New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy
After the experiences in Greece some confidence was felt in the use of the Red Cross for the protection of medical units, although there was still much doubt as to the extent the enemy respected it. The attack on 7 General Hospital and 6 Field Ambulance caused some loss of confidence again, though the enemy's behaviour in the campaign thereafter indicated a respect for the Geneva Convention.
The display of Red Crosses on the site of the hospital could not be described as inadequate. Red Crosses were painted on the three buildings, a large one in stones was laid out between the officers' mess and the sea, and one of similar size in cloth was spread out in the area occupied by the hospital expanding tents. The weather page 200 was mostly fine and the crosses could be seen from a fairly high altitude.
Yet captured enemy orders indicate that those who planned the attack on Crete may have been unaware that it was a hospital site. It may be that German intelligence reports were defective, as indeed they were in their estimate of the number of troops in the sector. Orders of 3 Parachute Regiment issued on 18 May describe the area as a “tent encampment” with a “hospital barracks” and “hospital huts”. The regiment was to land in the Galatas area, clear the ground around Canea, and capture the town. A full battalion was committed to attacking the hospital site, but only one company of parachutists actually reached the scene. Air Corps reports later reported the capture of 500 prisoners but omitted to mention they were hospital patients and staff.
The Germans verbally stated they had seen troops in steel helmets traversing the area before the attack. It seems to have been a German practice to forbid the wearing of steel helmets in medical units, and although this had no basis in the Geneva Convention, the Germans seem to have assumed that other forces should follow the same practice. Steel helmets were worn in the area, and troops did pass along the road running through the area to the beach. A study of German orders does not indicate that the area was required for further air or sea landings, which was one of the conclusions earlier drawn from the attack. The aim seems to have been to eliminate any opposition from troops expected to be in the neighbourhood of the camp. But this hardly excuses the sustained attack on 20 May on what must have been perceived to be a medical unit.
From all the evidence at our disposal it would seem that the German Air Force did otherwise respect the Geneva Convention when the medical units were distinctly marked by the Red Cross, when steel helmets were not worn, and when medical units were sited away from main roads and from any fighting unit.