Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

5 Field Ambulance at Servia Pass

5 Field Ambulance at Servia Pass

The move of 5 Field Ambulance had to be made in two lifts as there was insufficient transport on the establishment of field ambulances at that period to carry all equipment and staff. The MDS, page 114 besides serving 4 Brigade which, with 6 Field Regiment and 7 Anti-Tank Regiment attached, was taking up positions on high ground in the rear of Servia, overlooking the Aliakmon River and valley, also acted as a staging post for 7 Australian MAC which was evacuating cases from the forward areas to 2/3 Australian CCS at Elasson, some 10 miles farther to the rear. The MDS at that time was a Corps unit under Anzac Corps command. The two Australian brigades which were in the region of Ptolemais and Veroia Pass were to hold on for a few days and then fall back on Servia behind 4 Brigade.

map showing location of army medical units

Medical Dispositions during the fighting at Servia and Mount Olympus, 11–16 April 1941

page 115

An ADS under Major Fisher1 was set up on the 11th alongside the winding Servia Pass road, 5 miles from the MDS. In heavy rain and snow the tents were dug in. Parties under Lieutenant Lusk2 were sent out regularly to the RAPs, and much hand-carrying was necessary to bring the casualties back under the difficult conditions.

The most difficult problem of the advanced medical units at Servia, that of evacuating wounded from the rugged terrain in the forward areas, was undertaken by 2/1 Australian Field Ambulance. It had to work with limited equipment and use pack donkeys to carry the casualties. Eighteen mules had also been allotted to 18 Battalion to carry ammunition up and wounded back from the line. The attachment of six motor ambulance cars to 5 MDS at that time was invaluable. On 12 April a New Zealand stretcher-bearer party spent seven and a half hours making a circuit of regimental aid posts in 4 Brigade's area. On the 5 Brigade front 4 Field Ambulance was likewise to receive battle casualties and evacuate them to 2/3 Australian CCS at Elasson.

Thus regrouped, the medical units, with the rest of the Division, were ready for the coming action as the enemy advanced. At Pharsala 1 General Hospital was gradually increasing its facilities for treating and accommodating the expected casualties. It had been admitting patients from 24 British CCS at Larisa since 2 April, and evacuating to Athens. Men recovering at the hospital were sent back to their units direct. The sisters under Miss Mackay3 arrived on 4 April. When the German invasion of Greece began on 6 April the hospital was ready to take 490 patients. Two days later, in accordance with orders from ADMS 81 Base Sub-Area, the expansion to 1000 beds began.

Dive-bombers and fighters opened the battle for Servia and the nearby pass on 13 April with heavy attacks on 4 Brigade's positions. Here the New Zealanders were dug in on the mountain slopes overlooking Servia and Kozani, their line reaching from a point east of the village of Kastania to the Aliakmon River. Air attacks became more intense as flight after flight of heavy bombers hammered at roads and gun positions. At dawn on 15 April the first infantry attack was made by the enemy, but this and following attacks were effectively repulsed. The 19th Battalion's casualties were

1 Col W. B. Fisher, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; born New Plymouth, 21 Jan 1898; Superintendent, Waipukurau Hospital; RMO 28 (Maori) Bn Dec 1939-Aug 1940; 2 i/c 5 Fd Amb Aug 1940-May 1941; actg CO 6 Fd Amb, May 1941; CO 21 Lt Fd Amb (NZ) Nov 1941-Dec 1942; 6 Fd Amb Feb 1943-Aug 1944; CO 1 Gen Hosp Aug 1944-Feb 1945; died 17 Jan 1956.

2 Capt W. B. de L. Lusk, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 28 Nov 1915; house surgeon, Auckland Hospital; medical officer 5 Fd Amb Dec 1939-Nov 1941; p.w. Nov 1941; repatriated May 1944.

3 Matron-in-Chief Miss E. C. Mackay, OBE, RRC, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Porangahau, 13 Feb 1902; sister; sister, Ngaruawahia Camp Hosp, Jan-Mar 1940; Matron 1 Gen Hosp Jun 1940-Nov 1943; Principal Matron Nov 1943-May 1945.

page 116 two dead and six wounded, but the German dead were numerous and about two hundred major and minor wounded passed through Captain Carswell's1 RAP. He found that the .45 bullet of the Thompson sub-machine gun was devastating—it was responsible for most of the German dead—and the severe wounds included whole shoulders blown away and traumatic amputations of the legs. The casualties were transported to the rear by stretchers to the road, and then by Bren-gun carriers and ambulance cars which were driven through persistent shellfire to reach 5 ADS. At the ADS, while the wounded were receiving treatment in the open, the unit was dive-bombed and machine-gunned.

On the 13th 5 MDS was enlarged to take 150 patients, and a steady stream of casualties, mostly wounded, were treated and passed on to 2/3 Australian CCS. In its work the MDS was assisted by 2/1 Australian Field Ambulance with men and equipment, the Australians concentrating on evacuation, the most difficult problem. Their extra equipment was particularly welcome. Stores for the New Zealand medical units had been slow in coming to hand, and the destruction of medical stores during a bombing attack on Piraeus on 7 April was a serious setback.2 Medical units were thus finding it necessary to exercise the greatest economy in prescribing drugs. On the 14th, 56 casualties (British, Australian, New Zealand, Greek, and Yugoslav) were treated at the MDS and 35 were held overnight. Two nearby air attacks, with dive-bombing and machine-gunning, both produced casualties. Admissions on the 15th were 114, including 40 German prisoners, and on the 16th, 56.

The display of the Red Cross was decided on by Lieutenant-Colonel Twhigg following a discussion with a wounded German pilot, who was affronted at the suggestion that they would attack medical units marked with the Red Cross and declared that the pilots had strict orders to respect it. Colonel Twhigg had previously been informed by a New Zealander who was with the RAMC at Dunkirk that the Red Cross had been respected by the German airmen during the evacuation. From then on the MDS was spared although all-day-long air attacks were made nearby.

The ambulance cars, which at that time had only small inconspicuous crosses painted on their sides, were draped with large Red Crosses on the roofs. The drivers then found that if they pulled out from the road convoys into nearby fields they were not molested.

The German air attacks adhered to a strict timetable, and it was

1 Maj W. R. Carswell, MC; Palmerston North; born Dunedin, 20 Dec 1914; surgeon; RMO 19 Bn 1941–43; surgeon 1 CCS, 1 FSU, and 1 Gen Hosp, 1943–45.

2 The bombing of Piraeus caused great destruction and disorganisation at the port following the blowing up of an ammunition ship.

page 117 found that there was just time between the attacks for the ambulance cars to cover the distance to the ADS. The drivers fitted in with this pattern and no cars were lost. On the 15th the ADS, which was not marked with the Red Cross, was subjected to four bombing attacks, which caused it to shift to a better-protected site in caves high up on the hillside. It dealt with 53 casualties and evacuated them that day, and with 49 the following day.

When the fighting began the wounded were evacuated to 2/3 Australian CCS at Elasson, whence they were sent on to Larisa to 24 British CCS and evacuated by ambulance train to Athens. It was at first arranged that all the cases were to be admitted to 1 NZ General Hospital, but it was rightly determined that it was undesirable to take the more seriously ill patients off the train to convey them 7 miles to a tented hospital in the fields. It was better for them to proceed to a well-established hospital in buildings at the Base, where they were readily available for evacuation by hospital ship to Egypt. No. 1 NZ General Hospital was then used for the reception of the lightly wounded and the lighter medical cases transferred from 24 CCS and 189 Field Ambulance, but the period of active work was too short to test out the best method of using the hospital.