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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

4 Field Ambulance Moves to Katerine

4 Field Ambulance Moves to Katerine

From Hymettus camp the New Zealanders went forward in a steady stream to prepare and occupy battle positions 300 miles away to the north in the Katerine area. With them went the field ambulances to make preparations for the treatment of wounded in the field and their evacuation to casualty clearing stations and general hospitals. After resting at Hymettus for a day and a half only, 4 Field Ambulance on 17 March moved with 4 Brigade by road and rail to Katerine. The majority travelled by train, which left Athens on the afternoon of 17 March and reached Katerine next day.

Passing along the streets of Athens to the station, the New Zealanders were again greeted by cheering and waving Greeks. Smiling people, young and old, lined the sidewalks giving the ‘thumbs-up’ sign. While the unit boarded the train, Padre Bicknell went to a nearby road siding where fruit vendors sat sleepily alongside their barrows. Soon they were transformed into the usual bustling, gesticulating, smiling Greek traders. The Padre bought the entire stock of three barrow merchants, much to their surprise and that of the idle curious who had quickly gathered. There was no lack of Greek lads to carry the goods to the train for a few drachmae, and the soldiers were quick to appreciate the oranges and mandarines.

The carriages were old-fashioned and high up. With full kit the men had to struggle to board them. Soldiering had taught them not to expect other than third-class travel, unless the authorities could find a fourth class. The train started off at 4 p.m., passed page 70 through green or marshy meadows and fertile vineyards, across bridges and viaducts, and struggled and strained up steep mountain slopes.

To the sand-weary men of the First Echelon the countryside seemed a glimpse of paradise: long stretches of land under the plough, acre upon acre of vineyards, mile upon mile of olive trees, great stretches of rolling green plains reaching to green hills with snow-capped mountains beyond. Nestling among the hills, hiding in the green of the plains, or perched in the very bosoms of the mountains were many small, picturesque villages of grey stone and mud, with tiled roofs and winding, stone-paved streets.

There was a bright moon in a clear sky when the road convoy passed through a range of snow-covered mountains. At times the way lay between soaring pinnacles of glistening white and great ravines whose bottoms were lost in the mists of unfathomable depth. There were bleak, sheer rock faces and dizzy precipices, past which the road wound its tortuous way.

Katerine lay below the northern slopes of Mount Olympus. Behind the town towered snowy peaks. To the east the coastline curved north to Salonika, with the plains of Western Thrace beyond. Mountain ranges bordering Albania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria broke the northern horizon, while inland, to the west, wooded hills rose up from the low-lying coastal plain.

A steady rain was falling by the time 4 Field Ambulance reached Katerine, a moderate sized town, and marched to billets along muddy streets. Here, again, the sincere friendship of the Greeks was apparent, and the townspeople could not have made the soldiers more welcome. Their needs were simple and the town's shops stocked only the barest necessities—apart from food and drink, there was little the soldier could buy with his drachmae, 540 to the pound.

A member of the unit, Pte F. Fleming,1 wrote at the time:

‘Many of the shopkeepers could speak a little English, and boasted of the happy days they had spent in America “many years ago.” To deal with the heavy demands made by the soldiers on the town's resources, some enterprising former-American Greeks opened restaurants, which after all supplied the main need, for there were none when first the troops arrived.

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‘It was a busy place, transformed overnight from placid normality to bustling excitement by the arrival of the New Zealanders. Scores of tiny wineshops, where once the locals used to sit for hours chatting, singing, laughing, or sleepily musing over a single glass of “crassi”, became in an instant crowded with noisy throngs of soldiers.

‘Greeks and New Zealanders formed countless little international groups, the members of which vied with each other in extending expressions of friendship. Mutual salutations were exchanged. Many a soldier called to his aid all the scanty knowledge of schoolboy French at his command, combined with a smattering of Greek learnt from booklets sold in the streets of Athens and generously helped out by smile, shrug, and gesture in order to explain the beauties of his home country to admiring groups of listeners.

‘Others made the acquaintance of strange little places where rich, sweet cakes and pastries soaked in honey were sold, to be eaten with a glass of hot goat's milk; or else ambled leisurely among the countless little stalls of the town markets, where they would critically examine the stock put up for sale, commenting with the air of experts on the qualities or otherwise of anything from sheep and pigs to watercress and pickling onions….

‘Somehow, in spite of wounded Greeks back on sick leave from Albania, whom they sometimes met surrounded by their fellow-countrymen in the village streets, there was an atmosphere of peace. There was no threat of death, but in the bursting buds, the birds, and the myriad joyous signs of spring was a promise of life.

‘The stay near Katerine was pleasant, for as spring came round the soldiers realised all the more the beauty of Greece. Trees burst forth into leaf and red poppies grew in profusion among the green grass and crops…. Old shepherds, crook in hand and often wearing the fustanella or kilt, led their sheep. Graceful girls in quaint and colourful dresses worked in the fields where oxen teams drew primitive ploughs. Lads minding sheep played sweet music on reed pipes. Moving mountains of brushwood resolved themselves into laden donkeys on track and lane….’

There were scores of small rural villages in Greece, many of which the troops visited. In these, often together with their animals, lived the workers who cared for the surrounding fields. They were very poor, extracting a bare subsistence from the soil, but none the less they were touchingly generous. In these districts exchange in kind was much preferred to money. An empty benzine tin was regarded as a good price for a man's washing, while a tin of ‘bully’ was wealth indeed and would buy almost everything.

When the New Zealanders first arrived there was a temporary page 72 shortage of bread, but soon they found it easy to barter hard rations for psomi, a brown bread of good quality which the village housewives baked.

Perhaps because of the smallness of the flocks and herds, domestic animals in Greece were remarkably tame. Most of them wore bells hung around their throats, and even sheep would respond when called by name. Each morning and evening there would be a colourful procession as the peasants—men, women, and children—in national dress, went out to work in the fields or returned to their homes. They moved to the accompaniment of the sweet-toned tintinnabulation of many bells, for their flocks travelled with them.

Though there were no men of military age among them, the peasant folk seemed to be carrying on with their work regardless of the war. It was spring, and everywhere work on the land was in full swing.

1 WO II F. Fleming; born NZ, 1 Apr 1918; reporter, Auckland; 4 Fd Amb Jan 1940-Jun 1941, 1942-43; Archives Section 1941-42, 1943-46.