Four weeks, two hospitals and one hair-raising adventure!

19 April 2011 by Robyn Siers

Question: What’s the definition of “tough”?

Answer: Australian service nurses

In early April 1941, the nurses and physiotherapists of 2/5th and 2/6th Australian General Hospitals (AGH), were transported to Greece with the men of the 6th Division. They were moved around frequently, often at short notice, as the Germans advanced down the Greek peninsula. Hospital supplies and food were in short supply, and many of the incoming wounded were suffering from frostbite.

Sister Nalder wrote of a new group of patients on 17 April;

Such a tired, haggard looking crew. It made me feel like weeping. Most of them were able to walk, and we gave them hot baths – where possible – a hot meal - and got them into bed.

As the fighting around them intensified the matrons of the two hospitals were ordered to prepare for immediate evacuation. This proved to be somewhat of a confused and dangerous operation. An air raid occurred while Matron Joan Abbott and the staff of 2/6th AGH were embarking on 20 April, and the hospital ship Aba sailed for Egypt without some of the group.

The next day, thirty year old Senior Matron Kathleen Best was asked to choose only 44 women from 2/5th AGH to be evacuated. Space was limited, which meant 40 would have to remain behind.

I told the Sisters what was to happen, and also made it clear to them that those who volunteered would stay behind with the hospital and that they would in all possibility be captured. I asked them to write on a slip of paper their names and either ’stay’ or ‘go’ and hand them to me ... Not one Sister wrote ‘go’ on the paper. I then selected 39 sisters to remain [with me].
Matron Best 2/5th AGH 23 April 1941

After dark, upon discovering that the railway line had been blown up, the departing group were bundled into trucks for the trip south to the port of Piraeus. During an air raid the next day the nurses sheltered in a cemetery, and as they set off again at night, medical officers warned them that it would now be “every man for himself.”

Sisters Hammond and Crittenden of 2/6th AGH shelter from air attack in a Greek cemetery.

Upon arrival at the beach in Navplion, they discovered ships burning in the harbour from an earlier air raid. Greek fishing boats ferried them out to the waiting destroyer HMAS Voyager.

We sisters had to judge the gap, and leap to the destroyer, equipped with tin hat, respirator, great coat and a very tight mid-length skirt.

Sister Barnard 2/5th AGH

They sailed for Crete on 25 April.  The ship’s anti aircraft gunners were kept busy when they came under attack from enemy bombers. Later that day, on arrival at Crete, they set to work at a British tent hospital as incoming wounded flooded in by the boatload.

Australian and New Zealand nurses arrive in Crete.

Meanwhile, Matron Best and the 39 nurses of 2/5th AGH that had been left behind in Greece, continued to work despite constant air raids. They all moved into the main hospital building, and on matron’s orders wore their red capes and white caps, hoping they would be easily recognisable as non-combatants.

They were evacuated on a merchant ship full of troops in the early hours of 26 April.

We were all very upset at having to leave the hospital, the Officers and the men, and not one of the Sisters appeared to consider the personal risk that evacuation at that stage might entail...

We took one small suitcase each and a rug ... Some nurses thought it a pity to leave their stockings, so they pinned them inside the sleeves of their coats ...

The Sisters as usual accepted the situation with as much quiet dignity as possible, lying full length on the floor with steel helmets on and even during the worst barrages there was no panic and no comments

Matron Best 2/5th AGH

Reunited on Crete, AANS sisters enjoy a meal together.

A few days later, all the nurses were evacuated from Crete, reaching Alexandria on 1 May 1941. They worked in various hospitals for the remainder of the year, wherever the need was greatest.

When Greece and Crete fell to the Germans, our hospital expanded from 1,000 to 2,000 beds in ten days. We worked eleven hours a day without any days off for three and a half months til reinforcements joined us.

Sister Bette Uren 2/2nd AGH El Kantara

On board the Greek vessel Toria, nurses take cover under a lifeboat during their evacuation from Crete to Alexandria.

By early 1942, most Australian nurses had left the Middle East, along with the men of the 6th and 7th Divisions of the AIF, which were withdrawn to defend Australia from what was feared to be imminent Japanese attack.

Nora Heysen, Lieutenant Colonel Kathleen Best, 1944,

On hearing of the proposed evacuation of nurses from Greece, Matron Best wrote that, “I felt myself responsible for their welfare.”

For her courage and efficiency throughout the evacuation Matron (later Lieutenant Colonel) Kathleen Annie Louise Best was awarded the Royal Red Cross.

This is just one of the many stories highlighting the work of Australian service nurses in the up-coming exhibition, Nurses: from Zululand to Afghanistan. The exhibition opens to the public on 2 December 2011, at the Australian War Memorial.

Robyn Siers, Exhibitons