Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
Some of the wounded dispersed among caves and shrubs at the end of the road embarked at Sfakia on the night of 28-29 May. As Capt Palmer relates:
‘Maj Christie and I were instructed to continue down the road to a group of caves situated on a small ledge, on which was a stone-walled well. Another well lay to the south. A narrow, deep ravine lay on either flank. We were to assist in the collection of walking wounded and to take charge of those who were to proceed to the embarkation point that night.
‘Near the road-end, at the head of a steep, dry valley, were several damaged RASC vehicles and two abandoned ambulances needing only some minor adjustments and replacements, but for which neither parts nor tools were to be found. A few dressings were gathered from one of the ambulances, and we continued down the slope, past a radio transmitter set up in the caves which were now Crete Force Headquarters, on to the ledge. Each of us selected one of the partly occupied caves and sought out from among the page 139 very tired medical orderlies of a British unit some trained assistants still capable of further effort.
‘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 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 stages of diarrhœa 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 50 were allowed to proceed to the boats, but there were some hitches in communication over the three miles between the beach and the waiting columns. As the night wore on an urgent message came for another 200 to go on, and then for as many as possible to get forward with all speed. The going was rough and the pace too slow. Not all could embark before dawn.’
The MDS remained at Imvros on the 29th. Casualties from the rearguard actions were brought in for treatment and parties from the medical units on the road also assembled there. From noon onwards walking wounded, some 700 in all, were taken from the MDS and the collecting posts to the end of the road in trucks flying Red Cross flags. Unfortunately, the 40 stretcher cases had to be left behind and a small staff stayed with them. As Cpl Curtis tells us:
‘It was obvious that a number of the wounded would have to be left behind, so it was decided that straws should be drawn amongst the unmarried men. This was accordingly done, and one officer and an orderly were selected to stay behind.
‘Lt-Col Twhigg, who was with us, explained the method of evacuation, and later in the afternoon a party was sent on ahead to contact the walking wounded who had been sent on in two trucks operating a ferry service to the end of the road. These trucks carried small Red Crosses and were unmolested from the air, although they were closely inspected by some of the aircraft which flew over.
‘Later in the afternoon several of the medical personnel were despatched with each load of walking wounded, until by evening a large party had gathered near the end of the road. At one point we were halted and questioned by an armed guard on the road who finally let us pass. We then moved down on to a rough track page 140 to await the coming of darkness. The road between the aid post and this point was very narrow and winding and had a steep bank on the right with a sheer drop into the valley far below on the other side. German aircraft flew down the valley with their wings level with the road on several occasions, so close that the faces of the occupants were clearly visible, but they did not attack the wounded.
‘When it was almost too dark to see, we set off as quickly as possible along the track to Sfakia. After what seemed like hours, we arrived at a steep zigzag path which went down to a little village on the very edge of a narrow beach in a small bay. Steep hills surrounded the bay, and looking out to sea one could just make out the darker shadows of ships at anchor not far from the shore. Nosing into the beach were landing barges, with the Navy directing the loading and crowds of men quietly waiting in lines to embark. There seemed to be very little confusion, apart from a small mob of civilians and Greek soldiers who were attempting to clamber into the barges and appeared to be in rather hysterical mood; however, the Navy dealt with them without much trouble.
‘Having assisted some of the wounded to the beach, we returned to the top of the zigzag to help others before finally being ordered aboard ourselves. At one stage a plane dropped some flares just up the coast and it seemed certain we would be seen, but he flew on without interrupting the embarkation.’