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The New Zealand Dental Services

Rebuilding the New Zealand Dental Corps in the Middle East

Rebuilding the New Zealand Dental Corps in the Middle East

The first step in the re-formation of the Corps was to replace the lost personnel and equipment; the second was to turn to profit the lessons learned. There was no reason to doubt the correctness of the policy already laid down, but there was a need to ensure that all components of the organisation should be so constituted as to guarantee its successful fulfilment. The opportunity had arisen through misfortune to design the tools for the work rather than adapt the work to the tools available.

Eight dental officers, eight mechanics and four clerk orderlies arrived with the 6th Reinforcements at the end of July 1941 and it was arranged that ten suitable other ranks should be transferred to the NZDC from the training battalions. The general framework of the organisation was as before: two Camp Dental Hospitals, a Base Depot Dental Hospital, a Mobile Dental Section and dental sections attached to each of the three field ambulances, each of the three general hospitals, and to the Convalescent Depot and a Mobile Casualty Clearing Station. All of these were staffed and directed in the first place by the ADDS at Headquarters 2 NZEF. Changes were made in the establishments of existing units and the Mobile Dental Section was completely re-formed. There was no rigidity of attachment to any of these units and the ADDS reserved the right to interchange staff at will.

Certain anomalies regarding rank in the Dental Corps needed adjustment before new establishments were finalised. The three dental hospitals, i.e., the two Camp Dental Hospitals and the Base Depot Dental Hospital, were very important units in the service. Together with the Mobile Dental Section, they were commanded by the ablest and highest qualified dental officers overseas. They were the training ground for dental officers, mostly of the rank of captain, and yet there was no provision for their commanding officers to hold field rank. The war establishment for field ambulances, general hospitals and the Convalescent Depot allowed the dental officer to hold the rank of major, and the duties and page 198 responsibilities could not be compared with those of the commanding officers of the dental hospitals. The senior dental officers would be wasted in these units, as the hospitals, both from the technical and professional points of view, were more responsible commands. The ADDS's request for field rank for their commanding officers was not granted as such but he was given authority to recommend a specific number of officers for field rank on a Corps basis, which left him free to place them where he wished. This was a distinct advance on the old system of rigid appointment according to units. The memorandum from the Military Secretary to Headquarters 2 NZEF on the subject read:

… in my view the ranks of members of the Dental Corps should be settled on a Corps basis. At the present time the establishments for General Hospitals provide for the dental officers attached being Majors or under whereas in point of practice the appointment will normally be filled by a captain (except for one existing specialist appointment—and possibly an additional one to be made on arrival of an officer from England).

The appointments of Majors to Dental Hospitals is probably sound: but liberty of action for the Dental Corps might well be preserved here so long as the total Corps Establishment is not exceeded.

Suggested establishment therefore is:

Lt-Cols. 1
Majors 5 (if the specialist from England proves to be sufficiently highly qualified, one more Major then wanted, to make 6).

The Officer in Charge of Administration, with whom the ADDS was chiefly concerned, considered this a reasonable allocation on the grounds that it should be a balance between the number in a battalion and the percentage in the Medical Corps, i.e., about one-sixth the total number of dental officers. He sanctioned it as such and agreed to reopen the subject should the establishment of the Corps be increased in the future. The ADDS was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel on 26 July 1941.

The establishments of the Camp Dental Hospitals were then altered to permit the commanding officers to be either major or captain, the senior dental clerk orderly was given the rank of WO II, and the number of orderlies was increased by two. The same status was given the commanding officer of the Base Dental Hospital and the establishment was increased by one officer, three orderlies and three mechanics.

In the field ambulances the important change was that a dental mechanic was included in the establishment. This was a natural corollary to the experiences of the Division in Greece and Crete, where the majority of the casualties concerned artificial dentures.

page 199

The new Mobile Dental Section was formed in Egypt to the formula of the ADDS. The only assistance asked from the DDS was the provision of equipment and enough men from whom to choose the staff. Captain W. G. Middlemass1 was selected as the commanding officer and promoted to the rank of major. The nucleus of the section was re-formed and preparations were made to receive reinforcements, which being effected, the section moved to Maadi Camp, entering the School of Instruction for a special course on 7 August 1941. The purpose of this course was not so much to learn extraneous subjects which could be of little use in the field, but to mould it into a unit. The new establishment differed in minor details only from the establishment of the section lost in Greece and, as at this stage the alterations could only be based on theory after a limited and unsuccessful experience in the field, it is of little value to examine it in any detail. There were, however, some radical alterations in the method of equipping the section, based on the experiences of the section which worked in the Western Desert in 1940, and also some changes in administration.

The equipment began to arrive from New Zealand in early August on a generous scale and of a type and quality leaving little to be desired. There were, however, certain items not suitable for use in the field and some deficiencies which experience had shown should be included. Consequently, it was decided to receive it into the dental store, not as complete outfits but as individual items, and to build up entirely new field outfits. The deficiencies were to be made up either from Medical Stores or by buying from local supply houses.

For example, the equipment for a complete Field Dental Section had hitherto consisted of chair case, prosthetic pannier, surgical pannier and store pannier. The foot engine had been carried in a compartment in the surgical pannier and items which could not be packed in the surgical or prosthetic panniers had been carried in the store pannier. The first change was to remove the foot engine from the surgical pannier and place it in a specially constructed case, which could either be carried independently or in the chair case. All the surgical equipment could now be carried in the surgical pannier and the prosthetic in the prosthetic pannier, allowing the store pannier to be dispensed with. Each section was provided with a portable mechanic's bench, complete with trestles and with screw holes and bolts in the correct positions for assembly. The fitted mobile dental laboratory, so prominent a feature of the previous section, became a Field Dental Laboratory, consisting of page 200 a 4-ton lorry of standard design carrying equipment in panniers and two portable laboratory benches specially fitted and designed on which the equipment could be assembled. The trend was towards standardisation and simplification, leaving out all luxury equipment or specialised apparatus difficult to replace. The section could operate either as a complete unit similar to a camp dental hospital or it could break up into sub-sections. Some of these sub-sections were both surgical and prosthetic and some only surgical. All ambiguity in respect of command was removed. As far as personnel and policy matters were concerned, the ADDS was to be in full control and, except when the section was actually attached to the Division, he would control the movements and even the distribution of dental officers among units. When the section came under divisional control its commanding officer would be responsible to the ADMS of the Division for location, duties and discipline and would make his movements and attachments in consultation with that officer. At all times the ADDS was to receive returns of work and reports of the location of each unit, even when the attachment was to the Division, but in addition to and not to the exclusion of the ADMS.

The Mobile Dental Section thus became an integral part of the Dental Corps in the Middle East, a non-divisional unit to be used anywhere within the 2 NZEF but primarily to maintain the dental fitness of all units in the field. As the Division was then in the field undergoing training at Baggush, the section moved from Maadi on 30 September 1941 and immediately began systematic examination and treatment.

1 Lt-Col W. G. Middlemass, MBE, ED, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born Kaitangata, 5 Sep 1905; dental surgeon; OC 1 Mobile Dental Unit Jun 1941–May 1943; ADDS Jun 1943–Feb 1944; Colonel Commandant, RNZDC, 1958.