New Zealand’s Mobile Surgical Unit in the Western Desert
developed concepts and practice of early surgical treatment by small
teams close to the battle front, based partly on the experience of
New Zealand surgeon Douglas Jolly during the Spanish Civil War.
Lessons learned by the Mobile Surgical Unit were taken up by field
medical units in other Allied armies during the war.
The researcher and author, Michael Shackleton, is a retired surgeon
himself who combed through official records and many personal
letters and diaries to create this fascinating account of one of the
less-known Kiwi activities in World War II. He had first-hand
experience of treating soldiers in a later war: in 1963 he led the
first civilian surgical team to Vietnam and wrote about the
experience in Operation Vietnam, published by Otago
University Press in 2004.
The book includes dramatic descriptions of times when the Mobile
Surgical Unit was operating while fighting swirled around them. They
found themselves working for both sides in the conflict and were
praised by Rommel himself for their care of German soldiers
following this incident:
"Wilson looked up from the operating table, to
see, framed in the doorway of the theatre tent, a German officer
armed with a large Luger pistol. In perfect English he addressed the
theatre staff saying, 'Gentlemen you are now my prisoners but please
continue with your work.'"
Most would later escape, in a breakout organised by Colonel
The book's extensive selection of illustrations includes ten colour
reproductions of paintings by war artists Peter McIntyre and Austen
"This book fills a gap in our understanding of
where we have come from. It is a fascinating and enjoyable read, and
I congratulate Michael in capturing this important piece of military
(Lt Colonel Andrew Dunn, Director Medical (New Zealand Army)
• paperback • 140 pages• 76 illustrations •
The photos below, all from the book, are from the
collection at the Army Museum, Waiouru.
An artillery attack near 6 Field Ambulance, Sidi Rezegh. Life could
be very uncomfortable for forward medical units. (National Army
Museum, NZ, DA 12368)