A New Zealand Medical Officer in the Battle for Crete
Dr Ross Blair EB, MD, ChB, FRACS, FACS
This is a description of the Battle of Crete 26th April – 31st May 1941 in the words of
Captain A.L Lomas, M.C., N.Z.M.C.
R.M.O. N.Z. A.S.C.
R.M.O. 10 (NZ) Bde.
I was most grateful that Alan Lomas a colleague and neighbour passed on to me his paper which he presented to the New Zealand Crete Association in the 1980’s. I was pleased to be able to bring this personal account of the Battle of Crete to the Greek/Australian Medico-Legal Conference in Crete, 8th May 2007 in his memory.
The First Day of the Battle - 20th May 1941
“This clear, fine day began with the usual crumps of bombs at Maleme but instead of stopping at breakfast time, more and more waves of bombers began arriving, this time accompanied by Messerschmitt fighters and Stukas which methodically bombed and strafed not only the area round the aerodrome but the whole countryside between Maleme and Canea.
The noise of the screaming plane engines, the sirens on the Stukas, exploding bombs, cannon and machine gun fire from the Luftwaffe was not going to be forgotten by our troops for many months. Nothing or nobody was safe from this attack and we learnt later in the day that the 7th General Hospital, well marked with Red Crosses, had received direct hits with patients killed, tents burnt and the store tents destroyed.
As the strafing continued, but at a reduced tempo, large gliders uncoupled from their towing planes appeared silently and settled on the far side of the prison valley quickly disgorging their troops and heavy weapons.
We did not see the main glider force of at least 50 land in a dry river valley near Maleme aerodrome.
The gliders were followed almost immediately by the arrival of groups of big Junker 52 transports spilling out masses of white and multicoloured parachutes bringing to earth assault troops and canisters of heavy equipment.
Crackling of rifle and bren gun fire broke out from both the invaders in the air and from our troops among the olive trees.
Those paratroopers unfortunate to land near our ground forces were quietly dispatched but those landing out of range in the prison valley had no trouble regrouping and taking possession of the heavier armament – mortars – machine guns, ammunitions, etc from the canisters”.
The Australians and New Zealanders were evacuated from the beaches of Greece on Anzac Day. Alan was on the “Calcutta” which was attacked by Stuka bombers as they made their way to Crete. Alan Lomas was the RMO of the New Zealand Army Service Corp and this element was incorporated into the 10th New Zealand Brigade in Crete and he became the RMO of that Brigade.
“We breathed more freely on entering Suda Bay. The 8 inch cruiser “York” in the middle of the harbour was a reassuring site until we sadly learnt that it had been the victim of E Boats one month earlier. Even though immobilised, its guns continued to defend Suda until it was finally sunk two days after the invasion began.
Once ashore, columns of relieved soldiers straggled along the dusty lanes fringed by white washed cottages, exchanging greetings with the villagers who seemed happy enough but also maybe a little apprehensive of what might result from this influx of foreigners.
Gnarled olive trees, rolling country, vineyards and cultivated areas with a back drop of the snow capped “White Mountains” were to be our companions for the next five weeks. Oranges were in abundance and I remember in the beginning greedily eating at least five or six at once, so delicious they were and so essential to our Vitamin C depleted bodies – the hard rations in Greece falling far short of being a balanced diet.
We could not fail to notice the unusual attention the German reconnaissance planes paid to the wide prison valley, a level area with plenty of good cover, dominated by the fortress like prison which would be an impregnable strong hold for air borne enemy forces.
Major Sean McDonagh, O.C. Petrol Coy, was also disturbed by the fact that the Chief Warden of the prison was fluent in several languages including German and we were convinced that landings in force would occur in the valley with the prison as an essential strong point.
These forebodings proved accurate and within a short time of the airborne landings, the prison was in enemy hands and the attacks were directed against the positions held by the 10th Bde in an endeavour to reach the costal road connecting Canea-Suda Bay to Maleme.
Another landing on the costal side of our position involved the capture of the 7th Gen. Hospital and the 6th Fd. Ambulance. The most disquietening feature was shooting of the CO of the Fb Amb., Lt Col. John Plimmer as he was getting out of a slit trench with his arms above his head. The personnel of the ambulance were taken prisoner and were being marched towards Galatos when they were recaptured later in the day by a patrol from the 19th Bn, thus enabling them to re-establish a dressing station near their original site, to receive our casualties”.
My Regimental Aid Post was situated in a hollow between Ruin Hill and Red Hill next to composite Bn HQ and later the 10th Bde H.Q. I had been able to get adequate supplies from 7th Gen Hospital before the invasion but our casualties were heavy, sometimes over 100 a day, so it was fortunate that when the hospital withdrew to the caves, a much needed extra supply of stretchers and blankets became available from the abandoned tented hospital.
A few German snipers were hidden in our area and, until they were located two or three days later, would fire on the trucks taking the wounded out. We could hear the drivers dashing across the danger spots to the accompaniment of the chattering of the machine gun and we were always relieved to see them return unscathed and undeterred.
In Crete, while commanding the 10th Bde, he was always very calm and assured and even when his opinions were over-ruled by the N.Z. Div H.Q., he accepted the decisions and tried to do his best under unfavourable circumstances – he was a man in whom one had great confidence.
The End of Galatos – 25th May
By this time, we still had about 90 wounded at the R.A.P., when Kipp appeared and said he would give us 10 minutes to get them out. Every fit man I could see was pressed into service with the stretcher cases and the walking wounded disappeared as if by magic seconds before the German soldiers came through the trees. To my amazement and relief they ignored us and turned to the right up a track leading to the village obviously following specific orders to get straight into Galatos. Brig. Inglis had by now sent reinforcements and as were getting the wounded down the hill we saw coming up the hill two old mark IV tanks of the 3rd Hussards commanded by Roy Farran.
Withdrawal from Suda Bay – 26th/27th May
As we neared Suda Bay, Jack Prichard my medical orderly and I came across groups of men from the composite Bn. We stayed together until we were about 100 strong when we met up with the 18th Bn. Lt. Col. John Gray took them on his strength and Prichard and I, both exhaustingly tired soon dropped off to sleep.
I was sure I was dreaming when I heard someone ordering all ranks to get up and get moving, but these exhortations, I blissfully ignored and we slept till the sun was well up, refreshed by the first good nights sleep since the battle began.
But there was an unusual and sinister silence and when we took stock of the situation we found we were the only two souls in a deserted camp area with tins of all sorts of provisions scattered everywhere.
A lovely clear sunny morning, but dark clouds metaphorically gathered when we looked back towards Suda and saw advance parties of German troops advancing.
Grabbing a couple of tins of peaches we hurried off only to be stopped in our tracks a little further on, when we found we had attracted the attention of three Messerschmitt 110 fighter planes.
We survived their strafing and made off at speed until we came to the cross roads where we turned right along the road over the mountain range to Sphakia.
Evacuation of Crete
Col Bull A.D.M.S. of N.Z. Div. deputed me to set up a concentration area for walking wounded. This post was situated about 5 miles from the beach, 1 mile south of Imvros. We had collected about 500 men by the 29th of May when orders were received to move them at 1900 hours to the beach.
The state of many of these wounded men was such that they would not make it, if they left at this later hour, so disregarding the dangers of air attack we got the column going by about 1430 hours, down the rocky, twisting road and barely made it to the embarkation point sometime after midnight. It was good to see the last of them aboard the landing craft. Altogether about 6000 soldiers left that night on the convoy consisting of the troop carrier Glengyle, and the naval vessels, Phoebe, Perth, Calcutta, Coventry, Jervis, Janus and Hasty.
I was embarked on the cruiser H.M.A.S. Perth whose officers courteously gave us supper in the ward room and surrendered their bunks to us for the night and the next day.
At about 0930 hours a bomb released not from a Stuka Dive bomber, but from a high flying plane fortuitously struck the ship putting the foremost boiler room out of action and killing 14 men.
However so loud was the racket from the ship’s guns that most of us were unaware that we had been struck. At a moving ceremony later on in the day the dead were committed to the deep and we went sadly on our way, safely disembarking at Alexandra at night”
Alan was able to cable his family in New Zealand that he was safe in Alexandra and wrote to them 8.6.41.
“I was the RMO of the Composite Battalion of ASC and Artillery. These lads fought terrifically for six days and hardly had any sleep and were terribly cut about. The battle was fought all around us at headquarters, as the Germans landed by parachute all over the place.
We did the cabarets that night and just as we were going to have a night cap in the Cecil bar, at about 1 o’clock we met some of the ‘Perth’ Officers again. We told them what we thought of them and had some drinks until we just had to stagger to bed through sheer exhaustion. The navy are the most wonderful lads”.
Alan continued through Egypt and into Italy being awarded the Military Cross. After the war he returned to New Zealand and spent some time as a House Surgeon before travelling to England to undertake a surgical training. He returned to New Zealand and was appointed a General Surgeon at Waikato Hospital in Hamilton where he soon recognised the need for radiotherapy for cancer treatment and returned to England to train as a Radiotherapist.
He established the Oncology Department at Waikato Hospital in Hamilton. He died in Hamilton aged 68 years from carcinoma of the colon.
Copyright 2007. Greek/Australian International Legal and Medical Conference.
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