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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Withdrawal From Olympus

Withdrawal From Olympus

The decision had been made on 14 April, when the battle for the Olympus-Aliakmon River line had only just begun, that the force was to move back to Thermopylae, as it was realised that the line could not be held for long. Under strong enemy pressure, 5 Brigade disengaged and withdrew according to plan during the night of 16-17 April, its action being repeated by 4 Brigade the following night. The moves were covered by 6 Brigade, which had been held in reserve and which fought a rearguard action at Elasson. In the withdrawal the medical units retired with the brigades they were serving.

Over the next few days and nights vehicles of the field ambulances were part of the long line of traffic heading south. Ambulance cars which had taken wounded to a CCS found it very difficult to return against the stream of traffic on roads extensively damaged by bombing, and the field ambulances had to make the best arrangements possible to bring back with them the men who were wounded in the withdrawal.

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Fourth Field Ambulance went through Larissa to Pharsala, and then turned east to the coast at Almiros, later going to an area a few miles south of Lamia and there setting up an ADS to take in wounded from convoys. Under cover of rain and mist on 17 April, 5 Field Ambulance followed on the long journey to the vicinity of Molos, south-east of Lamia. The ADS, under Capt Palmer,6 withdrew with 4 Brigade Group early on the morning of 18 April, an ambulance car being attached to each RAP. The car post, under Capt Moody,7 travelled with the rearguard of 4 Brigade and diligently collected wounded. After a trying journey through Volos, 4 Field Hygiene Section reached Atalante, where it camped on a sheltered site near the sea.

Disabled vehicles and streets strewn with debris caused many halts as the convoys crawled south. Rain and mud made the going especially difficult in the darkness. The drivers were weary from the strain and lack of sleep, and repeated air attacks had made the men apprehensive. As Col Kenrick and his staff moved with HQ 2 NZ Division south of Larissa, the transport on the road was heavily dive-bombed and machine-gunned. The ADMS office staff attended to the casualties, Maj J. K. Elliott and his batman, Pte Keucke,8 earning praise for their coolness and courage in attending to wounded while under fire from enemy aircraft.

The excitement of the withdrawal is well described by Pte Fleming, who was with an ambulance car post:

‘As we went on, our own artillery began to fire, with a sound that nearly split our eardrums. About a mile down the road a series of caves in the mountainside offered shelter from the still steadily falling rain, and in one of these we prepared to receive wounded. In the cave next to us flocks of sheep had been shut in for protection against the cold, and two small shepherd boys guarding them set to work, unasked, to find dry sticks with which they lit a fire for us.

‘Across the road another small boy and his sister were minding goats. I could not help wondering how they would fare when the page 88 Germans came. The sheep, the goats, and those tiny Greek children seemed very much out of place in an area soon to be under fire.

‘We had hardly established ourselves before out of the mists came a messenger with a laconic “On your way, boys! Jerry's coming!” Down the mountainside we drove, and out of the mists into comparative clearness, though we thanked our lucky stars for the low-lying cloud which made strafing from the air an impossibility.

‘A short way along the road we came across a large ration dump which was being prepared for destruction so that it should not fall into enemy hands. There were literally mountains of cases containing foodstuffs, rations of every conceivable type, food for an army, including many items of which we had been short. Someone shouted, “Want any rations? Be in, boys!” Before long all our spare space was piled with goods, not forgetting many a luxury item. There were cases of tinned fruit, cases of this, cases of that. We dined more luxuriously than ever before—or since—that day. Peaches and cream—in greater quantities than we could ever hope to deal with. As we left, they were breaking into the piled cases with picks, pouring on petrol. At least the enemy would never benefit from the stores we could not take away. Greek peasants, though, were not denied, and many a mulecart groaned under a load it could barely carry.

‘At the ration dump we waited to rejoin the rifle unit (23 Battalion) with which we had been serving on Mount Olympus, and towards evening our ambulance took its place in a seemingly endless convoy moving swiftly rearwards. Though we did not know it at the time, the withdrawal had begun in earnest, a tremendous game of hide and seek with death for the loser.

‘A scene which must have inspired and cheered thousands of weary men met us at a crossroads where two great rivers of traffic joined. A staff car, on the bonnet of which proudly fluttered the emblem of New Zealand, was parked in the centre of the crossing. Beside it stood a party of officers, one of whom was directing traffic. There was an incredulous gasp as we neared him. “It's ‘Tiny’ himself!”

‘Someone said, “Gee! It's the boss. What on earth is he doing here?” It was a highly dangerous place, a spot which might at any moment become the target for heavy attacks of Nazi dive-bombers, but it was by just such acts that the GOC won and held, as no other man could do, the respect, admiration, and genuine affection of every single individual soldier in the Division. It is safe to say that there is not one man who is not proud of his leader.

‘All night the convoy pressed on, and all next day. Here and there we had brief halts to rest for a few minutes and to prepare hot drinks. Twice we stopped to attend to injuries, but always it was “Keep going!” the moment the task was done. The road became page 89 dotted with wrecked vehicles, and we entered Larissa, which was still smoking from a recent heavy bombardment from the air.

‘The way was littered with wreckage of all kinds. Our vehicle jolted crazily over rubble-filled craters or lurched to avoid masses of debris. Everywhere was desolation, destruction, ruin. Shops, dwellings, churches, and hospitals—the raiders in their indiscriminate savagery had spared nothing. And yet, we were told, the city had been empty of military objectives at the time of this latest exhibition of Nazi brutality.

‘Night merged into day, and day into night, as we travelled, until engine trouble held us up for a while and we lost our convoy. There were plenty more, though, and we carried on independently, a single unit in an endless chain. Once we stopped to “consider our position,” being in doubt as to which route to take. The delay may well have saved us, for as we argued the toss a distant hum grew rapidly into a roar.

‘A cloud of black, bird-like specks in the distance became unmistakably German bombers. From our cover amid the barley crops on the roadside we watched them form into line, very high, but almost directly above us. Plainly a town towards which we had been travelling was the target. With high-pitched scream of sirens they went, one after the other, into an almost perpendicular power dive. Down they went, the sound of their screamers rising to a crescendo of banshee-like wails, punctuated by the rattle of machine-gun fire.

‘One by one we saw the planes seem to vanish among the buildings of the town. One by one they rose again to form up in the clouds and roar away out of sight beyond the hills, while behind them a great cloud of smoke mushroomed out ….

‘Apparently only two targets had been hit, but we wondered what possible benefit the enemy would reap from bombing an open town. As we moved on again there was a sound like thunder rolling among the distant hills. It was no thunder, though, for here and there, from points we could not see, columns of dun smoke rose lazily.

‘At last we came to what was plainly a line of defence and were greatly cheered by the hope that possibly the enemy would be held there. Soon after dark, a short distance behind the line, an officer “pulled us out” of the convoy to join our own unit, from which we had been separated since first going into action.’

6 Maj G. B. Palmer, m.i.d., Greek Silver Cross; born England, 6 Feb 1909; Medical Practitioner, Auckland; Medical Officer 5 Fd Amb Nov 1939-Aug 1941; DADMS 210 British Military Mission Nov 1941-May 1943; 2 i/c 1 Conv Depot May 1943-Oct 1944; OC Det 1 Conv Depot Oct 1944-Mar 1945.

7 Capt R. F. Moody, MBE, m.i.d.; born Auckland, 15 Oct 1915; Medical Practitioner, Auckland: Medical Officer 5 Fd Amb Dec 1939-May 1941; p.w. Crete, May 1941; repatriated Apr 1945.

8 Cpl L. J. Keucke; born Raetihi, 5 Mar 1917; fruiterer, Kamo.