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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

The Leaving Behind of Medical Personnel

The Leaving Behind of Medical Personnel

In Crete this problem again arose and on a much more serious scale than in Greece. Altogether, there were eight medical officers and 176 other ranks of the NZMC left behind as prisoners in Crete. Four of the medical officers were attached as battalion medical officers and elected to stay behind in their RAPs with the wounded under their care. One of these officers, Captain Stewart, later said: “Unfortunately on 23 May Hetherington and I, under the stress of events, both decided to remain, not realising until we met later in the day that we were only half a mile apart, and as we had information that Longmore was a prisoner of war, probably page 207 unwounded, one of us would have sufficed. Of course, too, our judgement was biased by the belief that exchange of protected personnel would eventuate early allowing us to rejoin our own side”. (This belief was based on the Geneva Convention.) Three medical officers attached to field ambulance dressing stations also chose to remain with seriously wounded men. The ADMS NZ Division was also captured, having delayed his departure to set up a dressing station for walking wounded; he could not be contacted before the engineers blocked the road.

It was not until the later stages of the battle that it was known at Creforce Headquarters that so many medical personnel were remaining with the wounded. An order was then issued by the DDMS Creforce that no more medical officers or other ranks were to remain behind unless detailed by their commanding officer to do so; but it is very doubtful if this order reached more than a limited number of those for whom it was intended. Medical officers, padres, and men unselfishly sacrificed their liberty in their anxiety for the welfare of their patients.

In the hurried retreat to the southern coast close contact between medical units and with headquarters was difficult, and danger arose of two medical units both leaving personnel in the same area. This happened when, at 5 Field Ambulance MDS, two medical officers on their own initiative remained behind, and the nearby 7 General Hospital also left behind medical officers and personnel – a needless duplication. The medical officers generally acted without orders from higher authority, as they felt their individual responsibility keenly, and no definite ruling was available. Circumstances were such that instant decisions had to be made.

These officers showed a noble spirit of self sacrifice and are to be commended for their altruistic zeal, but the policy determining their actions should be clearly laid down by higher authority to prevent unnecessary loss of valuable personnel. Such was the lesson that was learned in the campaigns in Greece and Crete. The British and Australian Medical Corps suffered in the same way, and their officers made the personal sacrifice in a similar unselfish manner.

As regards the other ranks of the NZMC, a large number likewise remained behind with the medical officers to tend the wounded, but many were unable to be evacuated, either because of their loss of contact during the retreat, or, at the end, because it was impossible to evacuate the whole force. Priority had been given to combatant troops, a decision which could not be questioned. It is open to question, however, whether a complement of medical personnel should not always accompany the combatant troops to which they are normally attached as they provide a highly specialised service essential to the well-being of the troops.

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