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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

5 Field Ambulance Withdraws towards Canea

5 Field Ambulance Withdraws towards Canea

From 5 Field Ambulance at Modhion some of the wounded were evacuated by ambulance car, and the first party of walking wounded and some of the staff of the unit set off on foot at 3 a.m. on 23 May for the former site of 6 Field Ambulance at the junction of the Canea and Galatas roads. The coastal road to the east was pitted here and there with small craters, littered with dead donkeys and telephone wires and the debris of shattered farm vehicles and of damaged houses in which isolated groups of parachutists had sought to control the road. Transport had been arranged by Headquarters 5 Brigade for the stretcher cases, but because of the bombing of the road some Cypriot drivers had abandoned their trucks or else had not proceeded to Modhion. An officer of Headquarters 5 Brigade, Captain Coutts,1 managed to marshal trucks by dawn, just when preparations were being made for some of the wounded to be left behind under the care of a section of the medical staff. It was then possible to clear the dressing station entirely. The convoy proceeded in broad daylight, under Red Cross flags, unmolested by enemy aircraft which were already about in fair numbers. The walking wounded were taken to 7 General Hospital

1 Maj P. E. Coutts, MBE, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 4 Dec 1903; salesman; OC 1 Amn Coy Oct 1941–Jan 1943, Feb–Oct 1945; 18 Tk Tptr Coy Jan 1943–Mar 1944.

page 178 in the caves on the foreshore, while the stretcher cases were unloaded at 189 Field Ambulance hospital at Khalepa, a northeastern suburb of Canea. (This British field ambulance had been called upon to establish a temporary hospital to take the overflow of wounded from 7 General Hospital. By utilising a school, a convent, and a number of adjacent houses, the unit eventually held as many as 460 cases. Major Christie, NZMC, was transferred from 7 General Hospital to do the surgical work and succeeded in improvising a first-class operating theatre.)

Fifth Field Ambulance occupied the area used by 6 Field Ambulance up to the time of its capture; the latter unit at this time was functioning in a culvert about a mile further along the road towards Canea. During the morning the 5 Field Ambulance site was subjected to a particularly heavy attack of bombing and machine-gunning, the site being near an important road junction. One death was sustained by the unit as a result of the attack. Information had been received that heavy casualties were to be expected from 5 Brigade's front and, as it was impossible for the unit to carry on where it was, it was decided to open up in the officers' mess building, well down towards the beach, on the 7 General Hospital site. The changeover was made by midday on the 23rd.

Casualties arrived in a steady stream throughout the afternoon and night, and before dawn the total admissions were over 200. Good work was done by the drivers of the trucks, some from 5 Field Ambulance and some from other units in the line, in carrying on unceasingly through the hours of daylight and darkness bringing in the wounded; and also by the ambulance orderlies who went out with the trucks. All trucks and ambulance cars were provided with Red Crosses and drivers and patients frequently derived considerable confidence, when negotiating the open roads, from the presence of lightly wounded German prisoners, who volunteered to accompany them so that in the event of interference they could intercede as far as they were able in having the convoy regarded as a protected service.

In the evening a small convoy of five trucks with two medical officers set out to evacuate wounded from 23 Battalion and from the Maori Battalion at Platanias. The Maori Battalion being well forward, the trucks going to evacuate their wounded were to rendezvous with those clearing 23 Battalion before returning to the MDS. Once again circumstances intervened. Before reaching Platanias the ambulance vehicles passed those of the withdrawing Maori Battalion just east of the village. To an accompaniment of doubts as to the direction, they drew up in the lower village at page 179 Platanias where Captain Royal's rear party was still firing spasmodically down the road. Most of the lightly wounded had already gone out with the battalion. Several serious cases which had remained were placed in two trucks, and the third vehicle was instructed to wait at the rendezvous to meet those being evacuated from 23 Battalion, with a message that the 23 Battalion abdominal cases were being taken directly through to Khalepa.

The clearing of the 23 Battalion casualties was a more difficult task. With orders to pick up wounded from that battalion, Lieutenant Gray1 took two small trucks and four stretcher-bearers; he had only a vague idea where the battalion headquarters was and was to be stopped by a sentry along the road.

The country was quite familiar to them as they had explored much of it in the three weeks before the invasion. At the rendezvous they found several wounded, some walking and other more severe cases, on the side of the road. Taking several stretchers, they followed a guide up a dry riverbed. This descended steeply, with heavy growth along the banks and overhanging its course, boulders strewn on the short level stretches, and small waterfalls every few yards. They soon met tired troops staggering under the burden of their severely wounded comrades in improvised stretchers of two poles and a blanket, and as time was short no time was lost in carrying out first aid. The orderlies took over from the troops wherever assistance was needed and very soon no orderlies were left.

Lieutenant Gray and a corporal kept on up the stream and after some time met the rear party. They were carrying in a blanket a badly wounded man, who had compound fractures of both legs below the knee. Helping to carry the man down that riverbed was most difficult. Already tired after four days of confused fighting and weary through lack of sleep, the party made slow, stumbling progress over boulders, on slippery shingle, gently lifting him over rocky falls every few yards, tripping and falling over trees and wood in their path, bearing the burning pull of the rolled edge of a blanket on aching fingers and hands.

In the shelter of the riverbed the strenuous work soon had them in a bath of perspiration, mouths and tongues dry from laboured breathing. It was too much for their unconscious burden and he was dead when they reached the truck.

Both trucks were by then piled with wounded. Conscious and unconscious men were piled on the floor – there were as many stretchers as could be carried, and the departure of the medical

1 Capt W. G. Gray, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 13 Jul 1913; medical practitioner; medical officer 5 Fd Amb Dec 1939–Nov 1941; p.w. Nov 1941; escaped to Switzerland, Nov 1943.

page 180 party and the wounded now had to be hasty. There was no time for a second trip. The rough road back to the MDS was a nightmare for all, and too much for two more of the wounded. It was well after midnight before they reached the MDS, which was already overcrowded with wounded from other units.

On the way through Canea, the darkness and smoke enhanced by flashes of a 6-inch gun from HMS York, a call was made at a Greek Red Cross dressing station in the square where several British wounded and a Maori were picked up. At Khalepa not another lying case could be taken. Every possible space was occupied by stretchers and palliasses. At 2 a.m. operating was still in progress. A guide was found and the two vehicles were redirected to the naval tented hospital at Mournies, where the naval hospital orderlies had some trouble with Maori names. A speedy return was made to the MDS, but it was dawn when the vehicles arrived.

Valuable assistance was given to 5 Field Ambulance in dealing with casualties by the surgical team from 7 General Hospital (Lieutenant-Colonel Debenham, Captain Gourevitch, and Captain Holt) which took over the operative work during the night. Evacuations from the dressing station were carried on throughout the night, 60 of the more serious cases going to 189 Field Ambulance hospital and 50 serious stretcher cases and 120 walking wounded going to the caves of 7 General Hospital. Bearer parties went out after dusk to assist in the evacuation of casualties from 5 Brigade. The lightly wounded were sent to 6 Field Ambulance and, of the serious cases, twenty went to 189 Field Ambulance hospital and ten to 1 Marine Tented Hospital at Mournies, 2 miles south of Canea. (This 60-bed naval unit had arrived on 10 May, and when 7 General Hospital was pressed for space it found accommodation for more than 400 cases, the surgical staff continuing to operate day and night in spite of enemy snipers in the neighbouring foothills.)

At dawn on 24 May 5 MDS had been cleared of all casualties with the exception of eight wounded prisoners of war. This complete evacuation had followed a visit from Colonel Bull, acting ADMS NZ Division, the previous evening, with news that an attack on the area was expected. While the remainder of the staff went to caves on the foreshore for much-needed rest, a nucleus of the MDS staff – including the CO – remained in the building during 24 May, a quiet day on which only eight casualties were admitted. Aerial activity had continued throughout the day, but the Germans were waiting for further reinforcements for their ground forces to come from Maleme airfield before making a major attack.

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