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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Withdrawal to Olympus-Aliakmon River Line

Withdrawal to Olympus-Aliakmon River Line

All troops except the rearguard had withdrawn over the Olympus Pass when 6 Field Ambulance moved out in the dark shortly before 8 p.m. on 10 April. The rain had ceased, but the road was wet and treacherous. Leading up steep approaches to a gorge that cut across the shoulders of Mount Olympus, the road climbed almost 4000 feet in a distance of ten miles. There were sharp corners and hairpin bends to be negotiated, and in places the road dwindled to a mere rock ledge along the face of the mountain, with cliff walls towering on one side and a precipitous drop yawning on the other. In the murk, careful manoeuvring of the unlighted trucks was needed to avoid disaster. One three-tonner slid over the bank, but fortunately came to rest in a hollow on the roadside with little harm done either to the vehicle or its occupants. In the early hours of the morning the vehicles pulled safely into flat cornfields on the southern side of the mountains. Snow was falling in the pass where 5 Brigade Group was preparing to meet advancing German columns, and sleety rain was sweeping across the plain where 6 Field Ambulance was erecting a few camouflaged tents for accommodation and possible emergency operations. Most of the unit page 80 remained packed, for it was in reserve. Near the little town of Elevtherokhorion, and about half a mile above the bridge at the junction of the roads leading from the Olympus and Servia Passes, 6 Brigade waited in its reserve positions.

Fourth Field Ambulance and 4 Field Hygiene Section had retired 24 hours ahead of 6 Field Ambulance and likewise found the journey over the mountain a nightmare experience. The field ambulance was short of transport, and men and equipment had to be crammed into every corner of the available trucks. Heavy rain and biting cold increased the men's discomforts as the convoy joined the mass of slow-moving transport grinding its way through the tortuous, rain-drenched pass.

After a trying eight hours on the road in the main convoy, HQ and B Companies, 4 Field Ambulance, reached and took over the site of 5 MDS near Dolikhe, at the foot of Mount Olympus. At the summit, A Company had left the main convoy and had gone to a point near Ag Demetrios to take over the ADS there from 5 Field Ambulance. Morning found the men of A Company in the new position, erecting tents in pitch blackness and drizzling rain, shivering with the cold. Daylight revealed a valley surrounded by high, snow-topped hills in the shadow of Mount Olympus. The men were about 4000 feet above sea level, and at times the cold was bitter, while in the morning and evening all-enveloping clouds of mist rolled down from the heights above the snow line. Rain and mud made it necessary to build a road, and the men came to regard themselves as ‘navvying nurses’.

After being relieved at Ag Demetrios, B Company, 5 Field Ambulance rejoined its unit which, during 10 April, moved to a new site selected by Lt-Col Twhigg, seven and a half miles north of Elevtherokhorion and under a high hill at the entrance to the Servia Pass. Here it was to provide a main dressing station for 4 Brigade, as it set about defending an area at Servia, west of its previous line, but still along the Aliakmon River.

Fifth Field Ambulance sent A Company, under Maj Fisher,3 forward about three miles beyond the MDS to form an advanced page 81 dressing station on the winding Servia Pass road. Though heavy rain hampered the work, the ADS was established by nightfall, and the men, who had had to find time to treat and evacuate a number of patients during the day, managed to get under cover for a night's rest. There was a heavy fall of snow during the night.

Throughout the 12th A Company toiled hard to improve the ADS by excavating farther into the hillside. A few patients were treated; some thirty passed through the MDS. That night was marked by the withdrawal of many troops through the pass, accompanied by a steady stream of battle casualties. None of these was held in the MDS beyond the time required for treatment. Evacuation to ⅔ Australian CCS at Elasson worked smoothly. Next day the MDS was enlarged to take 150 patients. In this work the company was assisted by 2/1 Australian Field Ambulance with men and equipment. The extra equipment was particularly welcome. Stores for the New Zealand medical units had been slow in arriving, and the position had become even worse as a result of the destruction of the Advanced Depot of Medical Stores during an intense bombing attack on Piraeus on the night of 7 April, when the port had been rendered almost useless by the explosion of an ammunition ship. Medical units were thus finding it necessary to exercise the greatest economy in prescribing drugs.

3 Col W. B. Fisher, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; born New Plymouth, 21 Jan 1898; Superintendent, Waipukurau Hospital; RMO 28 (Maori) Bn Dec 1939-Aug 1940; 2 i/c 5 Fd Amb Aug 1940-May 1941; acting CO 6 Fd Amb, Crete; CO 21 Lt Fd Amb (NZ) Nov 1941-Dec 1942; CO 6 Fd Amb Feb 1943-Aug 1944; CO 1 Gen Hosp Aug 1944-Feb 1945.