The New Zealand Dental Services
CHAPTER 30 — No. 1 Aerodrome Construction Unit, RNZAF
No. 1 Aerodrome Construction Unit, RNZAF
IN May 1941 applications were invited by the Royal New Zealand Air Force from the Public Works Department in New Zealand for men to form an aerodrome construction unit for overseas service. It was to consist of 16 officers and 132 other ranks, divided into a headquarters and three specialist flights or sections. It was neither the first of its kind to be formed in New Zealand during the war nor was it the last, and there was nothing essentially different in its composition from any others. That is to say, it was an engineering unit carrying out work usually done by the Public Works Department, but for convenience coming under the control of the RNZAF. There was, however, one noticeable difference. It was perhaps the seal of secrecy set on its destination or possibly the baldness of its official title, ‘Unit 24 RNZAF’, that immediately lifted it from the common rut and clothed it with a mysterious mantle of excitement. There was a promise of something out of the ordinary for the officer, orderly and mechanic of the dental section chosen to accompany it. This was better than working on the assembly line in a mobilisation camp or Air Force station.
The unit was assembled in Rongotai aerodrome in July 1941 and there Captain A. I. McCowan was able to glean something of the nature of the unit and of the dental problem he would have to meet. He found a collection of men of above the average age of troops going overseas, key men from contracting companies, engineers and tradesmen. Large numbers of artificial dentures could be expected, some carrying the full burden of mastication and some leaning on shored-up buttresses, strained to the limit of endurance. A closer examination bore this out and the DDS laid further stress on it:
It will be remembered that 66.9% of the personnel are wearing artificial dentures and must rely on these, and in some cases a few well-filled natural teeth, to assimilate their daily rations, apart from being middle-aged men serving under severe climatic conditions. Under such conditions artificial dentures are readily broken and as easily lost and the wearers must be considered as potential casualties unless facilities for the supply and repair of dentures are available as close as possible to the sphere of activity. The same applies to recurring dental caries for there is nothing like dental pain to weaken a man's morale.
The destination of the unit was revealed as the Far East or, more specifically, Malaya. There were a number of squadrons of the Royal Air Force already in Malaya with certain dental sections attached to them, so that it is not surprising that representations were made from there that it would be unnecessary for a dental section to accompany Unit 24 from New Zealand. The DDS, however, insisted and wisely so as will be seen later.
The section was equipped with panniers and chair case containing a full NZDC field dental outfit and three months' supply of expendable stores. Included in this was a bottled rock-gas pannier containing two cylinders, each of 20 lb. content, and fittings all ready for use. This gas was a product of the Imperial Gas Company of Los Angeles, but it was found that refills of a similar type of gas could be got through agents in Singapore. As a precaution kerosene primus stoves were carried also in the surgical and prosthetic panniers. There was some difficulty in getting refills of exactly the same type of gas in Malaya, but it mattered little because of the rapid retreat from that country. The establishment of the section included a 30–cwt covered lorry but, in fact, this was never provided. Actually, in contrast to most other theatres of war at that time, there was ample transport available for the asking. Replacement of equipment and expendable stores was to come from the nearest Advanced RAF Base Medical Store.
The control of the section was vested, as far as practicable, in Air Headquarters, Wellington, and it was to be administered by the Commanding Officer of Unit 24, Squadron Leader E. C. Smart, RNZAF,1 and on the advice of Captain McCowan would be allocated as circumstances and facilities permitted.
The unit left Wellington in SS Narbada and, after five and a half days of atrocious weather, arrived at Newcastle in Australia. Here it left the Narbada, which was to undergo a survey, and was sent to No. 2 Embarkation Depot at Bradfield Park, Sydney. Here it stayed for about a month. As Captain McCowan reported to the DDS:
Due to an outbreak of parotitis and rubella the greater portion of the unit is still in Australia and the date of embarkation is still indefinite.
Seventeen patients have had urgent treatment since leaving New Zealand, eleven have been denture repairs, four acute apical conditions, one osteomyelitis, which I am treating in hospital, and one serious ulcerative stomatitis which has since developed parotitis and has been isolated at Prince Henry Hospital.
The medical officer of the unit, Captain N. H. North, NZMC,1 had gone ahead with the first party to Singapore. When, therefore, No. 3 Advance Party and men from Unit 25 were to sail for Malaya, they were without a doctor for the voyage. Instead of providing one, the RAAF asked Captain McCowan to accept the responsibility. It would have been difficult for him to refuse, although it was unreasonable to expect him to shoulder such a responsibility. Apparently he acquitted himself well for all fifty-three of his charges arrived in Singapore in spite of a case of dengue fever, four of tracheitis and tonsillitis, one of rubella and a suspected fracture of the forearm.
The voyage took eighteen days and began in SS Bontekoe, a Dutch ship of unimpeachable standing until she took on a deck cargo of cattle at Soembara Besar. Fortunately the British agent at Sourabaya managed to transfer the New Zealanders to a KPM ship which landed them in Singapore via Samarang and Muntok, on the island of Bangka, on 13 October 1941.
On arrival the dental section went to Tebrau, about seven miles from Johore on the Kota Tinggi road. Headquarters for the unit was established there and it was decided to set up a general hospital with medical and dental sections, with sick quarters detached from it.
Having regard to the opposition from the RAF to the sending of an NZDC section to Malaya, Captain McCowan, as soon as he had set up his equipment, invited Group Captain Bodie, commander of medical and dental personnel in the Far East, to come and inspect. He also extended an invitation to Squadron Leaders Grey and Jessop, RAF dental officers at Seletar.
McCowan to Finn, 27 November 1941:
He [Group Captain Bodie] was agreeably surprised at the type, standard and degree of mobility of the equipment.
In view of the difficulties … I quote, with his knowledge, the view Group Captain Bodie took of this matter. He accepts responsibility for the signal to the effect that the dental treatment could be done here, purely because he would not admit otherwise. He (now) expresses pleasure at its inclusion because, situated as we are, he realises it could not have been given satisfactorily, if at all.
Certainly the RAF dental sections seemed to be poorly supplied with stores and equipment and would have been of little use to a unit such as the New Zealand one with its high percentage of denture wearers, where materials were a sine qua non. Captain page 372 McCowan refers to the supply position, which affected him acutely, in his report of 27 November 1941:
I have established contact with the RAF and attached dental personnel throughout the command, the headquarters being at Seletar on Singapore Island. I have also investigated the replenishment of stores position. The system is most unsatisfactory, the position being roughly as follows:—
All equipment and stores are indented six monthly direct from England as they have no medical or dental depot in the Far East Command. The requirements are eighteen months in arrears and, generally speaking, I am in a better position as regards stores and equipment than the whole of the RAF at Seletar.
For requirements of C class1 stores I associated myself with the Principal Dental Officer at Seletar in requesting power of local purchase, and in this matter the position is satisfactory.
In view of this alarming position and by virtue of being fully equipped for at least three months, the NZDC was able to make an offer to the Principal Medical Officer for the Far East to undertake responsibility for the treatment of all New Zealand personnel in Malaya as some relief to the RAF dental sections. The New Zealand unit was made dentally fit in ten days and the section then looked about for more New Zealanders. Squadron 488, RAF, were all New Zealanders and 243 Squadron had New Zealand pilots and British ground staff. Captain McCowan therefore moved his operating equipment to these squadrons, sending the prosthetic work back to Tebrau for processing.
The first few weeks in Malaya were not concerned with active enemy interference except for the nuisance of continual alerts and warnings. In December, however, things began to warm up and even the dental section bristled with Bren guns and Brownings in defence of the Clearing Station and morgue at Kallang. It does not appear that any ruling was given to the NZDC in Malaya about its right of protection under the Geneva Convention as was done in the Middle East. If there was, its observance was spurned as a custom to be honoured in the breach. Sergeant E. A. J. Goodwin,2 the dental clerk orderly, had had training in Bren and Lewis guns and he and Private D. A. Ward,3 the mechanic, were even seconded for transport duties and works protection for a short time after the beginning of hostilities. Ethically they should have been sitting under the carapace of the Red Cross, but if there was any doubt about the rights of their tenancy it was only human that they should prefer the sporting chance dependent on their own prowess to the trust in a moral shield dependent on the integrity of the enemy.
On 11 January 1942 the section was working on New Zealand troops on Singapore Island. The surgery was at Kallang in an evacuated private house on the boundary of the aerodrome, but the laboratory was still at Tebrau. Theirs was the only dental section still in Singapore. Work was confined to the afternoons as there was too much enemy aerial activity in the mornings. On 18 January they were bombed out of their surgery but found another for the time being, and on 24 January Private Ward was told to pack up at Tebrau and join them on Singapore Island. The Construction Unit left Johore on 28 January and made camp at the Dairy Farm, off Bukit Timah Road on Singapore Island. From then on the initiative was with the enemy and the scurrying of the New Zealand Dental Section can only be imagined from Captain McCowan's report of 23 March 1942:
Sergeant Goodwin and I remained at Kallang till 31 January 42 and then rejoined our unit. We completed the treatment of Squadrons 488 and 243. While at Kallang we carried out casualty clearance during the raids and an ambulance was at my disposal. I worked in co-operation with the Medical Officer.
On 1 February, orders came for the unit to transport equipment and personnel to Oosthaven (in Sumatra). The dental equipment was loaded on 2 February but on 3 February the vessel suffered direct hits and near misses from a bombing raid…. The hold carrying my equipment was on fire and salvage at that stage was out of the question. The same afternoon, in company with Squadron-Leader Smart and Captain North, I reported to Air Headquarters and was instructed to be at Tengah Aerodrome at 0300 hours on 4 February for transport to the Netherlands East Indies for urgent oral surgery work. I duly reported but was informed, with the Air Officer Commanding's apologies, that accommodation was not available. I therefore returned to the Dairy Farm. The same day I returned to the ship to attempt salvage of the equipment. I was partially successful but the Rock Gas equipment, vulcaniser, chaircase and contents and some personal gear were irretrievable. The vessel had 32 feet of water in her hold and was in danger of capsizing, consequently I deemed it unwise to stay below any longer.
On 5 February Air Headquarters asked me to stand by for air transport to Sumatra.
At 1600 hours on 6 February orders were received to evacuate the unit as shell fire was making the site untenable. Embarkation was to be by 1900 hours. The salvaged section equipment was packed and sent to S.S. ‘Darvel’. At 1830 hours another despatch from Air Headquarters asked me to stand by. I asked for further details, but as none were forthcoming, I refused to carry out the instructions, my reply being sent at 1845 hours.
The unit was divided for embarkation and transport, some to travel on S.S. ‘City of Canterbury’ and some on S.S. ‘Darvel’. To keep the section intact, I had to travel on one vessel while the equipment and stores were on the other.
We arrived in the ‘City of Canterbury’ at Batavia at 0800 hours on 9 February and camped at the Konig Wilhelm School. I sent a telegram next day to the DDS reporting our safe arrival in Java. For two days there was no information as to the whereabouts of the ‘Darvel’ but eventually she page 374 arrived on 12 February. Our casualties suffered in transport from Singapore were removed to the General Hospital in Batavia.
On 13 February the unit, except for half the officers, was transferred to Buitenzorg. On 20 February I was instructed to collect what hospital injuries I could and embark them for Australia on S.S. ‘Marella’.
The telegram from Captain McCowan to Colonel Finn of 10 February was not delivered and, until it was safely in Melbourne, when further advice was sent, there was doubt and speculation in New Zealand as to the fate of the Construction Unit. Except for a few tail feathers the dental section came out well from the campaign, in fact better than most, as it did save some of its equipment. The section returned to New Zealand on instructions from Group Captain Wilkes,1 New Zealand liaison officer in Australia, leaving Melbourne on 18 March 1942.