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The New Zealand Dental Services

Captain P. F. Foote2 of 6 NZ Field Ambulance:

Captain P. F. Foote2 of 6 NZ Field Ambulance:

Perhaps the most unique and picturesque setting this dental section has operated in so far in Italy was in Castlefrentano during the Xmas-New Year period, 1943/44. So as to be in a building the MDS was established page 254 in the schoolhouse, a distance of 4,000 yards from the FDLs.1 There were no ADSs forward of Castlefrentano and as casualties in the first battle for Orsogna were heavy, the dental section was called on to do additional duties. The dental officer administered anaesthetics and the orderlies were stretcher bearers. The surgery window, without glass, looked on to the Appenines which were completely snowclad and, during daylight, a magnificent sight from the chair.

One of two things happens to a soldier who reports sick for dental reasons in the line. He is either held till the unit comes out to rest or he is evacuated to the open MDS depending on the decision of the RMO.2 The former are generally denture troubles or broken fillings which are not causing great inconvenience while the latter include acute troubles and Vincent's Stomatitis. In one area I was in, movement in and out of the line could only take place during darkness so the dental casualties arrived for breakfast and left after dinner at night.

From time to time a down-trodden Italian peasant would ask for dental attention usually after suffering pain for weeks that no New Zealander would put up with for days. Every dental officer who has worked in the Division in Italy will recall the familiar sight of a party of peasants cautiously approaching the tent, one of their number peeping at you through yards of woollen scarf. After ‘multi parlare’ chiefly by the relatives about ‘multo dolore’ and ‘niente dormire’, the tooth is located and, amid much holding of hands and performances is extracted.

It can be readily understood that the intense cold made it very difficult to operate, especially in tents. Apart from the disadvantages already mentioned of operating in buildings, there was the danger of contracting typhus fever which is common in southern Europe, and, as most of the recently occupied buildings were harbourers of lice, the carriers of the disease, the discomforts of the tent were more cheerfully accepted.

On 18 January 1944 the Division moved out of this area in the strictest secrecy to the Fifth Army front on the other coast of Italy. Seven days' reserve rations and extra petrol were carried on each vehicle, making them much overloaded but, to the credit of the ASC drivers and the Motor Transport Sergeant, all the dental vehicles arrived without having to break convoy. They passed through Ariano, Bovino, Riatella, Grottaminarda, Avellino, Monteforte, Cancello and Caserta to the Alife area some miles south of Cassino. Here the units settled down amongst olive trees and towering mountain peaks overlooking the Volturno valley with the river winding through its tortuous course. There were heavy frosts but brilliantly fine sunny days, a bright beginning for an area the men were to know well for some time. Unfortunately it was soon found that this was but a beginning and that they had not finished with the rain, mud and cold. Sections were again page 255 attached to units and the work went on. Here they can be left while some consideration is given to the units left behind at the Advanced Base near Bari.

The Advanced Base Dental Section under Major B. Dallas, 3 General Hospital Dental Section under Major N. M. Gleeson and the Convalescent Depot Dental Section under Captain A. C. Dickens constituted the ‘hospital circuit’ of the organisation in Italy. Their policy was to guarantee dental fitness for every man in that circuit before allowing him to pass on to the next. It was an empiric organisation only and could not carry out this policy indefinitely with only three sections, but it was the foundation for a bigger one to be built up when Headquarters 2 NZEF moved to Italy. To this end a stone dental hospital was designed to a plan similar to that at Maadi. It was found to be impracticable, but a special hospital Nissen hut was designed instead, though not completed until March 1944.

This was the position when Headquarters 2 NZEF, including Lieutenant-Colonel Middlemass as ADDS, arrived at Taranto on 25 January 1944. Two other dental units arrived at the same time, viz., 2 Mobile Dental Unit and the Base Depot Dental Hospital. Headquarters was set up in San Spirito, a small town seven miles north of Bari on the Adriatic coast. In Bari itself was 3 General Hospital and at San Basilio, 35 miles south of this, was the Advanced Base now containing the Base Depot Dental Hospital, 2 Mobile Dental Unit and the Convalescent Depot. The ADDS's store was housed in two adjoining huts at Advanced Base as there was no room for it at San Spirito. It still distributed supplies to the dental sections, in turn being stocked from ADDS, Allied Force Headquarters, every three months, picking up the supplies at Naples. The original source of supply therefore continued to be British.

The distribution of sections throughout the force was uneconomical but continued in this form through the month of February. With the Division, the field ambulance dental sections were dealing with casualty work and 1 Mobile Dental Unit was struggling with an increasing volume of routine examination and treatment. On the other hand, at the Base, the Base Dental Hospital was unable to work through lack of accommodation and was being used for camp fatigues, while 2 Mobile Dental Unit was providing sections to work on base personnel. The time was over-ripe for a reorganisation of the whole service to meet new conditions, but this was left to Lieutenant-Colonel Fuller, who resumed his duties as ADDS on 1 March 1944.

page 256

Before describing the reorganisation, one result of Colonel Fuller's return should be mentioned. It had originally been intended that Colonel Middlemass should be granted furlough in New Zealand on handing back the command. Circumstances had altered, however, and it meant that he had to revert to the rank of major, return to his former command of 1 Mobile Dental Unit, replacing its existing CO and, in turn, each of the others holding senior appointments in the Corps. Saturation point had been reached regarding both field rank and senior appointments and, with no furlough or exchange scheme in operation, the senior men in the middle of the gradation list were denied opportunities for advancement and promotion.

2 Maj P. F. Foote; born Westport, 21 Jun 1917; dental surgeon.

1 Forward Defended Localities.

2 Regimental Medical Officer.