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THE HISTORY OF 16 PARACHUTE FIELD AMBULANCE
The 16th (Parachute) Field Ambulance was a Royal Army Medical Corps unit of the British airborne forces during the Second World War. The unit was the first parachute field ambulance unit of the British Army. Their first deployment was in Operation Torch the Allied landings in North Africa. This was followed by Operation Fustian during the Allied invasion of Sicily. Their third mission was Operation Slapstick, a seaborne landing at Taranto in Italy.
The 16th (Parachute) Field Ambulance then returned to England to prepare for operations in North West Europe. Their next and final parachute landing was in September 1944, during the Battle of Arnhem. In the battle the 1st Parachute Brigade landed on the first day and the 16th (Parachute) Field Ambulance established at dressing station in a local hospital. Within days the location was overrun by the Germans and the majority of the field ambulance went into captivity as prisoners of war.
In 1945 it was reformed and took part in Operation Doomsday the occupation of Norway following the surrender of German forces there, but with the war over the unit was disbanded by the end of the year.
Unit Structure for a Parachute Field Ambulance
The war establishment of a Parachute Field Ambulance, was 177 all ranks. Consisting of thirteen doctors in two surgical teams and four sections. The doctors could deal with 30 cases in a twenty-four hour period. Each surgical team could handle 1.8 operations an hour. But that was not sustainable, and if they were required to operate the following day, the team had to be relieved after twelve hours. It was envisaged that during airborne operations, it would not be possible to evacuate casualties until the ground forces had linked up with them. Therefore the field ambulance had the ability to treat all types of wounds, and provide post-operative care for up to fourteen days.[nb 1] They also had the transport required to evacuate casualties from the Regimental Aid Post (RAP), to the Main Dressing Station (MDS).
An airborne field ambulance was commanded by a lieutenant-colonel, with a major as the second in command and a regimental sergeant major as the senior non-commissioned rank. Headquarters staff included two specialist surgeons and a specialist anaesthetist, a pharmacist and an Army Dental Corps dentist. To assist in the operating theatre and with post-operative care, there were six operating room assistants, a sergeant nursing orderly and six nursing orderlies. Other medical staff were a sergeant sanitary assistant, a masseur, a dental orderly and five stretcher bearers, one of whom was trained as a shoemaker. The rest of the headquarters consisted of a Quartermaster, clerks, cooks, storemen, an Army Physical Training Corps instructor, a barber and a joiner from the Royal Engineers.
There were four sub-units of twenty men known as sections. Each section comprised an officer (doctor) and a staff sergeant (nursing orderly). Under their command were three nursing orderlies, a clerk, a dutyman and thirteen stretcher bearers. A section was normally attached to a parachute battalion to supplement their own medical officer and medics.
The last component of the Field Ambulance was the Royal Army Service Corps detachment, commanded by a captain, with a company sergeant major as second in command. They had fifty men under them, an electrician, a clerk, thirty-eight drivers, four motorcyclists and five vehicle mechanics. It was normal to have at least two RASC drivers with two jeeps and a trailer attached to each section, the remaining men and vehicles stayed with the headquarters surgical teams.
All members of the Field Ambulance had to undergo a twelve-day parachute training course carried out at No. 1 Parachute Training School, RAF Ringway. Initial parachute jumps were from a converted barrage balloon and finished with five parachute jumps from an aircraft.[nb 3] Anyone failing to complete a descent was returned to his old unit. Those men who successfully completed the parachute course, were presented with their maroon beret and parachute wings.
Airborne operations were in their infancy in the Second World War and the British Army medical services had to design and develop a range of special medical airborne equipment. These included the Don pack, the Sugar pack (containing dressing and surgical items respectively), the folding airborne stretcher, the folding trestle table, the folding suspension bar, the airborne operating table, the airborne inhaler and special containers for blood and plasma.
Formation of 16 Parachute Field Ambulance
Above: Hardwick Hall
Commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Malcolm MacEwan, the first British parachute field ambulance, the 16th Airborne Field Ambulance was raised on 3 April 1941, at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.The first arrivals being thirty-three men transferred from the 181st (Airlanding) Field Ambulance. Reaching full strength and having completed their parachute training the unit was re-designated the 16th (P) Field Ambulance which was later changed to the 16th (Parachute) Field Ambulance (16 PFA). The 16 PFA was assigned to the 1st Parachute Brigade in the 1st Airborne Division.
North Africa - Operation Torch 1942
The invasion of North Africa Operation Torch was the first time an airborne field ambulance was employed. Before this operations Colossus and Freshman had no specialist medical support, while Biting included a section from the 181st (Airlanding) Field Ambulance in the evacuation boats.
For Torch No.3 Section, 16 PFA was attached to the 3rd Parachute Battalion and travelled by plane via Gibraltar to North Africa. On 11 November 1942, they parachuted onto the airfield at Bone. While the remainder of 16 PFA and the brigade were transported to North Africa by sea, arrived the next day. En route to Bone the aircraft carrying Captain Keesey the No.3 Section commander crashed into the sea. Leaving the section second in command to set up a dressing station to handle the fourteen casualties (including one killed) from the parachute landing. By 15 November, the 1st Parachute Brigade established a position 11 miles (18 km) outside of Algiers.
On 17 November the 1st Parachute Battalion with No.1 Section and No.1 Surgical team 16 PFA, parachuted in to seize the airfield and an important crossroads at Béja. One man was killed in the drop and one other wounded who was treated on the drop zone (DZ), by the section. By 20:00 the battalion had occupied Béja, and the section took over a small twenty-bed hospital in the garrison school and a part of the larger 250-bed civil hospital. The town was attacked by a squadron of German Stukas on 20 November, and Lieutenant Charles Rob in command on the surgical team carried out over 150 operations during which he suffered a fractured tibia and kneecap caused by a bomb exploding nearby. Continuing to operate he carried out another twenty-two operation the next day, even giving a pint of blood to save a wounded soldier. Afterwards Lieutenant Rob was awarded a Military Cross. The section had only expected to be deployed for five days, but remained for twenty-four days, treating 238 casualties before being relieved.
On 29 November No.2 Section 16 PFA, and the 2nd Parachute Battalion, were parachuted close to Depienne Airfield. Arriving at the field at 11:00 they found it deserted and withdrew back to Prise de l'Eau. On 1 December the battalion was informed that the planned advance by 6th Armoured Division had been postponed and the battalion was trapped 50 miles (80 km) behind German lines. The battalion was virtually surrounded and fought off two attacks that morning, one company was destroyed and there were 150 casualties. The battalion divided into company groups to try to break through the German lines. But the wounded had to be left behind, in the Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) established by No.2 Section. The section remained behind to protect the wounded from the local anti-British population, until the Germans arrived and took them prisoner.
From now onwards the 1st Parachute Brigade fought as normal infantry and 16 PFA on Christmas Eve set up a Main Dressing Station (MDS) at Medjez el Bab. On 2 February the 1st Parachute battalion assaulted Djebel Mansour mountain with No. 1 Section attached. The ground was unsuitable for vehicles and the section could only take what they could carry by hand. The terrain also hindered casualty evacuation and it took ten hours, to bring the wounded from the front line to the medical post, by which time the stretcher bearers could go no further. In the situation Lieutenant-Colonel McEwan, brought the remainder of 16 PFA forward to assist with the wounded, No.4 Section being sent to the top of Djebel Mansour. McEwan established a relay of stretcher bearers that cut the evacuation from the top of the mountain down to three hours. The battle continued until the 5 February and by that time everyone not involved in surgery, apart from three men were used as stretcher bearers. By the end of the battle the men of 16 PFA had treated 201 casualties.
The Germans and Italians counterattacked on 20 February, their attack failed but again every man was used in carrying stretchers to the rear. On 26 February the 2nd Parachute battalion defeated an Italian attack and No.3 Section was kept busy with the Italian wounded. On 3 March the brigade were moved to Sedjenane to relieve the 139th Infantry Brigade. In the battle 16 PFA were used to evacuate the wounded from the front line to the ADS used by the 139th Brigades field ambulance.
The commander of 1st Parachute Brigade Brigadier Gerald Lathbury, ordered that in the coming battle, the brigade would remain where they were and not withdraw. Lieutenant-Colonel McEwan brought the two surgical teams forward together with enough medical supplies and stores to last out the battle. The attack started 8 March and over the following days the MDS was subjected to artillery and air attacks killing and wounding some 16 PFA men. On 17 March the ADS was shelled and dive-bombed eight times, but continued to operate. By the end of the twelve-day battle, 16 PFA had treated and evacuated 554 wounded.
On 12 May 16 PFA rejoined 1st Airborne Division that had arrived in theatre and Lieutenant-Colonel McEwan leaving to join 6th Airborne Division, handed over command to Major Gerard (Ross) Wheatley who was promoted to lieutenant-colonel.