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Campbell D'Arcy, RMO 28 NZ (Maori) Battalion: Alamein to Cassino
I volunteered to go to the Maori Battalion in August 1942. As I was being driven through the desert to join the unit at El Mrier Depression, the smell of the dead, the flies, the graves and the knocked out guns and tanks made me wonder why, as I had already been in the field for 15 months as Medical Officer to the NZSC. However it was the best decision I ever made and one I have never regretted.
As the Campaign in the Western Desert and Italy progressed so did the care of the wounded. At El Mrier the night of my arrival, A and D Companies put in an attack under a heavy artillery barrage to take prisoners and harasss Rommel's drive to Cairo. It was the first Maori attack under the command of Brigadier Kippenberger, the first offensive action of Eighth Army under General Montgomery and the first time Col. Baker had directed the Battalion in action.
The Regimental Aid Post (RAP) was to be in a huge shell hole near the start line, but as it happened, the wounded were taken straight back to waiting ambulances. Next day when I inspected the proposed RAP I found the hole had been used as a latrine and would have been quite useless. Just before zero hour of the attack, the Padre spoke to the men and said a prayer - most moving and eerie in the still moonlight night. Brig. Kippenberger who had come up to see them off spoke briefly saying, "The fame of your people and the honour of your Battalion are in your hands tonight". Then the big guns opened up. The attack was over in the scheduled 35 mintues. Many scraggy Italians were brought back as prisoners, some mere boys, some bare footed.
For the next attack by 5th Brigade on 3rd September 1942 in the Munassib Depression, the RAP staff in an American Field Service ambulance were to follow the Maori infantry through a gap in the minefield along a track to be marked by the Provost. A slip-up occurred and the track was not marked. There was great confusion especially when enemy machine guns which should have been eliminated, opened fire on us. Eventually the support arms got through and the attack was hailed as a striking victory, which forced Rommel to give up his advance into Egypt. Somehow all the wounded were evacuated that long frightening night.
After a blissful rest period on the shores of the Mediterranean, the long awaited attack on the Alamein Line came on 23rd October. Medical arrangements were settling into a pattern. The RAP was sited before the battle, so everyone knew where to go. The wounded were properly attended to and evacuated back to a NZ Field Ambulance or Casualty Clearing Station. The American Field Service did a wonderful job in the Desert. All the ambulances were donated and manned by Americans before the USA had declared war. I would like to pay special tribute to the courage and wonderful work of the Medical Orderlies and the stretcher bearers of our Battalions, who gave such devoted service to their comrades. It was always a pleasure and an honour to work with them.
A few days after the big attack at Alamein, heavy shelling was hitting HQ area. My medical orderly Wally Brunton dug two slit trenches side by side in the sand and asked me which I would like. I chose one and we lay down. Shortly afterwards there was a loud explosion. Wally had taken a direct hit from a shell an died instantly. I had made the wrong decision for poor Wally.
One night after we had moved up to Bardia, Monty Wikiriwhi, then the IO invited me to his bivvy to play Slippery Sam with some of the boys. I think they were a bit surprised when I had a run of luck and took their money. This was the first of many pleasant hours, playing Slippery Sam or poker with great guys, in many different situations, using all sorts of currency - some of it 'donated' by prisoners. As a footnote, the last entry in my diary reads "I am not going to play poker any more as I have just been lashed to the tune of 33 pounds!"
While still at Bardia, I was asked to see an injured Arab in a nearby encampment. He had blown his hand off fishing with a grenade. The wound was septic and he was very ill. I dressed his shattered hand and saw him daily for several days, each time the Arabs giving me a couple of chickens to take back to camp. At my suggestion my boys made a Chicken Coop out of mosquito netting to house the flock. Then the poor fellow had all the signs of lockjaw - tetanus - so I told the head man there was little hope of recovery. Next day when I called, the patient had gone, I suspect taken somewhere to die. The story continues when a Brigade route march went past our lines. There was great amusement and many comments about what the Maoris would get up to next, at the sight of the chickens in the mosquito netting fowl run, little knowing that a very white Maori was responsible. The amusement was heightened by the sight of the German Staff car the boys had provided for my use. It carried me through the entire Desert Campaign, until removed by the Military Police at Tripoli on the way back to Cairo. Then I had a 15 cwt Ted Pohio brought me, until I was told by the CO to drop it smartly. I may say after I left the Battalion to go to 2NZ General Hospital, the boys 'produced' my own transport again, an American Jeep, which I managed to keep for several months until it was seized again by the MP's. By the way, after that route march I decided we should not waste any time (or lose any chooks) before having a really good dinner in the middle of the desert. It was the first of many good meals of chicken, lamb, pork and puha I had with the Maoris.
The next step to the capture of Tripoli, Mussolini's 'Jewel of Africa', involved advancing through the deserts of North Africa, a most soulless country. At Sirte 5th Brigade was engaged in the construction of an aerodrome. Our RAP was parked nearby in case of casualties which came at 1330 hours when about a dozen Messerschmits bombed us, a lovely target absolutely thick with men and minimal air cover. We lost 7 killed and 12 wounded, including 2 stretcher bearers Jim Pirihi and Frank Roberts. After several days of the same treatment we moved on.
At Tripoli Churchill reviewed the troops. He looked so pale beside the bronze of the military. Our boys with their usual initiative in foraging, ate some of the nice red berries - of the castor oil plant - with disastrous results for some!! The Division's departure from Tripoli was sudden as there were indications Rommel proposed a major attack. This took place at Medenine which General Montgomery organised a perfect example of a defensive battle, the Maori Battalion in particular receiving much acclaim. We had few casualties, none of them serious.
For the 'Left Hook' at Mareth, the RAP was just behind the start line. We were all organised, camouflaged, movement at a minimum by first light on the day of the attack (26th March), waiting in slit trenches in the hot blustery conditions. All our previous attacks had been at night; this one was to start at 1600 hours. I, for one, was no lover of those clear moonlight nights when so many battles were fought by the Kiwis. The cards which went with the wounded giving name, unit, religion, description of wounds condition and treatment were written up with no other light than from the moon. On this occasion, we had more than a grandstand view of the action, we were in the middle of it. At four o'clock the show starts. A terrific artillery barrage opens and the heavy tanks move up from behind the Roman Wall followed by light tanks and carriers. After they have gone over the SL [Start Line] the PBI ['Poor Bloody Infantry'] follow. All day the fighting and heavy shelling continues. Casualties start coming in after the infantry have gone over, and continue without respite until after midnight. Some very bad cases. At one stage 20-30 men are lying about waiting for ambulances. When the gun line was brought up just behind the RAP. I shifted into some caves which gave great protection, we could use a lantern and attend to many wounded including Capt. Matahaere and many Jerry wounded. Later I was called forward to arrange the care of the German wounded. I met their Medical Officer, we worked together and all were evacuated in our ambulances. Then the doctor joined some 200 prisoners to go off to the PW cage.
It was in this action at Point 209 that Lieut. Moana Ngarimu, a C.Coy Platoon Officer, was awarded the Victorian Cross posthumously.
The end of the Desert Campaign was in sight when we moved up towards Takrouna with 21st Battalion. Although we were not particularly interested, the countryside was beautiful with fields of poppies, hedgerows (and cactii!), birds singing when it wasn't raining or being shelled. The arrangements for dealing with casualties were better than ever before; trucks to bring back wounded to the RAP: two ambulances to go back to the ADS, a good three quarters of an hour drive over rough ground. When reaching the site for the RAP we met the Brig. who suggested an unoccupied building much further forward. It turned out this place was shelled to blazes. The position I chose in a wadi with the truck marked with large Red Crosses was OK. We had some near misses especially when some tanks parked close by. I noted in my diary "Col. Bennett was wounded quite early in the attack and could not be brought in for some hours. He was pretty flat and in a lot of pain, but picked up with a transfusion at ADS. Other Officers brought in were Ben Porter, Chris Sorensen, Anuarau, Keelan, Bill Vercoe, Eddie Morgan, Jim Aperahama, Rika, Stevens, Anaru and Roy Te Punga". As so many Officers were wounded quite early, the attack lost direction for a time, but in the days that followed the wonderful bravery of all ranks particularly Sgt. Manahi, succeeded in capturing that formidable 'Rock of Takrouna' from its heroic defenders.
After the trek back to Cairo while the Battalion was being regrouped (but not reformed), I recall the magnificent singing of the Lord's Prayer at several social functions by Lieut. Low [Lu] Paul, who was later killed in action. Then there was that long route march of 100 miles from Cairo to Alexandria, when General Freyberg decided to get the troops fit. We marched 12-15 miles each night along an interminable desert road. I decided to march rather than ride in the RAP truck so that with, the inevitable sick parade of up to 120 men next morning no one would be able to say, "That b.... gave me full duties while he just rode in a truck". I had blisters and sore legs after the first half hour of all those 100 miles.
Arrival in Italy with another march to the camp site at Taranto. My memories - climbing down into my pup tent with a bruised back and fractured finger after a Battalion football game - Purple Death, that rich red vino the boys could not handle - Villages with excreta lining the paths and roads: many of our men coming from relatively primitive conditions would exclaim "Fancy pakehas acting like that"!!
On up the Adriatic Coast to the attack at Orsogna with steep muddy ravines to cross, where doors were tom down to make extra stretchers to bring back the wounded, friend and foe. At Castelfrantano a Cemetery was over-run. The boys found an unusual cache of dresses, fur coats, bolts of material and even a gramophone hidden in the vaults. The meals were brought up the muddy tracks by donkey. Christmas Dinner was to be especially good - roast turkey - but somehow the kerosene got into it! In this RAP the boys cleared the animals out of an adjoining room and put straw down to sleep. We were driven out by thousands of fleas and had to call for DDT.
Just before the attack at Orsonga, some Italians brought a very sick child to me. She had what looked like Diptheria and some difficulty in breathing. I was completely involved in the battle so could only advise them to get their own doctor or go to hospital immediately. Apparently this was impossible and we heard later the child had died - one of the many civilian casualties of war.
Another sort of 'Left Hook' round to the other side of Italy followed. General Freyberg was called the 'Chief Hooker', more football, visits to Pompeii and Naples. Then the Battalion moved up to Cassino. We were dug in behind Mount Trochia, a small hill which commanded an uninterrupted view down the long straight Route Six to Cassino. Brig. Kippenberger had both feet blown off by a mine while making a recce on his hill. In the assault on Cassino, B Company put in a preliminary attack on the Railway Station. The RAP was in a very suitable house, all casualties being handled in the approved manner back to ADS, all but one. After we moved out, Capt. Wikiriwhi crawled back about a mile, with a badly shattered leg having been all day in the vicinity of the Station under the feet of the Germans who thought he was dead. Monty was eventually picked up by another unit.
For the attack on Cassino, following the historic bombing of the Monastry and Cassino town, the RAP was sited in a house along Route Six. As no wounded were coming in I decided to investigate. In the afternoon I took what medical gear I could carry and walked along that dead straight lonely shell-pocked road, with marsh on either side, to the waste of Cassino township. The crypt of the Cathedral which had been levelled to the ground was filled with wounded as well as being HQ for 26 and 28 Battalions. Eventually, as the rest of the RAP team arrived, the wounded were attended to 'for evacuation at night'. For some days the wounded were sent out after dark: at the same time supplies brought up on instructions from Maori Signallers. All messages were sent in Maori through Capt. Marsden and they always ended with the word 'Kahuri' (over). Once an American voice was heard to say "Come on Sam, lets get on with it while these Kahuri guys are off the air".
Eventually the Battalion was relieved from Cassino and went back to a rest area at Isernia. Here, the Maoris were hosts to some magnificent hangis. I was posted to 2 NZ General Hospital near Naples, where many Maoris were treated. Capt. T.F. Miller marched in as RMO. After a few months I returned to the unit at Camerino, and how to quote from the official history of 28 NZ (Maori) Battalion, "The unit finally lost the services of Major D'Arcy. With on short break, he had been with the Maoris as their Medical Officer since August 1942 and when he had taken over from Capt. Cumming in the hectic days before Alamein. At a farewell dinner tendered to him by Officers of the unit, Colonel Awatere mentioned that 'Doc' D'Arcy had been with the Battalion longer than most of the present members and that it would be in order to refer to him as a Maori. The Pakeha Maori doctor who had been posted to 6 Field Ambulance ended his reply with a dash of mordant humour, 'Of course I'm bound to meet up with quite a few of your chaps yet as I am only a stones throw away from the battlefield'. Lieut. Pat Moore NZMC was welcomed into the unit at the same function."