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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Evacuation from Greece—Action taken in Egypt

Evacuation from Greece—Action taken in Egypt

On 19 April DDMS 2 NZEF offered DMS MEF medical officers for duty on ships which were being sent to help in the evacuation of the troops from Greece. The offer was declined, but it was repeated on the 20th and again on the 21st. Colonel MacCormick stressed the importance of having New Zealand personnel on the evacuation ships and of providing comforts for the troops when they landed in Egypt.

On the 22nd he was informed of the decision to evacuate Greece, and at a conference at GHQ MEF that evening the whole position was discussed and arrangements made for the despatch of medical officers and other ranks on the troop-carriers. Later, the DDMS Alexandria area asked for six medical officers and twelve medical orderlies at Alexandria, and DMS MEF requested that six medical officers and twelve medical orderlies be sent to Port Said. Both groups were promptly despatched to the ports and were embarked for duty on transports. Medical posts were set up at the disembarkation camps at Amiriya, and at Tahag on the Ismailia road; a large reception station was also set up at Port Said and a small port section at Alexandria.

All the transports on which New Zealand medical personnel were embarked proceeded to Greece and back safely except for the Slamat which, on its return journey from Greece on 27 April, was attacked by machine-gun fire from the air at 6.30 a.m. The evacuation had been slowed up by the obstruction of the channel by the Ulster Prince, which had been bombed and sunk the night before. While the two New Zealand medical officers on board were proceeding towards the bridge to give medical aid an incendiary bomb struck the ship. The troops launched the lifeboats and these, too, were machine-gunned by the enemy. Some of the men were taken on board a destroyer. This destroyer was torpedoed at 2.30 p.m. that day. There was only one survivor of the New Zealand medical duty party of eight.1 The two medical officers, Captain Douglas2

1 There were only 50 survivors out of 1000 personnel, naval and army.

2 Capt L. Douglas; born Oamaru, 2 Aug 1901; surgeon; medical officer 2 Gen Hosp May 1940-Apr 1941; killed in action 27 Apr 1941.

page 149 and Lieutenant Newlands,1 were the first of the small number of medical officers to be killed in action.

At the conference at GHQ MEF on 22 April it was decided that, owing to lack of transport facilities, it would not be possible to deviate from arrangements that severe casualties of all forces, including New Zealanders, would be held in hospitals at Alexandria or the Canal area. Light cases would be sent to Cairo area as soon as transport arrangements permitted.

For the New Zealand casualties it was arranged that all officers and surgical cases would be admitted to 2 NZ General Hospital and all medical cases to 3 NZ General Hospital. Following this decision, some 130 medical cases were transferred from 2 General Hospital to 3 General Hospital, the first patients that hospital had received. No. 2 General Hospital was thus prepared to receive battle casualties as soon as they were transferred from hospitals on the coast. The 1st NZ Convalescent Depot was emptied as far as possible and extra tentage erected so that light cases could be admitted.

In view of the fact that most of the New Zealand troops, including lightly wounded, went to Crete, and that seriously wounded men remained in hospital in Athens, these arrangements for the reception of troops proved ample. There was a low incidence of wound infection and no strain was thrown on 2 General Hospital, the only properly equipped New Zealand general hospital in Egypt at the time, as 3 General Hospital was still awaiting the arrival of its equipment from England. The New Zealand troops evacuated to Egypt were mainly from 6 Brigade, with 4 Field Ambulance attached, all three artillery regiments, and the anti-tank regiment. Most of the battle casualties were taken directly to British hospitals in Alexandria and the Canal Zone. The first patients from Greece received by 2 General Hospital (apart from the injured nursing sisters of 1 General Hospital who arrived on 1 May via Crete) were a convoy of 131, mostly transferred from British hospitals in the Canal Zone on 20 May. Altogether, some 300 casualties were ultimately admitted to 2 and 3 NZ General Hospitals from Greece.

Contrary to expectations the condition of the troops themselves on arrival was remarkably good, and there were few cases of exhaustion and nervous breakdown. A divisional rest station was established at Helwan Camp and allowance made there for 600 cases, but only some thirty were admitted.

Red Cross stores sent by the Joint Council from New Zealand had proved invaluable at the ports of disembarkation and in the medical units for the tired men, just as they were to do later for the more severely exhausted men from Crete.

1 Lt J. W. Newlands; born Oamaru, 17 Aug 1915; medical practitioner; medical officer Maadi Camp, 1941; killed in action 27 Apr 1941.

page 150

As they left Greece the New Zealanders were very tired—mentally and physically exhausted by long days and longer nights of constant strain. They were bitter about the tragedy they had been unable to prevent, the enemy occupation of Greece. But they were not beaten. Only once in the campaign had they withdrawn before the scheduled time, and on that occasion they were overwhelmed by superior numbers. Unfortunately, the struggle to hold Crete was to take place on even more unequal terms.

The campaign in Greece put our medical units and personnel, as yet inexperienced in active warfare, to a severe test. They were called upon suddenly to cope with very difficult conditions of terrain and with a rapid and continually harassed withdrawal before an enemy infinitely superior in numbers and equipment, and with unchallenged command of the air. They had to be evacuated under cover of darkness from many beaches in southern Greece, taking their patients with them as they went and leaving behind their valuable equipment. They were called upon to improvise and evolve new methods of coping with the unusual conditions. They did this with great success, and laid the foundations for their future efficiency which was unquestioned throughout the war.

Fortunately, there was little or no disease to cope with and the wounded could all be evacuated to the base, and many were taken off with the units to Crete. There were some errors of judgment, due to ignorance, such as the failure to display the Red Cross adequately, but no lack of meticulous attention to the wounded men.

Casualties in Medical Units (Officers in brackets)
Unit Killed Wounded Prisoners of War
4 Field Ambulance 1 2 (1)16
5 Field Ambulance 2 20
6 Field Ambulance 1 7
RMOs (1)
1 General Hospital 2 (4)57
2 General Hospital (1)*
Maadi Camp Hospital (1)4*
4 Field Ambulance 1*
—— —— ——
(2)8 5 (6)100
—— —— ——
Casualties in New Zealand Division
Killed (including died of wounds) 261
Prisoners of war (including died of wounds while p.w.) 1856
Wounded (safe) 387