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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

1 General Hospital Detachment Captured

1 General Hospital Detachment Captured

The seizure of the Corinth Canal was the last of a series of misfortunes leading to the capture of the detachment of 1 General page 106 Hospital staffing the convalescent hospital at Voulas Camp. The patients under the care of the detachment had rapidly increased to 450 by 19 April. These were sorted out and evacuated until the total was reduced to 200 next day. The order for total evacuation and abandonment of all equipment and personal gear was received at 11.30 p.m. on 21 April. Less than three hours later all patients and staff, comprising about 250 in all, moved out in trucks, accompanied by the New Zealand Mobile Dental Unit and Base Reception staff, heading to the west beyond Eleusis. They were stopped by Movement Control Post at Megara, west of Athens, and lay up there under olive trees one mile east of Megara village for two days, living on bully beef and biscuits. On 24 April the hospital was told to remain where it was, and that it would be evacuated at Megara if possible. All very sick patients unable to walk were returned to 26 General Hospital at Kephissia. That day the remainder marched two miles down the road to an area near Megara beach, where they were joined by walking cases from 26 General Hospital and other units. All the serious cases were sorted for early evacuation, with the fittest remaining to the last. There was much air activity on 25 April and the patients became difficult to manage, but the camp was quiet. All vehicles were destroyed at 5 p.m. and embarkation began from the beach at Megara at 9 p.m.

The medical group had the last allocation. An accident to one ship and a delay with lighters held up proceedings, and at 4 a.m. next day there were still 400 men on the beach when the ships moved out. Some of the patients had had several trying days from air activity and were in a very nervous and hysterical state. It was stated then that there would be no more evacuations from Megara and that the next embarkation would be from Corinth, 20 miles away. It was necessary to get everyone there somehow. Most of the vehicles had been destroyed, but twelve ambulances and trucks were found to convey over 200 of the worst cases.

In an endeavour to get over the eight-mile Megara Pass before daylight, the remaining 200 of the group set out at 4.30 a.m. to walk. This pass had been bombed all the previous day. By dawn the men were strung out along the road; the leading men were over the pass, waiting at a rendezvous for the rest. At daylight enemy planes appeared and patrolled the road continually at about 40 feet, machine-gunning everything. After waiting for two hours, page 107 the 100 men at the rendezvous decided to go in small groups over the foothills away from the road and gather in Corinth in the later afternoon. Some of those near the road then heard that parachutists had come down about two miles ahead, and that the bombing in Corinth was intense. Capt Kirk and others decided to return along the road to the starting point, gathering in those within reach of the road; several trips were made in a truck in spite of the danger from the air. Some men were undecided what to do and did not turn back. By midday about eighty had returned to the starting point at Megara. Lt Borrie and Lt McDonald,22 with patients and staff, were captured on the Corinth side of the pass in the early afternoon.

At half past three Captains Slater and Neale and Lt Foreman, seeing that no boats appeared to be available, decided to go with the patients by road towards Athens in some trucks and ambulances and try to contact 4 Brigade as it withdrew. With them went about forty convalescents and some orderlies from 1 General Hospital. They were captured by German parachutists three miles east of Megara village.

The remaining small party, including Capt Kirk, were in favour of escaping by sea. They took cover in a barn, where a Greek informed them that parachutists had landed near Megara about a quarter of a mile away. The situation was then very tense with death or capture seeming imminent. Hearing from a Greek that a boat was about to leave the beach, Capt Kirk decided to dash for the beach through the mile of barley crops, without any trees for cover, while the others preferred to wait till dark. Capt Kirk narrowly escaped being machine-gunned in his dash to the boat, which reached Crete after three days' sailing and two days lying up in the islands. The rest of the New Zealand officers and orderlies who had staffed the convalescent hospital were captured.

22 Capt P. N. R. McDonald; born Oamaru, 11 Sep 1897; accountant, New Plymouth; 1 NZEF 1917-18, Private, Machine Gun Corps; Quartermaster 1 Gen Hosp Feb 1940-Apr 1941; p.w. Apr 1941; repatriated Apr 1945.