New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy
The RMOs of 5 Brigade—Treatment and Evacuation of Wounded
The RMOs of 5 Brigade—Treatment and Evacuation of Wounded
Prior to the invasion the regimental medical officers set up their RAPs in the most convenient positions in their battalion areas. For instance, 23 Battalion RAP was sited in a dry watercourse under olive trees close to Headquarters 23 Battalion, on a side road branching off the main Canea–Maleme road about half a mile east of Maleme village. The stretcher-bearer section constructed some dugouts in the banks of this watercourse and dug a ledge in the dry bank to serve as a table for dressing patients. Until 20 May patients from the RAPs of 5 Brigade were evacuated by ambulances borrowed from the RAF at Maleme.
Few stretchers were available to the RAPs and medical equipment was very limited. It was impossible to bring any large medical panniers from Greece, although most RMOs had anticipated this and divided their kits into small first-aid outfits. The 23 Battalion RAP staff arrived in Crete with eight haversacks of shell dressings, gauze, and wool. The RMO had a small case of surgical instruments and two hypodermic syringes and needles. He found it difficult to get supplies from 7 British General Hospital. Later, two stretchers and two rubber-capped 10 cc. bottles of morphine solution, some dressings, iodine, and acriflavine were received from 5 Field Ambulance. In some cases, especially in 5 Brigade area, it page 171 was possible after the German attack to replenish supplies from medical equipment dropped with, or for, the German parachutists. Splints had to be improvised for the wounded and many men were transported in blankets used as stretchers. Little transport of any. sort was available.
From the beginning of the invasion the RMOs of 5 Brigade near Maleme had very few of the wounded cleared from their RAPs in the hectic and confused three days before the area was overrun by the enemy. Captain Hetherington, RMO 21 Battalion, who received about sixty casualties into his RAP (including Germans, but not including dead or those who died shortly after admission) was not contacted at all by the field ambulance, and could evacuate no casualties. He was painfully short of medical supplies and depended almost entirely on German equipment dropped by parachute. When 21 Battalion retired about 7 a.m. on 23 May some walking wounded went off, but the RMO and the medical orderlies remained with the more seriously wounded.
A stretcher-bearer party from 5 Field Ambulance under Lieutenant Moody was sent forward with a company of 28 (Maori) Battalion to 22 Battalion on the night of 20–21 May.
In Moody's words:
We left the MDS at Modhion about 8 p.m. and joined up with Captain Rangi Royal's1 company of the Maori Battalion. I was told to do this because this company was going forward as reinforcement to 22 Bn and it gave protection to my small medical party as isolated machine-gun posts and snipers were still active on the main east-west coast road. It was fortunate indeed that we had this protection as the Company successfully engaged and overwhelmed two German machine-gun posts on the north and south sides of the road. About 9 p.m. we arrived at 23 Bn HQ where we found an air of excitement and confusion; this was quite understandable as the military situation was very obscure. A runner from 23 Bn who was reputed to know this countryside well was told to take us forward and to link up with 22 Bn. On several occasions I told Capt Royal that the guide had lost us, but the guide persistently maintained that he knew his bearings. (I had made long treks through this part of the island as Bearer Officer of B Company in connection with 5 Field Ambulance's plans for collection of casualties.) About midnight we came out on to the main road and proceeded through the village of Maleme, but the guide asserted that it was not that village. We continued on our way walking westwards. The next thing we heard was a voice speaking in English and saying “Come on Tommy it is alright”. Then some hand grenades exploded. We had walked into a machine-gun post guarding the eastern end of Maleme aerodrome itself. With this rude awakening we dived flat on the ground, waited for the burst of machine-gun fire which fortunately never came, and then collected ourselves in a culvert to take stock of the situation. Captain Royal's orders were that he was to keep clear of thepage 172 aerodrome as the German strength there was unknown. For this reason we decided to retrace our steps to HQ 23 Bn. (Little did we then realise that this incident may possibly have contained the seeds of victory in the battle of Crete. We were subsequently to learn, when we were prisoners of war, that a mere handful of the Wehrmacht hung on to the vital airfield of Maleme that first night.)
1 Maj R. Royal, MC and bar; Wellington; born Levin, 23 Aug 1897; civil servant; served in Maori Pioneer Bn in First World War; 28 (Maori) Bn 1940–41; 2 i/c 2 Maori Bn in (NZ) 1942–43; CO 2 Maori Bn May–Jun 1943; wounded 14 Dec 1941.
We arrived back at HQ 23 Bn about 5 a.m.… Capt. R. S. Stewart,1 the RMO, was doing a tremendous job on his own … I remained with him on Wednesday 21st and Thursday 22nd. During these two days my men gave splendid service.… They were constantly exposed to ground fire, as well as machine gunning and bombing from the air, and they never once flinched or failed in collecting casualties from the battlefield.
Captain Longmore,2 RMO 22 Battalion, in his situation close to Maleme airfield had a desperate two days prior to his capture on 21 May, when he was endeavouring to make his way with stretcher wounded from his RAP at the airfield to 23 Battalion's area.
He had attended to numerous casualties, both at his tactical RAP and farther forward in the Fleet Air Arm encampment, when he received orders in the late afternoon of 20 May to move back, taking the wounded with him. Returning to his RAP he set out, guided by the Intelligence Officer, with 160 stretcher cases and walking wounded. Some of the wounded were carried on boards. After travelling up hill and down dale for about half a mile the party stopped to await further orders. By daylight no orders had been received; the Intelligence Officer had already left to bring help. He reached 21 Battalion's lines but decided that it would not be possible to bring the large party of wounded out over a ridge that was exposed to some enemy fire. In a clearing the RMO and the wounded waited. The German wounded in the party made a white circle from RAP gear and all the crowd sat inside it, being unmolested by the enemy planes that were active all around. Attempts to contact 22 Battalion or the RAP of 23 Battalion failed. At 5 p.m. on 21 May the group was surrounded and captured and taken back to a dressing station set up in Tavronitis village, where Flying Officer Cullen, an RAF medical officer, was already at work.
2 Maj L. H. V. Longmore; Christchurch; born NZ 18 Nov 1909; medical practitioner; RMO 22 Bn Dec 1940–May 1941; p.w. 21 May 1941; repatriated Nov 1943; medical officer 1 Gen Hosp Apr–Oct 1944; Prisoner-of-War Reception Group (UK) Oct 1944–Dec 1945.
That day sixty walking wounded were evacuated under the care of the personnel from 5 Field Ambulance. Unfortunately, some of the walking wounded found the rough, steep track leading parallel to the main road over the hilly country to 5 MDS too much for them. These returned to 23 Battalion RAP in a desperate plight on 23 May after the RAP had been captured.
Early on the morning of the 23rd 5 Brigade and 20 Battalion withdrew to a position east of the Platanias River, the rearguard retiring at 7 a.m. Lieutenant Moody withdrew with 23 Battalion. There then remained at 23 Battalion RAP some sixty serious stretcher cases from 20, 22, 23, and 28 (Maori) Battalions and twenty Germans. With these stayed Captain Stewart, the padre, R. J. Griffiths,3 their two orderlies, and Corporal Collie4 from 20 Battalion.
They had the unenviable task of informing the wounded, particularly personnel of the Maori Battalion, that no evacuation was possible and capture inevitable. Arms and ammunition left in the RAP area were destroyed or hidden and on the earnest entreaty of the German wounded, who realised the situation only too well, a large captured German Red Cross flag was erected. German patrols entered the RAP area at approximately 8.30 a.m. on 23 May without incident, except that steel helmets had hastily to be removed by the New Zealanders.
Longmore, Stewart, and Hetherington worked together in a dressing station in a stable attached to an inn in the Tavronitis valley, and they put through 500 to 700 cases with only seven deaths. The German field ambulances had ample and excellent equipment, including a water sterilising plant, and what they could spare they gave to the captured MDS. It was noted that our wounded suffered in the main multiple wounds inflicted by submachine gun, grenade, and mortar.