16 Parachute Field Ambulance RAMC became the first Airborne Field Ambulance when it was formed at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire. Initially known as 16 Field Ambulance, the unit was redesignated 16 (P) Field Ambulance, later 16 (Parachute) Field Ambulance, before finally becoming known as 16 Parachute Field Ambulance, as formation continued in earnest under the first Commanding Officer, Lt Col Malcolm MacEwan (who later became ADMS to 6th Airborne Division).
After strenuous training regime and substantial efforts to refine techniques for the new Airborne medics, the unit was sent to North Africa and took part in the Operation as part of 1st Parachute Brigade. Some of the unit took part in the drop at Bone airfield, near Tunis on 12 November, whilst the 'seatail' of the Brigade arrived on 13 November. Over the following months, the unit provided support for Parachute and ground infantry operations by troops in the Brigade, with sections undertaking the jumps at Souk El Arba and to Depienne. Medics from 16 PFA faced capture in December 1942 when the surrounded 2nd Parachute Battalion position, facing some 150 casualties had to be evacuated. The 16 PFA medics stayed behind to care for and ensure the safety of the wounded, but were captured as a result - an unselfish act which probably saved lives in a very hostile environment.
When 1st Airborne Division formed up in North Africa at the end of Op Torch, 1st Parachute Brigade was joined at Sousse by 4th Parachute Brigade (including the new 133 Para Field Ambulance). During Op Husky to Sicily in July 1943, 16 Para Field Ambulance were sent to Primosole Bridge to establish at Main Dressing Station (MDS) at the location. The drop did not go as planned and 16 PFA medics were scattered on landing. However, the MDS was eventually established and initial difficulties of transportation, a lack of stretchers and an exposed position were successfully overcome. After returning to North Africa the unit was prepared for the invasion of Italy in September 1943, travelling by seaborne flotilla to Taranto in support of the rest of the Division on the East coast of Italy.
The Division was subsequently withdrawn to the UK in late 1943, to prepare for the invasion of North West Europe. After several cancellations the 1st Airborne Division was despatched to Arnhem, during Op Market Garden bound for the St Elizabeth's Hospital in Arnhem to support the capture of the Bridge. 16 Para Field Ambulance landed during the First Lift on 17 September 1944, and were soon accompanying 2nd Parachute Battalion to Arnhem. They reached the Hospital by 2000hrs as planned, and were treating casualties in a little over an hour. The initial calm did not last.
German forces overran the Hospital on 19 September and captured much of the 16 PFA personnel. With casualties high and extraction impractical however, many were retained to look after the casualties where they remained until the end of the Battle. After the evacuation of the Division, 16 PFA personnel joined other Airborne medical staff at the nearby 'Airborne Hospital' established at Apeldoorn, which functioned under British control until at least late October before most of the remaining medics either escaped or were captured.
Not a single member of the 16 PFA returned to the UK with the Division in late 1944. The unit was eventually restored to strength however, and by May 1945, deployed to Norway during Op Doomsday to assist in the restoration of peace, and disarmament of German forces in the region. 16 Para Field Ambulance returned to the UK in the Autumn however and was disbanded on 1 November 1945 as 1st Airborne Division ceased to exist.
16 Parachute Field Ambulance would return to Airborne forces however, as part of 16 Parachute Brigade in the 1970-80s. The modern Airborne counterpart in 16 Air Assault Brigade, now a full Close Support Regiment, is 16 CS Medical Regiment RAMC.
Record under development - with assistance from Niall Cherry and Lt Col Jez Hair
Make a donation to Airborne Assault ParaData to help preserve the history of The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces