New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy
All of the New Zealand field ambulances were very well equipped, having not only the full army equipment but also supplementary articles acquired to enable the units to carry out surgical work more efficiently. When the evacuation of Greece was decided upon, orders were given to units to destroy all equipment and supplies in excess of the minimal quantity that they were able to carry individually on to the ships. The Anzac Corps' operation order No. 2 of page 140 22 April gave the order of withdrawal, and included general instructions for the destruction of equipment other than that which could be carried by the men. The absence of any definite general or medical orders concerning medical equipment led, unfortunately, to misunderstandings both with relation to regimental medical officers and field ambulance units. Fortunately, every effort was made to transport as much as possible, and surgical instruments were especially preserved, the personnel of the units assisting in taking care of much valuable equipment. The order to destroy equipment that had to be left behind was received with great regret by the units concerned and was not fully carried out in any unit. In one case, equipment was placed in a store, with a Red Cross flag on the door and a note of thanks to the German airmen for respecting the Geneva Convention. In another instance one of the field ambulances at the final port of embarkation dumped, but did not destroy, the equipment. One field ambulance also arranged to transfer its ambulance cars to 26 General Hospital instead of destroying them, and these cars were of very great service later in evacuating patients and personnel, including nurses, from the hospital.
The order for the destruction of equipment was intended to refer to the equipment of combatant units, as under the Geneva Convention medical equipment and stores should not be destroyed; it is interesting to note that the natural reaction of the New Zealand medical officers prompted them to act in the correct manner, and only with deep regret was any destruction of equipment ever carried out.
This illustrates the importance of a full knowledge of the Geneva Convention by all personnel, combatant and medical. Some combatant officers without that knowledge tended to insist on the medical officers under their command destroying their medical equipment, and the medical officers were not quite sure at times of the exact position or of their power to resist orders from combatants when the Geneva Convention was in question.
The subsequent story of the events in Greece and Crete demonstrated clearly the wisdom of the Geneva Convention in insisting on the preservation of medical equipment and supplies, as it was to the benefit of our own sick and wounded captured in Greece and Crete that supplies should have been available for their treatment. The senior medical officers made valuable comments on the essential equipment and supplies for such a campaign.