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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

5 Field Ambulance after Invasion

5 Field Ambulance after Invasion

When the invasion began in the morning of 20 May many parachutists dropped in the vicinity of 5 Field Ambulance, followed by parachutes bringing equipment and stores. Throughout the morning this phase continued, and during this time the members of 5 Field Ambulance remained under cover, their only activity being to transfer the sick to the basement. A lull occurred about noon, but enemy activity was soon resumed. Almost total interruption of road movement resulted. The wounded from forward units could not be moved back in daylight. Casualties began coming in only from nearby units, and were supplemented by a number of wounded German parachutists.

No distinguishing signs identifying the site as that of a medical unit were displayed at first as it was considered undesirable to disclose the disposition of the fighting troops and their defensive positions. However, about two hours after the airborne landings had commenced, Red Cross signs were put out – one on the roadway in front of the MDS and another on the roof of the house. Thereafter, there was no bombing or machine-gunning in the immediate vicinity, although cooking fires were in full view of enemy planes and the staff went openly about their duties, though not wearing steel helmets. This latter point was most important – captured Germans had advised that steel helmets were likely to be taken as evidence of fighting troops and therefore it would be wise not to wear them. It appears that German protected personnel did not wear steel helmets in their dressing stations.

At 4 p.m. on 20 May casualties began to arrive, these including several German prisoners. The first convoy of wounded was evacuated by truck to 7 General Hospital at 6.30 p.m., but while the truck was en route there it was first learned that German troops had captured the hospital. A medical officer and reserve stretcher-bearer parties from 5 Field Ambulance had been sent forward to the RAPs, and the evacuation of casualties to the MDS was arranged during the night. Bren carriers of 23 Battalion convoyed some trucks of wounded through to 5 Field Ambulance. At 2 a.m. on 21 May 7 General Hospital got a message through to 5 Field Ambulance that the unit could then take serious cases, but that it would be advisable for all evacuations to be carried out during the hours of darkness. It was possible to evacuate only four stretcher cases before daylight owing to the limited transport. In many cases additional operative treatment was given to patients at the MDS, as it was obvious that there would be some delay in getting them back to the hospital. Battle casualties admitted in the twenty-four page 175 hours up to 7 a.m. on 21 May totalled 35, including six prisoners and two civilians.

Throughout 20 May hard fighting among the olive trees at Maleme and Galatas had held the German parachutists, although 22 Battalion's hold on the western side of Maleme airfield had been lost. Such resistance had not been expected by the enemy. Further attack from the air and the reinforcement of parachutists began at dawn on 21 May. Battle casualties streamed into 5 MDS, and surgical operations were carried out throughout the day and well into the night, extra accommodation for the patients being provided in tents, earlier obtained from 7 General Hospital.

During the day paratroops were dropped near 5 Field Ambulance and at 4.30 p.m. the advance of the parachute troops had brought them to slopes and ridges adjoining the valley in which the MDS was situated. The enemy were held by the Maori Battalion and 19 Army Troops Company, but such was their proximity to the MDS that the CO deemed it advisable to destroy all codes and secret papers.

It was not possible to make any evacuations from the MDS during the night of 21–22 May, and by the evening of the 22nd there were more than 130 casualties held, many of a serious nature. By this time medical supplies were getting very low. Throughout 21 and 22 May unit stretcher-bearers had continued with their task of evacuating wounded from the battalions, having a particularly difficult time through being subject to air attacks and attacks by wandering groups of paratroops, as well as having to make long and strenuous hand carries over uneven ground. Fortunately, the weather remained clear and fine.