Topic: Cairo 1943 (Hospital Experiences) by Hugh Harrison

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Hugh Harrison's account of a hospital stay in Cairo during the Second World War (1943) appeared in the 6th Battalion (Hauraki) Regimental Association newsletter (August 2005, newsletter no 8). It is reprinted here with permission.

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6th Hauraki Insignia

In June 1943 I was admitted to 1 G H - the New Zealand military hospital in Helwan near Cairo. I had been working with four other N.Z soldiers who had been sent to assist a British unit in the Suez Canal Zone at a big army vehicle park and workshops. We had a variety of duties, two of which I didn't enjoy. The first was topping up the radiators and batteries of at least three hundred trucks that were parked in the open, under the blazing desert sun. Evaporation was high and no sooner was the last row done than the first row was ready to top up again! I had taken the job on because at mess the bloke who was already doing it said it was a real perk as you were on your own and nobody ever interfered. After a couple of days I was telling the same story, to a new fellow at mess. He took the bait and I went on to other more pleasant work testing vehicles.

The second duty I disliked was night guard duties. We were in a war zone and the Arabs around were not at all friendly so around the camp boundaries and the vehicle park were guard towers. Each with a spotlight and a machine gun mounted at the top. We were told to aim the gun in the direction of any suspicious movements or sounds, and then turn the spotlight on and fire at will if there were any enemies involved. One night there was such a noise so I aimed my gun, switched on the light and there positioned in the middle of my beam was one of our soldiers, not a kiwi, entertaining a female camp follower assisted by the smooth contours of the front mudguard of a large truck. Hastily I put out the light while he yelled out a description of my pedigree and what would happen to me if the incident became known. This left me unconcerned because as a soldier I had long since learned that discretion is the better part of valour.

From there I went on to our main job. The workshops were preparing vehicles to be loaded onto barges moored in the Suez Canal. We had to test them and certify that they were fully fuelled, starting easily and capable of driving up the beach and a mile inland to provide cover for the troops.  I was a dispatch rider so my task was to test ride the bikes and ensuring their fitness and safety. I was on one of these test runs that I was hit in the eye by a missile presumably a stone flung at me from the roadside by a hidden assailant. This put me in hospital and out of action for the next three months.

So there I was in hospital, blinded with a bandage over one eye. Because I was still mobile and paid by the army I was put to work in the hospital laundry sorting out a tangle of recently washed and dried previously soiled dressings from the wounded. These bandages had to be sorted into widths and lengths then rolled neatly by hand so I was sent to the kitchen to help the cooks with their odd jobs.  They first sat me down in front of a tub of savoury mince, alongside another soldier patient. We had to roll the mix into regular sized balls, dip them in flour and arrange them on trays ready for the oven. For one meal they needed about 200 balls! Once in the middle of this, the cook asked me to do something with the stoves - 1 came away with a pair of dirty hands! I asked him where I could wash them and he told me to get on with the meatballs, my hands would soon come clean and there was nothing in the soot that could hurt anybody.

Next day was special diets; we had to take the white meat off a tub of cooked chickens for the patients on light diets and especially ones with stomach wounds. We were looking forward to some tasty pickings until we were told there would be none as there was an arrangement with someone outside that the frames etc would go to them.

At the next visit to the eye doctor he said I would shortly be transferred to another hospital but in the meantime there was a different job for me. There were two wounded men who just arrived. I was to join them in the bathroom off a corridor not far from the kitchen. Opposite from the bedroom was a bathroom with a shower, washbasin and toilet. My duties were to be a male orderly attending to their welfare and helping the nurses when required. Both men had lost their eyesight and were totally blind. One man was Pvt. Brown from the South Island and the other was Tai from Rotorua, who later became my lifetime friend. We all got on very well, both Tai and I were fond of music and Brownie enjoyed it too but his head wound was so severe we had to be careful with loud noise. After a few days when they were feeling a little more independent I would take them to the bathroom and leave them alone. When the first one was ready he would call out and I would bring him back and take the other one in. After the second man was finished we would all go in to breakfast together.

 One morning after I had taken the first man in, I went down the kitchen to check on the breakfast. That day the doctors were on visit and we were all feeling anxious to put on a good show. As I approached the bedroom I saw a feeling hand emerging from the door and to my amazement a similar outstretched hand coming out of the bathroom door. In my absence they had called to each other and decided to give it a go themselves. I did nothing but just stand there in complete astonishment. They came out and collided face to face and belly to belly. Then each stumbled slightly back and with one voice shouted at each other. "Why don't you look where you are going, you blind bastard?" Then we all burst out laughing.

 This was the true spirit of two brave young men! Shortly after this I became a stretcher case and was transferred to Number 2General Hospital out in the desert at Kantara, but that is another story!


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