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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

5 Field Ambulance re-located at Modhion

5 Field Ambulance re-located at Modhion

With the dispositions of New Zealand units provisionally settled, 5 Field Ambulance was situated near the threatened coast at Ay Marina, between 4 Brigade around Canea in the east and 5 Brigade in the Platanias-Maleme area to the west.

At Ay Marina, in the coastal foothills of the western end of the plain of Canea, 5 Field Ambulance established its dressing station in a stream bed which was already dry, although it must have carried a considerable torrent of water in the winter. The operative section of the unit occupied the stream bed with A and B Companies settling on its slopes, some of which were steep and rocky. Early admissions before hostilities were treated in well-sited tents.

As the field medical unit attached to 5 Brigade, it was responsible for the collection of casualties in and around its sector, namely the Maleme airfield and the surrounding country. It was obvious from the outset that the main west-east road from Maleme through page 162 Platanias to Canea would be expected to carry most, if not all, of the military traffic. The back roads were few and very poor. It was also obvious that this road would be very effectively patrolled by the Luftwaffe, certainly by day, so that movement of most vehicle traffic would be impossible. (This proved to be so.) In addition, ambulance cars and other transport with which casualties could be evacuated were very limited. For these reasons Lieutenant-Colonel Twhigg decided that alternative methods of evacuation would have page 163 to be seriously considered and that a thorough reconnaissance of the back country should be made. The country covered was from Ay Marina inland across to Modhion, and thence over hill and dale to the areas around Maleme airfield which had been allotted to 21, 22, and 23 Battalions.

map showing evacuation of army medical units from Greece

Medical Units and Lines of Evacuation, Crete, May 1941

Lieutenant-Colonel Bull visited the ambulance on 16 May and recommended a change of location of the MDS, as the site at Ay Marina was likely to prove untenable if active operations developed in that area. It was suggested that the valley of the Platanias River, about one mile west of Headquarters 5 Brigade, would be suitable. The CO 5 Field Ambulance made a reconnaissance of this area but found that it also might prove unsatisfactory, as the flat country was suitable for the landing of parachute troops. This appreciation of the problem was reported back to Headquarters 5 Brigade, where it was also learned that the intelligence services had advised that enemy landings by airborne troops might be expected at any time, probably on 19 May.

On 17 May, at a conference at Headquarters 5 Brigade, it was agreed that the location of the MDS at Ay Marina was too insecure and insufficiently protected by the troops deployed in the defensive positions, and that CO 5 Field Ambulance should reconnoitre a site in the region of the village of Modhion, where 5 Brigade units would be between the MDS and the coast. As a pillion-rider on a motor cycle, Lieutenant-Colonel Twhigg surveyed the area and chose a site on the outskirts of Modhion, near the road running south from the main Canea-Maleme road. The distance in a straight line from Maleme airfield was about two and a half miles, and on the forward slopes of undulating hills troops of 7 Field Company, 19 Army Troops Company, and 28 (Maori) Battalion were dug in, a section of the Maoris also being to the rear of the location. To the south was a very old olive grove, with hollow trees and recumbent lower branches which afforded excellent and shaded shelter for staff not immediately required in the work of the dressing station.

A two-storied house, the police station, was taken over to accommodate the receiving and dressing sections and the more serious cases; further accommodation was made available in the basements of nearby houses and in tents. The unit moved in on the afternoon of 17 May after a march from Ay Marina. The unit's transport then consisted of one 15-cwt truck only, but vehicles of an ASC unit were also used to convey what equipment the unit had gathered together.

In the main the medical equipment was that carried out of Greece and consisted of some fifteen surgical haversacks and three page 164 medical companions, supplemented by sets of surgical instruments salvaged by various medical officers, and compressed dressings carried by all ranks. Some supplies of dressings had been obtained on the island, but these were very limited, and an allotment of Red Cross stores, mainly bandages and dressings, had arrived just a few days previously. Only twenty stretchers had been retained along with a proportionate quota of blankets, but these had been supplemented by some 50 stretchers and 100 blankets from 7 General Hospital, which also supplied bandages and dressings and an invaluable drum of plaster-of-paris. Upon the establishment of 5 MDS in the house at Modhion, this equipment enabled the medical officers to do major surgery.

The operating theatre at Modhion was a room of the house, the table a door on trestles and boxes. There was only one bowl, the other utensils being cut-down petrol and ration cans. There were two primus stoves on which instruments were sterilised. Water was boiled for the most part on open fires. The instruments carried from Greece were sufficient, but anaesthetics were short. Intravenous anaesthetics (including pentothal) were mainly used. The kits dropped by the enemy from the air contained some anaesthetics, mainly pentothal. These kits also contained some intravenous glucose saline, which was the only supply for transfusions and was very inadequate. There were no splints, so all fractures were immobilised in plaster, of which there were ample stocks. There were no rubber gloves, and records were made on latrine paper in single sheets.

At Modhion many of the villagers were organised by a young Cretan woman, Frosso Parasoulioti, into a hard-working team to make dressings such as many-tailed bandages and Red Cross signs for 5 Field Ambulance. Throughout the first two days of parachute landings and low-level air attacks they continued to make dressings and other essential comforts. The villagers also brought supplies of citrus fruit, sultanas, wine, and oil.

Sixth Field Ambulance continued to function as an MDS in tents in its original location below Galatas, to render assistance to 7 General Hospital by supplying staff, and also acted as a convalescent depot. Sharply conscious of their experiences in Greece, the staff dug slit trenches, which were made more comfortable and sheltered by the use of straw, branches, and other miscellaneous material.