The New Zealand Dental Services
CHAPTER 13 — Greece and Crete
THE story of the campaign in Greece and Crete in which the New Zealand Division fought in 1941 is a jewel of many facets polished into brilliance by military historians, political apologists, moralists, strategists and tacticians. So much sparkle is blinding and misleading when it is intended, as in this history, to polish one small facet only, so little reference will be made to the campaign in detail. All that it is necessary to know before beginning the story is that the New Zealand Division was sent to Greece, fought there, was driven off to Crete, fought again, and thence was evacuated to Egypt with inevitable losses in men and equipment. The whole campaign was extremely mobile and as such offered no facilities for organised dental treatment, but it is reasonable to assume that nobody guessed how fast modern warfare could move. Had they done so the lesson to the Dental Corps might have been less costly but, on the other hand, many prisoners of war in Germany would have been deprived of much expert dental attention.
The decision to send the Division to Greece provided the Dental Corps, in the first instance, with a clear-cut issue according to the blueprint organisation so recently adopted. The men were leaving the training camp and entering the ‘Action circuit’ where maintenance and the treatment of urgent dental casualties became the first consideration. There were three Field Ambulances, the 4th, 5th, and 6th, to each of which a dental section was attached. The ‘Hospital circuit’ was represented by No. 1 General Hospital, which had a dental section with it. Nothing less than this could give a reasonable coverage. Until there was reason to expect some stability in the military operations, nothing more could be used with certainty. Dental units surplus to requirements in the ‘Action circuit’ could only be regarded as a potential hindrance to essential military operations and an unjustifiable risk of trained personnel. Unfortunately, more were sent. On 1 April 1941, after the main body had sailed, eight officers and twenty-four other ranks, with fifteen Army Service Corps drivers attached, left Egypt as a Mobile Dental Section, complete with elaborate equipment. Of this number, one NZDC other rank and one ASC driver were evacuated from page 180 Greece to Egypt; two NZDC other ranks and four ASC drivers escaped to Crete; all the others were taken prisoners of war and all equipment was lost.
It is easy to be wise after the event, and easier still to level criticism and apportion blame, but not quite so easy to recapture the spirit of the moment or to analyse dispassionately the decisions born in immaturity. Many of the records were lost in Greece; the capabilities and limitations of a Mobile Dental Section had not been fully tested; there were differences of opinion over the channels of command and teething troubles in the assimilation of a new unit into an old-established organisation.
The decision to send dental sections with the field ambulances and the General Hospital was in accordance with established custom and needs no comment. It is from an analysis of the movements and activities of the Mobile Dental Section in this campaign that valuable lessons can be learned. Who sent the section to Greece? Why was it sent there? Did it perform any useful function? Having arrived in Greece, was it used correctly? Could it have been saved from capture? To answer these questions with complete accuracy is impossible as there is little conclusive written evidence. It is, however, possible to piece together the fragments into a story, bridging the gaps with deduction as distinct from conjecture.
Before the departure for Greece the New Zealand Division was in Helwan Camp under the dental care of the Mobile Dental Section. It was here that the first confusion in regard to the command of the Mobile Dental Section became apparent. The ADDS considered that Helwan was a base camp and that the complete dental arrangements for troops in such a camp were his responsibility. As such the Mobile Dental Section would come under his command. He based his opinion on the instructions of the Officer in Charge of Administration (OICA) already quoted:
On the other hand, the ADMS (Division) apparently regarded the concentration of the Division in Helwan Camp as analagous to field conditions, in which case the Mobile Dental Section would be under his command. His opinion was based on another section of the instructions from OICA:
While with the Division in the Field, the Mobile Dental Section comes under the command of the ADMS as far as its location and duties are concerned. It should communicate with the ADMS on these matters. If necessary the ADMS communicates with the ADDS, a copy of such correspondence going to the DDMS.
At first sight it may appear of little consequence who was in command of the section, especially as much bigger issues were occupying everybody's minds. Had free use been made of the consultative clauses in the administrative instructions it would have mattered little to whom the Mobile Dental Section was immediately responsible. Unfortunately the ADMS and the ADDS each still held different opinions, with the ADMS in actual command, having as his adviser on dental matters the OC Mobile Dental Section, whose affiliation with the ADDS has already been the subject of comment. The ADDS was unwilling to begin a major administrative battle at this time to assert his authority and was discouraged in his attempts at co-operation. The results of this with respect to the dental condition of the Division have already been described. It also gives us material on which to base the answer to the first question, ‘Who sent the Mobile Dental Section to Greece?’ The ADDS states categorically that he was neither consulted as to where the section was going nor as to how it was to be used, so it would appear that the section could only move on the authority of the ADMS. The war diary of the ADDS bears out his statement as there are only three entries at the date of the movement of the section from Helwan, and it would be strange if, in a diary as full as his in which every discussion was entered in detail, this was the only one omitted. The entries are:
Unfortunately there is no trace of the movement order for the section to leave Helwan and go to the transit camp at Alexandria, the only information being a report from Major Mackenzie that no provision had been made for its arrival. It is inconceivable that had the movement originated from the ADDS at Headquarters 2 NZEF there would have been no advice of arrival, as it would have been an isolated move rather than one of many.
At the time of the move from Helwan to Alexandria the ADMS was already in Greece and would have had time to see something of the conditions under which his units would be working. There could have been few signs of an impending static period of operations in which a Mobile Dental Section could successfully operate. Under normal conditions the four dental sections in Greece should have been able to deal with casualties during intensive warfare and the Mobile Dental Section could have been called over when the page 182 situation became stabilised. The conditions, however, were not normal, as can be seen from an extract from the war diary of the ADMS NZ Division of 31 March 1941:
Since arrival of troops in Greece, and up to date, rations have been largely M & V [meat and vegetable stew], no supplies of fresh meat, bread or vegetables being available until 1 April. Many cases of broken dentures due to hard biscuits have occurred and as these can only be repaired by Mobile Dental Section it is apparent that this unit should be retained and function with the Division.
The biscuits were of the dog-biscuit type and, according to reports, were a test for the strongest teeth. In the New Zealand Division with its high proportion of artificial dentures the results were serious. At one time there were something like 800 broken dentures1 and little prospect of soft rations for the unfortunate owners. The soldier could not eat, and a man who cannot eat cannot fight. This fact alone gives some justification for sending the Mobile Dental Section to Greece in the hope that there would be time for the dentures to be repaired. It is quite certain that the task was beyond the resources of the dental sections already there. It is also difficult to see any other solution to this urgent problem. Whether it was used correctly will be discussed later, but enough has been said to show why it went to Greece.
Having discussed why and by whom the section was sent to Greece, it is necessary to know what happened to it, and this is best told in the words of some who were part of it in the campaign.
1 War Diary ADMS, 12 April 1941.
Major J. A. S. Mackenzie, NZDC (OC Mobile Dental Section), to DDS Wellington, 14 June 1945:
The 2nd Mobile Dental Section, shortly after its arrival in Egypt, was altered on the orders of the ADDS Middle East, Lt-Col Fuller, from a divisional unit to a non-divisional one. From the section OC's point of view, this was a serious change for it greatly increased the difficulties in such things as obtaining the unit's motor transport and various other items of equipment. To some extent this change was responsible for the loss of the unit in Greece owing to it being separated from the Division. This meant that, until such time as the Division could be contacted in the Field, the section operated as an independent command, entirely cut off from divisional intelligence. In the type of warfare that characterised this campaign, this proved to be a great disadvantage. Being attached to a Division is a very different thing from being part of a Division and especially is this the case during an evacuation scheme.
Before continuing with Major Mackenzie's story, certain comment is called for on his statements and deductions. In the first place, the change from divisional to non-divisional status was not on the orders of the ADDS but of Headquarters 2 NZEF (see page 142). In the page 183 second place, it is difficult to see how this change in status could have been responsible for the loss of the unit in Greece as the Mobile Dental Section was not the only non-divisional unit in the campaign. No doubt, as will be seen later, there was not the firmness of attachment that there might have been, but there is no reason to believe that if the section had been attached to the Division it would have been other than an encumbrance to that highly mobile and busy fighting machine, with much the same chance of being captured by the enemy. To continue:
Great difficulty was experienced in Egypt in obtaining the necessary motor transport. Finally it was obtained by going outside the 2 NZEF (organisation) and dealing direct with Headquarters Middle East. The end justified the means and the unit left for Greece with:
One 5-ton Albion, reconditioned by Italian Prisoners of War and fitted with the Mobile Dental Laboratory.
Two 3-ton Bedfords.
Seven 15 cwt. Ford trucks.
Two Motor cycles.
One Humber Snipe car.
One Water Tank trailer.
All the 15 cwt. trucks were fitted with adjustable covers by the unit's carpenter and plumber. This allowed for easy packing and bigger loads. All the transport was satisfactory in Greece.
The Mobile Dental Section moved as an independent unit to Greece as the Division had been there for some time. Helwan Camp was left at 0700 hours on 27 March 41 and the transit camp on the outskirts of Alexandria was reached that evening. Although all orders received for the move to Greece had been carried out, no provision had been made in this camp for the unit. The same difficulty again arose in regard to transporting the unit to Greece but, after much arguing and many interviews, the drivers and transport went on one ship and the remainder of the unit on another.
Alexandria was left on 1 April 41 and the personnel reached Greece 36 hours later. The drivers on the transport ship took four days and received numerous air attacks, two men being slightly wounded when a bomb hit the ship. Only minor damage was done to the unit transport.In Greece nobody seemed to know much about us. Finally, Colonel Gentry1 (AA & QMG NZ Div. Hqs. in Athens) instructed the NZ Liaison officer, Major Rattray,2 in Athens to send us to Katerine. The unit left Athens on 7 April and reached Larissa on the morning of 9 April. Here the Area Commander, Brigadier Parrington,3 ordered the unit back to Athens. The unit was accordingly withdrawn 15 miles back to Pharsala,
1 Maj-Gen Sir William Gentry, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born London, 20 Feb 1899; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier 1920–22; GSO II NZ Div 1939–40; AA & QMG 1940–41; GSO I May 1941, Oct 1941–Sep 1942; comd 6 Bde Sep 1942–Apr 1943; Deputy Chief of General Staff 1943–44; comd NZ Troops in Egypt, 6 NZ Div, and NZ Maadi Camp, Aug 1944–Feb 1945; 9 Bde (Italy) 1945; Deputy Chief of General Staff 1946–47; Adjutant-General 1949–52; Chief of General Staff Apr 1952–Aug 1955.page 184 where the Number 1 NZ General Hospital was located. Colonel McKillop1 (OC 1 NZGH) gave us permission to work in his area. The following day the unit was working and a sub-section under the command of Captain J. Dodgshun2 was sent to the NZ Reserve Motor Transport at Larissa continuing to work there until that unit withdrew.
On 11 April the ADMS, Colonel Kenrick,3 visited the area and expressed surprise at the unit being there and gave written orders for it to proceed to the slopes of Mount Olympus. These orders were countermanded again by Brigadier Parrington. He again ordered the unit back to Athens but Colonel McKillop was in need of help in the evacuation of the hospital, and the NZ and Australian nurses were evacuated by the unit to Athens. This meant leaving some of the equipment behind. Headquarters in Athens refused us permission to return to Pharsala to collect the remainder of the equipment but, bearing in mind its value and the difficulty in replacing it, Captain Noakes4 and four drivers were sent back as a salvage party. Unfortunately they were unable to proceed further than Lamia and returned to Athens empty handed.
The unit rested for a day and then went to Voulas,5 the Advanced NZ base. It was decided to establish the unit headquarters in this area. Accordingly a German doctor's house and surgery were commandeered for this purpose and Captain Greenslade6 and three officers, Captains Crawford, Noakes and Spencer,7 with their orderlies, set up their sub-section with the Mobile Dental Laboratory. The remainder of the unit intended to return to Thebes.
The night before we were due to leave we were ordered to evacuate Greece and hand over the unit transport to NZ Base. The drivers volunteered to stay behind with their trucks. Sergeant Reilly8 and Private Tippett,9 against orders, joined the rearguard party who were to cover the evacuation.Each officer of the Mobile Dental Section was put in charge of 50 men (wounded and convalescent) with orders to evacuate them from the beaches around Athens. Owing to the shipping losses this could not be done. When the last party had left for the ships, I collected the unit together and intended making for the Peleponnese where further evacuation was taking place.
1 Col A. C. McKillop, m.i.d.; born Scotland, 9 Mar 1885; Superintendent, Sunnyside Hospital, Christchurch; medical officer, 1 NZEF, 1914–16; CO 1 Gen Hosp Jan 1940–Jun 1941; ADMS Pacific Section, 2 NZEF (Fiji), Aug 1941–Jul 1942; ADMS 1 Div (NZ) Aug 1942–Mar 1943; died Christchurch, 5 Aug 1958.
3 Brig H. S. Kenrick, CB, CBE, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk); Auckland; born Paeroa, 7 Aug 1898; consulting obstetrician; Otago Regt 1916–19 (Capt); wounded Apr 1918; CO 5 Fd Amb Dec 1939–May 1940; acting ADMS 2 NZEF, Jun–Sep 1940; ADMS NZ Div Oct 1940–May 1942; DMS 2 NZEF May–Sep 1942, Apr 1943–May 1945; Superintendent-in-Chief, Auckland Hospital Board.page 185 Captain Ritchie1 (Medical) asked me if I would take the walking wounded with me. We set out for Corinth about 300 strong but, unfortunately, walked right into the lines of the German Parachute Division and were taken prisoners. Some evaded the parachutists but next day ran into the supporting motorised division.
5 Near Athens.
It would appear from this report that there was no definite policy as to how the Mobile Dental Section should be used in Greece. The unit's commanding officer obviously considered that it should be with the Division; others, such as Brigader Parrington, that it should remain at the Base. There were no regular channels of communication and the unit received orders from whomsoever happened to be the senior officer in the area. Even the ADMS, officially in charge of the unit, was surprised to find it at Pharsala. No doubt there was general confusion everywhere, but in view of the fact that the unit was needed primarily to repair a large number of broken dentures, it is surprising that it was considered necessary to send it to Katerini, where two brigades were holding a line. The unit had a mobile laboratory which could have been established somewhere on the lines of communication, and to which the dentures could have been brought. A scheme was actually suggested by Colonel Gentry whereby broken dentures would be collected in labelled tins and sent back for repair, but by this time it was too late. The decision of the ADMS to send the unit to Mount Olympus where the third brigade was in reserve was sounder, but again this was too late. It is significant that in the available reports from dental sources the subject of the large number of broken dentures was not mentioned, which invites speculation as to whether the OC Mobile Dental Section had been fully acquainted with the true dental position.
The ‘Mobile Divisional Dental Hospital’ while an excellent idea in principle, cannot in fact be either ‘Mobile’ or ‘Divisional’, in the true sense of the words. With a highly mechanised fast moving Division it would be very difficult for such a hospital to function as a real integral part of the Division. What would, in fact, happen would be that the hospital would proceed to the Overseas Base and there would wait until the Division came out for a period of rest. The hospital would then move up and commence operating. I gather that, in fact, it cannot function efficiently without remaining in one place for at least a week.
For the purpose of repairing broken dentures, the section could have been ready to begin operations as soon as the dentures arrived from the Division.
It would appear, therefore, that the section was not used correctly in Greece and that from a dental point of view was of little value. Probably the most valuable contribution made by the section in Greece was by making its transport available to No. 1 General Hospital to take sixty New Zealand nursing sisters from Pharsala to Athens. Without this additional transport it is quite possible that the hospital might have been captured. Colonel A. C. McKillop, Officer Commanding the hospital, wrote:
I wish to record my appreciation of the assistance rendered by Major MacKenzie and the Mobile Dental Section. Had it not been for their help it would have been impossible to evacuate the hospital and to get the sisters safely to Athens. During the last few days he was with us he placed his transport entirely at our disposal and by its help we were able to send fit men to rejoin their units and to send lying cases to the railway at Phaleo-Pharsalas to the ambulance trains.
The story of the capture of the personnel of the section has already been told by Major Mackenzie, but some further light is thrown on the conditions at the time by a report from Staff-Sergeant J. Russell, NZDC:1
The Mobile Dental Section stationed at Voulas Camp, 7 miles East of Athens received orders to evacuate immediately at 0200 hours on 22 April 41. We arrived at dawn at the evacuation beach, Megara, 35 miles West of Athens. We stayed under the olive trees until the evening of 25th when we filed down to the beach to await lighters from the ships. At 0300 hours Saturday 26th we were told to go back to the road as the ship had a full load and could take no more that night. In the dark I lost contact with some of the unit but made the road where several Greek ambulances were pulled in beside the road. With 13 men aboard an ambulance we drove off to report to the next evacuation beach over the Corinth canal. Our page 187 ambulance was first away and by dawn we had crossed the canal but had not reached the evacuation beach. We hid for the day and then went on to Argos. The ambulance was then taken over for wounded so we attached ourselves to an Australian convoy. We reached the beach that night but had to return along the road as a guard to watch for German paratroops. On arriving back at the beach we discovered the ship had left, so we hid through the next day and came down to T beach, Naplion. The next evening, Sunday 27th, no ships arrived so we hid again. At 0900 hours on Monday the Germans cut us off on a point by the beach. We escaped by swimming off this small peninsula back to the mainland north of the Germans. We then marched for two days and two nights to a village called Helles, furthest point East, South of Corinth canal. We then rowed to the island of Spetsai and paid a Greek fisherman to take us to Crete. We left Greece the next night and made a small island by dawn. Here owing to rough weather, we stayed two days and on Saturday 3 May at midnight reached Melos Island. Our party consisted of 4 officers and about 60 other ranks.
On Melos island there were already 50 men awaiting the Navy from Crete. We were told that cables had been sent to Crete asking the Navy to call and pick us up. The Commander of the island was a Greek fifth columnist and we were lulled into security and held until the Germans arrived on 8 May and took us prisoners on the night of 9 May as we were trying to get away in a hurriedly patched up schooner.
The loss of the men and equipment was serious for the Dental Corps. Under the conditions of the evacuation it was inevitable that the equipment and transport would have to be abandoned, but the loss of the men appears to have been just bad luck.
There are certain salient points that can well be emphasised in regard to the use of the Mobile Dental Section in modern warfare:
It is extremely important that it be clearly understood how the section is attached to the Force and to whom it is responsible. There is no place for an individual commander cut off from vital intelligence reports. The channels of communication should be so firmly and rigidly established as to be unshaken by the confusion of battle. They should be so deeply ingrained as to become second nature.
The Mobile Dental Section can only operate when static and its mobility should be regarded rather as a means of moving from one position to another than as a challenge to compete with a fast-moving fighting force.
There is no advantage in keeping the Mobile Dental Section as a unit apart from the general dental organisation; in fact there is a distinct danger that by attempting this there will be a breakdown in the continuity of dental treatment with the Force. There is therefore the greatest necessity for the closest liaison between every unit of the Dental Corps and the ADDS, who alone can see the complete dental picture.
It now remains to account for the four dental sections attached to the General Hospital and the three field ambulances.
At the time of the evacuation the dental section attached to the General Hospital was well established at Pharsala under the command of Captain N. M. Gleeson.1 Normal routine dental treatment was being carried out. This section was evacuated to Egypt with the hospital staff, with the exception of one other rank who was left behind on special duty and who was captured by the Germans.
The three field ambulance sections were kept fully occupied on dental treatment until the time of the withdrawal. From this moment treatment became an impossibility and the officers were employed on various field ambulance duties. The 4th Field Ambulance section under the command of Captain C. C. S. Loeber was evacuated to Egypt. According to a report received by the ADDS, Captain Loeber was made full use of in other capacities when dentistry became impracticable and carried out these duties with distinction. He was in the rearguard action from Olympus down through Greece to the southern tip of the Peloponnese and was among the last to be evacuated by destroyer. He sometimes acted as a medical officer, sometimes commanded troops and was liaison officer to each brigade in turn.
The 5th Field Ambulance section (Captain J. R. H. Hefford) and the 6th Field Ambulance section (Captain C. C. Cook2) were evacuated to Crete. They had to leave their panniers on the evacuation beaches but each officer filled his pockets with essential instruments such as forceps, syringes, etc., which meant that urgent work for the relief of pain could be carried out.
On Crete the two officers carried out dental duties each day at No. 7 British General Hospital at Galatas, but when the main attack was launched they returned to their units and performed general field ambulance duties. The 5th Field Ambulance section was evacuated to Egypt, but Captain Cook and three other ranks were captured.
There is an interesting account of the dental condition of the troops in Crete in a report from Captain Cook:
On arrival in Crete on 25th April 41, it was found that the English 7th General Hospital near Canea was without the services of a dental officer, who had met with an accident. Captain Cook, with Colonel Bull's3 permis-page 189 sion, volunteered to help with Captain Cooper A.D.C.,1 who had also arrived with remnants of the 26th General Hospital from Greece. From reports all over the island, the 7th General Hospital was the only one which functioned as a complete dental centre. Men came from everywhere and it was usual to be seeing up to 100 persons daily for treatment.
Vincent's angina was rampant. Fortunately … a satisfactory treatment was mastered early. It was impossible to hospitalise any Vincent's cases unless the patient's general condition demanded it; it was impossible to get men daily for treatment when they lived any distance away and unfortunately there was a limited supply of chromic acid.
The routine treatment was as follows: initial application of chromic acid followed with hydrogen peroxide. At the same visit the inter-dental spaces were packed with well-teased packs of cotton wool impregnated with zinc oxide, oil of cloves and powdered sulphanilamide stiffly mixed. Anyone from a distance was dismissed for five to seven days and, according to Captain Cook, almost every case was free from infection on return. Penicillin was not on issue at this time and did not become universally used in the treatment of Vincent's angina until the end of the war.
Dental officers with the field ambulance in action had little time for reports, which were usually given verbally on return to Base and, as they wrote no war diaries, there is no documentary evidence of this campaign on the files to include in a history. The vividness of their experiences, however, is sufficient excuse for accepting as reliable the following account from Captain Hefford of 5 Field Ambulance, written almost ten years after the campaign. From it can be gathered some impression of the conditions under which these sections had to work and the extent to which modern mobile warfare limited their activities:
The equipment and Motor Transport were embarked on one ship and we were sent aboard the 2,400 ton Greek ship ‘Corinthia’ ahead of most of the unit to act as liaison with other NZ units and to arrange embarkation. French of a sort was our medium of expression. Five minutes before we started I extracted an abscessed lateral incisor for our unit grave-digger with a pair of artery forceps gripped by a pair of pliers borrowed from a truck driver on the quay. No anaesthetic of course.
Having been used to carry mules and troops to Albania, the ship was full of fleas with the result that my neck swelled to such an extent that my collar would not come within 2 and a half inches of buttoning up and I spent 3 days in a British Hospital in Athens getting deflated.
The passage to the Piraeus took four days as our convoy was diverted after being spotted by Italian Air Reconnaissance. This was an unfortunate encounter for the Italians as our place was taken by the Mediterranean Fleet who mauled their Navy at the Battle of Matapan.Two days after leaving hospital I took a train to Katerine and scrounged a car to drive south over the Olympus Pass to join the unit which was establishing Main and Advanced Dressing Stations later to be used by the page 190 4 Field Ambulance to evacuate casualties from the fighting in the Olympus Pass. Here the MDS1 adopted the policy of dispersal and concealment as distinct from that of displaying the Red Cross. I got my dental centre under the steepest part of a hill and spent some days there during which time Germany became at war with Yugoslavia and Greece.
Following the decision to abandon the line Aliakmon River-Katerine we handed over to the 4 Field Ambulance and moved in snow to the Servia Pass area, again digging in and camouflaging. Here we received unwelcome treatment from Stukas until some wounded Austrian prisoners we were treating persuaded us to show the Red Cross which proved highly effective. From then on 5 Field Ambulance, unless attempting to hide for security reasons, moving in convoy or situated near Bofors guns abandoned digging and dispersal and was never attacked from the air. We were able to do some urgent work for British Artillery and Royal Army Service Corps units here as well as treating six to ten cases of Vincents among the Australians. Here we also found there were a number of broken dentures among N.Z. troops. The ADMS ordered these to be sent to the Mobile Dental Section located with the No. 1 General Hospital at Pharsala. These dentures were never seen again as the Hospital and the Mobile Dental Section evacuated Pharsala.
One night here an alarm that parachutists were landing behind us, although proving to be false, cured me of wearing pyjamas to sleep in.
Our next withdrawal was to the Thermopylae position. During this our truck broke its front axle by Lake Xymas near Domokos village. The replacement involved me in a 120 mile drive through Lamia Pass and back under heavy air attack for 12 hours. We had not long been established in a luxurious Bath House building at Kamina Vola when the ADMS sent us into concealment under some trees where we set up the section under a tarpaulin and got to work on some fillings and extractions.
Almost immediately we were ordered to destroy all war equipment, leaving medical equipment intact, and withdraw to the South-East of Athens where we were to remain concealed and await evacuation with 5 Brigade. We went by night convoy with full headlamps and hid in the olive groves all day. On arrival at the beach we destroyed all Motor Transport and tyres and went aboard H.M.S. ‘Glengyle’ in the ship's landing craft without even getting wet feet. Before abandoning my dental equipment I put a hypodermic syringe, some local anaesthetic and two pairs of extraction forceps in my respirator haversack. These were very useful later for emergency extractions.
A feature of the 5 Field Ambulance operations in Greece was the very full information we were given of the situation most of the time and the fact that except for occasional accidents to vehicles such as mine, every move was made as planned. We handled about three quarters of the total casualties of the NZ Division and this precision would not have been possible but for the tremendous activity and efficient organisation of our Commanding Officer, Colonel J. Twhigg, N.Z.M.C.2
1 Main Dressing Station.page 191
2 Brig J. M. Twhigg, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Dunedin, 13 Sep 1900; physician; CO 5 Fd Amb Jul 1940-Nov 1941; p.w. Nov 1941; repatriated Apr 1942; ADMS 3 NZ Div Aug 1942-Apr 1943; DDMS 2 NZEF (IP) Apr 1943-Aug 1944; ADMS 2 NZEF (UK) Oct 1944-Feb 1946.
H.M.S. ‘Glengyle’ arrived at Suda Bay in Crete on Anzac Day in the afternoon. We had a meal at the Suda Bay Field Kitchen and set off on a long weary march to the Transit Camp, a big olive grove at the back of Canea.
During our stay in Crete from 25 April to 1 June there was no rain, nor was any expected until September. Water was scarce and came from village wells, being unsafe to drink unless first boiled. Purification tablets could not be issued although it is believed that a good supply of these had been amongst the equipment in Greece. This was probably a factor in the incidence of dysentery among the troops after the action period when the water could not be boiled. We kept reasonably clean by sea bathing and by clipping our hair short and I kept myself and the section fit by cross country running over the hillside tracks, an exercise about which the men had mixed feelings.
There was eventually a demand for dentistry and as the only dental equipment was at No. 7 General Hospital (British), I was detached for duty with that unit. I joined it in the afternoon of 19 May, the day before the attack. Captain C. C. Cook, Dental Officer with 6 Field Ambulance (NZ), the Dental Officer from 26 General Hospital evacuated from Athens, the Dental Officer, mechanic and orderly of 7 General Hospital with Cook's and my orderlies and a stray mechanic from the NZ Mobile Dental Section were the dental personnel.
Next day we were driven into our slit trenches by enemy planes towing gliders and low-flying aircraft machine gunning and dropping bombs. Parachutists and gliders had landed and occasionally we heard Huns with Tommy Guns patrolling near us. Fortunately they were mopped up by a patrol of the 19 NZ Battalion who told us to go down to the beach and disperse among the rocks. Some of the ward tents, the dispensary and the Medical Stores tent caught fire, destroying most of the morphine and a lot of splints and dressings.
I joined up with an Australian Medical Officer, a gynaecologist from Melbourne, and, having collected some rations, we found a sheltered ledge about ten feet above the shore in the Western promontory. On top of the point was a ruined church supposed to have been started by St. Paul. I climbed up there every hour to see what was happening inland but could see little except a few mortar bursts. At dusk we went over to the operating tent and casualties started to arrive. All night the Australian gave the anaesthetics, Captain Gorovitch1 of the 7 GH did the surgery, I was his assistant and the Quartermaster acted as theatre sister. The cases were all transported to a limestone cave in the Eastern promontory. We had 4 gallons of water for all our scrubbing so had to rely on lots of soap for antisepsis. Most of the work was excision of damaged tissue and the application of plastic bandage slabs but there were some amputations and even the removal of an acute appendix.The next day we transferred the operating theatre to the big cave ready for the night's work which was much the same as on the previous one. Much of the work had to be improvised in the absence of special equipment. Most of the Thomas splints, for example had been destroyed in the fire so we merely put a clove hitch round the ankle and tied the foot to the handle of the stretcher putting the foot end about 18 inches higher than the head. We managed to evacuate some cases to destroyers in Suda Bay page 192 but most of the lying cases had to stay behind until the Germans took over the island.
The War Artist missed an eerie and striking picture of our nightly operations. A huge cave with the floor on several levels; rows of stretchers; a couple of Medical Officers doing dressings by torch light; tea being made over primus stoves with biscuits being spread with margarine and marmalade and the operating table under an acetylene flare.
During this period I was seldom called on for dental troubles but took out two teeth. One NZ infantry man came in, still with fixed bayonet, sat down, had the tooth out, thanked me and, grabbing his rifle walked out.
Meantime the 5 Field Ambulance had withdrawn from Maleme to a building on top of the middle point previously used as the hospital officers mess. I rejoined them and the following night moved to a position in a village church in the foothills. We pitched half a dozen tents on an open paddock nearby and with plenty of red crosses in evidence were not molested by the Germans although the neighbouring olive groves were regularly plastered by the tail gunners.
The next move was at night. The unit had acquired a few trucks as, except for red cross vehicles, nothing could move in daylight without being shot up. I was commanding Headquarters Company for the march and was leading but had to get the sergeants to march on each side as I kept going to sleep and walking into the ditch. When we got to Stylos, the Australian Medical Officer and I had a good day's sleep hidden under the foliage of a fig tree.
We moved on next night but made slow progress as the column was very ragged, being overtaken by trucks and stragglers. Finally we abandoned the road which seemed to be metalled with round stones the size and shape of cricket balls and took to an old mule track under the trees in the bottom of a gully. After crossing the Askipho Plain, lying flat on our faces every time a plane appeared, we reached the village of Imvros where unit headquarters had already arrived by truck, establishing themselves in the church. We worked hard on casualties that night and all next day, unmolested under our red crosses.
The Division had by this time lost so many of its Medical Officers, who had stayed behind with the wounded, that the Commanding Officer decided to take the remaining MOs and medical key personnel by truck to as near Sphakia as possible. I persuaded him to take my orderly with him and I was left with the Quartermaster to march out the cooks etc., about 20 men. The CO and main body embarked in the ‘Glengyle’ on the night of 29–30 May. Dawn on 30 May found me with my marching party high on the hillside overlooking the sea near a few scattered cyprus trees. We broke up into groups of three or four for some sleep under the trees but were soon disturbed by marines looking for sites for rifle pits and were told that they were going to hold that position that day. I could only find about ten of my party, the others evidently having decided to move on. We made our way across country down the hill and arrived at Force Headquarters about a mile from Sphakia at 10 a.m. immediately setting to work to assist a British MO in a nearby Aid Post. He rewarded me by showing me how to slice up chocolate iron rations into cubes in a mug of hot water, making, on account of the salt in the ration, a much better cure for thirst than plain water. Later in the afternoon Captain Cook NZDC arrived looking a lot thinner.page 193
I then reported to Major Kennedy Elliott1 who as DADMS Crete Force was the senior medical officer, the ADMS having left the previous night. I was instructed to collect about ten men and establish a beach-head aid post as the previous night Sphakia had been heavily bombed and the same was expected this night. Two destroyers were expected but could not take seriously wounded men. We got down fairly close to the beach under a big boulder having gathered up a couple of men who had been hit the previous night. One of these had both legs paralysed by a blow in the back. During the next day we gathered up more wounded and by improvising sticks and crutches got them all mobile, even the man with the paralysed legs whose condition was evidently due to severe bruising, the effects of which were beginning to wear off. I was getting worried about not being allowed on the beach with my team but fortunately a message I sent to Brigadier Hargest2 bore fruit. I was instructed to see Lt. Col. Andrew3 of the 22 Bn. and received from him a written order instructing the guard to allow my party onto the beach at dusk. Dusk found us sitting in a corner of the beach with about 120 sailors, soldiers and airmen in various states of disrepair and we were all taken off in the first few landing craft and ferried out to H.M.S. ‘Abdiel’ a minelaying cruiser. Again no wet feet.
We arrived at Alexandria in the afternoon of 1 June and next day I reported to the ADDS at the Base. My dysentery here caught up with me, having been kept under control with Tincture Opii for long enough, and I landed up in No. 3 General Hospital remembering very little of the next few days.
1 Lt-Col J. K. Elliott, OBE, ED; Wellington; born Wellington, 24 Aug 1908; surgeon; RMO 18 Bn 1939–40; surgeon 1 Gen Hosp Nov 1941-Jun 1943; CO 4 Fd Amb Jun 1943-Apr 1944; Orthopaedic Consultant (NZ) Jun 1944-Mar 1945.
2 Brig J. Hargest, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d., MC (Gk); born Gore, 4 Sep 1891; farmer; Member of Parliament, 1931–44; Otago Mtd Rifles, 1914–20 (CO 2 Bn, Otago Regt); comd 5 Bde May 1940-Nov 1941; p.w. 27 Nov 1941; escaped Italy, Mar 1943; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.
3 Brig L. W. Andrew, VC, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Ashhurst, 23 Mar 1897; Regular soldier; Wellington Regt, 1915–19; CO 22 Bn Jan 1940-Feb 1942; comd 5 Bde 27 Nov-6 Dec 1941; Area Commander, Wellington, Nov 1943-Dec 1946; Commander, Central Military District, Apr 1948-Mar 1952.
Although the loss to the Dental Corps was a bitter blow, there were compensations arising out of the Greece and Crete campaigns. Apart from the valuable lessons learned in the administrative and organisation fields, the accident of capture of so many dentists, mechanics and orderlies was a boon to our prisoners of war.
Major Mackenzie wrote:
It is probably no exaggeration to say that the dental officers captured in Greece and North Africa were of more value to the health of our troops as Prisoners of War than on the other side of the wire. The majority of the men caught at Dunkirk had had no dental treatment at all before being sent to France. Prisoners coming in later were in a better condition but it was never possible to keep pace with the amount of work presenting. Generally speaking the German authorities were not interested in the health of the Prisoner of War. There were one or two exceptions to this rule….
As far as I know, the bulk of the dental work done in Germany was carried out by New Zealand Dental Corps Officers and men. They all worked under most unfavourable conditions and carried out their duties in a manner most fitting to the traditions of the New Zealand Dental Corps.