Hell’s Healers: Australian Field Ambulance in the Papuan Campaign, 1942-3
A lecture by Dr Jan McLeod
During the Papuan Campaign of 1942-43, around six thousand Australian soldiers were killed or wounded while fighting Japanese forces at places like Ioribaiwa, Efogi, Kokoda, Milne Bay, Soputa, and Buna. A further thirty thousand suffered from a range of tropical diseases including malaria, dysentery and scrub typhus.
As the Australian Army fought its way across the Owen Stanleys, pushing the enemy north towards the Solomon Sea, medical supply lines stretched to breaking point. Distance between the frontline and the 2/9th Australian General Hospital at Port Moresby grew ever greater. With no effective means of large-scale casualty evacuation, it was left to personnel of the Australian Field Ambulance to treat and care for thousands of sick and wounded at rudimentary medical posts in the unforgiving Papuan environment.
This discussion will focus on the challenges faced by these units. To add a personal perspective, Dr McLeod will reference the diary and photographs of her great-uncle Private L. N. Kennedy, who served as a nursing orderly in the 2/4th Australian Field Ambulance, 7th Division AIF.
February 1943: The Red Army’s stunning destruction of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad ignited Soviet morale across the Eastern Front. Flushed with the news, Stalin ordered his commanders to exploit the momentum and evict the hated enemy from Russian territory.
For German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein these conditions presented an unprecedented crisis. Left with battered forces to counter the moves of vastly superior numbers threatening to entrap his armies, Manstein found himself juggling Hitler’s manic “don’t surrender ground” battle directive and his own defence-to-offence approach.
His ultimate success in The Third Battle of Kharkov has been studied in military academies ever since as a case study in how victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat by calm generalship, use of combined arms, and what Clausewitz called the massing of forces at the enemy’s ‘centre of gravity’. But it was no more than a pyrrhic victory, failing to halt the Soviet drive on Berlin.
Robert Muscat is President of the Military History Society of New South Wales and a former rifleman in the Australian Army Reserve. He holds two masters degrees in education and is currently a secondary school principal in NSW. He has written and spoken about military history in various forums. His last lecture was about Operation Cobra, Normandy 1944.
Saturday, 6 March 2021, 10:30AM-11:30AM, Auditorium, Anzac Memorial Hyde Park, corner Elizabeth and Liverpool Streets, Sydney CBD. Admission is free of charge but a donation would be appreciated. For further information call 0419 698 783 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Jan McLeod is a historian at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales. She holds a PhD in History, a Bachelor of Arts (History Honours), and a Diploma in Secondary Education (History and English).
Jan’s doctoral thesis critically examined the medical care of Australian soldiers during the Papuan Campaign, with a focus on the work of the field ambulance units. Her Honours thesis contrasted popular representations of the Kokoda Campaign with war time diary entries recorded by her great-uncle – one of two family members who served with the 2/4th Australian Field Ambulance during the Middle East, Papua, New Guinea and Borneo campaigns.
Jan’s first book, Shadows on the Track: Australia’s Medical War in Papua 1942- 1943, was published in 2019 by Big Sky Publishing with the support of the Australian Army History Unit. She is the recipient of an Army History Research Grant (2019- 2020). Her next research project will examine the medical care of Australian soldiers in the South West Pacific Area during the ‘mopping up’ campaigns of 1943-1945.
Jan has presented at a number of academic conferences and community events, and will appear on an upcoming episode of the SBS programme, Who Do You Think You Are? Her most recent roles at the University of Newcastle range from tutor, lecturer and course co-ordinator, to researcher and project officer. Her previous occupations include secondary school teacher, adult educator, and student nurse.
The 2021 venue for The Military History Society of New South Wales lecture program will be the Auditorium at the Anzac Memorial Hyde Park, corner of Elizabeth and Liverpool Streets, Sydney CBD. Numerous bus services stop at the location and Museum railway station is only 160 metres away. The venue will be opening its doors at 10:30AM sharp.