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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

6 Field Ambulance Captured

6 Field Ambulance Captured

The men of 6 Field Ambulance were at breakfast when the blitz started and immediately dived to cover. While the bombers and fighters of the Luftwaffe roared incessantly overhead, the men lay hidden in their dugouts and slit trenches listening to the fury that was loosed above for an hour and a half or more. Some wards and the dispensary and medical stores at 7 General Hospital were seen burning after the attack.

Then, with the cessation of the bombing and strafing, came the paratroopers and the sound of voices. Coming out of their trenches the men found themselves faced with the muzzles of Schmeisser guns, and the grim, set countenances behind them. Lieutenant-Colonel Plimmer and Major Lovell,2 who were occupying the same slit trench, were ordered by an enemy parachutist to surrender, and raised their hands. As he was getting out of the slit trench Colonel Plimmer was suddenly fired upon; he was shot through the abdomen and died within a short time. It was the ruthless killing of a page 168 non-combatant. Fortunately, it was an isolated incident. Within the next hour most of the staff and the forty patients were herded into a clearing round the Red Cross flag.

At 7 General Hospital, to which some New Zealanders were attached, staff and patients were likewise rounded up. A German pilot, who had been wounded and was a patient, gained possession of a tommy gun and assisted the paratroops. In the burnt-out wards were the charred bodies of patients. The medical staff remonstrated without effect against being removed from their care of the wounded. They, too, were herded round the Red Cross flag in 6 Field Ambulance area, although some were able to avoid capture and remained with the more seriously ill hospital patients who could not be moved.

The captive party, several hundred in all, remained out in the open for several hours. The padre and a small party were permitted to conduct a burial service for Colonel Plimmer. Several of the medical officers and men of 6 Field Ambulance attended to the wounded in the area—British, German, and civilian alike—and two officers and two sergeants from the unit were sent under guard to 7 General Hospital to carry out further treatment of a German with a severe chest wound.

About 12.30 p.m. the large group at the MDS was shepherded up the valley under cover of the olive trees towards Karatsos,1 where 19 Battalion had its lines. A patrol from 19 Battalion opened fire on the party as they were on the ridge, in an attempt to shoot the escort. One of the Germans bringing up the rear of the party was caught in the machine-gun fire, but bursts of fire also struck the party. Three men from 6 Field Ambulance were killed and three others wounded. The infantrymen were therefore obliged to hold their fire while the Germans hurried their captives over the hill.

After several halts they approached the village of Karatsos. At 4 p.m., when they were near the top of a terraced hillside, they were met by another patrol from 19 Battalion and some Greeks. Taking cover behind a low stone wall, the paratroops – numbering about a dozen at this stage – went into action, with the patients and men of the medical units hugging the ground between the two opposing forces. Rifle and machine-gun bullets flew just overhead in a continuous fire. One burst went into the middle of the party, killing two and wounding about twelve, none being members of 6 Field Ambulance. Despite the fusillade the wounded were attended to on the spot by medical officers and orderlies. After an action lasting about an hour and a half the German patrol retreated page 169 to avoid being encircled, leaving some killed, while five Germans were taken prisoner.

2 Lt-Col A. A. Lovell; Tanganyika; born England, 10 Feb 1910; medical practitioner; medical officer, Fanning Island, 1940; 6 Fd Amb Aug 1940–Dec 1941; 1 Gen Hosp Dec 1941–Nov 1944; OC NZ Mil Hosp (UK) 1944–46.

1 Also known at the time as Daratsos and shown as such on some maps.