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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

March Across the Island

March Across the Island

Shortly before midnight on 27 May, leaving only a minimum of Australian staff with the patients at the dressing station, the men of the medical units set out on the first stage of the long march page 136 south across the island to the coast. Lying dispersed among the olive trees on the roadside during the day, while the Luftwaffe searched for them overhead, they moved only by night, along the road which led in a weary march through burning villages and up across the 3000-foot mountain pass over which lay the way to the south. Ten weary miles of winding hill road led to the pass, and then the road turned down again into the Askifou basin and then petered out before it got to Sfakia. Food and water were scarce; sleep during the daytime was made almost impossible by continuous air activity, and everyone suffered from fatigue, hunger, and thirst. Men straggled; many became scattered and lost their original parties, and a dense disordered mass crowded the roads by night. The road to the south was one stream of men—men with bloody bandages, airmen, sailors from ships in Suda, ambulance men. Now and then a lorry came along, jammed with wounded and with men hanging on everywhere. All along the road were abandoned vehicles.

‘It was easy going for the first few hours,’ said Cpl Curtis, ‘the road being good, the air cool, and our muscles fresh although the pace was fast. There was no hesitation then, and we halted only once every hour for a five-minute break and then on again. We passed other troops resting, but it was too dark to see who they were and we had to keep close together to avoid being lost. Once during the night an enemy aircraft flew over and dropped some flares near us, but by sitting against a bank with our faces averted we apparently escaped detection, as nothing further occurred. Gradually our pace slackened, our resting periods lasted a little longer, the muscles in the backs of our legs began to ache and we moved in a sort of coma, unconscious of our surroundings and dull to thought. Still we kept moving in a rhythmical motion until with the coming of day we made ourselves comfortable in the basement of a house, orders being that we were not to show ourselves outside.

‘Breakfast consisted of one tin of meat and vegetables between four and water from one of the many wells dotting the countryside. After this we slept until awakened by machine-gun fire from a fighter setting fire to a nearby field of oats in the hope of finding game. He apparently didn't notice two bodies leaving rapidly on one side! These joined us shortly afterwards.

‘We saw no one else during the day, and after another meal towards evening set out once again. From this point onwards the going was harder as the road gave way to a rough track, wide enough for a vehicle, which wound up into the hills in the interior.

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‘During the night our group broke up, possibly because the fatigue which numbed our minds made us oblivious of our surroundings, and also the fact that many other troops were also on the road. General Freyberg stopped his car near us and gave us some encouragement to keep moving. (I well remember this because his car stopped just ahead of me and I walked into him, cursing the hold-up, before I realised who it was.)

‘When daylight came again there seemed to be very few of us about, all dog-tired and a bit bewildered as we had little idea of where we were or where to go. However, we kept on until forced to take cover by enemy aircraft. The country around was extremely rough and rocky with tough, scrubby bush of no great height covering most of it. Here and there trees were growing in small clumps. We followed the road over a saddle in what seemed to be a range of hills, and then when another aircraft came over we scattered again….

‘About 2 p.m. we decided to go on down into the valley, skirt the houses, and continue along the road. We had gone about half a mile from the village when we came upon what seemed to be a stone church with a Red Cross painted on the roof, nestling in a sharp bend in the road. The roof was almost level with the road. An officer was standing near the entrance, and as we were still wearing arm brassards, he told us to go in and help with the wounded. We had seen no other dressing stations on our way across the island or any wounded either, although we might easily have missed them in the darkness.

‘The stone floor of the church was covered with wounded on blankets and ambulance stretchers ranged all round the walls and down the centre. The altar, in an alcove at one end, was covered with shell and field dressings and a little food—cocoa, tinned milk, sugar, and biscuits. There were quite a number of medical officers and personnel there, and we set to work bandaging, applying splints, and making the patients as comfortable as possible. Some were walking cases, but many appeared to be more severely wounded and could not be moved.

‘Later in the night we were split into sections, each working for two hours and then changing over and sleeping outside. In the morning we had our first wash and shave for several days—there were two or three razors to go round, with a few extra blades. It worked wonders with our morale.’