History

As its name implies, the 2/5 Australian General Hospital was the fifth hospital raised by the Australian Army in the Second World War (1939 - 1945).

 

It was formed in May - June 1940, to be a completely self contained hospital of about 1200 beds, fully equipped with operating theatres, wards, staff quarters and all ancillary items, together with tents to house them. Although classified as 'Corps Troops', as casualities increased, sections of the Unit were seconded to serve with the 6th and the 7th Division Forces.

 

A team of surgeons, physicians, dentists, 80 nursing sisters, 10 physiotherapists and support staff, (including many members of the St John Ambulance Brigade, Railway First Aid men, Militia etc.) necessary for running such a large hospital, was gradually assembled.

 

The calibre of these people may be judged by the fact that subsequently six knighthoods, as well as over 86 Imperial, Australian and American awards were granted to the personnel.

 

While the staff was being assembled in Greta, NSW and other places, another team was busy preparing and packing a mountain of stores. On 10 July 1940, a detachment of 33 left Sydney bound for Darwin, being joined by six nurses at Brisbane en route. In Darwin this Detachment set up a hospital, which they manned until they were relieved in November. They re-joined the Unit in Palestine in March 1941.

 

In the meantime the main body sailed on 20 October 1940, on board the Queen Mary and other ships in convoy for Bombay, where they were transhipped to Palestine. Here the hospital was set up near Rehovot, though not to full strength, as many of the staff was sent on detachment to other parts of the Middle East.

 

On 9 April 1941, the 2/5 AGH left Palestine for Greece, and three days after landing was set up in a pine forest, fully operational, and ready to receive 50 patients, causalities from the battles of Northern Greece.

 

As the military situation deteriorated and it became obvious that Greece could not be held, all the female and many of the male staff were evacuated back to Palestine, leaving 165 (including six doctors ) to look after the patients who could not be evacuated.

On 27 April 1941, all these people became Prisoners of War.

 

As the war progressed, the hospital, helped by some members of the 2/7 Australian Field Ambulance, 1st New Zealand General Hospital and the 26th British Hospital, treated all the sick and wounded from the remaining battles of Greece and Crete. In all they treated 2841 patients. As the latter became well enough to travel they were sent to POW camps in various parts of German occupied Europe.

 

In December 1941, the hospital was closed and the remaining patients and staff went to Europe, most of them to Poland. In October 1943, 128 of the 2/5 AGH were repatriated home, leaving 36 still in Europe. One had died in Greece, and unfortunately one of the 36 was accidentally killed by American troops within hours of his release from the Germans.

 

In the meantime, those who had been evacuated to the Middle East, had reformed and been reinforced with new personnel and new equipment. In September, they were again operating, this time in Eritrea and in Ethiopia. This was also to be of short duration.

 

When Japan entered the war in December, it was imperative that as many Australian troops as possible returned home. So the 2/5 AGH again packed up and via the Middle East and the Indian Ocean, arrived back in Australia in March 1942.

 

After home leave for the staff, the hospital was again reformed and began operating in Armidale (NSW). As material and manpower were in short supply, the number of patients was small, however, some were treated under difficult conditions, again mostly in tents.

In December 1942, the news came that all had waited for, more overseas service. This time they were headed to Bootless Bay, in New Guinea. This assignment was a completely new experience - for the first time the nursing was for tropical diseases such as malaria, scrub typhus, blackwater fever, severe dysentery and many others. Each tent accommodated 80 patients, cared for by two sisters and about six orderlies. Gradually the patients became a mix of medical and surgical. At the same time, there was a severe shortage of materials, especially water. Up to that time the only antibiotics available were the sulphur drugs. Eventually, some of the tents were replaced by huts.

 

At one time the bed state was over 1500 - in a hospital designed for 1200, as wounded and sick arrived from the Kokoda Track, Buna and other places in New Guinea. One of the most dramatic times was when a fully fuelled Liberator bomber crashed on takeoff into a whole battalion of infantry causing the admission of 104 badly burned patients and seventeen dead. The bed state rose to over 2000 by Christmas Day 1943.

 

The year 1943 saw two very welcome happenings: Firstly, that year the newly created Australian Army Medical Womens Service (AAMWS) sent reinforcements to replace some of the male nursing orderlies and other support staff who had done such sterling work up to that time. Secondly, Penicillin was used for the first time.

 

It was here that the 2/5 AGH, for the first time, treated ex-POWs - some Indian troops released from the Japanese on nearby islands.

As the major battles of New Guinea had been fought by the end of 1944, the necessity of the big 2/5 AGH was over, and once more it returned to Australia, this time to be re-equipped for its final posting. Here also, the members were able to welcome back some of the staff who were captured in Greece in 1941 and who had been repatriated in late in1943.

 

In April 1945, the 2/5 AGH was sent to Morotai which was still partly occupied by the Japanese.

 

An advance party of 41 officers and 274 other ranks landed on 5 April, all stores were unloaded by 10 April and within four days, four wards were fully equipped and ready for patients, with dispensary, Q stores and operating theatre prepared.

 

On 18 April, 242 nursing sisters and AAMWS arrived. By Anzac Day, there were 589 beds equipped with 386 occupied. The dysentery ward had 60 beds and the skin ward had 180. On 10 May the bed state was 1116 and by June it was 1500. In July there were about 100 Japanese prisoners of war among the patients. Malaria was still rampant, but fortunately, scrub typhus was no longer a problem.

 

15 August saw the end of the war, to be followed by the return of some of the Australian POWs released by the Japanese. The condition of these men after so much brutality by their barbaric captors brought tears to the eyes of the staff. It was hard to comprehend the extent of man's inhumanity to man.

 

The 2/5 AGH ceased to function in November 1945, exactly five years after the main body had sailed on the Queen Mary from Sydney for the Middle East. Besides in the main hospital itself, many of the personnel had worked on detachment, as mentioned above, and other places such as the Japanese POW camp at Cowra, in July, where over 140 Japanese POWs were wounded in a breakout, as well as many killed or suicided.

 

During the period 1939 - 1945, over 1300 personnel served with the Unit, which consisted of 173 male officers (this included Doctors etc), 500 women (Nurses - AANS and Nurses Aides - AAMWS) and 630 other ranked males (including 167 taken as prisoners of war). The Unit served in Darwin, Palestine, Greece, Crete, Eritrea, New Guinea and Morotai Island. Medical staff from the Unit also served aboard the hospital ship Manunda and on Hospital Trains. Probably in excess of 15,000 patients were treated.

This site is dedicated to the memory of those who served with the 2/5 Australian General Hospital.

After the war, the members formed the 2/5 Australian General Hospital Association, with the aim of keeping up old friendships, and of assisting other people.

 

Vince Egan
Secretary - 2/5 AGH Association

© 2/5 Australian General Hospital