The Doctor dressed my wound by cutting a large hole in my uniform coat and shirt, placing a dressing over the wound and bandaging it around my chest outside my clothes. As to the idea of me returning to the front line, he said it was out of the question. Within half an hour, because of the position of the wound, I would not be able to move that arm at all. He was so right. From then until I reached hospital in Alexandria, I kept that arm in a sling made from a piece of rope I picked up along the way. My shoulder was both stiff and painful.
It was while going back to the First Aid Post I realised that we had no reserve troops to fall back on had the enemy pushed us back or broken through our lines in any place. I had expected to pass through our reserve lines but there was no one there. Just our front line position and then nothing. It was frightening to contemplate. All the rest of our forces were evidently miles away, heading south. It was like the Thin Red Line from British history.
It was the Doctor who told me the show was over and our forces were already in the process of evacuating all troops from Crete. The process had already been on for a few days unknown to us troops who were doing the actual fighting. The Doctor also said that we wounded must make our own way to the south coast where it was hoped that ships would be waiting to take us off. We hoped so too.
It had been planned to take off our wounded by hospital ship from the point off Suda Bay but as it approached on the previous evening it was bombed and forced to sail to safety. The Germans evidently mistrusted its purpose. It was now the evening of the 27th May 1941, exactly one month since the sinking of the Costa Rica. My being wounded occurred at almost the same time of day as the striking of the bombs on the ship.
Once I had the definite news that I was not to go back to the line I was, for a while, confused. I sat on the hillside to ponder the situation. Now that I had relaxed a little, shock had set in and I felt quite dizzy as I tried to gather my thoughts together. I felt reluctant to leave the area and strike out on my own. So much had changed in the strike of that piece of shrapnel. A short time ago I was a soldier, armed and ready for anything and confident in the ability of our troops to face the enemy and throw him back. Now I was unattached, unarmed and being advised to look after myself only, to ignore my friends who were still back there with their numbers decreasing all the while. It took some adjusting to. It went against all training and natural Australian inclination. I hated the thought of walking out on my mates after being with them through so much. Without realising it, we depended on our fellow soldiers so much and had become used to doing this over a long period in many different ways. They needed me now more than ever. guess I needed them too.
At the time of my being wounded, our lines still reached from the hills to Suda Bay. They had held firm all day in spite of air attacks in some areas, mortars and enemy fire and pressure in most places. The enemy in the hills continued to advance eastward, threatening to outflank our positions. Suddenly it was not my affair. I was out of it and must make for the safety of the south coast as fast as possible. We were told that as time passed there would be a rush to get to the embarkation point. Those who failed to make it in time would be left behind obviously to become prisoners of war. That is if we survived the fighting that was inevitable as the opposing forces drew nearer to the evacuation point.
We did not, at this point, know the name of the embarkation point, merely head out of town along the road running around the southern shore of Suda Bay. When we reached the end of the bay, a road running south into the hills would take us to our destination. There would hopefully be someone along the way to direct us. Further on we would find a Field Hospital, report there and they would guide us to safety.
As it happened we had no trouble finding the way. We just followed the line of men and hoped that someone had pointed them in the right direction. Four of us from our platoon who had all been hit by the same burst of mortar bombs set off together, Jack Stephens from Warragul, Barney Keennan, Jack O'Leary and myself, fortunately all walking wounded. Jack O'Leary was the only one in doubt as to his ability to survive the distance. His wound was on the inside of his shoulder and it hurt him to walk and breathe. He was by far the oldest one of the four. Barney was best off with a hand wound in which he had a finger blown off. He had his rifle up firing when the piece of shrapnel struck.
We set forth at a smart pace but just clear of the town met a Military Policeman on guard to prevent anyone going that way. The enemy had reached the northern shore of the bay and set up a heavy machine gun that covered the road. The distance across at this point would not have been much over a mile, about one and a half kilometres. The ground in this area was strewn with discarded equipment. Tin hats, webbing, haversacks and even a few rifles. To think how desperate we fighting troops were for such gear. It would appear that a Labour Corps unit had reached this spot. On being informed of the imminent fall of Crete they discarded everything and headed south.
We had to retrace our steps almost back to the port and from there, take a road that ran steeply into the hills. Hills did I say? There were no hills. There were only mountains with Mount Ida, which we had to climb past, rising to 8,000 feet. There was snow on Mount Ida when we reached Crete. The minor road that we were following eventually joined the major road. This was the road which we had been told to take when we set off from the Field Dressing Station.
Near where the two roads met there was a small village. This was the village the Germans had warned they would destroy unless it stopped giving aid to our forces. I doubt they were doing any more than any other village which had a lot of soldiers moving past. How can civilians refuse to help soldiers who had the power to seize what they want anyhow? I think that it was just an excuse on the part of the Germans to terrify the population into submission, show what they were capable of doing if they wished. Whatever the reason, it was an impressive demonstration With not a building left undamaged and every fence and garden torn to pieces. Some of the houses were still burning. By what I saw I think that they must have used a lot of light bombs and incendiaries. We did not see how many casualties had been suffered. All we could do was press on and be grateful that it was not happening in our country.
As we went the road was becoming more congested with mostly base troops such as Cypriots, Palestinians etc. used for unloading ships and other labouring tasks. By now Jack O'Leary was in a bad way and obviously could not go much further. By stopping with him in the middle of lip the road when a truck came along I was determined to get him a ride. The truck was loaded with Anti-Aircraft personnel and, after an argument, they took him aboard. They were suspicious until I said that I was not seeking a ride for myself but only for Jack. I never did hear how he fared. Those Anti-Aircraft Troops were members of 9 Battery, part of the A. A. unit that I later joined in Palestine.
Later, before it became dark, we lit a fire to have the last of the food we possessed, two cakes of emergency rations. These are high energy chocolate blocks that every soldier carried and was not supposed to eat except with the permission of, at least, a Corporal. We used the last of our water and brewed up a nice drink of cocoa. As we were doing this a wounded Kiwi soldier stopped. He had received four machine gun bullets through his thighs that had missed the bones and passed straight through. With the wounds dressed and the bleeding stopped, he had set out on the 35 miles (56Kms) walk south. He asked for a drink so we shared our cocoa four ways and he continued straight on. He was afraid that if he stopped to rest and allowed his wounds get cold, his legs would become stiff. He might then be unable to reach the coast and safety. We rested a while, then moved on but failed to catch up to our Kiwi friend. Either he was fast or we missed him in the dark as it was now night-time and we walked by the light of the stars.
We began our walk trying to keep to the Army practice of five minutes rest in the hour but will admit that, as the night wore on and we wore out, the rests became longer. About 0300 hours we decided that some sleep was essential. We moved off the road to sleep for a couple of hours. We were to regret that sleep as it lost us our advantage of being in front of the main body of evacuees. When we rejoined the road just after daybreak it was almost choked with men fleeing south. Some were calmly plodding along but some appeared to be almost in a panic as if the enemy forces might catch up at any moment. To rush about was no way to cover a long distance.
After many months of discipline and comradeship it came as a shock to be hemmed in on all sides by what had become little better than a panic-stricken mob pushing wounded men out of the way as they sought to be first to reach the boats and safety. Later in the day things improved as exhaustion and increasing enemy aircraft activity forced many of them to seek cover in the scrub and trees away from the roadside. By ignoring the aircraft we were able to make good progress along the almost deserted road. All through this area the country was very rugged with short scrubby timber and rocky outcrops.
Shortage of water was a continuous problem. All that was available was from roadside wells where it had to be hauled up by a bucket on a rope with the fittest drawing for the not-sofit. There were of course, quite a number of walking wounded on the road. I vividly remember on one occasion having obtained a drink from a well near the centre of a large clearing. There was a crowd of at least 100 people gathered around waiting their turn to drink. After having a drink I had just reached the shelter of trees at the end of the clearing when a German spotter aircraft flew low overhead. At least some army training was remembered because everyone froze where they were and not a soul moved or looked up. From where I stood, they looked just like so many heaps of rocks scattered about, similar to most clearings that we passed. The plane went steadily on its way.
We used to joke about our stint in the desert being training to be camels. It was good training for this trip. I can only recall having two drinks during that day until we reached the Field Hospital. I would, however, like to add that the water that we drank in both Crete and Greece was the most delicious water that I ever tasted. Or maybe it was that the water we drank in Palestine and Egypt was so foul by comparison. Being really thirsty would make it taste better too.
During the afternoon we reached the 2/7th Field Hospital to which we had been instructed to report. Once we reached there we received different orders. Under an agreement they reached with the German Air Force, any personnel who entered the hospital area, which was marked by Red Cross flags, would be classed as serious cases and would not be molested. However, anyone entering the hospital must remain there or the deal would be off. The hospital, consisting of tents, was situated on a flat area which overlooked the south coast some 2,000 feet below, about ten miles away in a straight line. We unfortunately were unable to go in a straight line.
We, of course, chose to stay outside and escape. The Colonel in charge of the hospital on finding that I was from the 2/7th Battalion said that his name was Le Souef and sent his best wishes to my C.O. Theo Walker when next we met. it seemed that they were friends from away back. We never did meet again unfortunately.
There were a dozen nurses attached to the hospital, all volunteered to stay with the wounded. As their capture by the enemy was certain their offer was refused and they were sent down to the beach and evacuated. We were able to get a little drinking water at the area of assembly at the top of the ranges where we were to wait until dark before venturing down the long hill.
So far as I can work out it was about this time that the Germans made their expected seaborne landing on the beach at Georgeopolis. Too late to make much difference, for our side the battle was already lost. They landed not only fresh troops but tanks, motor cycle and artillery units as well, all of course, without opposition. It was realised that, if we waited until dark to set out, we would not reach the evacuation point in time to catch the ships before they sailed. They could not delay their departure beyond a certain point if they were to be far enough from land when it became light to be safe from enemy bombers. Being faced with this situation about 50 of us walking wounded decided that it was worth the risk to set out at once.
Somehow at this juncture I lost track of my two companions. I did not ever hear of them again until I met Jack Stevens some eight months later in Palestine. We had been walking for about nine hours so far that day. We were now faced with a further nine hours, most of it in the dark over rough ground. The only road down ran along the side of the mountain descending all the while, much of the way with a steep cutting on one side and a nearly vertical drop on the other. The road went for about 15 miles until it petered out near a village on the coast. However, along the way it passed within a few miles of the village of Sfakia, which was the embarkation place.
Apparently there was no road or real track connecting Sfakia with the rest of the island in the direction from which we approached. There was a rough road running west for a distance. Sfakia was a true fishing village, therefore the enemy did not class it as a likely evacuation point, at least not up until the time I left. As we waited for the barges we saw the enemy dropping parachute flares further east along the coast hoping to find us. They dropped none at Sfakia. It had a nice little bay and a good beach.
The danger of going down in daylight was the lack of cover should we be attacked by enemy aircraft. We set out carrying no arms or equipment and put our trust in a large Red Cross flag carried in front and in the fact that most of us were wearing bandages plainly visible from a distance. Sure enough a twin engined J.U.88 flew past at eye level with our group. The crew saw us and circled to have a better look. We held our breath and waited to see what they would do but kept walking. As he went past for the second time the pilot looked straight at us and touched his cap in salute. Thank God not all Germans were bad guys.
The going was very rough as the road was not surfaced in any way, it was just as it had been carved out of the mountainside. Progress was slow as some of our party had leg and other wounds and needed to be helped along. It was some hours after dark before we were stopped by a guide. He led us off the road and down into some narrow gullies and along narrow rough tracks all the time going down hill. It was some time well after midnight that we reached the beach with the loading into barges to go out to the ships already in progress. I'm afraid that by now, time had lost its meaning, we just did what had to be done without thinking about time or anything beyond keeping going where we were told. I felt in a bit of a stupor. "Keep going". Those words must have been said a hundred times during that long trip down the mountain as our guide tried to hurry us along. At the time we did not appreciate just how urgent the situation was.
On arrival at the beach we were given water by the troops in charge, the first drink since leaving the top of the mountain in the afternoon. However there was no sign of food. We had not had any since the evening of the day before. Thinking back, I don't remember having had any food that day either apart from our share of the chocolate emergency ration. We were assembled in groups and in our turn loaded into barges for the trip out to warships which were waiting offshore. It takes quite an effort to clamber onto a boat from a beach, especially with only one good arm.
It was about 0300 hours by the time we reached the ship, the R.A.N. Destroyer "Janus". Once on deck the sailors hurried us below to where it was pretty crowded but not so bad as on the "Hereward" off north-west Crete a month earlier. Soon afterwards we could feel the vibration of the engines as the convoy got under way and headed for the safety of Egypt. I later learned that the "Hereward" was involved in evacuating our troops from Heraklion on the next night. When daylight came she was caught by enemy bombers off the east coast of Crete. After fighting off a series of attacks by air craft she was eventually hit and sunk. There were over 200 lives lost. Most of the survivors were picked up by Italian warships and spent the rest of the war as Prisoners of War.
Practically all our troops were evacuated from Heraklion. Unfortunately the victorious unit at Retimo when told to move to Sfakia by way of Suda Bay found that it was unable to do so. The road block that the Germans had placed on the road leading west was too strong. It held in spite of heavy fighting. When it was realised that time had run out and there was no point in continuing to fight the 2/11th Battalion surrendered on the 30th May.
I felt a sense of personal loss when I heard of the loss of the gallant "Hereward". She had twice been involved in rescuing us and twice we had sailed to safety below her decks. Now she had gone to the bottom as so many of our gallant ships had done.
During the day we wounded were examined by the Ship's Doctor, the more serious cases taken to the ship's hospital. As I remember, there was very little conversation among the hundreds of troops sitting and standing around. It seemed to be all too much to take in. Normally amongst such a group there would be talk and laughter no matter where they were. At this time they seemed to just sit in a stunned silence, not even able to think. Not that thinking would be of any help. Our future was not in our own hands. I took a walk out on the deck at one stage and was amazed at the strength of the wind. We were of course, going at full speed and it was an eye opener to me to see just how fast a modern destroyer could go. A sailor advised me to stay off the decks in case they were attacked.
As there was not sufficient room for us to lie down we could only doze occasionally until we arrived in Alexandria, reaching there some time after midnight. Back to where we started from seven weeks earlier. We had set out in high spirits and confident after our successes in the desert. Now we were straggling back, well and truly defeated. In many cases, wounded. I think the wounds to our pride went deeper than the physical wounds.
As we disembarked the various troops were identified and marched off to unit assembly areas. The wounded were gathered to one side by Red Cross workers and Army Medical Officers. Most of us were walking wounded although several came off on stretchers. After being assessed as to their condition the more serious cases were quickly taken away by ambulance. The rest of us were given coffee and sandwiches and we chatted while we waited for transport. Later I was taken by bus to an English Hospital along with eight other Australian walking wounded, none of whom were known to me. I was feeling almost numb with exhaustion and I still remember this period as somewhat dreamlike with some parts missing.
It was around 0500 hours by the time we reached the hospital and after the usual formalities taken to a ward where a dozen patients were sleeping peacefully. We learned from them later that they were from British units based around Alexandria. We were instructed to remove only our boots and lie on the beds, not get into the beds as we would be going to an A.I.F hospital later that day. I don't remember much about the next few hours but we were suddenly jerked wide awake by an orderly standing in the doorway shouting "Stand to Attention". It was amazing to see those sick chaps spring off their beds and stand to attention alongside the foot of their beds while some sat upright in their beds. None of we Aussies moved. When the doctor, an English Captain, marched in he became very angry. He demanded to know who we were and why we were not at attention as the others were. We tried to explain we were temporary patients, had not had much sleep lately, therefore imagined we would be excused from normal activities of the hospital. This only served to make things worse, evidently private soldiers did not rationally discuss situations with officers in his army. He warned that if we did not behave ourselves we would get into serious trouble. I'm afraid that we found this rather amusing, pointing out to him that after what we had been through of late, it was hard to see just what trouble he could cause that we would not enjoy. With that he left the ward in a huff without completing his rounds.
We continued to try to sleep. We waited around all day and in spite of almost feeling ill with tiredness we found that we could not sleep properly but kept waking every few minutes. I know, in my case I could not relax because of an inner tension and a knot in my stomach. I could not remember feeling so tense even during the toughest times on Crete. Afterwards, it seems that it is harder to get the nerves under control than during times of stress and activity. Part of you is relaxed while part is not yet able to do so. I became aware of a shaking feeling in my stomach that tended to spread to my legs each time I dozed.
It was late afternoon by the time we were taken by bus to the train. We travelled to El Kantara on the Suez Canal where the Second Australian General Hospital (2nd/A.G.H.) was situated on the north side of the Canal. Why did the army always move at night? It was after midnight when we reached the Canal and crossing by ferry, entered the hospital which was only a few hundred yards from the crossing point. El Kantara was where we first touched land on arrival in the Middle East.
Once in the hospital, we were allotted to wards according to our category of injury and beds available. In my ward were mostly limb and joint wounds with some amputees. By the time I was tucked in after being issued with pyjamas and given a lovely hot shower it was almost morning. What a relief to be clean again! For seven weeks I had not had that soiled set of clothes off, not even to sleep. It shows to what state a person can be reduced when I still look back on that hospital period with feeling of luxury enjoyed when all they gave me was a warm bed, three meals a day and a minimum of clothes to wear. While in hospital everyone was issued with a pair of blue trousers and a white shirt. But, compared with my previous weeks, it was luxury.
It was around 1100 hours when I awoke in the ward. I had slept right through the doctor's rounds, breakfast and the general activity of a large ward. No standing to attention here. Only a respectful quiet while the doctor was doing his rounds with everyone relaxed. There were approximately 30 beds in the ward which consisted of two long rooms placed end to end with beds along each side and the nurses station in the middle so that duty staff could look along both sections at any time. As there were so many casualties, a marquee had been added to one end. Patients who were due for early discharge went there.
On the second day in hospital I was visited by the Commander of the Australian Red Cross in the Middle East, Lady Blamey, wife of Sir Thomas Blamey G.O.C. Australian Forces in the Middle East. She sent a telegram home for me and posted a letter, free. She called again next day with chocolates and writing material. She of course, did this for all new patients.
Another thing that I was given was a razor and it was a real pleasure to to have a shave after about five days without. I had carried my army issue razor in my pocket until on the "Janus". After leaving Crete I decided to be a good soldier and in spite of being wounded, to arrive in Alexandria clean-shaven. I had placed the razor in its pieces on the wash basin when the ship gave a lurch which caused half of my razor to disappear down the plug hole. It seems that they don't have fancy things like gratings in wash basins on warships.
One of the first visitors that I had was a man from Army Records. He wished to know of any people whom I could confirm having been killed or wounded in either Greece or Crete. He let me run through a short list he had. Strangely, the only casualty I knew of not on his list was the lad named Smith who was killed in the incident with the motor bike patrol in Greece. Strange because the records from Greece were forwarded weeks before while the Crete records were not yet up-todate for obvious reasons. No doubt the fact that we were a detached unit at the time of the incident caused the omission in reporting Smithy as a Killed in Action. The fact that our Lieutenant had managed to get himself captured was another reason.
Because the patients were injured rather than sick it was a very cheerful ward. I suspected that a lot of the cheerfulness hid deeper feelings about the future especially amongst those who had lost limbs. Very few ever put their feelings into words yet I sensed that they thought of it a lot. We men suffer a lot because we don't talk about things.
Some men would lie staring at the ceiling for hours. I think that all soldiers at sometime wondered about how they would cope if they copped a bad disability. Not only how they would cope but how their families might react when they returned. I suppose it depended a great deal on how supportive the family might be from which one came. Only once do I remember one actually putting it into words. A young lad who had lost a leg in Tobruk said that maybe it would have made life simpler for everyone had he been buried in Tobruk along with his other leg. We talked for a while about it and it was obvious that his worry went very deep.
It seems strange now, though I remember groups of men discussing the possibility of being wounded and the many implications involved I do not remember anyone being concerned about the chances of being killed. We were immortal. If we hadn't thought so we would not have been there.
It was about a week after entering the hospital that the first mail arrived for me. Imagine the thrill. No mail for eight weeks then a flood. My loved ones had not forgotten me but had kept writing and hoping to hear from me. There was a big bundle of letters and several newspapers which had been waiting. I took days to read it all. The letters from Shirley and my mother were read over and over. I had missed their regular arrival. The Corporal in charge of mail at the Battalion had written a note welcoming me back on the wrapper of one of the papers.
Once my letters arrived home with my new address the mail came through much more quickly, coming directly to the hospital, not having to be redirected from the Battalion training depot.
After about a week in hospital I applied for my kitbag which as I mentioned was stored in the Kitstore in Alexandria. I was looking forward to getting it as it contained my summer gear together with spare sox, shirts and sundry souvenirs and snaps taken of Palestine, Egypt and Libya. There were a few that the censor would have stopped because of military content. After about a week word came that during our absence the Kitstore had been hit during an air raid and all the battalion's kitbags had been destroyed. It was a bit of a blow as I needed that stuff rather badly.
After a few days in hospital I realised just how exhausted I had been. No doubt this was due partly to lack of food and partly due to all the exertion of the last week or two and maybe more so because of lack of sleep over an fairly extended period. Loss of blood would have some effect. I did bleed a fair bit when I was hit.
Once troops are in an area denoted as a war zone every private soldier in the Infantry is on duty all night, every night two hours on and four hours off. During that four hours he hopes to get some sleep. If there are patrols or enemy activities or troop movements, very little sleep is possible. Even when there is little activity, if one is on guard from ten night there is not a lot of opportunity to sleep before 10 o1clock. On his next shift he would then be on duty from four O'clock until six. Because everyone "stands to" at dawn, that is the finish of sleeping. There were not too many days during which one could get any sleep. After a few weeks and months of this one tends to feel a bit groggy at times.
In the Libyan desert things were fairly routine and one grew accustomed to the broken sleep because there were times during the day when one could snatch an hour or two, except during the times of actual fighting or watching the enemy. In Greece and more so in Crete many nights were almost fully occupied and the days so busy that most times no sleep at all was possible. Especially during the last week. After I was wounded it was no better until I reached the hospital at EL Kantlara. That, coupled with the strain of enemy pressure and air attacks and the moving constantly was exhausting. When I reached hospital I was looking forward to seeing someone I knew, however I was out of 'luck. What I did not know then was that while I was being admitted and treated to many comforts my unit, the 2/7th Infantry Battalion, was surrendering in Crete.
What a sad and terrible end to a wonderful band of men with whom I was very proud to have served and about whom I had feelings of belonging that I never again felt for any other unit. Their loss was a blow beyond description. I was able to learn from War Records in Canberra that the rations for the last couple of days on Crete were very scarce being as follows:- daily ration was a 2 pound tin of bacon for 21 men, 1 gallon of water for 13 men and a 2 pound tin of potatoes for 12 men When these ran out they received only 1/2 of a 12 ounce tin of bully beef per man per day. A lot of hardship was caused by so many of the men not having a water bottle, they having lost them in the sinking of the "Costa Rica".
When they complained of the shortage of rations General Vasey said that it could only get worse. The alternative was to see if the Germans would be any more generous. As it transpired they were not. History records that the 2/7th fought the rearguard battles right back to Sfarkia and held the enemy while others boarded the rescue boats. When they expected to take their turn in the boats they were told that there would be no more boats available for them. The Royal Navy had lost so many ships that they had to call a halt. Further ship losses would jeopardise future operations. The 2/7th and some other troops had no other course but to surrender. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow.
Lt. Colonel Walker was actually on board a barge which was about to leave when he heard the news, that he was on the last barge to leave Sfakia. He immediately waded ashore to remain with his men. He was a fine soldier and a courageous one. I believe that I was very fortunate to have had him as my Commanding Officer.
There may be some who would criticise the Navy for not risking one more attempt to save all of our men. No one would have wished for that more than I. But to the critics I can only say, "look at the statistics". In the Greek and Crete campaign besides the four troopships, the Navy lost three cruisers and six destroyers. They had a further two battleships, an aircraft carrier, two cruisers and two destroyers damaged so seriously as to be out of action for several months. When chatting about ships lost it is so easy to forget the human losses and pain involved. The story of the loss of the destroyer "Kelly" off Crete, written by Lord Louis Mountbatten puts it in terms that even the most unimaginative can "get the picture". Lord Louis was Captain of the "Kelly". All these losses were incurred at a time when the Navy was supplying the Tobruk garrison as well as attempting to disrupt the enemy supplies crossing to Rommel in North Africa and maintaining pressure on the Italian fleet to keep it bottled up in its home ports. Please don't ever criticise our wonderful Navy to me.
Besides the above, the Navy had no ships available which could have reached Crete within twenty four hours. By which time the enemy would have had all beaches well covered. One sailor on the "Janus" expressed it rather well in response to a soldier's stupid remark that the Royal Navy was all tradition. If the Army and its Commanders were as strong on tradition, efficiency and dedication as the Navy, maybe, just maybe, they, the Navy, would not have been taking those losses plucking troops off beaches.
A few 'days after entering hospital I was operated on to remove the piece of shrapnel from my shoulder, The surgeon gave it to me as a souvenir. It was only about 1/2 an inch across and carried some threads of serge cloth from my jacket which probably explains why it did not start to heal but before the operation was showing signs of becoming infected. It was not until years later that an Xray revealed another piece of shrapnel that had been missed in the first operation. It must have broken apart when it struck the bone and travelled a couple of inches down the arm. It was probably covered in cloth also which would explain why my shoulder took so long to heal. It was stiff and painful for some weeks. Those threads of cloth must have been rather soiled at the time. This stiffness delayed my return to my unit while I received almost daily physiotherapy
About ten days after my admission to hospital a couple of new patients were admitted to the ward, as usual after midnight. I thought I could see a familiar face and when the nurses left I went to ascertain. It was Leo Pell from the same platoon as myself who had been wounded a couple of hours before I was. Leo had joined us as a reinforcement when we came out of the desert and camped at Amiriya. The bomb of two-inch mortar he was using hit a branch above his head and exploded, badly wounding him in both arms. He also had some minor wounds to his face and body. When I spoke to him all he could say was "Oh Bluey" and burst into tears. I felt a bit emotional too. Apart from his wounds he was suffering from shock. He had'not seen a familiar face since he had been wounded and was feeling'pretty down. Both his arms were completely paralysed. We both felt better for being able to talk to someone we knew well. When I was issued with'the Tommy gun, Leo was appointed to the 2 inch mortar with Stan Phillips. That was one job I was glad tq.lose.
During the next few weeks until he returned to Australia we spent a lot of time together, with me writing his letters for him as he dictated. I read his mail to him as he was incapable of holding even a piece of paper. I also read newspapers to him. One letter I wrote for Leo was to his girl friend. We told her about his injuries and why I was writing for him. A couple of weeks later the reply came in the form of a "Dear John" letter. She felt that their relationship was not strong enough to survive his being an invalid and so she wished no break it off. For a person in Leo's condition it was quite a blow but after a time we were able to talk it through and he came to finally agree with her. So many young couples were carried away by the perceived romance of it all, failing to see that in reality they were not in love. It was nice to have someone overseas to write to while soldiers overseas loved to receive letters from girls back home, Neither party was making a deep commitment by so doing. Leo returned home, eventually fully recovered and died at Ringwood, Victoria in 1991. It is worth mentioning that for the period of the Greece/Crete campaign we received no mail whatever nor were we able to send any.
Casualties for the 2/7th Battalion were very high. The final report as recorded at the Australian War Records in Canberra supplied by Major, later Lt.Colonel Guinn acting Commander 2/7th Battalion read as follows;-
The majority of those evacuated were wounded, many of them unfit for further service and returned to Australia.
After a few weeks, apart from daily physio, I was feeling well but was getting bored with life. To try something different I volunteered to assist the hospital dental unit by helping in the workshop where they were flat out making and repairing dentures. My job was tending the vulcaniser and cleaning the plaster of Paris from the finished plates. Generally keeping the place tidy while the technicians got on with their work. I also mixed several lots of amalgam and mercury for fillings and had fun chasing a few drops of mercury that fell onto the workbench. I learned whyA it is called quicksilver. My reward was some extra work on my teeth and a part denture that I had been promised before leaving Australia. actually got to wear a white coat, hold a dish for the Dentist and say "Spit here" one day, while the Dental Nurse was having some work done on her teeth. We three enjoyed that bit. I spent an interesting three weeks with the Dental Unit.
The ward nearest to the gateway into the hospital was the shell shocked patients ward. It was bften callously referred to as the Bomb Happy ward. Why they put it near the noisiest part of the hospital I never understood. One night the Germans attempted to drop a mine into the Suez Canal but it missed the can4l and landed on the bank towards the hospital The noise when it exploded was enormous and several of the nerve cases took off through the gate and into the desert. They were not all rounded up until late that afternoon. One chap wandered into an anti-aircraft site three miles away.
After about ten weeks, the time came for me to leave the hospital prior to going to a convalescent depot in Palestine. I was told to go to the Quarter Master's store to get my clothes and hand in my hospital gear The Q M. clerk placed a linen bag of clothing on the counter and told me to sign for it. Being a suspicious type I first tipped the contents out onto the floor. Would you believe it, the uniform and other things in the bag were the ones that I had worn for all those weeks in Greece and Crete and through the desert. They were so dirty and bloody and stuck together that it was difficult to pull them apart. Even the blood soaked field dressing and bandages were in there. The Corporal said that if I considered that they needed washing, I should have washed them during the weeks while I was in hospital. No-one had thought to tell me about it. Even apart from the dirt the shirt and coat were hardly fit to be worn, being so well ventilated. I most vehemently declared "There is no way that I will wear that mess". I vowed that if I had to leave, it would be in clean clothes or naked but certainly not in that outfit. I considered the Army owed me at least that much. Eventually an officer was called. After more argument he authorised the issue of enough clothes to preserve my modesty.
Leaving the hospital, though I was classed as fit, I did not feel really well. It was to be a long time before I did. The date of leaving hospital was 15th of August 1941.
I saw the results of some wonderful plastic surgery while I was in that hospital, particularly in the burns unit which was next to my ward. The surgeon was Captain Rank (the ward was referred to as Ranks Circus) and he did wonderful things with burn and blast victims. I found it interesting. A few times I helped lift patients who had to be raised to allow changes of bed linen. Some were so burnt that up to four of us at the time would each put two hands beneath them to lift them with as little pain a possible. There was one man who had been wounded but was one of the ugliest men that I had ever seen. He had been kicked in the face by a horse when a child and his chin, forehead and ears all seemed to be trying to meet. Captain Rank gave him a normal quite handsome face, all in the matter of a few weeks. That man would have cheerfully died for the Captain was so grateful. As one of his friends pointed quite a break for his wife also.
While in the El Kantara hospital I one day received a visitor. One of my platoon friends named Reg Hipwell who had been left behind on Crete with the boys. He had escaped after being taken to Greece, -stole a boat and reached either Egypt or Turkey. I understand that most of the men who escaped into Turkey went by Turkish ships to Alexandria. As Turkey was a neutral country her shipping was not attacked. It would have been if the Germans suspected them of ferrying Allied soldiers. Lofty never did say how he reached Egypt. After a lot of travelling around he was placed in hospital in Egypt. He spent many hours of heavy sessions with Intelligence Officers. He was now on his way back to the Unit Training Depot where I was later to oin him. He had somehow learned of my whereabouts and called to see me. It was great to again meet one of the old gang and to know that he at least, was safe, also good to know the latest news on a few of the others of whom I had not received one word since the day I was wounded, It made my day.
A few days after arriving at the Convalescent Depot I contracted Dengue Fever which felt like a bad case of flu. I was off to hospital again, this time to the 7th A.G.H., at Rehoveth in Palestine. There I spent a week. I left hospital feeling rather weak and suffering a sore neck which over the next few days became a very nasty carbuncle. I am sure it felt worse than being wounded but generated a lot less sympathy. I wonder why people think it is funny to see someone with a boil on the neck? It was no joke.
Well, I did eventually reach my Battalion Training Depot at Dier Seneid which was where we were first camped on our arrival in Palestine. At last I had caught up with some of the boys I knew. Some of them had returned from being wounded, others had been captured and had escaped from Greece and Yugoslavia. Others had not been captured but had dodged Germans for months in Greece and Crete before making their way to safety by boat to North Africa or Turkey.
The ones who chose the trip by boat to Egypt suffered terrible hardships. In most cases they ran out of fuel, food and water. It was not possible to get enough for the whole trip. They knew this as they set out but were so desperate to get away they decided to take the risk and face the hardships. 5everal men died during the journeys. They did not talk about escaping because they also had been warned that the people who had befriended and aided them were "performing a hostile act against the Germans". For the escapes to continue, silence was essential. Most of them had been through so much that they were reluctant to discuss it so we just left it there.
They occasionally started to tell what had happened, but usually to tell a joke about some event and not become serious about it. Such as the time Lofty Hipwell was in a Greek cafe when a couple of German soldiers came in for a meal and sat near the door. Lofty had to wait ages for them to finish their meal and depart because, although dressed as a Greek, his big feet were still wearing Australian Army issue boots. The Greeks had not been able to find footwear big enough to fit him. Or the story of while they were being guarded near Suda Bay awaiting trans-shipment to Greece. They were all very hungry. A donkey wandered into the area. I was told that in a twinkling that donkey had disappeared into the cooking pots. Some of the tales were not so funny and all declared that in Stalags in Germany while being guarded by young Hitler Youth members was the most dangerous time. Those teenage zealots sought opportunities to take a shot at a prisoner.
Perhaps I should have mentioned earlier, when I joined the A.I F. in 1939 I was one of the younger members although there were quite a few younger than I. At joining, I was twenty years and eleven months old. The majority were more mature men ranging from early twenties to mid thirties. I knew at least, two in B Company who had been in W.W.1 and were over forty years old. Later, when the re-enforcements came in Palestine, it was apparent that they were mostly nineteen to twenty one. To me these men appeared much younger than I was when I joined. With very few in the thirty age group, they appeared years younger than my original companions, even though they were very close to my age. But then I was not able to see myself. Having spent time with the older group I related more to them.
One day there was a full parade as was held each week. All personnel had to attend. At this particular parade I did not take part because I was on kitchen duty. For once I was able to have a commanding view of all the troops as they marched past the kitchen after the "March Past" for the Camp Commanding Officer. The kitchen was on a high bank bordering the road. From there I observed what I had before only faintly realised. First came the re-enforcements marching strongly and smartly to the beat of the band. Then, as a separate unit came my old friends. And I mean old. Although they probably were a few years older than the others they not only looked many years older but they looked, for the want of a better word, tired.
Most of them, not to any marked degree, but they had lines on their faces and rounded shoulders. For the first time, it was so obvious to me, seeing them as a group next to the younger boys. It was a shock and affected me emotionally so that I took time off for a walk as I could not hide my feelings. It was then that I realised what the past few months had done to them. The months of strain, shortage of food and the constant fear of betrayal and capture showed better than any words could tell Those young men had given so much for their country., they were no longer young men. It was then, for the first time, that I saw how fortunate I was in being wounded when and where I was. It spared me much of strain and hardship suffered by the rest of the 2/7th Battalion. While I too, had undergone strain and hardship, it was little compared with the others who had been unfortunately left behind on Crete.
During this period, I was bothered by a persistent pain in my right side. As time passed it became worse but the Camp Doctor, (known as "Count Aspro"), was unable to diagnose the cause. Not that he would have stayed awake at night worrying about it. He ordered me to have two aspirins a day which I was increasing by about a further six or eight Aspros and Bex tablets from the canteen. It's no wonder I now have an ulcer. Eventually he arranged for me, at some time in the future, to go the 1st A.G.H for a medical consultation. This consultation would take place when there was a break in the doctors' work load at the hospital. That was not likely to be for some time as the Syrian Campaign was on and all hospitals were over- flowing with wounded.
I had lost a lot of weight, could hardly walk, could not eat and had to be helped up from lying down. I was in a good deal of pain. It hurt to breathe so I learned to breathe very shallowly. When Count Aspro went on leave for a few days, the relieving doctor did not even examine me but sent me straight to the hospital by ambulance for examination. The doctors there were puzzled until I happened to mention my troubles with the carbuncle. They at once agreed that it would be an internal abscess and needed immediate surgery. I was admitted to hospital at about 1000 hours (10 am) and was operated on at around 1500 (3 pm) that afternoon. Once inside they found it to be a Perinephric Abscess which meant that it was situated in the tissues outside the kidney with the swelling involving the diaphragm. Both the right kidney and the right lung had ceased to function. believe that the material taken into my shoulder by the shrapnel caused the carbuncle and ultimately the abscess.
A Nursing Sister at the hospital told me that a delay of a few more days in getting to hospital would have had a fatal outcome. I knew that I was very ill, my friends could see that I was very ill and yet that stupid so called doctor could not. I have found it hard to forgive him. Maybe he joined the army because he could not succeed in civilian practice.When I was perusing my service record recently I discovered that Count Aspro had entered the fact that I was suffering from Myositis. In other words, muscle inflammation.
I went into hospital on the 4/11/1941 and returned to the training depot on the 7/12/1941. It was while a group of us were waiting at the main office for the transports to return us to our various units that we heard on the radio, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour. I will always remember that date.
It was during the days of just lying in bed with little to do but think, that I thought more deeply about the year that we had just experienced. Some things made me angry. When I thought of the desert campaign I felt that we had been betrayed. Thrown in against concrete emplacements and thousands of enemy troops, armed as we were with little more than rifles and bayonets I read recently that one of our wartime leaders was surprised at how easily and quickly we overcame the defences of Bardia and Tobruk. As one who was there I can tell him, it may have been done quickly, but it was not easy. Did he expect us all to become casualties ? If it was expected that we would meet even heavier opposition than we did, why the blazes did they not give us at least a few tanks? Maybe they were still planning the war circa 1917, men on foot advancing against dug-in machine guns.
Against the advice of our local commanders, Wavell and Blamey, we were halted when the job in Libya was half done. We were sent to Greece. That decision was made by Churchill. That still makes me angry too. We embarked on that debacle without the agreement of half of the Greek commanders. The Greeks feared that our presence would precipitate a German attack. That is exactly what happened. Again, we went there totally ill-equipped. I know that we went there to buy time but I think that the price was too high. Our leaders knew that it would be and warned the British War Cabinet. They cancelled the move to Greece when half of our troops had already been despatched. Then they realised they had lost the initiative in the desert so decided to continue with the Greece move. Thus they lost both. We did not have the forces for two campaigns at the same time.
If we lacked the arms to hold Greece, and the British War Cabinet knew that we did, why go there? Had they put the same arms, equipment and manpower onto Crete, we could have held it for ever. That would have thwarted the German plans. So we tried to hold Crete with even less equipment. That makes me mad to this day. I don't know who was to blame but I know for sure that we never had the numbers nor were we as well equipped, well trained or experienced as the German soldiers. Man to man we were as good as any enemy we met. But without reasonable equality in arms and numbers it just does not work.
Of course, the Germans had been preparing for this war for years, were fully equipped and battle hardened before they met us. They had defeated all of the armies of Europe during the previous eighteen months. We should not have had to face them on such uneven terms. That we were forced to do so was, in my view, criminal. There are many who share my opinion.