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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

5 Field Ambulance After the Invasion

page 128

5 Field Ambulance After the Invasion

When the invasion began in the morning of 20 May, some parachutists dropped in the vicinity of 5 Field Ambulance at Modhion, followed by parachutes bringing equipment and stores. Throughout the morning this phase continued and the members of the unit remained under cover, their only activity being to transfer the sick to the basement. A lull occurred about noon, but enemy activity was soon resumed.

No distinguishing signs identifying the site as a medical unit were displayed at first as it was considered undesirable to disclose the disposition of the fighting troops and their defensive positions. However, about two hours after the airborne landings had begun, Red Cross signs were put out—one on the roadway in front of the MDS and another on the roof of the schoolhouse. Thereafter there was no bombing or machine-gunning in the immediate vicinity, although cooking fires were in full view of enemy planes and the staff went openly about their duties, though not wearing steel helmets. This latter point was most important—captured Germans later stated that steel helmets would have been taken as evidence of fighting troops and would have given no immunity from attack.

From Modhion the events around Maleme were heard rather than seen, and it was not until later in the morning and afternoon, when subsequent waves of parachutists and troop-carriers selected more easterly areas or passed over on their way to the prison and Aghya, that members of the unit became eye-witnesses of the landing operations. Between flights of troop-carriers there was heavy machine-gunning from twin-engined aircraft but no bombing of the olive groves or of the village around 5 MDS. There were no casualties locally, but almost total interruption of road movement resulted. The wounded from forward units could not be moved back in daylight.

The first casualties to arrive were mostly German parachutists. Then casualties began coming in from nearby units only, though some stragglers, including enemy stragglers, found their way into the dressing station across the more open country to the north-west. Some of the wounded prisoners became very concerned as to what might happen if the dressing station were overrun and insisted on hanging out portions of their equipment from the room in which they were confined.

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In the operating theatre, which had been the headquarters for the senior gendarmerie officer and from which the doors had been removed to facilitate movement of patients (and incidentally to use as makeshift stretchers), wounds were dressed and plaster applied while aircraft passed overhead, causing some uneasiness.

In one of many lulls a group of low-flying aircraft passed over the ridge above the gun site. A shout from the more arrogant of the wounded prisoners drew attention to rapidly-dropping parachutists on the far side of the valley. The prisoners, convinced at first that their fellows (and, they hoped, rescuers) were dropping near at hand among unarmed troops exulted prematurely. Unit records were hurriedly assembled ready for destruction if need be. Obvious sounds of a mopping-up engagement caused a return of despondency among the prisoners and a sense of quiet relief to the staff, and this was enhanced by the glimpse of a further batch of wounded prisoners on the way up the valley road escorted by New Zealand sappers.

The first convoy of wounded was evacuated by truck to 7 General Hospital at 6.30 p.m., but while the truck was en route there it was learned that German troops had captured the hospital; in fact, it had been recaptured at 1 p.m. that day by 18 Battalion. At 2 a.m. on 21 May 7 General Hospital got a message through that it could then take serious cases, but that all evacuations should be carried out during darkness. Because of the limited transport, it was possible to evacuate only four stretcher cases before daylight. In many cases preliminary operative treatment was given to patients at the MDS, as it was obvious that there would be some delay in getting them to the hospital.

Throughout 20 May hard fighting among the olive trees at Maleme and Galatas had held the German troops, although 22 Battalion's hold on the western side of Maleme airfield had been lost. Such resistance had not been expected by the enemy, but the attack from the air and the reinforcement of the parachutists continued over the next two days. A counter-attack at Maleme was unsuccessful, and towards evening on the 22nd increasing pressure from the west compelled the issue of an order for the withdrawal of 5 Brigade towards Canea. The first thought of the medical officers at the MDS was how they would get their patients away.