Medical Air Evacuation 1941-1945: History in Focus

Medical Air Evacuation 1941-1945: History in Focus

This education resource encourages inquiry learning and discussion in the classroom. During World War II, troops were travelling over great distances. Armies needed a fast way to evacuate the wounded from battlefields for treatment and care. Nurses, dubbed 'flying angels', played a pivotal role in providing medical care. Use this printable postcard to engage your students.

Series: History in Focus
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At the outset of the Second World War it became apparent that the great distances being traversed by the armies demanded a rapid means of evacuating wounded soldiers. Consequently, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) formed Air Ambulance Units (AAU) and Medical Air Evacuation Transport Units (MAETU).

In early 1941 the RAAF raised No. 1 AAU at RAAF Laverton. The unit was despatched to the Middle East and flew its first medivac (medical evacuation) mission in August 1941. A male orderly would accompany the wounded on each flight. The unit supported the British Eighth Army in its campaigns across North Africa, Sicily and Italy, and returned to Australia in 1944.

No. 2 AAU was established at Canberra, ACT, on 1 March 1942. The unit initially served within Australia. However, in February 1943, a detachment was set up at Port Moresby. It moved to Milne Bay, then Goodenough Island, and back to Milne Bay, where it eventually ceased operating in 1944.

As the war intensified, the large number of casualties required an expansion of the medivac organisation. In early 1944 fifteen nurses from the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS) were recruited into the newly formed No. 1 MAETU. The nurses, dubbed ‘flying angels’, were trained in inflight medicine and care, emergency survival procedures, and tropical hygiene. The inflight teams comprised of a sister and a male orderly who would accompany the wounded on board. A variety of aircraft were used, with the largest, the C-47 Dakota, designed to carry up to eighteen stretcher cases.

By mid-1945, No. 2 MAETU was formed from ten RAAFNS nurses and established at Morotai in the Dutch East Indies. With No. 1 MAETU based at Lae in New Guinea, a chain of evacuation had been established from the South-West Pacific battle zones to major hospitals in Brisbane. Evacuations from coastal and island locations were often conducted using Sunderland or Catalina flying boats.

A total of forty-seven women were trained as flight nurses during 1944–45. With the end of the war, the MAETUs assisted with the evacuation of many recently released prisoners of war.

A group of uniformed servicemen, each missing one leg and standing with the aid of crutches, walk towards the camera, having disembarked from an aircraft that is visible in the background. In the doorway of the aircraft a nurse and pilot converse.

A RAAF Medical Air Evacuation Transport Unit (MAETU) nurse helps Australian ex-POW amputees – known as leggies' – on their arrival at Singapore from Bangkok, 25 September 1945. AWM 119706


Department of Veterans' Affairs 2020

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