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The New Zealand Dental Services

CHAPTER 15 — The Battle of Libya, November 1941

page 201

The Battle of Libya, November 1941

FROM the point of view of the Dental Corps, the Second Libyan Campaign started on 1 October 1941, when the Mobile Dental Section joined the Division at Baggush as, apart from the casualty work of the dental sections attached to medical units, this was the moment when the full dental field organisation went into action. This campaign provided the arena where the organisation could put into practice what had been developed in theory and justify its existence in the field of modern warfare. The loss of the Mobile Section in Greece was an inauspicious beginning and it remained to be seen if the phoenix that arose from the ashes was truly a better bird.

Baggush, or ‘Baggush Box’ as the area was called, was an advanced base some 200 miles behind the forward positions, and the Mobile Dental Section was allotted space close to Divisional Headquarters centrally placed within the Division. The sea was close at hand with pleasant prospects of swimming, but so was the Luftwaffe and the orders were that all ranks should live in dugouts. A wholesome respect for the Luftwaffe delayed the start of full treatment. Four sub-sections were immediately sent to surrounding units, but the remainder had to set to work to establish headquarters and to erect the marquee as a dental hospital. It was then considered necessary to have the marquee dug down and sandbagged to a depth of three feet. As it covered an area of 38 feet by 19 feet, the amount of work to do this, even with the help of the Divisional Headquarters Defence Platoon, was enormous and resulted in the loss of at least a week. This extensive digging was later considered unnecessary and neither hospital nor sections were again dug down. All that was considered necessary was to prepare slit trenches and to dig down beds in areas where bombs were likely to be dropped.

At Baggush, all the units of the Division were within a radius of three miles and were receiving casualty treatment from the dental sections attached to the field ambulances. The responsibility in the first instance for the dental health of the troops lay with these sections, which held nominal rolls for these troops. When, however, the Mobile Dental Section was available, more extensive treatment page 202 was possible and the responsibility for dental health shifted to the Officer Commanding this section, but the field ambulance section still had charge of any records, merely supplying those requisite to the section or sub-section concerned.

The original intention at Baggush was for the Mobile Dental Section to render fit every man who presented himself for treatment, but it soon became apparent that the units wanted more than this. They were anxious to parade all their men for examination so that the whole unit could be made fit. At Baggush this could be done and the policy was initiated at that time of examining and rendering fit units in rotation whenever the tactical situation permitted. It was a policy that worked well, and it was found later that under the infinite variety of conditions of the North African campaign each unit received a dental examination and treatment at least once in twelve months.

The field ambulances continued, therefore, to treat all casualties and the Mobile Dental Section concentrated on routine treatment. The hospital marquee, dug down and divided by partitions of sandbags, was excellent under normal weather conditions, when the side could be let down to give light. When sandstorms blew, however, everything had to be closed and the absence of electric light made all but emergency work almost impossible. Still, the headquarters and two sub-sections worked there as a field dental hospital; sub-sections were distributed to various units with instructions to make them dentally fit but, while not refusing to see casualties, to refer as many as possible of these interruptions to the field ambulance sections. It may be mentioned here that the most efficient unit was found to be the section consisting of the officer, orderly and mechanic, with the driver and his truck. More work was done in proportion than when two or more sections were combined to work as a hospital.

On 12 November 1941 the period of training came to an end and the Division moved forward to play its part in the Libyan campaign. According to plan, the dental sections with the field ambulances moved with them but, on strict instructions from the ADDS, the Mobile Dental Section gathered in its sub-sections and remained in Baggush with ‘Left out of Battle’ (LOB) personnel, whom they continued to treat. Looking at this decision in the light of present knowledge, there is little doubt that if the Mobile Section had moved with the Division it would probably have shared the fate of its predecessor in Greece, and certainly would have been of little value to the Division. This is more easily seen after reading the account of the experiences of the sections with the field ambulances.

page 203

The three field ambulances and the Mobile Surgical Unit eventually came together and formed a large Main Dressing Station or Medical Centre, with the exception that one company from each ambulance remained with the brigade groups. Captain C. C. S. Loeber, NZDC, of 4 Field Ambulance, was with one of the Advanced Dressing Stations on liaison duties and maintained contact with the Medical Centre and with Brigade Headquarters. His party had a bad time and was heavily shelled, one of the medical officers being seriously wounded. Captain Loeber took over many of his duties and came out of battle with the company. Captain A. D. Aitken, NZDC,1 of 5 Field Ambulance, was liaison officer between the ADMS at Divisional Headquarters and the ambulance group. Unfortunately he was at the MDS when it fell into enemy hands. Captain W. P. Skegg, NZDC,2 of 6 Field Ambulance, was for three days the Ambulance Convoy Officer for the Medical Centre and each day took his ambulances out in the Capuzzo-Sidi Rezegh areas to collect wounded from widely scattered units who were constantly on the move. All his movements were by map, compass and speedometer mileage. On one trip he ran into an enemy camp and came under fire from both sides. After making two attempts to get through with his convoy he stumbled across a British column which, at his request, tried to clear a way for him, but eventually he had to return to the Medical Centre. The last part of his trip was in darkness and navigation was by dead reckoning.

When the field ambulances were captured, Captain Loeber's orderly and mechanic, Sergeant C. H. Constable3 and Corporal W. W. McDonald,4 who had remained with the main group, volunteered to take the news to Divisional Headquarters. They escaped at night, managed to get through the enemy lines, evaded the patrols and eventually ran into a picket from Divisional Headquarters.

The results of the campaign can be conveniently summarised:


Practically no dental work was possible under the conditions existing in the battle area. The dental personnel were used almost exclusively for other duties.

1 Capt A. D. Aitken; Dargaville; born NZ 7 Mar 1914; dental surgeon; p.w. 28 Nov 1941.

2 Capt W. P. Skegg; Auckland; born Wellington, 20 Dec 1913; dental surgeon; p.w. 28 Nov 1941.

3 WO II C. H. Constable; Wellington; born NZ 2 Jul 1916; librarian.

4 Cpl W. W. McDonald; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 8 Jun 1915; dental technician.

page 204

Captains Aitken and Skegg, Sergeant Taylor1 and Corporals Eagan,2 Smith3 and Moore4 were taken prisoners of war. Of these Smith and Moore were mechanics.


All field ambulance equipment was lost, Captain Loeber's by shellfire and the rest by capture.


The Mobile Dental Section, remaining behind when the Division went into action, was not only saved from probable capture but was ready, fully equipped and soundly established, to start treatment on the Division as soon as it returned from action. It could have done no dental work on the Division in the battle area.

Most units of the Division returned after the battles of Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh and established themselves once more in Baggush about the middle of December 1941. While the Mobile Dental Section was searching out the battle casualties, the ADDS took stock of the situation and analysed the results of the campaign as they affected the dental organisation.

Firstly, there was the use made of the sections attached to the field ambulances. Here was a specialist officer, deprived of the opportunity of practising his specialty, being used for work for which he had an imperfect training and which would have been better done by a trained officer. Without in any way belittling the services rendered by these officers or questioning their willingness to help in every way, it is pertinent to ask why they were even in the locality where such services were needed. It would appear that they would have been more correctly sited with the headquarters of the field ambulances during battle, a position from which they could have been sent wherever their professional services were required and when these services could be used. This was a view endorsed by one of the officers commanding a field ambulance. It is poor policy to train a racehorse for use in a plough. Both the horse and the ploughing will suffer.

The same argument applies to exposing valuable equipment to unnecessary risk. Unless conditions are reasonably static the dental section has little use for anything other than an emergency haversack. Equipment could therefore be kept at a reasonable distance and produced only when there was a chance of it being used.

Secondly, it would appear that the Mobile Dental Section was correctly used and was able to perform useful service. It also

1 Sgt R. H. Taylor; Whakapara; born 7 Feb 1913; engineer; p.w. 28 Nov 1941.

2 Cpl U. G. Eagan, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 17 Nov 1913; salesman; p.w. 28 Nov 1941.

3 Cpl E. J. Smith; Ashburton; born Lawrence, 12 Nov 1910; dental mechanic; p.w. 28 Nov 1941; repatriated May 1943.

4 Cpl L. W. Moore; Auckland; born Auckland, 12 Aug 1916; motor engineer; p.w. 28 Nov 1941; repatriated Jul 1943.

page 205 appeared, however, that this was only due to the fact that the ADDS so firmly insisted that it should be used in this way and had convinced the ADMS of the Division and the Officer Commanding the section of the correctness of his views. Actually the section had become attached to the Division at Baggush but was withdrawn and placed directly under Eighth Army when the Division moved to the forward area. It is therefore possible that in the absence of specific instructions to the contrary the section might have moved with the Division. This is borne out by the fact that when the Division was moving from the Western Desert area in January 1942, the Mobile Dental Section was included in the movement order contrary to the agreement made with the ADDS. This move was countermanded by the ADDS but it showed that the ADMS still considered the section to be part of the Division. It also shows why the ADDS was so keen that the section should be non-divisional, at least until such time as its capabilities and limitations were fully understood.

Divisional attachment had certain advantages, as also did non-divisional, and only experience in the field could adjust the balance. The pros and cons are stated by the ADDS and Major Middlemass:

War Diary ADDS, 30 December 1941:

Nothing would appear to be gained by attaching the unit to the N.Z. Division, particularly in the present indefinite, half-hearted manner. Actually when the unit moved originally from Maadi Camp to the Western Desert it was not intended that it should become attached to the Division. The unit was moved under a GHQ1 order from Maadi Camp to HQ 13 Corps, but on arrival at Baggush was claimed and annexed by N.Z. Division.

When the Division moved forward to a concentration area, the Mobile Section marched out to attachment to Eighth Army. Subsequently when Eighth Army moved, the section became attached to HQ 83 L of C.2 When the Division returned to Baggush it became attached to them again, more or less. During the period when the unit was attached to the Division, all Divisional orders had to be complied with, many of which did not concern the unit. Also, the section was considered by the A.D.M.S. to be one of his Medical Units. Numerous irrelevant returns had to be sent to him, returns which concerned medical units but which were not applicable to a dental unit. The Mobile Dental Section became one of the A.D.M.S.'s five medical units and became tacked on to the end of the other four. Naturally the unit was the last to receive consideration. There was no friction nor sign of it, but nevertheless the position generally was one in which the unit was attached to the Division without receiving any of the advantages of such a position.

N.Z. Division is always either moving or about to move, and, when it does, Mobile Dental Section remains behind until conditions become reasonably stable. When Division moves, the unit has to become attached to the page 206 Headquarters of the area or sub-area in which the Force is situated. It seems logical to conclude that in the first instance the section should move to the vicinity of the Division but, being a non-Divisional unit operating on all units of the 2 NZEF, it should be attached to the Headquarters of the area or sub-area in which the Division is located. Then it would be dealt with and controlled in the same manner as other 2 NZEF non-Divisional units. When Division moved there would be no disorganisation. The unit would be under the local control of the senior Medical Officer of the area concerned. It is felt that the unit would operate more smoothly and efficiently under this arrangement.

1 General Headquarters, Middle East.

2 Headquarters, 83 Lines of Communication.

Extract from a Survey of Dental Services within the NZ Division by Major Middlemass

The NZ Division was hurriedly moved from Syria to Matruh in order to help stem Rommel's apparently irresistible advance on the Nile Valley. 1 NZ Mobile Dental Unit moved with the Division as far as Cairo and then proceeded independently to Maadi Camp with LOB personnel. This was the first occasion on which the unit had moved with the Division. Hitherto, it had always moved independently of the latter—up to Baggush, down to the Canal Area, up to Maadi and finally up to Aleppo. This involves the issuing of a separate movement order by Middle East, through a variable number of Movement Control Officers to the area in which the unit is located and would seem to serve no useful purpose beyond demonstrating that No. 1 NZ Mobile Dental Unit is a non-Divisional unit. Indeed it has the disadvantage that the late arrival of the unit in the Divisional area or billets has always meant a re-arrangement of some Divisional unit in order to provide room for the Mobile Dental Unit. In Baggush, 4 NZ Field Ambulance was affected; in the Canal Area, the 5 NZ Field Ambulance; in Aleppo the 21 NZ Battalion. It is certainly inconvenient to these units while it is most certainly not to the advantage of 1 NZ Mobile Dental Unit.

All these difficulties and unnecessary inconveniences can be overcome by attaching the unit to the Division before the latter moves. Provision is then automatically made for the supply and movement of the unit, and allocation of an area on arrival at the destination is carried out by Divisional Headquarters. Less administrative work is required and there is less inconvenience to all concerned. It should be remembered too that when the unit is some distance from Base, and operationally this must always be so, it must move under Divisional arrangements. It is unwise therefore to break the normal routine on the comparatively few occasions when it is possible for 2 NZEF to move the unit.

Finally there is no loss of time in commencing work on units, at the latest on the day after the Division arrives in an area. Such is not possible if the unit moves under separate orders.

These opposing views were reconcilable by a fuller knowledge of how, where and when the Mobile Dental Unit could operate. The fullest co-operation between the ADDS, the OC Unit and the ADMS made it possible for attachment to the Division to be done with discretion, to their mutual advantage without the dangers so clearly demonstrated in Greece. In addition to this co-operation, page 207 however, it was essential that each, independently, should fully understand the capabilities and limitations of the unit. With the right officers it was unlikely that the unit would be improperly used. With even one of the trio imperfectly trained or unduly headstrong, Major Middlemass's suggestions might have led to disaster. Non-divisional attachment may have had disadvantages but it possessed advantages, especially in the early stages when the full implications of modern mobile warfare were imperfectly understood.

After the Mobile Dental Section had worked for some time under very trying conditions of rain, cold weather, mud and dust, it was announced that the Division would be withdrawn from the Western Desert to the Cairo and Canal areas. It was again noticed after the Libyan battle that there was a large number of broken and lost dentures, making it appear that this could normally be expected after the Division had been in action. It also again emphasised how vulnerable the denture wearer was to war conditions and how essential it was that an efficient dental service should always be available to a force such as the New Zealand Division.