Medical and Base Units leave the Athens Area, 22–25 April
Medical and Base Units leave the Athens Area, 22–25 April
In Athens the King of Greece announced that the Government would leave for Crete and from there continue the war. The troops were told of the decision to evacuate Greece; movement orders were prepared; arrangements were made for the Greeks to have the supply depot and for the American Red Cross to take over the canteen stores; and the Military Attaché at Athens began to tour the Peloponnese to make plans for the Greeks to assist any British troops who might not be evacuated.
No time was wasted; in fact some of the New Zealand base units had already moved out. On 19 April 1 General Hospital1 had received its orders: the nurses would leave for Egypt in a hospital ship within a few hours; thirty orderlies must be sent to 26 General Hospital at Voula; and all the other male staff, less the five officers2 already at Voula, would leave Piræus that afternoon in the MV Rawnsley.
The vessel left that evening with some 600 British base troops and the medical group: Colonel McKillop, with 14 officers and 69 other ranks. But it missed the convoy and next morning, when standing by for instructions, was bombed and machine-gunned. The British had several casualties but they were transferred to the hospital ship Aba, and the Rawnsley carried on to reach Alexandria on 23 April.
3 Col E. G. Sayers, CMG, Legion of Merit (US); Dunedin; born Christchurch, 10 Sep 1902; physician; 1 Gen Hosp 1940–41; in charge medical division 1 Gen Hosp, Aug 1941–Sep 1942; 4 Gen Hosp, Oct 1942–Sep 1943; Consultant Physician 2 NZEF (IP) 1943–44; CO 4 Gen Hosp Nov 1943–Aug 1944; Dean of University of Otago Medical School.
4 Brig R. D. King, CBE, DSO, m.i.d., Greek Medallion for Distinguished Deed; Timaru; born Timaru, 25 Feb 1896; medical practitioner; 1 NZEF 1918–19 (Private, NZMC); physician 1 Gen Hosp Feb 1940–Jun 1941; CO 4 Fd Amb Jan 1942–Jun 1943; ADMS 2 NZ Div Jun 1943–Dec 1944; DDMS NZ Corps Feb–Mar 1944.
On the night of 21–22 April the New Zealand liaison officer at Headquarters British Troops in Greece, Athens, Major N. A. Rattray, had attended a conference with the naval staff and Brigadier Brunskill. The evacuation plan had been outlined and Rattray had been instructed to move the base units from Athens and the medical group from Voula. The officers of the Base Pay Office (Captain Morris2) and Advanced 2 Echelon (Second- Lieutenant Morton3) had been awakened just before midnight and given orders to join immediately the convoy which would be leaving that same night from the Reinforcement Camp at Voula, a village south-east along the coast from Piræus.
Shortly after midnight the authorities in the camp, Major MacDuff4 and his adjutant, Lieutenant Curtis,5 were given similar instructions by Major Rattray. Several groups were soon packing equipment and preparing to move out in half an hour's time. Among them were the staff and patients of the temporary Convalescent Hospital, the Mobile Dental Unit encamped nearby, some members of the Divisional Postal Unit (Second-Lieutenant Harbott6), the Convalescent Hospital (Captain Slater7) and many convalescents recently discharged from the hospital to the reinforcement group.
Here they waited for further orders from 80 Base Sub-Area and in peacetime would have remarked upon the sound of sheep bells and the enchanting countryside. On the outskirts of Megara the land sloped south to the minute coastal plain and north into a long valley thick with olive trees. The cemetery with its tall cypress trees was to the left, the dusty village faced south across fields red with poppies to the blue Mediterranean and the island of Salamis. To the west beyond the road above the cliffs there was the mass of the Peloponnese, range behind range, in a soft blue haze.
As it was, the Luftwaffe dominated the scene, patrolling the highway and making all movement by day extremely dangerous. That night, 22–23 April, a train came through from Athens with Australian troops, drafts of convalescents from the British hospitals and several New Zealanders, including the seven1 YMCA secretaries who had been working with the line-of-communication units and at the Base Reception Camp at Voula. Once again the Greek villagers offered eggs and brown bread—and once again the day was spent sheltering from observation aircraft and dive-bombers. But there were nearly 1200 men in the area, many of them convalcscents or walking wounded still needing attention. Captain Slater went back to Athens for medical supplies and three of the YMCA secretaries returned to Voula, where they salvaged chocolate, cigarettes, tinned milk and even clothing for those who had been hastily evacuated with little more than hospital pyjamas.
1 Unknown to Divisional Headquarters, J. H. Ledgerwood, afterwards notable for his work in Crete and in German prisoner-of-war camps, had gone north as an unofficial member of 19 Battalion. Later two other secretaries were given permission to go as far as Katerini; the senior secretary, F. E. S. Long, after helping to organise the evacuation from Megara on the night of 25–26 April, was unfortunate enough to become a prisoner of war.
Another small detachment under Lieutenant Wilkinson2 was more fortunate. The convoy with the sick and wounded had set out for Voula, but at Daphni, just a few miles west of Athens, Wilkinson's group had been ordered off the road by the military police who were restricting travel in daylight. The lorries had been taken back to Athens and the party left to its own devices for several anxious days before it was picked up by some New Zealand Divisional Postal Unit and Army Service Corps transport and taken to Navplion. From here they were taken off by HMAS Perth on the night of 26–27 April.3