Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
ANZAC Day, 1941, found all the field medical units, except 4 Field Ambulance, in the Navy's care. The Glengyle was convoyed southwards with other ships and was crowded to capacity with Tommies, Aussics, and Kiwis, including the members of 5 Field Ambulance and the main body of the 6th. They were not yet out of reach of the Luftwaffe. On board the Glengyle dressing stations were set up amidships and aft, as air attack was expected. It came soon after midday, and all ships in the convoy opened fire to give the bombing and strafing planes a warm reception. All the ships reached the naval base of Suda Bay, Crete, towards evening without mishap.
From the crowded decks the tired troops saw a township (Suda) nestling against rolling country, which rose to the massive White Mountains still crested with snow. In Suda Bay small boats of every type scurried urgently from ship to shore, for enemy aircraft could, and did, find an easy target. From the single quay the men of the medical units set out on a march of a few miles to a transit camp near Canea.
Beside the dusty white road which led to the transit camp was a field kitchen among the olives, where hundreds were waiting in a long queue for a cup of tea, oranges, and sandwiches. Many slept along the road or under the olive or orange trees; they were tired and worn out, and neither knew nor cared much where they were. Most of the units collected at the transit camp, which was really nothing more than olive groves and rolling country, without tents or shelter except for the twisted old olive trees.
The medical units would have liked to rest and recuperate, but there was work to do, especially for 6 Field Ambulance. First of all there was the task of attending to the needs of some hundreds of casualties who were beginning to assemble, many of them wounded or sick, and all exhausted and in need of attention. The means of giving such attention were scanty. Some tents and a small supply of dressings and stretchers were obtained from 7 General Hospital, a British field hospital already on the island, and with this and such medical gear as the men had managed to page 114 carry, an improvised dressing station was hastily set up. The only transport available was requisitioned to bring in casualties and sick from the convoys arriving at Suda Bay, and the walking wounded were streaming in steadily, many of them with wounds which had not been dressed for almost a week.
Next day the stream continued and the little dressing station was working under pressure. More dressings were obtained from the British garrison field ambulance, and something like a thousand men in all were given essential treatment and, with but the crudest cooking facilities, were provided with food and hot drinks. Accommodation was the greatest difficulty. The more serious cases were taken by 7 British General Hospital, whose tented wards were however limited, and some were given shelter and attention by a company of 189 British Field Ambulance, though for the majority a depot was organised next to the dressing station with food and blankets for the men but with very little else.
On the morning of 27 April, 5 Field Ambulance marched eight miles with 5 Brigade to positions west of Canea on the coast. On the march the men passed 7 General Hospital, where the nurses of 1 NZ General Hospital gave them a cheer as they went past. 4 Field Hygiene Section had been attached to 5 Field Ambulance, and S-Sgt Ashworth and 18 orderlies from 1 General Hospital, who had escaped to Crete after the bulk of their unit had gone to Egypt, were also attached for the move. On the arrival of the unit at Ay Marina, where a skeleton MDS was set up, these orderlies were posted to 7 General Hospital.
B Company, 6 Field Ambulance, marched several miles westwards on 27 April to set up an ADS in an area adjoining 7 General Hospital. Here they were shortly afterwards joined by the remainder of the unit to run an MDS for 4 Brigade.
It had been decided that the retention of Crete was of vital importance to British operations in the Eastern Mediterranean and that the island was to be held at all costs. On 30 April General Freyberg was appointed to command the Allied Forces in Crete. Col Kenrick was appointed to his staff as DDMS Creforce, with Maj J. K. Elliott as his DADMS. Lt-Col Bull was made ADMS NZ Division, and Maj Plimmer took over command of 6 Field Ambulance. Available for the defence of the island were Greeks, Cretans, British, Australians, and New Zealanders, mostly of weak page 115 battalions evacuated from Greece, and all ill-equipped. RAF cover was an impossibility and it was realised that the force would have to hold on without air support. Supply, too, was an almost insuperable problem, and only a minimum of materials and supplies reached the island.
Crete is 160 miles long and 40 miles wide at its broadest part. To the south is a backbone of high mountains rising in places to 6000 feet, with the southern ports, mainly fishing villages, nestling beneath the mountain ranges. From its northern coastline the country rolls back in vineyards and olive and citrus groves to the hills and snow-capped mountains. Most of the island is hilly or mountainous.
In the western end of the island the New Zealanders were concerned mainly with the defence of Maleme airfield, the Aghya Prison valley, and the coast between Maleme and Canea. 5 Brigade was at Maleme and 4 Brigade in positions west of Canea. The troops were living in the open under the trees, with little or no kit or equipment, and armed merely with Bren guns, tommy guns, and rifles; there were only a few mortars, heavy machine guns, and vehicles.