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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

First Evacuation from Beach

First Evacuation from Beach

Proceeding to the beach on the afternoon of 28 May, Major Christie and Captain Palmer, the two reconnoitring officers, found that Creforce Headquarters had recently been set up in a cave on the side of a deep gully on the way to the shore. In other caves there were one hundred patients and some medical officers from 189 Field Ambulance, which had established an RAP for the wounded, many of whom were in a state of collapse. Another party of one hundred walking wounded arrived under the charge of a medical officer of 4 Light Field Ambulance. All the wounded were held back in an assembly area two miles from the embarkation point, in order not to betray details of evacuation to the enemy, squadrons of whose planes ranged overhead all day, repeatedly bombing the road and surrounding ridges.

The Royal Navy's first evacuation from Sfakia took place on the night of 28–29 May. All walking wounded and stretcher cases, totalling 300, were sent forward from the assembly area.

At dusk all wounded able to walk – and it was amazing the determination which was shown to complete the journey – were led in three columns down the steep, dry gully among the scattered boulders and clumps of oleander bushes, to what in winter must have been the bed of a sizeable torrent. About three miles or less from Sfakia, on level ground, the columns were halted and strong efforts made to maintain both good cheer and cohesion. An unexpected delay so close to the beach tried the remnants of the patience of men who were tired, thirsty, and hungry. All were sick to a greater or lesser degree and many were in the early stage of diarrhoea and exhaustion.

There was little disturbance from the air. A light mist descended in the hollows. After what seemed a very long pause parties of fifty were allowed to proceed, but there appeared some hitches in communications over the three miles between the beach and the waiting columns. As the night wore on an urgent message came for another 200 to proceed, and then for as many as possible to get forward with all speed. The going was rough and the pace too slow.

Some time before dawn the remainder were instructed to go back and disperse in the original area. Some, however, reluctant to reclimb the steep hillside, elected to remain nearer the embarkation point. All but seventy of the wounded were embarked, as well page 193 as 800 British troops from the Suda Bay sector, before the destroyers Napier, Nizam, Kelvin, and Kandahar pulled out from Sfakia.

On the morning of 29 May Major Christie was attached to the staff of 189 Field Ambulance to assist with the treatment of wounded and Captain Palmer established an RAP in a cave used by RAF personnel, 600 yards from Creforce Headquarters, in order to treat other wounded.

At the MDS at Imvros the staff was also kept busy. During the twenty-four hours that it was open the dressing station handled 94 serious cases, and where it was possible to do so, some of these were taken nearer to the control points above the beaches so that they would have priority in embarkation. The medical staff in this area managed to hold together a large number of patients, numbering some 700, reassuring and cheering up those who were jittery during enemy bombing attacks. During the day rations and water, the latter always difficult to obtain, were taken forward by the transport drivers. By then 5 Field Ambulance had built up its transport from one 15-cwt truck to two ambulance cars, three 3-ton trucks, and one Buick car, all marked with Red Cross flags. On the Buick car Driver Burling1 loaded a number of Italian water tanks and ran a regular water delivery service.

On the afternoon of 29 May walking wounded were transported in trucks, flying Red Cross flags, to the end of the road, where they were held until permitted by those in charge of the embarkation to go down to the beach. By late afternoon dispersal was excellent and all had more or less accepted the tedium of daytime concealment. The march down to Sfakia on the second night was more effectively organised than on the previous evening. The assembly point above the beach was two miles further on, whence it was easier to call forward parties as they were required. A long line sat down on the slope running down over the ridge near the village and waited their turn.

A hasty muster showed that some hundred more were in the column than had set out from the caves below the road end. With the naval guard, arrangements were made for a final scrutiny of the bona fides of all in the walking wounded party. Over 600 walking casualties had been passed through the collecting post above Sfakia in two days. These men had been scattered over an area of more than two miles and dispersed in small parties among the scrub and caves, the sole water supply being from the wells. These by the end of the first day were becoming foul, as many of the men were already suffering from an incipient diarrhoea, which was aggravated by drinking the fouled water.

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By nightfall on the 29th almost all the patients were on the move to the point at which they were to be concentrated for the final move to the beach, and sections of medical units were gathered for embarkation, including 5 and 6 Field Ambulances, 4 Field Hygiene Section, 2/2 and 2/7 Australian Field Ambulances, 7 General Hospital, and part of 2/1 Australian Field Ambulance. To assist the walking wounded, a proportion of one medical officer and five medical orderlies to each group of fifty patients was allowed by the embarkation authorities. It turned out that this proportion was inadequate, as many of the patients required assistance and the track to the beach was a nightmare even for those able-bodied and fit. This track had to be negotiated in the dark, and many of the patients, who had been subjected to severe ordeals and privations, found it extremely hard going to keep up, and all were apprehensive that they might be left behind. It could quite well have been arranged to attach one medical orderly to each three patients, and this would also have afforded a means of getting more of the medical personnel down to the beaches in time. However, the instructions of the embarkation authorities were observed, and only a portion of the staff of the medical units reached the beach in time to embark that night.

1 Dvr C. J. Burling, MM; born Upper Hutt, 16 Mar 1916; transport driver.