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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Release of 6 Field Ambulance

Release of 6 Field Ambulance

Guards and prisoners straggled across country towards Galatas and later in the afternoon were again picked up by a 19 Battalion patrol, when near the top of a terraced hillside. Taking cover behind a low stone wall, the paratroopers, numbering about a dozen at this stage, went into action, while the patients and men of the medical units huddled on the terrace in front of them, between the opposing forces. Rifle and Bren bullets were flying directly overhead in continuous fire, uncomfortably close; too close, for a burst of Bren-gun fire which fell short into the middle of the party had fatal results. Two were killed, and the dozen or more wounded were treated with some difficulty on the spot. After an hour and a half of action the Germans were encircled, killed, or captured and the party was released.

In 19 Battalion's lines, and later behind positions held by 20 Battalion near Canea, which some eventually reached late in the night, they were given much-needed food and some water. Next day the men of 6 Field Ambulance straggled back and rejoined Capt Lovell's small party, and the men and patients from 7 General Hospital moved to where the hospital was functioning in caves on the sea coast.

After leaving the others, Capt Lovell with his party had repaired to one of the hospital tents at 7 General Hospital. Shortly afterwards men of 18 Battalion recaptured the area and provided them with an escort for their safe conduct to HQ 4 Brigade. It was, of course, vitally necessary to establish a dressing station immediately, and one was set up near the coast in a culvert which cut across the Canea-Maleme road, some two miles or so east of the previous MDS position. If they were to render any medical services to the many who would now require them, it was necessary that equipment should be obtained. With an armed escort supplied by 18 Battalion, Lt Ballantyne and two men returned to the old site and salvaged as much of the medical supplies as possible, and the new dressing station was prepared to receive and treat patients. Maj Fisher was appointed to command the unit.

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At 7 General Hospital, those who had remained continued work and the theatre was in use through the night. It was then decided to carry the remaining patients to some fishermen's caves, which provided shelter from attack but little in the way of facilities. Here the hospital carried on for some time. At nights the staff returned to the tented theatre to work, until it was eventually bombed and rendered useless.

Of the next two days Cpl Curtis of 6 Field Ambulance wrote:

‘With the coming of dawn on 21 May, we found we were on the seaward side of the coast road about half a mile from the beach. Through the centre of the area, which could almost be termed a valley because of the low hills on either side which swept down to the beach, ran a deep, zigzag watercourse, dry and fairly wide. This passed under the road in a large concrete culvert, and over the greater part of the grass-covered area were the inevitable olive trees in their orderly rows. Towards the sea, at the edge of the olive grove, stood a small, two-roomed cottage, and about fifty yards nearer Maleme was a larger one on the hillside; both were occupied by Cretan civilians.

‘Naturally, after our experience of the previous day, it was suspected that the Red Cross was fair game, so no effort was made to advertise our existence. The culvert was “transformed” into an operating theatre, the watercourse into a ward, using scraps of salvaged canvas for cover, camouflaged with leaves and soil.

‘A camp stretcher, placed in the centre of the culvert, formed the table with just space enough on either side for the surgeons; head room was almost nil. A small fish kettle on a primus stove and an enamel plate formed the sterilising unit, and was adequate for the few instruments salvaged from the 7 General Hospital that we possessed. Anæsthetics consisted of a small stock of pentothal sodium and some Greek brandy and whisky kindly given us by 18 Battalion across the road. Blood was, of course, not available in bottles. Incredible as it may seem, successful operations of a major type were performed and the patients transported in a 15-cwt. truck to the Naval hospital on the other side of Canea. Rations were collected on the return trip. These consisted mainly of bully and biscuits, which our cooks turned into some excellent stews, and tea—water being obtained from a nearby well.

‘During the day other members of the unit turned up and a salvage party was despatched to our former area. Wounded arrived in small groups, but from this point of view things were quiet. Captured medical supplies were gratefully received, and with the help of some prisoners the labels were translated. The truth of this was rapidly tested by our offering to use them as page 127 guinea-pigs! A dump of blankets and stretchers also made its appearance and gradually the ghost of a field ambulance was created from literally nothing.

‘However, as the day wore on our position slowly deteriorated. Trucks and a few Bren carriers passing over the culvert showered the patients with dust and grit. Their presence was too much for the attentive Jerry pilots who bombed and shot-up the road all day long. This also put an end to our ambulance ferry during the daylight hours. There was hardly a minute free from the shattering roar of their motors, the horrible bursts of machine-gun fire which brought blue smoke pouring from their noses like great dragons, and the swaying of the olives from the slipstream as they flew in from the sea, sweeping up our valley so low that one ducked instinctively to avoid collision. Strangely enough our activities seemed to pass unnoticed, as we were not attacked once on that first day in the culvert.

‘The climax came on the next afternoon when a carrier, loaded with ammunition, was hit and caught fire a few yards along the road from our “theatre”. We were forced to lie low while hot lead popped around all over the place. At the conclusion of this concert the Cretans in the two-roomed cottage obligingly agreed to leave for the hills in the interior, so we occupied one room as an operating theatre and the other as a post-operative ward. With the aid of some salvaged canvas the blackout regulations were observed, and operating continued by the light of a candle and a hurricane lamp.’

About the middle of the next day the area around the culvert was attacked from the air and a bomb which landed near the watercourse killed two members of the unit. After this it was decided to display Red Crosses, some of which were made from sheeting and red blankets. Two were spread on the ground and one on the roof of the cottage. The larger cottage was also taken over to accommodate patients and was similarly marked. No further air attacks were made on the MDS.

Men of the unit, besides operating the MDS and providing some assistance for the hard-pressed 7 General Hospital, were also called upon as stretcher-bearers. A party of about twenty went out to collect wounded in advance of the battalion RAPs, and although at first they were armed with rifles, they did not use them and soon replaced rifle with Red Cross armband. For some days they remained at work with the battalions.