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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

CHAPTER 2 — Crete, May – September 1941 — I: Galatas Camp

page 112

Crete, May – September 1941

I: Galatas Camp

WHEN Crete was captured at the end of May 1941 many thousand British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek prisoners were taken by the Germans. The New Zealanders numbered almost 2200. Included in the number were eight New Zealand medical officers and 175 New Zealand medical orderlies, some of whom had volunteered to remain behind with the wounded, and some of whom could not be evacuated from the island by the time of the last embarkation. Most of the wounded were transported to Greece by air from Maleme in German troop-carriers, and with them went some of the medical personnel to join their colleagues at the prisoner-of-war hospital at Kokkinia, near Piraeus. The main British prisoner-of-war camp was established near Galatas and Canea, on an area previously occupied by 7 British General Hospital. Here about 7000 British prisoners were herded into a small area; of these about 1500 were New Zealanders. There were 2000 to 3000 Greeks in an adjoining area. There was no water supply and rations were very short, and at first there were no sanitation arrangements. The men possessed only what they were wearing and most slept in the open, without greatcoat or blanket.

The medical personnel and wounded in the Sfakia area were marched back across the island on 1 June, were herded together overnight in a field without food or water and were then taken on to one of the prison camps. Some of the medical orderlies were taken by truck to Maleme, where there were many British wounded awaiting transport to Greece. On the evening of 2 June the wounded still remaining were taken to Maleme village and given a meal. The orderlies cleared out several shops and bedded down the wounded in them, mainly on the floor, though some had stretchers. Here the wounded remained until 12 June, when they were transferred to the camp hospital in the main prisoner-of-war camp near Galatas.

At the camp Padre Hurst1 and Staff-Sergeant Sinel2 of 1 General

1 Very Rev. W. E. W. Hurst, m.i.d.; Dean of Dunedin; born Moira, Northern Ireland, 17 May 1912; p.w. 24 May 1941.

2 S-Sgt E. F. Sinel; Kaitaia; born Auckland, 22 May 1906; research chemist; p.w. 21 May 1941.

page 113 Hospital had set about establishing an RAP soon after capture as there was no medical officer remaining in the area. A medical inspection room was set up in a marquee and medicines, dressings and surgical equipment were collected from the blasted tents that had formerly been wards of 7 General Hospital. Up to 700 men were treated daily, both patients and staff increasing as prisoners of war came across the island from Sfakia. Another marquee was erected and patients accommodated on hospital beds and mattresses on the ground. The incidence of infected wounds and abrasions was high owing to the prevalence of dust and flies in the camp area, and dysentery soon became rampant.

When Lieutenant-Colonel Bull, NZMC,1 reached this camp on 8 June from the dressing station at Neon Khorion where he was captured, he set about supplementing the medical arrangements. On 9 June a 200-bed camp reception hospital was set up, with a staff of some 8 British medical officers, 4 NCOs and 89 other ranks. Accommodation was provided from salvaged hospital marquees, beds, mattresses, etc., but blankets and equipment were short and remained so. After a week a surgical ward, with an improvised operating theatre and sleeping accommodation for medical officers, was established in a large brick and concrete building on the hill, previously the officers' mess of 7 General Hospital. A hospital cookhouse was established in another building. Two medical officers and additional orderlies were detailed to assist at the RAP, which continued to function well.

As senior medical officer Lieutenant-Colonel Bull managed to arrange with the German camp commandant for implements for digging latrines, etc., and more facilities for cooking. Overcrowding continued, however, until the onset of cases of poliomyelitis and diphtheria convinced the Germans of its danger. The bed state of the Camp Reception Hospital rose to about 220 by 21 June, mostly dysentery and malaria cases. There was a small epidemic of fifteen cases of poliomyelitis, of which only the first case died. Drugs and dressings were desperately short. The rations supplied amounted to approximately 1000 calories daily only.

The German camp commandant then asked Colonel Bull to undertake the medical organisation of the other prisoner-of-war camps at Skines, Maleme and Galatas prison. At all three the conditions were equally bad – lack of accommodation and clothing, poor water supply and sanitation, short rations, inadequate cooking facilities, poorly equipped RAPs. Improvements were effected, drugs

1 Brig W. H. B. Bull, CBE, ED; Wellington; born Napier, 19 May 1897; surgeon; CO 6 Fd Amb Feb 1940–May 1941; ADMS NZ Div May 1941; p.w. 28 May 1941; DGMS, Army HQ.

page 114 and dressings supplied from a German medical depot and TAB injections given. The camp at Skines was wholly evacuated early in July, all prisoners being sent to Greece.

At the Camp Reception Hospital vegetables and fruit were obtained from Canea for the patients and staff. Rations supplied were short, eight to ten men sharing one tin of bully beef, but a camp bakery was working, though the quality of the potato flour supplied was very poor indeed. Two groups of British sick and wounded, numbering about 100 each, were transferred to the Canea hospital from Suda Bay and Kalivia. With them were captured medical staffs, who helped greatly to improve the general running of the hospital. Lieutenant-Colonel L. E. Le Soeuf, AAMC, took over the command of the hospital and Lieutenant-Colonel Bull remained SBMO, Crete.

On 15 July some 1900 prisoners, together with 85 sick and medical officers and orderlies, were shipped from Canea to Salonika. Then on 20 July another 2000 were moved to Suda Bay for embarkation to Greece. The medical officers found the ship of 2000 tons very dirty and lacking water and sanitation. They persuaded the Germans to embark only 1400. On 25 July a further 900 British and 300 Greeks were taken to Greece.

By the end of July showers had been installed in the prisoner-of-war camp and nearby hospital – a great boon, though very little soap and few towels were available. Sanitation was much better, flies generally fewer, but there was no improvement in rations, cooking, clothing, drugs and dressings. Dysentery was still prevalent, malaria increasing, and some cases of catarrhal jaundice had occurred. All prisoners of war were becoming ‘pot-bellied’ and were obviously suffering from malnutrition. Transfers to Greece had reduced the overcrowding.

August was on the whole a quiet month. Jaundice cases rose to 50, dysentery persisted, and the hospital bed state was far too high for either comfort or peace of mind. Drugs, rations, etc., were very short, but a few ‘amenities’ such as razors, blades and soap were procured. Cricket matches in the camp and daily swimming helped to allay the boredom of the prisoners. During June, July and August it was estimated that every prisoner of war had at least one attack, and many two, of Sonne dysentery.

By the beginning of September all the occupants of all camps, with the exception of the main one at Galatas and the Camp Reception Hospital, had been evacuated to Greece. On 23 September about half of the residue of prisoners of war from the main camp and the sick from the hospital, in all some 300 British troops, embarked with 1000 Greeks in a totally inadequate and incredibly page 115 dirty vessel for transport to Greece. After calling at Piraeus, where the remaining staff and patients of the Kokkinia hospital were embarked, they were taken on round the coast to a transit camp at Salonika, where conditions were appalling. As they marched two miles inland to the transit camp, most of the prisoners had their last sight of the sea for the next three and a half years.

Summary of Activities of Camp Reception Hospital, Canea, from 9 June to 23 September 1941
Total beds 200–250
Admissions 1212 (NZ 402)
Deaths 23 (NZ 4)
Discharges to main camp and evacuations to Greece 1169 (NZ 392)
Remaining at 23 September 1941 20 (NZ 6)