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Read: The intriguing story of one of NZ’s wartime heroes

Every New Zealander should know the story of Sir William Manchester, one of the heroes of World War Two. Originally from Waimate, Manchester became a battalion medical officer with the New Zealand Army in the United Kingdom during the war. Selected in 1941 to trains as a plastic surgeon, under the supervision of the great pioneers Gillies, McIndoe, Mowlem and Barron – all New Zealanders – he excelled in this evolving surgical craft.

In 1942, after eleven months of training, he was posted to No.1 General Hospital, Helwan, Egypt, to establish a plastic surgery unit for wounded New Zealand soldiers. After two years in Egypt, Manchester was ordered to return to New Zealand, where he was instrumental in the development of the plastic surgery unit at Burwood Hospital in Christchurch, primarily for wounded soldiers but also for selected civilian patients.

At the end of 1950, he established the plastic surgery unit at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland, where he trained generations
of young surgeons and nurses, became a world expert on the multi-disciplinary management of cleft lip and palate as well as a leader and political mentor on the world stage of plastic and reconstructive surgery.

In a new biography called Perfection: The life and times of Sir William Manchester, authors Earle Brown & Michael F. Klaassen tell the remarkable story of Manchester and his legacy.

Here is an extract from the book:

Chapter 3 – Army Medical Corps

While many men and women volunteered for active military service in 1939, Bill Manchester delayed doing so until he had completed a year of hospital work. He volunteered on 26 January 1940 at Army Headquarters in New Plymouth and was medically examined and attested on 6 February. On 10 February he was directed to Burnham Military Camp to join the 5th Field Ambulance with the Regimental number 11357 and rank of Lieutenant…

…As an officer, Bill was involved in training the men of the unit, teaching them aspects of anatomy and wound care, and joining them in field exercises to gain some idea of possible battle conditions. _e field days were held near Springfield (in the foothills of the Southern Alps) and Motukarara (near the coast at Birdlings Flat, Lake Ellesmere) and during these field days schemes for the evacuation of battle casualties were carried out. Improvised shelters, with trenches and sandbags, were prepared for the wounded. An important part of their training was physical fitness and route marches of between 4 and 12 miles (6–20 km) in length were undertaken.


While he and his colleagues were training at Burnham Camp, certain events that were to influence Bill’s life were happening at Trentham Military Camp, north of Wellington. Lieutenant-Colonel Leslie (Les) Andrew VC, the Commanding Officer (CO) of the 22nd (Wellington) Infantry Battalion had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. At the first parade of the 22nd Battalion at Trentham Camp, he announced, ‘I am the boss’. In early March 1940, Andrew demanded the removal of his Medical Officer who had a discipline problem and was continually late for battalion sick parades. That officer was transferred and Lieutenant Manchester was appointed to the 22nd_Battalion.

Lieutenant Manchester’s transfer to the 22nd Battalion occurred on 29 March following the completion of final leave. On 30 March,
the battalion assisted at a special parade for the funeral of the Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage. The battalion diary records that the sick parade at the regimental aid post (RAP) worked like clockwork with the new doctor. Although final leave had been taken, the battalion’s departure was deferred until the beginning of May.


In a letter to his father from Trentham Military Camp on 18 April Manchester wrote:

“This camp is the rottenest show I was ever at. It is not laid out sensibly like Burnham is, but is just a hotchpotch of huts built
in the last war and new ones being built. There are no barrack squares as at Burnham and it’s always raining like the very devil.
When it’s not doing that it’s frosty. One of my first jobs was to vaccinate the Battalion and what a hell of a job I had looking after the sick troops and they were sick too.

About five days after vaccination their arms swelled up to twice their normal size and a big scab appeared. Some were running temperatures of up to 104 °F, headaches, backaches, bellyache, and vomiting being common symptoms. I have to get
up at quarter to six and take a sick parade at quarter past. The usual number of patients is about 40 but with the vaccination,
100, 90, and 238 have been common figures. Also in addition to curing the troops, I have to prevent their becoming ill and with that end, in view, I have to inspect the Camp daily. This means looking into every crevice in the cookhouses etc., and generally making a damned nuisance of myself by finding dirt everywhere.” MANCHESTER ARCHIVES

The return from final leave for the soldiers of the 2nd Echelon was an anticlimax. All expected that they would soon embark on
ships to Europe and the Middle East, but they learned that no ships were available and they all had another four weeks of training. This gave Manchester ample opportunity to become familiar with all the members of his battalion. His Field Ambulance training would have given him a greater appreciation of his new role as Battalion Medical Officer.


On 27 April 1940 the 22nd Battalion marched to Parliament to hear a farewell address. On 2 May they boarded the ship Empress of Britain, part of a convoy of ships carrying 8000 New Zealanders initially bound for the Middle East. Other ships in this convoy leaving Wellington were Empress of Japan, Andes, Aquitania and Navy escorts HMAS Canberra, HMAS Australia and HMS Leander. During the voyage to Fremantle in Australia, the convoy was joined by other ships from Sydney, Queen Mary and Mauretania, and Melbourne, Empress of Canada carrying 8000 Australians.


This fleet of seven luxury liners carrying 16,000 soldiers from New Zealand and Australia became known as the ‘million-dollar convoy’…. …The New Zealanders soon realised the seriousness of war when, as it approached Britain, a number of British navy ships joined the convoy as an escort. They witnessed an oil tanker ablaze after it had been torpedoed by an enemy submarine off the coast; just before they reached port they saw some wreckage floating past their ship; they also had their own submarine alarm….


…Following the arrival of the convoy at Gourock, near Glasgow in Scotland, on 16 June 1940, the soldiers boarded trains for the long journey to Kent in South England. _e evacuation of British troops from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk in France had happened just a fortnight earlier, between 27 May and 4 June. Britain faced the possibility of invasion by enemy troops. Morale was at a low ebb and the arrival of New Zealand and Australian troops to help defend Britain was a wonderful confidence booster…


…The battalion took up coastal positions as part of the defence of Southern England during the aerial ‘Battle for Britain’ in preparation for an expected sea invasion. During this time training continued, with manoeuvres, weapon training, and many route marches including the 100-mile march (160 km) in August.


In a letter dated 11 August, Bill wrote: ‘. . . on returning to camp, the sky suddenly became streaked by dozens of search lights and a pulsating drone, characteristic of German aircraft, soon became audible. Next five explosions which faintly lit up the sky occurred each one closer than the last. The final one was about 300 yards away. It was the enemy dropping anti-personnel bombs. Fortunately nobody was hurt and no damage done.’


Early in September the Battalion moved to Warren Wood, where they slept under the stars or in tents. At night the soldiers ‘were kept awake by the drone of aircraft and the thunder of anti-aircraft batteries. _e whistle of anti-aircraft shrapnel raining down on them through the trees was frightening enough and during daytime, ‘dog fights’ in the skies, waged overhead between British and German fighter command. It was not uncommon to witness at least 5 parachutes in the air as planes exploded
and crashed near them.’
(Manchester Archives)

In September, the Nazis bombed strategic targets especially in
London and the 76-night Blitz began.

END OF EXTRACT

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