The 16 Field Ambulance served with the 6th Division in France during the Great War, however it was disbanded after the Armistice. During 1941, the British Airborne Forces movement was gathering momentum and the need to equip these units with dedicated medical facilities was realised. The 16 Parachute Field Ambulance was reformed at Hardwick Hall in April 1942, having drawn volunteers from all areas of the RAMC. Lt-Col Malcolm MacEwan DFC, a 47 year old Royal Flying Corps veteran of the First World War, was selected to command the Ambulance and pull it into shape. Through his immense experience and skill he quickly succeeded in training his men to the first class standard that was required, and their morale was at a peak.

 

North Africa

 

The Ambulance was not deployed with the 2nd Battalion on the Bruneval Raid, but following this operation a number of similar drops on the French coast were planned in which they would be used but they were all cancelled. However, in November 1942, the 1st Para Brigade was called to North Africa and 16 Parachute Field Ambulance accompanied them. Whilst the main force of the Brigade travelled via sea on the 1st November, the 3rd Battalion, excluding A Company, and No.3 Section of the Field Ambulance were flown in Dakotas to Maison Blanche, near Algiers, arriving on the 11th November. The party had refuelled and rested at Gibraltar, however during the final leg of their journey one Dakota was lost in the sea; its two RAMC personnel and pilot were picked up by an American ship, but they were not able to rejoin their unit for a further two months because they had to travel to North Africa via New York.

 

This party had been rushed to North Africa to take part in an attack upon Bone airfield, and at dawn on the 12th November, they took off. Due to a combination of hard ground and unexpected atmospheric conditions the drop alone resulted in one death and 13 injuries, but there was no resistance on the ground, though a few more casualties were inflicted when they were attacked by Stuka dive bombers. The 3rd Battalion's position was very firm and they were relieved that evening by a squadron of Spitfires and No.6 Commando, who had landed on the coast. On the 15th November, the Battalion and No.3 Section were reunited with the 1st Para Brigade at Maison Blanche.

 

Other elements of the 16 Field Ambulance were soon deployed, with No.1 Section accompanying the 1st Battalion, on the 16th November, to the Souk el Arba plane. The Battalion succeeded in capturing the airstrip and then proceeded towards its next task of persuading the 3,000 strong French garrison at Beja to support the war effort, and then doing all that they could to harass the Germans in the area. Before entering Beja the group stayed overnight at a local village where the Ambulance set up shop in part of a small hospital. Four men were treated on the following day when a Sten gun, a notoriously unpredictable weapon, was unintentionally fired. The French at Beja gave an enthusiastic welcome to the British troops and a temporary twenty-bed hospital was established in a school, but on the following day the French Medical Officer arranged for them to have access to the civil hospital. Elsewhere the 1st Battalion attacks resulted in a small number of casualties that needed to be treated, but by far the biggest test of the medical staff came when German bombers attacked Beja on the 20th November, causing a considerable number of civilian casualties. Prominent during the aftermath was Lieutenant Rob of the No.1 Surgical Team. He performed in excess of 150 operations, in the course of which a bomb exploded outside of his building and fractured his left tibia and kneecap. Nevertheless he continued to work and carried out 20 operations on the next day, and even donated a pint of his own blood when supplies of plasma were exhausted. For his unflinching conduct, Lieutenant Rob was awarded the Military Cross. Following a successful action against German and Italian forces at Sidi N'Sir, the 1st Battalion were given orders to withdraw.

 

No.2 Section were attached to the 2nd Battalion and accompanied them on the disastrous attack on Oudna on the 27th November. Deep into enemy territory and marching over great distances to attack a series of airfields which, due to faulty intelligence, proved either to be abandoned or defended by much larger German forces than should have been present, the Battalion was extremely hard pressed and came close to being destroyed. After the initial engagements, during which the Battalion suffered heavy casualties, it was obvious that a withdrawal was essential, and for this to be practical the wounded had to be abandoned with 12 medical staff left to care for them until the Germans took them all prisoner. In addition a platoon of soldiers remained behind to guard them because their fate would be far from certain if they fell into the hands of the local pro-German Arabs. The 2nd Battalion was able to reach the Allied lines, having lost in excess of 250 men.

 

After Oudna the 1st Para Brigade recovered their losses and were put into the front line to fight as normal infantry troops, a role that they would perform for some months to come. On the 3rd February 1943, the 1st Battalion successfully attacked a hillside, Djebel Mansour, with the 16 Field Ambulance in support. The objective was taken but eventually the 1st Battalion was forced to abandon its position on the 5th February, during which time the Ambulance had evacuated over 200 wounded from the battlefield, including French troops and Grenadier Guardsmen, at the cost of the life of one of their own.

 

Following this engagement there soon came reports that an attack was expected on the 1st Para Brigade and so sections of the Ambulance were assigned to each of the battalions. The attack came on the 20th February but the Brigade held firm in spite of many casualties, which kept every man of the Ambulance busy with stretcher-bearer duties; the terrain being wholly unsuitable for the use of their vehicles. On the 3rd March the Brigade was ordered to Tamera where the 139th Infantry Brigade was experiencing difficulty. Hostilities continued until the 20th March, during which time the Ambulance treated 550 casualties. The Allied troops had been forced backwards over this period, but on the 23rd March the 1st Para Brigade launched a counterattack and by the end of the month had retaken their lost positions and won the battle. The Brigade was moved into reserve in mid-April. Throughout their time in North Africa the 16 Parachute Field Ambulance had been awarded 1 Distinguished Service Order, 1 OBE, 2 Military Crosses, 1 Distinguished Conduct Medal, 2 Military Medals, 7 Mention-in-Despatches, 1 US Silver Star, and 1 US Soldiers Medal. 

 

Sicily

 

Some days after British and American troops had landed in Sicily, the 1st Para Brigade were charged with the capture of Primosole Bridge. At this time the Ambulance was not up to full strength and so volunteers were sought from the 133 Parachute Field Ambulance, the medical unit assigned to the 4th Para Brigade; every man on parade offered their services. The paratroopers took off in the evening of the 12th July, however British shipping mistook the aircraft for being German and so fired upon them, and the plane in which No.4 Section travelled was shot down. The pilot ditched safely in the sea, however four men were drowned in the scramble to get out. Heavy anti-aircraft fire broke up the remaining aircraft flying towards the dropping zones and the vast majority of the Brigade's personnel were scattered far from their objectives. Casualties suffered by the Ambulance were comparatively light, and in September they accompanied the 1st Airborne Division to Italy, where they based themselves in the Altamura Military Hospital. For their part in these operations, the Ambulance earned 1 Distinguished Service Order, 1 Military Cross, 1 Military Medal, and 2 Mentioned-in-Despatches.

 

Arnhem

 

Arnhem had cost the 16 Field Ambulance five lives, and the remainder of its personnel were taken prisoner in their entirety. For their role there, the Ambulance was awarded 1 MBE, 1 Military Cross, 2 Distinguished Conduct Medals, 3 Mentioned-in-Despatches, 1 Dutch Bronze Lion, and 2 Dutch Bronze Crosses. In spite of the complete loss of all ranks, the decision was taken to rebuild the Ambulance. When the war ended the 1st Airborne Division was flown to Norway to oversee the surrender of German forces in the country, and on the 10th May the Ambulance flew to Oslo to assist. Following their return the individual elements of the 1st Airborne Division were either disbanded or assigned elsewhere. The 16 Parachute Field Ambulance was disbanded on the 15th November 1945.

 

This history has been compiled from "Red Berets and Red Crosses", by Niall Cherry.

 

Commanders of 16 Parachute Field Ambulance

 

1942-43

Lieutenant-Colonel Malcolm MacEwan DFC

1943

Lieutenant-Colonel P. R. Wheatley

1944

Lieutenant-Colonel E. Townsend