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Appendix 3: German Attacks on 7 General Hospital and 6 Field Ambulance, 18 and 20 May 1941

By W. E. Murphy

ONE or more aircraft dropped bombs within the area of 7 British General Hospital on 18 May, killing three RAMC officers and two orderlies and wounding a third orderly. Following this isolated raid the hospital was bombed and machine-gunned from the air on 20 May and then overrun by paratroops, who drove out patients able to walk, herded them and the hospital staff into the nearby area of 6 NZ Field Ambulance, and later marched their captives towards Galatas.

The hospital area was considered to be well marked with Red Crosses, and these attacks and their sequel have therefore been widely regarded as intentional breaches of the Geneva Convention.1 Respect by the enemy for the Red Cross had elsewhere been the rule in the Balkans campaign, but here it was thought an exception had been made because of the tactical importance of the hospital site. The purpose of this study is to test this viewpoint.

The first question is whether the command of 3 Parachute Regiment, which landed in the Galatas area, knew the encampment was a hospital. The main task of this regiment, from its operation order issued on 18 May and signed by the commander, Colonel Richard Heidrich, was to clear the ground around Canea and then capture the town. Under the heading Objectives, the order includes the following:

3 Bn will immediately make a mass attack and occupy the enemy encampment west of Canea immediately south of the three finger-like promontories.2

This was expanded by the commanding officer of III Battalion, Major Ludwig Heilmann, into a detailed tactical plan, giving the following Battle Tasks:

9 Coy ... will immediately after the landing ... attack the enemy in the tent encampment from the east. Objective of the attack: small bay west of hospital barracks ...

10 Coy will ... attack the enemy in the tent encampment from the south. Objective of the attack: centre of camp.

12 Coy will ... jointly with 10 Coy, attack the enemy in the tent encampment from the west.

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11 Coy will take possession of Galata [sic], block the coastal road west of the encampment with one platoon, and will cover the landing area and fighting area of the battalion against attacks from the west and south.

Heilmann then gave instructions for the ensuing attack on Canea and ended with details of administration, which included:

Field Dressing Station: Hospital huts in encampment. In case of severe fighting on the landing ground, dressing station will be in the Daratsos area.

Had Heidrich and Heilmann known the encampment was a hospital they might have expected opposition,3 but not on a scale warranting the commitment of a full battalion in the critical opening phase of the landing. But their main purpose would seem to have been well served by having their left flank secured by a hospital area extending from the sea shore at the three promontories to the coast road. Had they respected the Red Cross there it would in turn have helped protect them. It is hard to see what other tactical importance could have attached, in German eyes, to the area. III Battalion intended to land some distance away from the hospital and no further parachute landings were planned, while the sea landing was not to be made there, according to the report of 11 Air Corps, but on the beach west of Maleme. Heilmann’s plan, committing all but one company to the attack at the outset, seems to bespeak his ignorance of the fact that the camp was a hospital. He evidently thought it included a ‘hospital barracks’ and some ‘hospital huts’, a view which can be considered alongside what can be discovered of the layout of the hospital.

The hospital consisted of a few buildings, a number of marquees, and an assortment of smaller tents covering a large area of open, almost treeless ground. The chief building, used as the officers’ mess, was on a slight eminence on the middle promontory and just a few yards from the beach; this was presumably Heilmann’s ‘hospital barracks’. A small building east of the track leading to the officers’ mess and a hut (the cookhouse) some distance to the west were probably the ‘hospital huts’. Red Crosses were painted clearly on the roofs of all three buildings and a large one (estimated at thirty feet by twenty) was marked out in stones on the ground between the mess and the sea. The marquees used as hospital wards were mostly grouped near the cookhouse and a large Red Cross of cloth was laid out on the ground among them. The Red Crosses were therefore widely dispersed over the area and were large enough to be seen from a considerable altitude; visibility at the time was generally good. None of the tents, however, was marked with the Red Cross, though the one laid out among

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The wards could scarcely refer to anything but the surrounding marquees. A Red Cross flag flew at the entrance to the hospital, where the track joined the coast road.

This, then, was the hospital, so far as it can be described from eye-witness accounts, diagrams, drawings, and ground photographs. It is hard from this to see how enemy Intelligence could deem the area a military camp with only two or three buildings in it claiming Red Cross protection. What about the cross laid out among the ward tents? And why such large crosses, especially as that between the mess and the sea, when the building itself was already distinctively marked?

There is no final answer, of course, to such questions; but something more can be said of enemy Intelligence, which so far appears either careless or stupid, if not wilfully neglectful of the Convention. The chief point here is the size of the hospital. The estimate of Allied strength on which 11 Air Corps acted, from its own report, was about a third of the actual strength in terms of units and for total numbers was considerably less. On this estimate a 600-bed hospital as well as a dressing station just west of Canea,4 a tented hospital south of the town,5 and several minor establishments in one sector alone was no doubt unthinkable. Perhaps this fact alone would decide against any suggestion that the whole area claimed protection.

This surmise cannot be confirmed. Nor can other points which have been raised on one side or other of the case be finally upheld or dismissed. Two of them seem to favour the German side but there is no certainty that either was even so much as considered. Armed bodies of troops – small and infrequent according to the officer commanding the Surgical Division6 – passed through the area on their way to and from the beach during the days preceding the landing. And steel helmets were worn in the area by medical staff, walking patients, and visitors; experience during the battle and in later campaigns was that Germans forbade the wearing of steel helmets in areas under Red Cross protection and regarded the wearing of such helmets as indicating the presence of armed troops.7

Other points which have been raised are perhaps more contentious. The tents and other installations were in the open, with no attempt at concealment, yet not far from ground offering fair cover; but other tented camps were similarly sited, especially two large ones for Italian prisoners at Skines and Fournes. Apart from the brief raid on 18 May, the hospital area was not attacked from the air before the day of the landing; but, again, nor were the other camps. Finally, 11 Air Corps reported the capture of 500 prisoners but did not mention that they were hospital patients and staff. Even here there is possibly an excuse for what seems at first glance a clumsy effort to cover up guilt. The company responsible for the incident (10

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Company of Heilmann’s battalion; none of his other companies, caught up in fighting elsewhere, reached the scene) was almost wiped out and its doings, according to the report by 11 Air Corps, ‘only became known at III Battalion and Regiment after the conclusion of the fighting through reports of a few survivors.’8 the report was signed on 11 June, only a few days after the end of the fighting, allowing little time for detailed inquiry.

The maps appended to the report mark the hospital area firstly as a tented camp9 and later by a conventional sign for a transport area. Evidence probably antedating the start of the battle is provided by the sketch map attached to the message already mentioned in a footnote, which marks the area with an oblong containing the letter ‘Z’; this can be taken to represent Zeltlager (tented camp) but fits no known initial for medical establishments.10

So much for the points on both sides; the case remains open. It would be speculative to suggest that all or even the main considerations have been covered or that they have been presented as they appeared at the time. But it is hard to quell the suspicion that German Intelligence, poor in its estimates of Allied strength on the island, was again careless or incompetent in failing to perceive that the whole area claimed Red Cross protection, even though acceptance of this view would probably have entailed a drastic revision of those estimates.

Certainly the raid on 18 May, whatever the pros and cons of the general case, was careless of the Red Cross, perhaps intentionally, in that it straddled the building east of the track, the roof of which was plainly marked, and it was a matter of luck that the building remained unscathed. Equally certainly the enemy, after 20 May, paid scrupulous respect to the Red Cross for the rest of the campaign.

It has been mentioned that 10 Company received none of the support intended; furthermore it was widely dispersed and only those elements set down near the hospital and ADS seem to have survived the landing. The hospital and ADS were easily occupied, but snipers and small counter thrusts made 10 Company’s situation increasingly precarious, steadily thinning its already depleted ranks. The survivors, not knowing which way to turn, decided to make for the south, where the main front was by then established. There was little else they could do. But they foolishly chose to take with them their prisoners and this body of some 500 men proved

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a fatal encumbrance. With guards to front, rear, and flanks the party moved off, and some of the prisoners naturally gained the impression that they were being used as a screen. This seems unlikely; their captors would have been better without them. The author of the history has aptly remarked of the incidents, some of them nasty, which preceded this move:

‘Apart from a few cases of bad behaviour which can be explained as due to the nervous excitability of individuals, the paratroops do not seem to have behaved themselves worse than might be expected of worried men in an awkward position, not sure where the defenders were or where they were themselves.’