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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

5 Field Ambulance Withdraws Towards Canea

page 130

5 Field Ambulance Withdraws Towards Canea

It was not possible to evacuate any patients from the MDS during the night of 21-22 May, and by the evening of the 22nd there were more than 130 casualties there, many of a serious nature. By this time medical supplies were very low. Throughout the 24 hours each day, unit stretcher-bearers continued to evacuate wounded from the battalions, having a particularly difficult time because of air attacks and wandering groups of paratroops, besides having to make long and strenuous hand carries over rough ground. The weather fortunately remained clear and fine. Then at 2 a.m. on 23 May an order was received that the dressing station had to be evacuated as part of 5 Brigade's withdrawal. Some stretcher cases still remained at the RAPs, and the RMOs, Captains Hetherington,6 Longmore,7 and Stewart,8 stayed with them.

From Modhion some of the wounded were evacuated by ambulance car. The first party of walking wounded and some of the staff of the unit set off on foot at 3 a.m. for the former site of 6 Field Ambulance, at the junction of the Canea and Galatas roads. Transport had been arranged by HQ 5 Brigade for the stretcher cases, but as parts of the road were under fire some Cypriot drivers abandoned their trucks or else did not reach Modhion. HQ 5 Brigade, however, managed to marshal trucks by dawn, just when preparations were being made for some of the wounded to be left behind under the care of a section of the medical staff. It was then possible to clear the dressing station entirely. The convoy proceeded in broad daylight, under Red Cross flags, unmolested by enemy aircraft, which were already about in fair numbers. The walking wounded went to the caves of 7 General Hospital, while the stretcher cases were unloaded at 189 Field Ambulance hospital at Khalepa, a north-eastern suburb of Canea. This British field ambulance had established a temporary hospital to take the overflow of wounded from 7 General Hospital. By utilising a school, page 131 a convent, and a number of adjacent houses, the unit eventually held as many as 460 cases. Maj H. K. Christie was transferred from 7 General Hospital, where he had earlier been attached, to carry on with the surgical work, and he succeeded in improvising a first-class operating theatre.

Fifth Field Ambulance occupied the area used by 6 Field Ambulance before its capture on 20 May. During the morning the new site was subjected to a particularly heavy bombing and machine-gunning attack, as it was an important road junction. One man was killed. Heavy casualties were to be expected from 5 Brigade, and as it was impossible to function on this new site, a move was made at midday on 23 May to the Greek summer school building on the site of 7 General Hospital.

Casualties arrived in a steady stream throughout the afternoon and night, and before dawn the total admissions were over 200. Good work was done by the drivers of the trucks, some from 5 Field Ambulance and some from other units in the line, in carrying on unceasingly day and night bringing in the wounded, and also by the ambulance orderlies who went with the trucks. All trucks and ambulance cars were provided with Red Crosses, and drivers and patients frequently derived considerable confidence, when negotiating the open roads, from the presence of lightly wounded German prisoners who volunteered to accompany them.

Leading one party which had been ordered to pick up wounded from 23 Battalion, Lt Gray left with four stretcher-bearers in two small trucks. The country was familiar to them as they had explored much of it in the three weeks before the invasion. At a rendezvous they found several wounded on the side of the road. Taking several stretchers, they followed a guide up a dry, steep riverbed. They soon met tired troops staggering under the burden of severely wounded comrades in improvised stretchers of two poles and a blanket. No time was lost in carrying out first aid. The orderlies took over from the troops wherever assistance was needed.

Lt Gray and a corporal kept on up the stream and after some time met the rear party, who were carrying in a blanket a badly wounded man with compound fractures of both legs below the knee. Helping to carry him down the riverbed was most difficult. Already tired after four days of confused fighting and weary through lack of sleep, the party made slow, stumbling progress over boulders, page 132 across slippery shingle, gently lifting him over rocky falls every few yards, tripping and falling over trees and wood in their path, bearing the burning pull of the rolled edge of the blanket on aching fingers and hands.

In the shelter of the riverbed the strenuous work soon had them in a bath of perspiration, mouths and tongues dry from laboured breathing. It was too much for their unconscious burden and he was dead when they reached the trucks.

Both trucks were filled with wounded. Conscious and unconscious men were piled on the floor; there were as many stretchers as could be carried, and the departure of the medical party and the wounded now had to be hasty. There was no time for a second trip. The rough road back to the MDS was a nightmare for all, and too much for two of the wounded. It was well after midnight before they reached the MDS, which was already overcrowded with wounded from other units.

Valuable assistance was given by the surgical team from 7 General Hospital, which took over the operative work at 5 Field Ambulance during the night. Evacuations from the dressing station were carried on throughout the night, 60 of the more serious cases going to 189 Field Ambulance hospital and 50 serious stretcher cases and 120 walking wounded going to 7 General Hospital. Bearer parties went out after dusk to assist in the evacuation of casualties from 5 Brigade. Of the cases they collected, the lightly wounded were sent to 6 Field Ambulance, and 20 of the serious cases went to 189 Field Ambulance hospital and ten to 1 Marine Tented Hospital at Mournies, two miles south of Canea. This 60-bed naval unit had arrived on 10 May, and when 7 General Hospital was pressed for space it found accommodation for more than 400 cases, the surgical staff continuing to operate day and night in spite of enemy snipers in the neighbouring foothills.

At dawn on 24 May 5 MDS had again been cleared of all casualties, with the exception of eight wounded prisoners of war. This complete evacuation had followed a visit from Lt-Col Bull, ADMS 2 NZ Division, the previous evening with news that an attack on the area was expected. While the remainder of the staff went to caves on the foreshore for much-needed rest, a nucleus—including the CO—remained in the building during 24 May, a quiet day on which only eight casualties were admitted.

page 133

By 25 May the front line was only a few miles from the medical units, which continued to receive casualties. There were not many during the day, but towards evening both 5 and 6 Field Ambulances began to receive a steady stream of wounded from the fighting at Galatas. By evening mortar bombs were falling within a few hundred yards of 5 MDS and machine-gun bullets were spraying the vicinity of the buildings. An endeavour was made to collect abandoned trucks. Five were got together, one of them being set on fire by a passing aircraft. Preparations for a move were continuing when Lt-Col Bull arrived at 7 p.m. with instructions for both 5 Field Ambulance and 7 General Hospital to go to Nero-kourou, south-east of Canea, some seven miles away, where a site had already been prepared for the reception of casualties.

The evacuation was planned so that all equipment and the stretcher cases in the dressing station would be moved by transport, which necessitated three trips in the vehicles available, but the situation was further complicated because one truck was needed to collect more wounded from forward areas. Delay also occurred because the site at Nerokourou was so well hidden that it could not be found in the dark. An alternative site in a church was selected, but when dawn broke this was found to be exactly opposite the area where the tents had been pitched. Although the tents had been hidden under olive trees and were widely dispersed, they had been strafed by enemy aircraft the previous day, and some of them had been destroyed by fire.

6 Capt O. S. Hetherington, MBE; born Thames, 3 Apr 1903; Medical Practitioner, Thames; Medical Officer 21 Bn Jan 1940-May 1941; p.w. May 1941; repatriated Sep 1944.

7 Maj L. H. V. Longmore; born NZ, 18 Nov 1909; Medical Practitioner, England; Medical Officer 22 Bn Dec 1940-May 1941; p.w. May 1941; repatriated Nov 1943; Medical Officer 1 Gen Hosp Apr-Oct 1944; Repatriation Group (UK) Oct 1944-Dec 1945.

8 Capt R. S. Stewart; born NZ, 17 Mar 1906; Medical Practitioner, Blenheim; Medical Officer 23 Bn May 1940-May 1941; p.w. May 1941; repatriated Apr 1945.