New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy
Evacuation of Greece
Evacuation of Greece
The task of evacuation had its undoubted elements of difficulty and danger. By an outflanking movement the enemy could cut off the withdrawal of the Anzacs, and his powerful air force was ready to harass the retreating force, try to destroy the ships upon which they would embark, and smash at possible points of embarkation.
On 22 April 6 Brigade took over from 5 Brigade in the Thermopylae line; 4 ADS was placed under its command and for the first time displayed the Red Cross. Fifth Field Ambulance came under command of 5 Brigade and made ready to retire with that group to beaches east and west of Athens. Sixth Field Ambulance page 128 and 4 Field Hygiene Section also came under command of 5 Brigade for the withdrawal.
The Evacuation of Medical Units from Greece
While 6 Brigade, supported by all the divisional artillery, held the Thermopylae line, 5 Brigade moved towards embarkation points, from which the first 5000 New Zealanders were evacuated by the Royal Navy on the night of 24–25 April and later taken to Crete. That same dark, moonless night covered the move of 6 Brigade from Thermopylae, and on 4 Brigade fell the task of holding up the enemy's advance during the evacuation.
In its withdrawal from the Thermopylae line 5 Brigade, with 5 and 6 Field Ambulances and 4 Field Hygiene Section under its command, reached Athens on 24 April after a hectic night journey over congested roads, and then dispersed for the day under olive groves near the beaches of Porto Rafti, Rafina, and Marathon. Following the general Corps order of 22 April, 6 Field Ambulance destroyed all its equipment, except surgical haversacks and medical companions and any loose instruments which could be carried in battle-dress pockets. The 4th Field Hygiene Section also destroyed its trucks, disinfestor, and other equipment. A small quantity of light medical equipment was retained by 5 Field Ambulance, which dumped but did not destroy the balance, and despatched its ambulance cars to 26 General Hospital with the balance of the medical equipment and supplies, all of which were gratefully received by the hospital. Personal equipment had to be abandoned ruthlessly. Men were limited to a greatcoat and a pack with one blanket. Officers were allowed an extra valise or small case.
On the night of 24–25 April, 5 Field Ambulance moved 20 miles to the beach at Porto Rafti and embarked on the special troop-carrier Glengyle with the main body of 6 Field Ambulance, all transport being destroyed. The remainder of the latter unit went with the commanding officer aboard the destroyer HMS Calcutta, which with another destroyer, HMAS Perth, formed the naval escort. Members of 4 Field Hygiene Section and Colonel Kenrick and his staff were also included in the Calcutta's complement. By 3 a.m. as many troops as possible had been embarked, and the convoy put out to sea. Later, the convoy was joined by ships from beaches farther south. Among them was HMAS Voyager with the nursing sisters from 1 General Hospital on board. The convoy was attacked by enemy aircraft during the day but was not damaged, and that afternoon the ships arrived at Suda Bay, Crete.
After destroying non-medical equipment and jettisoning much medical equipment to provide room in the transport for wounded, page 129 4 Field Ambulance (less B Company) withdrew on 22 April with 4 Brigade to positions 15 miles south of Thebes, where, in company with a mixed force of Australians and field artillery, defensive lines were established to cover the passes between Boeotia and Attica. Massed convoys moving on the roads made this journey of 80-odd miles most difficult, but by 6 a.m. on 23 April the unit got under cover alongside 2/1 Australian Field Ambulance. As this latter unit had already opened up, 4 Field Ambulance remained closed and awaited further orders. Complete concealment from air activity was enforced, not so much to avoid casualties as not to give away the considerable troop concentrations in the area. At 6 a.m. on 25 April B Company rejoined the unit, having withdrawn with 6 Brigade to which it had been attached since the 22nd. One officer and 16 men of B Company, who retired with the rearguard of 6 Brigade and safely reported to Headquarters 4 Field Ambulance, overran in the night the area occupied by their own company south of Thebes and were eventually taken prisoner.
Orders from HQ NZ Division instructed 4 Field Ambulance to withdraw with 6 Brigade, while 2/1 Australian Field Ambulance was to remain to serve 4 Brigade. Fourth Field Ambulance supplemented the stretcher-bearers of 4 Brigade with an NCO and 16 men. On the afternoon of Anzac Day 4 Field Ambulance prepared to withdraw, this time south of the Corinth Canal, west of Athens. The move began at 7 p.m. and the unit crossed the canal at three o'clock next morning, passed through the bombed and burning town of Corinth, and reached a dispersal area off the main road in an irrigation area at 6.30 a.m. That morning the troops received much attention from the Luftwaffe, which combed the area, flying low over the rows of trees where the men were resting and systematically machine-gunning under them. The reason became evident later—it was a blitz designed to keep our men grounded while the Germans dropped their parachutists by the hundred and took possession of the Corinth Canal.
As two companies of 25 Battalion were in action in the Corinth area, an ambulance car was attached to the battalion RAP. While evacuating casualties the ambulance car was machine-gunned by enemy aircraft and the driver and orderly, two brothers named Adderson, were both killed.1
At first light on 27 April the MDS was opened in a Greek church alongside the forest reserve, and the wounded from various units, who were by now concentrating in considerable numbers, were accommodated. A Greek hospital in Tripolis transferred to the MDS a number of wounded, retaining only a few cases who were in a critical condition. In turn, the most serious cases at the MDS were evacuated to this hospital, whose medical staff was to forgo the chance of evacuation from Greece in order to remain with the wounded. The last stage of the withdrawal, covering 90 miles through Sparta to a beach in the vicinity of Monemvasia in the far south-east of Greece, was effected during the night, the only remaining three 3-ton trucks and three ambulance cars carrying 37 wounded as well as the staff as comfortably as was possible. All day long on 28 April vehicles and men lay up under every form of available cover, in areas a few miles from the embarkation beaches, hiding from patrolling enemy planes.
At 8.30 p.m. the vehicles were used to convey the New Zealanders to the immediate vicinity of the actual beach from which embarkation was to be made and the trucks and cars were then destroyed. During these last few days more and more medical equipment had been dumped, but no wilful destruction was permitted. At the last moment, medical personnel who were being evacuated took over individual custody of surgical instruments and other small items of medical equipment. (When the unit was remustered in Egypt this equipment was recovered.)
In the words of Major Speight:
At dusk on the evening of the 28th the vehicles began to collect from the olive groves where they had been lying up during the day and made their way down to the embarkation beach. The 4 Fd Amb had 37 patients in their ambulance cars, 16 of them being stretcher cases.… About midnight a landing craft was loaded with stretcher cases and moved off into the darkness of the bay, while those left on shore awaited her return with some anxiety. At last she pulled in again but to our consternation all the wounded were still aboard her. It appeared that the destroyer to which she had gone was unable to load stretcher cases as she had no suitable gear for the purpose. An appeal to the officer in charge of the embarkation brought the reply that the Ajax would be coming in at 0130 hours and the wounded would be able to go on her. An anxious hour followed. The troops were being rapidly embarked into other available ships and one wondered whether daylight would find a forlorn group of wounded and their attendants still sitting on the beach. However, shortly after 0130 a larger dark shape than any that had preceded it slid into the bay. It was the Ajax. In a remarkably short time all the wounded were embarked and accommodated in the captain's day cabin, each with a large mug of steaming cocoa page 131 in his hand. Shortly afterwards the ship set off at high speed for Suda Bay.
At Suda Bay the casualties with the ambulance detachment in charge were transferred to SS Comely Bank [Comliebank], where one hold was allotted to the wounded. That afternoon the Comely Bank sailed in convoy for Port Said. During the voyage wounds were re-dressed and splints adjusted. There was an RAMC officer aboard the Comely Bank, and the ship had been provisioned with an ample supply of blankets and medical comforts which were of great assistance in caring for the casualties.
The successful embarkation of all troops of 6 Brigade was completed by 4 a.m. on 29 April, and the vessels, including HMS Ajax, using all possible speed, arrived at Suda Bay by 6.45 a.m. A re-transfer to other ships was immediately effected and 4 Field Ambulance boarded the Thurland Castle, which was crammed with about 3000 troops. A convoy comprising similar ships left Suda Bay by midday under the escort of a dozen mixed naval vessels. During the day enemy aircraft made several attempts to interfere with the convoy and, between the Dodecanese group of islands and Crete, an E-boat made an abortive hit-and-run attack.
At 6 a.m. on 30 April the group of ships had increased to twenty-seven, the naval escort including the aircraft-carrier Formidable and two battleships, the Warspite and the Barham. This day passed without further serious interference by enemy forces, and at dusk the Thurland Castle set its course for Port Said while the rest of the convoy went to Alexandria.
Another embarkation in the Peloponnese planned for the night of 28–29 April at Kalamata was unfortunately unable to be carried out and about 7000 men (including Major Thomson1) were left there. Many of them made good their escape in little boats, as also did many who worked their way on foot through enemy-occupied territory to the coast.
While 5 Brigade moved to beaches near Porto Rafti, Rafina, and Marathon, east of Athens, and embarked, and 6 Brigade moved across the Corinth Canal to the Peloponnese, 4 Brigade remained in its rearguard defensive positions at Kriekouki, south of Thebes. It was attacked by enemy forces on the morning of 26 April and during the day learned that German paratroops had landed at the Corinth Canal, across which the brigade had planned to withdraw.
The Royal Navy was able to arrange to take off all the brigade group from Porto Rafti beach on the night of 27–28 April. These troops, too, went to Crete, with 2/1 Australian Field Ambulance and the NCO and 16 stretcher-bearers from 4 Field Ambulance accompanying them.
1 Maj G. H. Thomson, OBE, ED; New Plymouth; born Dunedin, 5 Mar 1892; obstetrician; 1 NZEF 1914–16: Gnr 4 How Bty, Egypt and Gallipoli; RMO 4 Fd Regt Sep 1939–Apr 1941; p.w. 28 Apr 1941; repatriated Oct 1943.
The RMO of 18 Battalion, Captain Dempsey,1 records that he went by night through Athens to Porto Rafti, made his RAP truck unserviceable, and made for the coast with a medical and surgical pannier as his only equipment. Numerous casualties were sustained at that time from aerial attacks and there were civilian casualties to treat as well. At one stage a group took cover in a wheatfield during an air attack, and the wheat caught fire and the battalion ammunition truck and four other trucks were set alight. When they were evacuated that night by destroyer, the wounded received excellent attention from the ship's surgeons.
When 1 General Hospital arrived in Athens on 16 April, the DDMS BTG (Brigadier Large) gave instructions to Colonel McKillop, CO 1 General Hospital, to detail staff to 26 General Hospital and to set up a convalescent camp hospital at Voula, where New Zealand base troops were camped. This was done and 51 orderlies went to 26 General Hospital, and 4 officers and 50 orderlies, under Captain Slater,2 rapidly organised at Voula an efficient unit which had 450 convalescent patients, both minor sick and slightly wounded, under its charge two days later. A small holding hospital of fifty beds was also formed on 20 April for surgical cases awaiting evacuation from Greece. On the 19th Brigadier Large gave further orders for the nursing orderlies to be retained for duty at 26 General Hospital and for the staff of the convalescent hospital to remain. All other male personnel, except two officers, who were to go with the sisters on a hospital ship expected to leave that day, were to embark at Piraeus at 3 p.m. This was three days before the field ambulances definitely knew of the evacuation. It had been suggested by the medical administration that some of the nurses remain to assist 26 British General Hospital, but General Blamey insisted that all nurses be evacuated from the country. The hospital staff was on board the Rawnsley by 3.30 p.m. with other British Army personnel. The ship was delayed in leaving by the pilot and missed its convoy. It remained in the outer harbour overnight and next morning was machine-gunned from the air and departed for Egypt after five casualties, excluding two dead, had been evacuated to the hospital ship Aba nearby. The ship eventually picked up a large convoy south of Crete and went with it to Alexandria. In the convoy were elements of the Greek Navy.
Nearly all the officers and orderlies attached to the Convalescent Camp at Voula were captured following a series of misfortunes. On the 22nd they moved at very short notice with their patients to Megara. Here they had to wait for embarkation for four days. During this time they were subjected to frequent strafing from the air, and this made the patients highly nervous and hysterical and difficult to control. Difficulties arose during the embarkation, and finally an Australian brigadier with his brigade arrived on the beach and was allotted the space on the ship that the Convalescent Camp group had hoped to occupy. Most of the patients and staff, some 400, were left behind. The greater part of their transport had been destroyed according to orders, and their predicament was serious when they learnt there were to be no more evacuations from Megara. Attempts to reach the southern beaches via Corinth were blocked by the paratroop landing there, and a further effort to reach 4 Brigade through Athens resulted in capture by paratroops who had blocked that road also.
There would appear to have been some misunderstanding in the original planning of the evacuation of the camp. The difficult problem of handling the convalescents was dealt with by Captain Slater and his staff most competently, the safety of their charges being the prime consideration. After capture Slater and his staff were able to set up a hospital at Corinth to attend to the many wounded resulting from the airborne attack on the 26th.
Of the fifty-one orderlies of 1 General Hospital who were at 26 General Hospital, only twenty-one got away from Greece. In the early morning of the 22nd all were ready to leave after orders had been received by them, but the CO of the hospital directed that thirty were to stay. The party of twenty-one under Staff-Sergeant Ashworth1 went by train from Athens to within a short distance of Corinth Canal, which they crossed next morning, and were picked up on the main road by trucks going to Argos and embarked for Crete on the Glencarn.