New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy
Action at Platamon Tunnel and Pinios Gorge
Action at Platamon Tunnel and Pinios Gorge
Covering the withdrawal of the rest of the Anzac Corps from Servia and Olympus, 6 Infantry Brigade established itself just to the south of Elasson. Attached to the brigade, 6 Field Ambulance on 16 April set up an MDS near Tirnavos and one ADS in each of the two valleys between Tirnavos and Elasson. Anti-aircraft batteries had sited their gun positions around the MDS area and they attracted enemy aircraft attacks, which compelled 6 Field Ambulance to move about 1 mile away, to the north of the Tirnavos-Larisa road.
That day the enemy's furious assaults on the tiny force between Olympus and the sea reached a climax. A heavy tank and infantry attack drove 21 Battalion back to the historic Vale of Tempe, in the narrow Pinios Gorge, 10 miles to the rear. Two battalions of 16 Australian Brigade were rushed up from Larisa in support of 21 Battalion, and this enabled the right flank to be held long enough to allow the withdrawal of the Corps through the bottleneck of Larisa.
When Colonel Kenrick received word that 21 Battalion had been thrown back with heavy casualties he arranged for four ambulance cars to proceed immediately to Pinios Gorge, and for medical officers and orderlies to be sent from 6 Field Ambulance at dawn to the western end of the gorge to treat and bring back the casualties. The page 123 medical officers available to the force were the RMOs of 21 Battalion, 4 Field Regiment, and 2/2 Australian Battalion. The German attack began at dawn on 18 April and a rapid enemy advance disorganised 21 Battalion and the Australians, the RMO of 2/2 Australian Battalion being killed.
At the Platamon tunnel and Pinios Gorge, Captain Hetherington1 spent a hazardous time with the 21 Battalion RAP. When the battalion retreated, Hetherington was ordered to set up his RAP at Platamon station, about 2 miles south of the holding position, to service the rearguard, while the wounded were taken back by the main body of the unit. The station was shelled and the RAP moved back 400 yards to shelter under a small railway bridge. There was further shelling and, leaving behind all but the most urgently needed medical supplies, the RAP staff was forced to move farther south along with the rearguard. Eventually, after travelling about 10 miles, the survivors of the unit crossed the Pinios River in a barge to get to Tempe village, where the RAP was set up in a stone house. Here, anyone moving along the road was later subjected to machine-gun fire from the opposite village. The detachment of 6 Field Ambulance made contact with the RAP here and arranged to evacuate the wounded the following morning. When the main attack came at 11 a.m. next day the RAP moved back 1 ½ miles to a valley, where a company of 2/1 Australian Field Ambulance set up an ADS, Australians having reinforced the position.
About 2 p.m. word was received of the order to retreat. The RAP moved back under machine-gun fire from German patrols, while farther back the German main body waded across the river. Dive-bombers forced Hetherington and his staff to keep off the road as they moved towards Larisa. About 2 miles from Larisa the troops were picked up in British trucks, but Hetherington and his party were taken many miles across fields and along roads in their truck, only to find an hour before dawn that they were back near their starting point. They then made good their escape from the Germans on foot after running the truck over a precipice.
3 Maj J. M. Staveley, MC; Auckland; born Hokitika, 30 Aug 1914; medical officer, Auckland Hospital; medical officer 6 Fd Amb Mar 1940–Jan 1942; Malariologist NZ Div, Apr–Jun 1942; OC 2 Field Transfusion Unit Aug 1943–Apr 1944; Pathologist 2 Gen Hosp Apr–Nov 1944; wounded three times.
Until 18 April the dressing stations of 6 Field Ambulance attended to men wounded in the enemy's incessant strafing of the roads. Extra ambulance cars from the Australian MAC joined the unit and a large marquee was erected to cope with casualties. By noon on 18 April the 6 Infantry Brigade rearguard was engaged with German tanks advancing towards Elasson. With the withdrawal route so seriously threatened by the thrust through the Pinios Gorge, orders were given soon after midday for the brigade to withdraw through Larisa by midnight. It was decided that 6 MDS under Major Plimmer would fall back and that A Company (Lieutenant Ballantyne)1 should take over and remain open in the MDS area. Lieutenant-Colonel Bull and Major Christie remained also to help with the wounded. As the convoys crawled south along the congested highway in the afternoon they were constantly harassed from the air, yet there were remarkably few casualties. The engineers were constantly at work filling in bomb craters and clearing away debris to keep the main highway open. Larisa was a burning, deserted ruin and other towns were also badly damaged by bombing. Early on 19 April 6 Field Ambulance reached Molos, south of the Thermopylae line. Back at Tirnavos the ADS continued working until the early hours of 19 April, and then, shadowed by the enemy, moved to the south of Volos. Wounded were picked up from the infantry battalions, given treatment and, as the withdrawal continued, carried back on trucks and ambulances. The party next day passed through bombed Stilis and Lamia and over the Thermopylae Pass to join up with the unit again in the Molos area.
In the long retreat of 100 miles across Thessaly, through Larisa and Pharsala to Thermopylae, the Luftwaffe failed in its attempt to halt the withdrawal. The Anzac force remained comparatively intact. All medical units performed their tasks admirably and the wounded were always well cared for.