Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
Covering Action at Elasson
Covering Action at Elasson
By the evening of 18 April the panzers that had battered their way through the Peneios Gorge had a clear road to Larissa. The 6 Brigade Group was in danger of having its withdrawal cut off had the enemy taken this route; but he did not. Action was expected when the German offensive reached the brigade's covering positions south of Elasson. There, where the road forked to the east and to the west, the brigade, screened by the Divisional Cavalry, stood ready to hold the enemy at bay.
On the 16th and 17th, while the infantry deployed with artillery and anti-tank guns in support, the dressing stations of 6 Field Ambulance at Tyrnavos and in the valleys between Tyrnavos and Elasson attended to men wounded in the enemy's incessant strafing of the roads. The field ambulance was joined by extra ambulance cars from an Australian MAC,9 and a large marquee was erected to cope with casualties from the expected attack. By the morning of 18 April the last of the convoys bound for the new line at page 91 Thermopylae had passed through. The Divisional Cavalry withdrew, leaving the 6 Brigade rearguard to face the enemy alone. Before noon the artillery was in action against the first German tanks advancing towards Elasson.
With the withdrawal route so seriously threatened by the thrust through the Peneios Gorge, orders were given soon after midday for the brigade to withdraw through Larissa by midnight. It was decided, therefore, that the MDS should move back under Maj Plimmer,10 and that A Company under Lt Ballantyne11 should take over and remain open in the MDS area.
Thus, when the withdrawal began in the early afternoon, A Company, some Australian ambulance cars, Maj Christie, and the commanding officer, Lt-Col Bull, who refused to leave until assured that the last members of his unit were free to withdraw, were left behind to look after the wounded. The rest of the unit—HQ Company and those members of B Company who had not been sent to the Peneios Gorge—moved out with 25 Battalion on an unpleasantly memorable day and night journey. Throughout the afternoon the convoy was obliged to run the gauntlet of raiding Stukas and Messerschmitts as it joined the continuous stream of south-bound traffic, jammed nose to tail and moving slowly and with frequent halts along the congested highway. The convoys were constantly harassed from the air, the attacks culminating towards dusk, as the field ambulance transport neared Larissa, with a vicious strafing raid by more than twenty aircraft. Men dived from hastily halted vehicles to the shelter of roadside cornfields. There they huddled for fully half an hour, stomachs pressed to the trembling earth, while aircraft raked them mercilessly with machine-gun fire. Yet there were remarkably few casualties.
The road, the lifeline of Anzac Corps, was receiving special attention from the German air force, and in many places engineers worked constantly, filling in bomb craters and clearing away debris in order to keep the highway open. When 6 Field Ambulance reached the outskirts of Larissa, enemy aircraft were page 92 zooming in for further attacks on the already heavily bombed town. Part of the convoy scattered and waited for the raid to end. Stukas circled high over the town in mass formation, then peeled off one by one in almost vertical power dives, checked, and roared into steep ascents. After each screaming dive, flame, debris and heavy black smoke mushroomed up among the buildings, and earth and air shuddered to the blast of the exploding bombs. Unmoved by bombs or falling debris, a military policeman stood at the entrance to the town directing traffic.
The raid over at last, the field ambulance vehicles crawled over debris-littered streets through a burning, deserted town, smouldering ruins and piles of fallen masonry often all that remained of what had once been homes.
Travelling by night, the convoy at least had freedom from air attack, but for the drivers it was still a difficult and trying journey. There were narrow streets in bombed towns and villages to be negotiated, blazing trucks on the road leaving little room for the convoy to pass, and treacherous deviations round gaping bomb craters to be traversed. Early the following morning HQ and B Companies arrived at Molos, south of the Thermopylae Pass. A few tents for accommodation were erected among trees alongside the sea coast. The unit was now in reserve, so that the men were able to snatch a brief respite.
Considerable anxiety was felt for the safety of A Company and Lt-Col Bull, who had remained at Tyrnavos, as it was known that the Germans had closed sharply on Larissa. No news of the party had been received. The following morning, however, the detachment returned safely to the unit. From the tired men it was learned that, as enemy pressure on the 6 Brigade rearguard became increasingly heavy, casualties began to arrive at the small dressing station. Medical work at the dressing station had continued until the early hours of 19 April. Withdrawal of the rearguard was to have begun at nightfall on the 18th, but a heavy enemy attack was made as the New Zealanders were about to move. By midnight the attack had been beaten off and the rearguard had begun to move back. Shadowed by the enemy, Lt-Col Bull and his party moved to make contact with the brigade that morning south of Volos. Wounded were picked up from the infantry battalions, given treatment and, as the withdrawal continued, carried on in trucks and page 93 ambulances. The party next day passed through bombed Stylis and Lamia, and over the Thermopylae Pass, to join up with the unit again in the Molos area.
9 Motor Ambulance Convoy.