Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
A number of NZMC personnel, mostly belonging to 5 Field Ambulance, were embarked on the Glengyle, which had many wounded aboard. Treatment was provided for all cases requiring it on this and on other ships, and medical staff were detailed to care for patients during the voyage. Some 530 wounded were embarked that night.
On the final stages of the march to Sfakia unsuspected reserves of cheerfulness and enthusiastic energy were evoked; in blankets, in slung greatcoats, on a door which had come from no one knows where, and on improvised stretchers, many men in varying states of incapacity were assisted over the last part of the five-mile march. They had managed the steep scramble from the caves but could not complete the last stretch unaided. At least three blanket carries were made over the whole route from the most southerly group of caves.
‘So we set sail from Crete in the early hours of the morning,’ said Cpl Curtis, ‘thankful to be with the Navy again. Strangely page 141 enough ours was the same ship in which we had left Greece about one month before. The ship was packed tight with troops—the corridors and even the deck being filled to capacity. The small cabin used for medical purposes had so many wounded that it left very little room to work in. However, this eased a bit after a while and only severe cases were treated here.
‘There was so little room to move about the ship that the food was passed from the galley from hand to hand. As before, we were greeted on board with a huge sandwich and a mug of steaming hot cocoa—nothing seemed to matter after that! As it became light we were attacked by dive-bombers, who scored only one hit near the bow of one of our escort destroyers with a small bomb. Two or three other attacks were repulsed without damage, and 48 hours after leaving Crete we landed in Alexandria.’
Wounded had a priority in the embarkations, which were made on four nights, but medical staffs had to give place to fighting troops. About 1500 were embarked on the night of 30-31 May, but few were patients or staff from medical units. On the next night the 80 remaining walking wounded and a small medical group were taken aboard the ships, but a party of 50 men from the medical units, whose embarkation had been arranged and who had been chosen by ballot from the medical men assembled at the control post, were not so fortunate. At 8 p.m. they were ready to move but their movement was cancelled and their place taken by combatant troops. With the balance of the group they expected to go the next night, but further embarkations were impossible and on 1 June they became prisoners of war. Lt-Col Bull had earlier been captured.
He had established a walking wounded collecting post and dressing station at Neon Khorion, three miles from Kalivia. As the medical units withdrew it was arranged that a truck with a relief would be sent back for him. Two trucks were later sent back, but could not reach Neon Khorion because of a road demolition. Col Bull and his staff remained with 30 seriously wounded men, and on 28 May, at midday, were captured, although they had understood that there was still a rearguard between them and the enemy.
As prisoners of war the members of the Medical Corps continued their work for those who needed their help. The service of some was so notable as to gain an award. Of those captured in Crete, recipients of awards included Lt-Col Bull, OBE, Capt E. page 142 Stevenson-Wright,11 MBE, Captain O. S. Hetherington, MBE; and of those captured in Greece, Maj G. H. Thomson,12 OBE, Capt H. M. Foreman, MBE, Capt J. Borrie, MBE, S-Sgt H. S. King,13 MBE. In addition a number were mentioned in despatches.
For her leadership of the nurses on Crete Miss Mackay was awarded the ARRC. Col Kenrick, DDMS Creforce, was awarded the CBE, Lt-Col Twhigg the DSO, and Pte M. H. Wells,14 6 Field Ambulance, the MM. From 22 to 26 May Pte Wells, as a stretcher-bearer at Karatsos, had displayed great courage and leadership under enemy fire. At Imvros he gave valuable assistance to the sick and wounded, although weary from forced marches and lack of sleep, and on 31 May he conducted a party of 100 walking wounded from Imvros to Sfakia despite enemy attack.
No words can describe the debt of gratitude owed to the Royal Navy by the troops who fought on Crete, not only for the great task they performed in the costly evacuation, but also for the abundant and cheerful sympathy they displayed; from their own rations they provided food, hot drinks, and cigarettes; they gave up their own quarters so that the soldiers should enjoy some comfort and a place to sleep. During the crossing from Crete to Egypt some narrow escapes were experienced and some direct hits were scored by enemy bombers. The RAF, however, was in evidence, and many hostile aircraft were driven off and some shot down. It was with feelings of thankfulness and relief that Alexandria was eventually reached, the relief, however, tempered with deep regret for those who had been left behind.
A shaken and exhausted remnant of the medical units finally assembled at Helwan Camp on 2 June. 6 Field Ambulance had left in Crete seven killed and 85 as prisoners of war, 5 Field Ambulance had one killed and 65 prisoners of war, 4 Field Hygiene page 143 Section 17 prisoners of war and 1 General Hospital also 17 prisoners of war. Some had become prisoners because they could not embark; some because they volunteered to remain with the wounded.
‘The great devotion to duty shown by officers and men of field ambulances and hospital units who volunteered spontaneously to remain with the wounded will always be remembered by those who took part in the campaigns in Greece and Crete.’
(Extract from GOC's address to field ambulances on parade on 15 June 1941.)
11 Capt E. Stevenson-Wright, MBE; born Dannevirke, 16 Feb 1909; Medical Practitioner, Wellington; Medical Officer 1 Gen Hosp Mar 1940-Feb 1941; 2 Div Cav Mar-May 1941; p.w. May 1941; repatriated May 1945.
12 Maj G. H. Thomson, OBE, ED; born Dunedin, 5 Mar 1892; Obstetrician, New Plymouth; 1 NZEF 1914-16, Gnr 4 How Bty, Egypt and Gallipoli; RMO 4 Fd Regt Sep 1939-Apr 1941; p.w. Greece, Apr 1941; repatriated Oct 1943.