47 transport aircraft, whether at the request of Field Marshall Montgomery or otherwise, opened up an opportunity for 239 RAF Wing and Allied Army planners to establish a forward fighter-bomber base well west of the armies.  This effort was planned to keep the enemy on the run after the Agheila breakthrough.

The plan was for 25 selected ground staff from each of  239 RAF Wing squadrons to be flown forward to the Marble Arch Airfield, at the earliest possible moment after evacuation by the enemy - complete with fuel in 44 gal. drums and all munitions, supplies and equipment.  This plan envisaged early and concentrated pressure on the enemy to thus hasten their move on to Tunisia and the end of the North Africa war.

It must be stated here that the enemy had evacuated very rapidly, but had laid 1600 mines, including many hundreds of anti-personnel mines, on the aerodrome and in the dispersal area.  What the Germans didn't know was that the Long-Range Desert Group (New Zealanders) had been observing from the escarpment near the landing ground.  These commandos had intended to go in to blow up German planes, but when they saw the quick evacuation of planes and ground staff, they were very helpful in mapping the laying of the mines.  This was of great assistance to the Army sappers when they came in to do the mine-clearing.  However, some mines were not found.

We were flown in the next day [18/12/42] and that gave the enemy quite a bit of a hurry-up as they did not expect the Air Force to follow so quickly and from such a close range. 


The Marble Arch.  - Built by the Italians to mark a major regional boundary in Libya.

I believe as a conscientious medic that I was in a position to recognize the drastic inadequacy of planning of the medical side of this new  'one-off' strategy.  Here was the situation: 3 Squadron RAAF were the first 239 Wing fighter-bombers to land, after having completed a mission against retreating enemy.  Refueling, rearming and 'bombing up' went to plan, but it appeared that 239 Wing medical hierarchy had overlooked the possibility of a disaster – either by bombs or mines.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/51/Smine_label.svg/360px-Smine_label.svg.pngAfter preparing their planes for action, 3 Squadron ground personnel, about fifteen of them with a borrowed truck, were tidying up and removing empty 44 gallon fuel drumsOne of the staff jumped down from the truck tail-gate and triggered a German "S" Mine [anti-personnel mine filled with shrapnel balls, they "bounced" into the air at chest-height before exploding] which struck down eight of our mates.  From about 45 yards away I raced to the scene with my medical kit.  At the same time my mind was racing ahead - realising that we had no transport, let alone an ambulance, and in any case we had no idea where the nearest hospital would be and certainly no instructions had been given regarding evacuation, let alone dealing with a major catastrophe.

The scene was chaotic as I tried to assess numbers and severity of injuries.  Our Squadron Leader Bobby Gibbes arrived immediately and was at my side calling, "Stuart, what’s the score and what do we do?"

I said: "The score is three dead, Sir... Five surgery cases and two of them are critical".  I added, "If you can grab that DC3 over there I think I should fly with them to Benghazi where there’s a good surgeon - Wing Commander Wallace."  (This was chance information I had heard about three weeks earlier when I was at a field hospital.  I was not certain that the surgeon was still there, but I had to take the risk.  I did know that Wing Commander Wallace was a man of great skill and professionalism and had pulled off some amazing jobs in North Africa.

Within a couple of minutes Gibbo had the DC3 standing by.  In the meantime I had administered morphine to a couple of the boys who were in pain; a couple of others were unconscious.  We loaded the boys, with Brian Gates on our only stretcher.

Gibbo then called to me "Stuart, you will need help."

I replied, "You're already short of staff."

He then decided: "Take Alec Archer," so Alec jumped into the plane with me and we took off.  

(It was not until 1984 when I was talking to Alec in Castlemaine that I discovered why he had been free to come with me to Benghazi.  He had seen the boys gathered around the truck and loading the petrol drums, so he rode across on his motorbike to offer a hand.  While walking away from his bike the mine exploded.  Alec remained unscathed but the bike ‘copped a packet’.  So Alec didn’t have a job.

The plane journey had its difficulties also.  While I made a more detailed survey of the patients' wounds, Alec did a great job at keeping conversation going with those who were able, trying to lift their morale.  My immediate concern was with Brian Gates, who had several pellets through his right chest.  Although I had him laying on his right side to prevent his good lung from being drowned, I felt desperately that he needed oxygen.  However the Yanks were not able to supply any.

Further along the journey, a Yank came back to me and asked "Where do you want us to land?" 

I was annoyed by that and said, "Surely you are in touch with the ground by radio".

In reply he said, "No, we don’t know the drill".

I said, "You’ll have us shot down."  Then added, "When we get into sight of Benghazi give me a call and I will show you where to land."  Eventually we landed at Benina alongside the highway.  I jumped out and ran to the first transport and gave the driver a short explanation of our situation and requested that we need one, preferably two ambulances and that we had a body to be taken (as Brian had died half-way through the flight without regaining consciousness).  Also would he please contact the Adjutant or the C.O. to expedite our request and contact Wing Commander Wallace to advise him of the impending arrival of surgery cases, so that he could have the theatre ready.

The C.O. (a Wing Commander of Bomber Command) drove up.  He was livid.  "You had no right to land here without warning.  You could have been shot down!"

I replied, "My apologies, Sir, (on behalf of the Americans) - they are new to the desert.  We had a terrific mine disaster at Marble Arch.  Already four have died and I have sent a message to Wing Commander Wallace re others needing urgent surgery".  When he didn't say: "Who's Wing Commander Wallace?", I excused myself and went back to the patients with confidence.

The ambulance came and we loaded the patients quickly.  The stretcher compartment had room for four stretchers, the top ones being loaded first on a carrier arm which was brought down as low as possible - loaded on, then pushed up with an automatic ratchet lock.  Then the bottom stretchers were loaded in.  We were not even onto the highway when the bracket on one of the top stretchers gave way and the stretcher and patient crashed back into the rear door of the ambulance.  I grabbed at it and put my shoulder underneath until I was sure the door would not give way, then ran to the speaking tube only to find that the driver's whistle was not in position and I had to stand with the stretcher frame on my shoulder for the rest of the journey.  
-
I had visions of the door flying open and patients strewn along the road.

One of the best sights I ever saw during the war was when we arrived at the hospital, which was normally a civilian hospital, to find Wing Commander  Wallace standing at the steps.

We first unloaded George Bartsch, who was very badly wounded.  He was taken straight to the X-ray room.

As the surgeon and I walked along the main passage to the theatre, he explained that they were very short of staff and would I please come into the theatre and give assistance.  It was a great honour and privilege for me to be asked to help in the theatre.  It was not long before I was scrubbed-up and donned mask and gown and ready to help the background team in the work, involving sterilisation of instruments and generally helping in the theatre.  I also had my turn alongside the surgeons, handing them the instruments required in the various procedures.  We had arrived at the hospital somewhere about six in the evening and the last of the surgical procedures was not finished until about 1.30 the following morning.  

The surgeon showed considerable concern about my personal well-being.  I was deeply touched by his concern and when he said, "You have had a bad day!"

I replied, "The worst day of my life, Sir."  I then lost control and burst into tears.  The relief of achieving my target [finding Wing Commander Wallace] was overwhelming.  Then, I think, he sedated me, for it was several hours later that I awoke lying on our own stretcher.

First thing in the morning, I went to the ward and saw all the boys, who were heavily sedated and mostly asleep. George Bartsch was attached to a life support system and was resting peacefully.  I then set about to find Alex Archer and we managed to get some breakfast.  He too had had a very bad night.  He was given transport to bring Brian's body in from Benina and of course the whole exercise was completely outside his field of training.  I would like to record a commendation for the manner in which Alex encouraged the boys on the plane and carried out all the other duties which were necessary.  

In fact we were spared the burial of Brian because the hospital staff had already attended to it.  They were very good and most helpful in the whole situation, from the minute we arrived at their door to making sure that we had transport to get back to Benina.

We then hitched a flight to the American base where they were preparing for Christmas festivities ... turkeys, ham, cranberry sauce, pudding etc. and they were in a relaxed and jolly mood.  Later in the day we found a plane taking supplies to Marble Arch and we were able to rejoin the Squadron who were by that time were all together again.

Because of the mine disaster, morale was at an all-time low, made worse a couple of days later by the news that George Bartsch had died in hospital.  It took some time for the rest of the boys to cope with the effects of the disaster.  The lead-up to Christmas was not what a ‘normal’ Christmas should have been.  In fact the next few days were really depressing.  However, spirits were raised when Bob Gibbes made the wonderful one-wheel landing at Marble Arch after he had landed out in the desert to rescue Rex Bayly, who had been shot down [21/12/42].  While that is another story recorded in detail elsewhere, it did bring a lot of relief to all the boys.  Those who were there will never forget it.

 

"THE TURKEYS" - DECEMBER 1943

- The turkeys that Stuart and the boys enjoyed at Melini (on the Adriatic coast of Italy) a year later were also memorable ... 

Dr. Trevor Jenkins and I had the day off and we did some touring and found a turkey farm with 200 to 300 turkeys.  We negotiated the purchase of some good birds, which were subsequently tethered to our tent peg till we could arrange for the cooks to do something about the cooking.  We bought two, one for the cooks, trusting that they would cook both (this transpired in due course).

News travels quickly and in a few days just before Christmas 1943 nearly every tent in the squadron had a turkey tethered.  Great negotiations went on with the cooks but one enterprising group took it into their own hands to do something about the cooking.  That night after listening to Lilli Marlene from Belgrade and the BBC news, our power supply went down to zero and it was found that the enterprising tent-crew had brought in a big electric range they had found in a bombed-out house and were busily trying to cook their turkey.

The electricians were not very amused and the 'would be' cooks were told that they could not have power for such a purpose, so I guess the cooks also "cooked their turkey".

The good thing was 1943 was a much happier Christmas than 1942… not only did we have our turkeys but we were supplied with better fare than the miserable time we had at Marble Arch (see story above).  

Time had partly-healed the mental scars of the mine tragedy.

MEA0932
[AWM MEA0932Italy, 1943.  Ground crew personnel of No. 3 (Kittyhawk) Squadron RAAF plucking a turkey on a makeshift bench of two jerrycans and a board.
L to R: Corporal (Cpl) J. F. Sedgebeer of Sydney, NSW; Leading Aircraftman (LAC) G. Calvert of Tas;
LAC H. Silversides of Sydney, NSW, and Cpl G. H. Omant of Hobart, Tas.

 

THE WATERMELON EVENT


Air Base Gates, Castel Benito

It was 21st January 1943 when I drove into the Castel Benito aerodrome about 10 miles east of Tripoli.  The set-up, geographically, is similar to Laverton, Melbourne.  In fact our entry felt just like going into Laverton [RAAF Base in Victoria] with fine gates and eucalyptus trees along the approaches.

There were many abandoned Italian and German planes in the area.  Our pilots had some fun there, and later.  One twin-engined Caproni Ghibli light transport plane actually became our means of ready contact with base at Cairo and was used for bringing up canteen supplies, mail and pilots (both ways, for pilots on leave).  Ian Roediger had the good luck, or good management, to be the regular pilot.  I was personally fortunate to be with him on one ‘local’ flight – in fact he allowed me my one and only (ever) 10 minutes at the controls!  We took some beaut photos over the ancient roman city of Sabratha west of Tripoli.

Tripoli is a beautiful city with a mile-wide bay surrounded by a lovely promenade bordered by palm trees.  There were many beautiful buildings and a walled-off native ‘town’ full of great shopping opportunities; mostly exquisite handmade metal, wood, china and glass were very popular.  Many parcels were sent home.  

Near the sea wall and adjacent to the native village were two huge ornamental pillars; one of them at the top featuring Romulus and Remus.  (The legendary founders of Rome.  They were abandoned and suckled by a she-wolf.)  

I experienced several ambulance trips to and from the hospital at Zuara and remember well being caught one night in a pretty heavy air raid.  Some of the big ack-ack guns were close to the hospital, so it was a rowdy visit, with much shattered ack-ack steel clattering and tinkling on the bitumen road – one of the times I tried to shelter in my tin hat lying in the gutter alongside the ambulance.

After Castel Benito we moved on to El Assa landing ground.  After morning sick-parade we had a new patient, a 10-year-old Bedouin girl.  The family stayed in the background while the father brought her in.

She had a most awful shrapnel wound which took up most of her left elbow.  It was covered by a piece of goatskin tied around her arm with two pieces of string, which I removed.  The wound was putrid.  The first thing was to clean the area and this was quite a job.  Our new doctor was Trevor Jenkins.  (Dr. Stone was time-expired and had returned to Australia.)

This patient’s need coincided with our first issue of the new sulpha drugs.  The issue of these new drugs was to active war units before civilians, at the decision of the Australian government.

The doctor took the opportunity to experiment by mixing up a sulphanilamide-powder and glycerine poultice, which he applied generously, followed by a firm bandage and a sling.  Over the next ten days we had her back several times for re-dressing.  Jenks was almost certain that the bones would have calcified beyond re-alignment; but agreed with my feeling that if there was even a 10% chance of freeing the calcification it may be worth taking her to Tripoli to X-ray.  This was done, but the radiologist told me that, as the wound was probably four or five months old, the calcification would have gone too far.  He did however express his surprise and disappointment that the enemy had not attended to the little girl months earlier – we all felt the same.

Before we left this location we wrote a letter – a sort of "to whom it may concern", and left it with the father to take to the next incoming medical unit.  The letter outlined the background and treatment etc. and requested that they take over.  We were extremely pleased with the chosen treatment as the wound area was covered with pink granulated tissue, almost to total healing.  Our Bedouin friend understood quite well and the healing was completed in due course (as we found out later).

This would have been the end of story, but three or four months later, after the end of the North Africa campaign, our RAF Wing was returned to Zuara - very close to our former location.

We had in fact slowed down in convoy as we were approaching the turnoff to our new location.  Suddenly I heard shouting from the side of my truck.  Our little man, who had been recruited to work on the road, was running beside us and calling "Hakhiem! Hakhiem!" (meaning "Doctor").  He had a grin from ear to ear.  I signaled and called in pigin-English and Arabic pointing and beckoning and conveying that we would be close and that we wanted him to come and see us soon.

A couple of days later, on return from an ambulance trip from Tripoli, my mates told me that my little friend had come to give me a present – but took it away again; because, they said, he wouldn’t trust it to them...

Sure enough, he was back the next day with a watermelon almost as big as himself, which he had grown near an oasis out in the desert.  We all had a wonderful time with ear-to-ear slices.

 

It was his great demonstration of saying ‘thank you’.   (The important news was that his daughter’s arm was fully healed and to prove this he held up his own arm bent at the elbow and slapped it over and over each time giving us a big smile to show that she was happy.)

Indeed, very soon after the watermelon event, a procession of camels and donkeys and Arabs came through our camping area.  Up-front on their camels were three Arabs dressed in their white robes and head-dress, with black bands around the head-dress.  Surprisingly they kept going right through our squadron area but stopped at the Pilots’ Mess (in Australian Air Force units sergeant-pilots and officers shared the mess for meals and social aspects of life).

The front camel stopped outside the mess and made to squat down for the passenger to dismount.

This passenger - throwing off his borrowed robes - was our acting squadron leader Brian Eaton who had been shot down and thought to be wounded or prisoner.  In fact he was rescued by the local Arabs and great was the celebration. 

[Editor's note: How very important it was then for our troops to respect the way of life of the locals and help them when possible... As both Brian Eaton and Nicky Barr found when each of them were helped back through enemy lines by the locals.]


Nicky Barr (left) with Stuart Morris (right).  1942.

A Note from Stuart: "Sadly, I'm the only survivor of the Medical team as at February 2004.  I’m sure others also had drastic experiences I hope from these recollections that other ground personnel will be inspired to set down some of the special events which occurred during their service with our wonderful No.3 ... Stewart Morris."

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