Topic: AIF - 3B - 3 LHFA
3rd LHFA, AIF
3rd Light Horse Field Ambulance
The Belah Bombing Raid, 4 May 1917
Below is an extract from the 3rd Light Horse Field Ambulance history written by Captain Gerald Stuart. This particular extract is called "The Belah Bombing Raid" which occurred on 4 May 1917. Deir el Belah, a small town midway between Gaza and Khan Yunis was a major centre for Allied activity during 1917.
The Belah Bombing Raid.
During the operations, which culminated in the Second Battle of GAZA, 19 April 17, the tent subdivision of the 3rd L.H.F. Ambulance was situated at railhead at Belah surrounded by dumps of all sorts. The tent subdivision of the 5th Yeomanry Ambulance and the Desert Column Motor Ambulance Convoy were also in this area adjoining the 3rd L.H.F.A. Capt. G. Morris Beale was in command of this section of the 3rd L.H.F.A., at the time and during the attack on Gaza, when the rail head dump was heavily shelled, his experiences could not have been as delightful as they were exciting. However when the 3rd L.H. Brigade returned from Atawineh, and camped at a point 2 miles from Beni Sela, Capt Leahy was sent to relieve Capt Beale, who rejoined the Brigade. Capt Leahy after consulting the D.D.M.S, Desert Column, Colonel McDonald, decided to move the tent Section of the 3rd L.H.F.A, to a point about 400 yards south of the Casualty Clearing Station on the bank of a small wadi on which were already stationed the tents section of the 2nd L.H.F.A, the N.Z. Field Ambulance and the E.L.C. On the advice of the D.D.M.S., Desert Corps the 5th Yeomanry Tents Section and the Motor Ambulances also moved to the same locality on the north bank of the Wadi. The positions of these units after the move are indicated on the attached diagram, which is not drawn to scale.
The number of patients in the 3rd L.H.F.A., at this period did not exceed 20. The new camp site was apparently ideal. The grass was green and plentiful and rations excellent. After the strenuous days of Atawineh, this camp was like a paradise, the days were neither hot nor cold, the nights were perfect, and a lovely moon completed the picture. Little did we know how we were later on, to curse that moon! No one for one minute doubted the security of the camp, for being situated at the rear of the C.C.S's, far from any legitimate target for shell or bomb, the possibility of danger occurred to none. Meanwhile patients were pouring in (mostly diarrhoea and septic sores) and possibly the number had risen to 60, when one beautiful evening at about 10 O'clock the sky seemed to be suddenly full of enemy planes, which bombed and machine gunned the C.C.Ss particularly, but one plane came across the C.C.S. almost due south and dropped bombs as it came. One bomb fell immediately between our lines and the C.C.S, the second on the immediate outskirts of the 3RD L.H.F.A., the third in the centre of the 3RD L.H.F.A. between the Officers and the Sergeants' Messes, which were only 8 feet apart and a dud bomb fell in the horse lines in the Wadi.
Lieut Everett, a Dental Officer who had joined the Unit two days previously, after his first voyage from home, was standing at the door of his tent when the uproar started. He was quite interested in the fireworks around the C.C.S, as he knew nothing of bomb raids, and when the bomb fell on the outskirts of the camp he received two jagged lumps of iron in the left leg, one into the thigh, which opened into the knee joint, and the other through his Achilles tendon.
A second after the first explosion, a bomb fell almost on the Sergeants' Mess instantly killing Sgt Wallace, who was in the Mess at the time and Sgt Dyer, who was a patient; but sleeping in the Dispensary, S/Sgt McKinley received a large lacerated wound of the buttock, Cpl Campbell was severely injured in the leg. S/Sgt Joyner had a miraculous escape, for he was nearer the exploding bomb than anyone else, and received no scratch. S/Sgt Walker was also uninjured. Either this particular bomb or the bomb in the outskirts of the camp or both were responsible for the awful injuries and deaths. The bombs used were evidently what are known as "stick bombs" where the bursting charge is well above the percussion cap, with the result that the bomb really explodes above the ground. The aerial bombs previously used by the enemy were of a pattern, which entered the ground before exploding; the effect of this was that most of the force of the explosion was expended in the ground, whilst the remainder went up in the air. This species of bomb had a very local effect, but the "stick bombs" used by the enemy during the moonlight raid at Belah, had an enormous field of effectiveness. On the day following the raid the tents were found to be riddled with holes, made by flying bomb fragments from the ground upwards, and this not only at close quarters, but as far away as 50 or even a hundred yards from the nearest bomb. The Ford Ambulances were at least 200 yards from any bomb hole, and yet radiators and tyres were hulled by fragments. The amount of damage done and great loss of life was therefore explicable, for the patients killed and seriously injured were all sleeping on the ground. The Officers of most of the smaller units in the area had formed a joint mess and because of its central position and the reputation of Cpl Jack Bell as a cook, the 3rd L.H.F.A. was agreed upon as the proper place in which to establish the mess. The scarcity of building material was responsible for the mess being dug into the ground, but luckily for the officers concerned this proved their salvation. There was not anticipation of an air raid, or the staff could have been advised to adopt some protection, as it was there was no protection available and those who escaped some injury were extremely fortunate.
Major Whitford, who was at the time second in command of the Ambulance, was on a visit to the tent Subdivision, and was playing Bridge with Captain Joyce of 2nd L.H.F.A., Capt. Leahy of 3RD L.H.F.A., & Capt. Maguire of 5th Yeomanry F.A., when the raid occurred. The bomb which fell almost of the Sergeants’ Mess missed the Officers’ Mess by four feet. There was once a theory that the bomb that would fall near a man could not be heard by him, but this particular bomb, fell with a noise almost loud enough to deafen one.
As soon as the explosion was over everybody rushed out to see who was hurt but in spite of the bright moonlight the fames of the bomb had so darkened the camp that it was difficult to see at all. Patients were crawling out of the tents with ghastly wounds, while some were killed outright. No lights could be lit for the enemy planes were still flying overhead at what appeared to be roughly 300 feet; they had evidently dropped all their bombs but were machine gunning the tents. The difficulties of dressing the dreadful wounds under the circumstances can be imagined. However something had to be done and Major Whitford decided to operate where necessary. Accordingly an operating theatre was improvised in the E.P. tent used as a mess by the men and all cases were dealt with. Bomb fragments were removed when they could be located & all patients were dressed. Capt Maguire & Capt Joyce acted as anaesthetists whilst Capt Leahy assisted Major Whitford. During all this time enemy planes were about, and were machine gunning the tents of the C.C.S's & the Ambulance, so that all lights had to be out until the immediate danger passed over, when they were lighted once more. To add to the confusion our own planes went up and as friend and foe were unable to be distinguished by us, we were inconvenienced almost as much by one as by the other.
Eventually, after many exciting spells of waiting in the darkness whilst the anaesthetist continued his task under the greatest difficulties, all cases were dealt with. The antiseptics used were carbolic and Hydrarg Perchlor. Abdominal wounds and chest wounds were not explored but lacerated & penetrating wounds of limbs and joints were explored and fragments removed. It is worthy of note that the fragment which entered the knee joint of Lt. Everett was removed by Major Whitford, the knee joint was drained with a rubber tube and the joint immobilised with a back splint. Lieut Everett was sent to Australia, where he made an uneventful and complete recovery. During these exciting hours when Major Whitford was operating, with the planes overhead and the bullets flying about. S/Sgt Johnny Walker rendered the greatest assistance as also did Corporal Bell, who worked the sterilizer and the primus stove. How the latter was able to do the wonders he did with a defective primus and attend at the same time to the provision of beef tea, cocoa and hot water bottles for our sundry, nobody can tell.
It was 3.30 a.m. next morning before all duties were completed and the Officers and their assistants adjourned to the wrecked Officers’ Mess to investigate the well-deserved contents of a bottle of "Johnny Walker", which was in the process of being opened when the raid commenced. However the presence of somebody unknown enabled him to forestall us, for the bottle had disappeared and we retired to a more or less restless slumber with cocoa alone to help us to forget the dreadful experiences of the previous eventful hours. At 6 a.m., the patients were sent to the C.C.S. No patients died with the exception of those killed outright. The D.D.M.S. Desert Column & the A.D.M.S., Imperial Mounted Division visited the scene of the outrage later in the day and it was decided to move the Imperial Mounted Division Units to Beni Sela, lest another raid should occur, that this was a wise move, later days proved for other raids occurred and we remained undisturbed at Beni Sela while the units remaining at Belah at least three times again endured the horrible ordeal of a moonlight aeroplane raid.
Roll of Honor
355 Trooper Frederick Wallace COX, 8th Light Horse Regiment.
722 Trooper David DORAN, 10th Light Horse Regiment.
829 Trooper Percival William DYER, 3rd Light Horse Field Ambulance
3073 Trooper Henry John STOW, 10th Light Horse Regiment.
862 Sergeant William WALLACE, 3rd Light Horse Field Ambulance
Lest we forget
Citation: The Belah Bombing Raid, 4 May 1917