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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

The Thermopylae Line

The Thermopylae Line

The Thermopylae line was based upon a spur of the Pindus Mountains, running east and west, and was cut by two main routes to the south—the central road and rail pass of Brallos, held by the Australians, and the famed Thermopylae Pass itself, guarded by the New Zealanders. On the coast, near Molos, 6 Brigade had taken up its positions, while on the left, south of Lamia, was 5 Brigade. Fourth Brigade and the Divisional Cavalry Regiment kept watch on the coast in case the enemy should attempt a landing from Euboea Island.

While the occupation of the Thermopylae line was being completed, 5 Field Ambulance established an MDS about 2 miles west of Kamena Voula. Casualties during the retreat were being sent back to 2/3 Australian CCS, situated south of Levadhia. Ambulances carrying the wounded had to take the longer route through Molos, for the more direct route through Lamia and the Brallos Pass was page 126 under constant air attack. On 19 April the MDS moved into a wing of a Greek hospital at Kamena Voula. It was a modern spa comprising a hotel and a bath-house with hot mineral baths. The unit had lost only two 30-cwt and one 12-cwt trucks and one ambulance car during the retreat.

map showing location of army medical units

Thermopylae Line, Greece: Medical Units and Lines of Evacuation

The hospital was well equipped with beds, linen, and medical stores and equipment and an excellent operating theatre was set up with equipment from the Greek hospital. Air raids on the convoys, reaching a peak on 19 April, gave 5 Field Ambulance a heavy day attending to the wounded. From 4 ADS, established about 3 miles up the road, wounded came back in a steady stream and admissions for the day totalled 83. The conditions and the attachment of the surgical team under Major Christie allowed the satisfactory performance of major surgery; and the opportunity was readily made use of, numbers of serious cases being dealt with during the short period the MDS remained in the Greek hospital. Abdomen and head cases fit to travel were sent on to Athens. As far as major war surgery in field ambulances was concerned, this was the only active period in Greece.

Lieutenant-Colonel Twhigg, however, formed the opinion that the performance of major surgery at the field ambulance was inadvisable, as the serious patients could not be held the necessary time, and, if any number of patients were held, it would overload the unit transport in further withdrawals. Casualties were evacuated by the coastal road 65 miles through Livanatais and Atalandi to Levadhia, where 2/3 Australian CCS was working. On orders from Divisional Headquarters, which saw a danger of shelling from Euboea Island, the MDS was transferred on the 21st from the hospital building to sandbagged Italian tents which it set up in a riverbed nearby. Bombing casualties were admitted steadily, and on the 23rd forty cases had to be evacuated direct to 26 British General Hospital, Athens, as 2/3 Australian CCS had closed. The Greek nursing staff, who had been most helpful, and the civilian patients had been evacuated by military transport the day before. The medical stores left behind by the Greek hospital were distributed by 5 Field Ambulance to nearby field ambulances and RAPs.

While the Anzac Corps waited for the enemy attack, the Greeks on the other side of the Pindus Mountains in Epirus capitulated on 21 April. This meant that the Allied line at Thermopylae could be outflanked. Ultimate evacuation had, however, been a probability for some days. After consultations with the Greek government the decision to evacuate Greece had been made on 19 April, although it was not conveyed to the troops in the line until the 22nd. During the second week in April the Navy had held shipping in readiness, and Rear-Admiral H. T. Baillie-Grohman was sent to Athens with page 127 a small staff to make preliminary arrangements, and found Piraeus so damaged that it was useless for the evacuation of large numbers of troops.