Embarkations and Movements on the night 24–25 April
Embarkations and Movements on the night 24–25 April
The first5 embarkations took place on the night of 24–25 April when the rearguards were still hastening south from Thermopylae and Brallos Pass. In his instructions Admiral Cunningham stated that material must not take precedence over men; the destroyers and the ‘Glen’ ships6 would take their men to Crete and return for a second embarkation; troopships would sail direct to Alexandria.
At Porto Rafti7 there appeared after dark the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Calcutta, the cruiser HMAS Perth and the ‘Glen’ ship HMS Glengyle with the landing craft. Fifth Brigade Group had already come in from its widespread distribution area, so the transport vehicles were then destroyed and the men covered the last two miles under careful control from collecting area to assembly area, and finally to the point of embarkation. With them they took small packs, respirators, steel helmets, rifles, 100 rounds of ammunition, groundsheets and one blanket per man. The entrenching tools which had been brought by many had to be left behind.
6 Three ‘Glen’ liners had been converted for use as assault landing ships; they had special landing craft: LCT (tanks), LCA (assault personnel) and LCM (mechanised vehicles).
8 5700 is the number given in Cunningham's despatch.
The evacuation had not, unfortunately, been complete. Some 500 men had been left on the beach, about half of them from the Supply Column, the rest from about ten other units, including 28 (Maori) Battalion, 19 Army Troops Company and 5 Field Ambulance. The Navy, however, came to their relief, crowding them aboard a tank landing craft and transporting them the 15 miles to Kea Island. The craft then sailed away, the crew hoping to collect them later but warning them to be prepared to find their own way to Crete. Thereafter the detachments, with Captain Love2 as OC Troops, waited anxiously for the Navy, well aware that there was a shortage of food and some doubts about their chances of evacuation.3
Another group from 28 (Maori) Battalion had also been left on the beach. In the withdrawal the Regimental Sergeant-Major, Warrant Officer Wood,4 had brought up the rear with six trucks on which he collected any Maoris stranded in broken-down vehicles. The party increased in numbers, but the frequent pauses so delayed the little convoy that it reached Athens after the brigade group had gone through to the Marathon area and had therefore to spend the night in the New Zealand Reinforcement Camp at Voula. When Wood learnt that 5 Brigade was leaving from Porto Rafti he took his trucks there, but the convoy had left; the party eventually embarked with 4 Brigade Group on the night of 27–28 April.
To explain the presence of the New Zealand nurses it is necessary to review the fortunes of 1 General Hospital. The majority of the officers and staff had left for Egypt on 19 April, but thirty orderlies were still attached to 26 British General Hospital and over fifty nurses had been left1 behind when the hospital ship Aba made its hurried departure from Piraeus. On 22 April the nurses were instructed to move south by train, but the bombers had by then disorganised the railway system. Next morning, however, the party with 100 British and Australian nurses left for Argos, 120 miles to the south and near Navplion. Travelling that day and all night, they got clear and halted for breakfast some ten miles south of Corinth. Shortly afterwards one of the vehicles carrying nineteen New Zealand nurses overturned and all were injured, though not seriously. Some Yugoslavs gave assistance and eventually an Australian detachment, passing through with empty ambulances, took the party south until air raids forced a halt in a cemetery until nightfall. At 8.45 p.m. the convoy reached Navplion and the more badly injured were taken to the quay; the others walked to the embarkation point. Then, in an old caique, they were taken to HMS Voyager, one of the destroyers protecting the convoy, which reached Crete2 the following afternoon, 25 April.
The thirty orderlies from 1 General Hospital who were attached to 26 General Hospital at Kifisia continued with their duties until 24 April. They had been ordered to report at Force Headquarters that afternoon for instructions, but the bombing of Piraeus harbour kept them taking casualties from there to Kifisia and they did not report until 10.30 p.m. They were then sent south to Navplion and the majority were evacuated on the night of 26–27 April.
About 7 p.m., when the Merchant Navy officers from vessels sunk by enemy aircraft were deciding how to get the ship to Alexandria, she was bombed and set on fire. The only gangway was destroyed, passengers were caught in the burning cabins and eventually the ship rolled over and sank. The possible casualties were 500–700 men.
Staff-Sergeants Wilson1 and Cooney2 had organised rescue parties which did magnificent work, but over half the seventy-five men of E Section suffered in some way from this disaster. At least seven had been killed and the wounded, who were sent to 26 General Hospital at Kifisia, were afterwards taken prisoner. The others were taken to Daphni Camp, a collecting point from which E Section, now only about twenty strong, moved on 25 April to the Argos area. Stragglers brought the total up to about twenty-five. On the night of 26–27 April they moved over to ‘T’ Beach (Tolos) east of Navplion and were taken on a landing craft to the destroyer HMAS Stuart, from which they were transferred to HMS Orion, which landed them on Crete on 27 April. Others who were afterwards taken from a Piræus hospital to Argos, and from there to Kalamata,3 reached Crete with the Australian group and made the total of survivors from the Workshops section 31 out of 75.