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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Evacuation of 4 Field Ambulance

Evacuation of 4 Field Ambulance

That evening (28 April) the vehicles were used to transport the men to the beach; then they were destroyed. Some were drained page 110 of oil and the engines run until they seized, holes were punched in petrol tanks, vital parts were removed and smashed or hidden, tires were slashed, and many vehicles were driven over a cliff into the sea. Then followed a long, anxious wait until, at last, destroyers came into the bay and embarkation began.

About midnight one landing craft was loaded with some of the stretcher cases and moved off into the darkness of the bay, while those on shore awaited her return with some anxiety. At last she pulled in again, but to the consternation of all, the wounded were still on board. The destroyer to which she had gone was unable to load stretcher cases as she had no suitable gear. An appeal to the officer in charge of the embarkation brought the reply that the Ajax would be coming in at half past one in the morning and the wounded would be able to go on her. An anxious hour followed. The troops were being rapidly embarked into other suitable ships, and the medical group in charge of the wounded began to wonder whether daylight would find them sitting forlornly on the beach. However, shortly after half past one there slid into the bay a dark shape larger than any that had preceded it. This was the Ajax, and in a remarkably short time all the wounded were loaded and accommodated in the captain's day cabin, each with a large mug of steaming cocoa.

With the delays, it looked as though many men would have to be left behind, but fortunately more ships arrived. To escape enemy air action the ships were to have sailed at 3 a.m., but it was decided to risk another hour. Eventually, by pressing into service every type of craft that would float, everyone was got aboard before four o'clock, and the ships moved off at full speed for Crete. As Capt Moore said:

‘RSM Bunckenburg26 had organised the field ambulance orderlies and the wounded on the beach. Prominent figures were coming and going, and the grey shape beside you on the promontory and twin jetties of Monemvasia might turn out to be a general, an admiral, or a humble, exhausted private.

‘Pathetic heaps of packs lay abandoned on the sand. What a grand haul of loot for the first Greeks or Germans when dawn came! RSM Bunckenburg was grimly guarding the last of the unit records. We had a long wait till the landing craft took out the page 111 stretcher cases, seven at a time, and the last of the wounded and medical personnel went aboard. Meanwhile, a great grey column of men filed past, were forced to discard excess baggage, and were embarked in a great variety of small craft. The Ajax risked that extra half-hour or so which might have exposed her to the bombers, and the last of the wounded were hauled aboard on her platform—a more expeditious loading than some hospital ships could have achieved. We were not quite the last on board, for General Freyberg's great figure appeared in the wardroom while we were busy on bowls of soup, fresh bread and butter, and boiled eggs. The Navy not only took us off—it transported us in luxury.’

The men of 4 Field Ambulance and their patients reached Suda Bay in a few hours, and a transfer of troops to other ships was begun immediately. The field ambulance men went aboard the Thurland Castle, which was crammed with 3000 troops, and left for Egypt at midday in a convoy escorted by about a dozen mixed naval vessels. Enemy aircraft made several attempts to scatter the convoy, and between Crete and the Dodecanese Islands a German E-boat made an abortive hit-and-run attack. More vessels joined the convoy, and by next morning there were in all 27 ships, the naval escort including the aircraft carrier Formidable and two battleships, Warspite and Barham. The day passed without serious interference by the enemy, and at dusk the Thurland Castle set her course for Port Said, while the rest of the convoy went to Alexandria.

26 Cpt H. H. Bunckenburg; born Wellington, 28 May 1912; quantity surveyor, Wellington; RSM 4 Fd Amb Nov 1939-Nov 1941; Adjutant Medical Training Depot, Trentham, Jan 1942-Sep 1944, and OC Sep 1944-Jan 1945.