New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy
TWO Italian armies had struck at Greece on 28 October 1940, but the spirit of Greek resistance had surprised everyone and dumbfounded the Italians, who in spite of overwhelming superiority, both in numbers and equipment, retreated before the determined Greek counter-attacks. The Greeks followed the Italians up into Albania. In November a small British force of three air squadrons and some base units, including 26 British General Hospital, was sent to Athens at the request of the Greeks.
Then an ominous shadow was cast over the situation when German armies started assembling in Roumania at the end of 1940. There was little doubt about the purpose of this concentration. Conferences were held in Athens between Greek political and military leaders and representatives of the British Cabinet and Army. At first, in January, the Greeks refused to entertain any offer of help with a strength of less than ten divisions, lest the Germans be given an excuse for aggression and there would be inadequate forces to oppose them; but on 8 February the Greeks asked for help if, and when, the Germans crossed into Bulgaria. As a result of this appeal the advance in North Africa was halted, and plans were made for a force to be sent to Greece. At a conference held in Athens on 22 February plans of operations were discussed and the Aliakmon defence line was agreed upon, the British delegates being led to believe that General Papagos, the Greek commander, would immediately withdraw his troops from the Metaxas line on the Bulgarian border. However, when the British delegation returned to Athens on 2 March after a visit to Turkey, it found that no Greek troops had been withdrawn owing to the uncertainty about developments in Yugoslavia. By this time Bulgaria had joined the Axis and German troops had crossed the Danube. It was then agreed that the Greeks should leave three divisions on the frontier and withdraw the remaining three divisions to the Aliakmon line. Britain decided on political grounds to send what troops she could muster to help the Greeks and to persuade the Yugoslavs to resist the German advance. A force, called Lustre Force after the code word used in negotiations, was assembled with all possible speed in Egypt. The New Zealand Division was to form the page 99 advanced guard of the force and men and material were soon being shipped to Greece. As the first New Zealand troops moved out of Helwan Camp on 3 March, units of 5 Brigade were landing in Egypt from England.
The voyage across the Mediterranean was made in ‘flights’, fresh groups coming forward to the Amiriya transit camp and embarkation point at Alexandria as each flight sailed. General Freyberg and his advance party and a small advanced section of 1 General Hospital disembarked at Piraeus, the port of Athens, on 7 March. The medical units embarked for Greece on various dates between 6 and 26 March, the first to go being 1 General Hospital, which on 20 February had received orders to pack its complete equipment prior to moving.1
In proceeding to a country not yet at war with Germany it would seem that, from a medical point of view, a higher priority should have been given to the move of the medical units. Priority seems to have been given to the British armoured brigade and fighting troops, firstly, to impress the Greeks and Yugoslavs, and, secondly, to prepare defensive positions. In addition, it was not expected that fighting would break out so soon, but nevertheless medical units should not have been divorced from the formations they were expected to service.
Although General Freyberg, his GSO I, and AA & QMG left for Greece on 6 March, Colonel Kenrick, ADMS NZ Division, did not leave Egypt until 9 March, and then only at the urgent request of Brigadier D. T. M. Large, DDMS British Troops in Greece.
|Date of Embarkation||Date of Arrival at Piraeus|
|1 Gen Hosp (less nurses)||6 Mar||8 Mar|
|4 Fd Hyg Sec||9 Mar||10 Mar|
|ADMS||9 Mar||10 Mar|
|4 Fd Amb||11 Mar||15 Mar|
|6 Fd Amb||18 Mar||22 Mar|
|ADMS Office Staff||18 Mar||22 Mar|
|Nurses 1 Gen Hosp||25 Mar||27 Mar|
|5 Fd Amb||26 Mar||29 Mar|
All reached Greece safely, although aerial attacks were made on some of the convoys.