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The New Zealand Dental Services

CHAPTER 33 — The United Kingdom Reception Group

page 396

The United Kingdom Reception Group

AFTER the Allied invasion of Europe in June 1944, it became evident that there would follow a liberation of prisoners of war from enemy camps, among them New Zealanders estimated at not far short of 10,000. As has been seen in a previous chapter, a quantity of work had been done for these men in the various camps, but it could not be expected that this valiant effort under difficult conditions could prevent a serious deterioration in dental health. It was essential for their physical and mental welfare that this be remedied as soon as possible and that it was the responsibility of the New Zealand Dental Corps to do it. It was reasonable to assume that the repatriated prisoners of war would be congregated in reception camps in the United Kingdom for an indefinite period.

The Military Liaison Officer in London favoured the use of a detachment from the Dental Corps in the Middle East and Central Mediterranean and suggested a Headquarters Section of 2 officers and 10 other ranks with four sub-sections of 1 officer and 2 other ranks each. He was not, however, in a position to see New Zealand's dental problem as a whole. The suggested detachment could have carried out little more than urgent treatment and maintenance, leaving the bulk of the work to be done in New Zealand, and the Corps in the Middle East and Central Mediterranean could spare few men, if any, until their own campaign was finished.

With the RNZAF serving with the Royal Air Force, estimated at 4400, with an effective strength of 3000 stationed in and operating from the United Kingdom, 2000 airmen in the Empire scheme for replacements and members of the Royal New Zealand Navy serving with the Fleet Air Arm or in Royal Navy seagoing craft numbering probably another 1000, there was an estimated total of 16,000. Taking this into account, with the experience that one dental officer to 800 men, with mechanics and orderlies in proportion, was the minimum to carry out the task, the DDS suggested a headquarters, with Advanced Base Dental Store, consisting of an ADDS and eight other ranks and a Dental Corps Depot of 20 officers and 70 other ranks.

This establishment, based on sound experience, was the ideal but it was difficult to fill. The Corps still had many obligations, page 397 notably to the three services in New Zealand and the RNZAF in the Pacific. The Middle East and Central Mediterranean still required reinforcements for those they had sent back to New Zealand, most of whom were returned to civilian life as medically unfit for further service. There was also a proposal to discharge all dental officers over the age of 39, especially those with families, before the end of the year. As a compromise, therefore, the DDS recommended that 11 officers, including the ADDS, 16 mechanics and 36 orderlies be sent, leaving the remaining 10 officers, 4 mechanics and 20 orderlies to be provided from repatriated NZDC prisoners of war. This decision was practically forced on him by shortage of staff, but that he was reluctant to come to it is shown by a letter to Lieutenant-Colonel Rout on 11 May 1945:

I did hope that some of the prisoners of war would, when they had had a spell, welcome a job of work though, as you know, when I first put the proposition up to the Adjutant-General, I stated that it was not a fair thing to ask them to operate. He disagreed, hence the policy that they would come in and help and take their post graduate courses later, for it would seem that it will be many months before the prisoners of war get back.

There was much criticism of this decision, firstly in New Zealand and later in England. It had already been announced in the press1 that an organisation under Brigadier Hargest had been set up in England to deal with repatriated prisoners of war and that dental attention was included in this. Mr R. M. Algie, MP, received a letter suggesting that he ask a question in the House with reference to the proposal to send dentists to England to treat prisoners of war. The correspondent suggested that the expense was unwarranted and that urgent treatment could be provided by British dentists. Mr Algie referred the matter to the Hon. F. Jones, Minister of Defence, who stated, inter alia, that the Government of New Zealand ‘would leave no stone unturned or grudge any expense in providing our sailors, soldiers or airmen all necessary dental attention to restore them to normal health as soon as possible after their years of captivity’. The British Army and civilian dental services were confronted with their own problems and could not be expected to take in hand treatment of our men.

A more serious criticism came from an authoritative source. Major-General F. T. Bowerbank,2 Director-General of Medical Services, wrote to the Adjutant-General:

1 Dominion, 12 Aug 1944.

2 Maj-Gen Sir Fred T. Bowerbank, KBE, ED, m.i.d., Order of Orange-Nassau (Netherlands); Wellington; born Penrith, England, 30 Apr 1880; physician; 1 NZEF 1915–19; /c medical division 1 Gen Hosp, England; President, Travelling Medical Board, France; DMS Army and PMO Air, 1934–39; Director-General of Medical Services (Army and Air) Sep 1939-Mar 1947.

page 398

On medical grounds I strongly oppose the employment, after their release, of officers and other ranks of the Dental Corps who are repatriated prisoners of war. They should be treated exactly the same as combatant officers and other ranks and should be returned to New Zealand.

In my ‘Appreciation of Accommodation Requirements, New Zealand Prisoners of War’ dated 20 May 1944 (while I was in England) I stated:

‘I should like to emphasise here that all repatriated medical officers and other ranks should be given leave and should be treated exactly the same as combatant officers and other ranks. This I consider important.’

In the face of this it was not possible to get authority for the establishment as suggested, but it was decided to leave it to the ADDS in England to appeal personally to repatriated prisoners of war to assist voluntarily. In most cases this appeal was successful and only a small but vociferous minority requested immediate repatriation, and even this was short-lived.

The NZDC unit, comprising 11 officers and 52 other ranks, left Auckland on 6 September 1944 in TSS Ruabine, arriving in Liverpool on 29 October. It set up a section on the ship with the help of the Chief Engineer who provided, among other things, a cargo light and an adapted fan motor for use as a lathe. On arrival it moved to Dover and set up headquarters at Old Park Barracks under Lieutenant-Colonel Rout as ADDS.

Headquarters and Advanced Base Dental Store consisted of the ADDS, a WO I as sergeant-major, two dental clerks, one of whom was a staff-sergeant, a sergeant as head storeman, a corporal store-man, batman and two NZASC drivers. They had a light motor car and a covered 15-cwt truck as transport.

The Depot, under Major W. McD. Ford, had its own headquarters for assembly, training and distribution of personnel. It could provide sections to staff Wing Camps and other depots of the Navy, Army and Air Force. It could not be fully staffed until the arrival of the prisoners of war. The full number was 90: five majors and fifteen captains; a staff-sergeant in charge of training; thirty-nine orderlies, of whom ten were sergeants and five corporals; twenty mechanics, of whom three were staff-sergeants, six sergeants and three corporals; ten batmen, of whom one was a corporal.

As yet the unit could not be fully employed but it set up sections wherever New Zealand troops could be found, with the exception of those attached to the Royal Navy, who remained the responsibility of the Admiralty. Apart from their dental duties they made themselves generally useful in many other ways. Some assisted at the New Zealand Fernleaf Club in London, some in the library of the Education and Rehabilitation Service and some were sent to Italy to the Central Mediterranean Force.

While waiting for the arrival of the prisoners of war their policy was to examine, render fit and maintain New Zealand servicemen page 399 and women, to train their personnel and to investigate dental refresher courses in the United Kingdom should the demand arise and the policy be approved.

In order to appreciate the problem it is necessary to outline briefly the plans of the Reception Group for handling prisoners of war on arrival.

The Group was formed in August 1944 and came under the command of Major-General H. K. Kippenberger1 in October. The bulk of the repatriates did not begin to arrive until April 1945 although some, repatriated under normal exchange arrangements, were handled in the meantime. The Group consisted of wings located at seaside resorts in the South of England such as Dover, Folkestone, Birchington, Hythe, Broadstairs, Margate, etc. A New Zealand military hospital was also made available.

On arrival at the various wings according to their arm of the service, the men were to be medically and dentally examined, re-clothed and re-equipped, provided with pay, ration cards and gifts from the National Patriotic Fund Board. They were then free, if fit, to go on twenty-eight days' leave. Complete arrangements were made for study courses, university short leave courses, tours to places of interest, trade and agricultural attachments, garden parties, dances, etc. Hospitality was offered in private homes and well-stocked libraries were provided at the various wings. The Fernleaf Club gave facilities for those in London. Passages for New Zealand, although hard to obtain, were to be arranged as soon as possible. Actually 1500 men were embarked by 21 June 1945.

The ADDS began to have doubts about getting any men for long enough to complete treatment. He had already finished work on all available service personnel and the staff in London of the Reception Group, and had cleared two RNZAF drafts for embarkation to New Zealand. His headquarters had moved to the West-cliff Hotel at Westgate-on-Sea and the Depot was close at hand in the same town.

In April 1945 the prisoners of war began to arrive. Detachments of the NZDC went to the Grand Hotel at Brighton, Ellingham House, Westgate-on-Sea, Cordova Courts in Folkestone, Fernleaf Club, London, Carisbrooke Hotel, Margate, Carlton Hotel, Broad-stairs, and Greenham House, Birchington.

1 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1916–17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939-Apr 1941, Jun-Dec 1941; comd 10 Bde, Crete, May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942-Jun 1943, Nov 1943-Feb 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div, 30 Apr-15 May 1943, 9 Feb-2 Mar 1944; 2 NZEF Prisoner-of-War Reception Group (UK) Oct 1944-Sep 1945; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories, 1946–57; died Wellington, 5 May 1957.

page 400

Whereas the dental condition of the troops in England had showed 120 fillings and 24 dentures to each 100 men, the examination of prisoners of war showed 150 fillings and 46.5 dentures to 100 men, with 81 per cent requiring treatment. Fortunately reinforcements arrived. An officer, mechanic and orderly were annexed from the Hospital Ship Oranje and three officers arrived from the Central Mediterranean Force. The NZDC repatriated prisoners of war were not immediately available as operators but most of them began duty during June.

It soon became obvious that it would be impossible to make everyone dentally fit before embarkation for New Zealand. Most men could only be examined before going on leave. The few who did not go immediately on leave were allowed to stay only fourteen days in the Reception Group. The shipping position was uncertain and little warning could be given of the departure of drafts. The only solution was to work long hours when the men were available and to send a dental section with each incompleted draft to work on the ship on the way to New Zealand. This was at least one way of granting priority of repatriation to NZDC prisoners of war.

By the end of the year most of the men had returned to New Zealand and the members of the dental detachment had either gone with them or had made their ways to a university in England or the United States for a post-graduate course. The total work completed in England up to 31 December 1945, in spite of the sudden embarkation of patients, is formidable:

Presenting for treatment 16,424
Made dentally fit 6,967
Extractions 1,923
Fillings 14,057
Scalings 2,911
Full dentures 819
Partial dentures 669
Remodels 738
Repairs 1,191

In addition, eight returning transports carried dental sections and, although figures of the amount of work done on board are not available, it cannot have been inconsiderable.

By 12 January 1946 only one section under Captain J. S. Beresford1 was left in England, working at the Fernleaf Club. All equipment except a field dental outfit and three months' reserve stock had been returned to New Zealand. This last section finished work on 31 March, leaving the dental surgeons in the Royal Navy and Royal

1 Capt J. S. Beresford; England; born Auckland, 10 Jan 1920; dental student.

page 401 Air Force to look after the insignificant number of New Zealand cases remaining.

Reviewing the position as a whole, it must be accepted that there was full justification for sending a detachment to England; it was none too large for the task; the majority of repatriated prisoners of war welcomed the opportunity to aid in the work and the result was satisfactory. There are, however, some matters that deserve comment. The sudden and unheralded embarkation of troops could not be avoided and will probably be a similar obstacle in any future war, but there are other obstacles that might be reduced in the light of experience.

One concerned the provision of surgery and laboratory accommodation on the troopships returning to New Zealand. It took some persuasion to correct the opinion that a cabin 8 or 9 feet square, four decks down with no ventilation and a lamp screwed on the wall, was adequate for a busy dental officer. The first two ships made some improvements at the urgent instigation of the ADDS and in later ships the accommodation was good. The Andes, in particular, had first-class accommodation below the boat deck forward on the port side.

Another arose from the difficulty of sending accurate data back to New Zealand from the three services by the fact that the Navy Dental Service was under the control of the Admiralty, and the ADDS could but ask that Mr Skinner, Naval Affairs Officer, provide him with information which would fill in the gaps in his own report.

In conclusion, the granting of requests by dental officers for postgraduate study is something that could be better defined. It would appear that there was no set policy as to who was entitled to take these courses and no list of accepted schools. Quite often arrangements were made in all good faith, only to be cancelled on instructions from New Zealand.

This chapter may well conclude with a letter from Air Commodore K. L. Caldwell,1 commanding Headquarters RNZAF, London, to Major-General Kippenberger, dated 1 November 1945:

I feel it is appropriate at this stage to place on record my fullest appreciation of the grand services rendered by Lieut-Col. Rout and his officers and other ranks to the members of the R.N.Z.A.F. Dental treatment of the R.N.Z.A.F. in the United Kingdom is primarily the responsibility of the R.A.F. but, owing to shortage of skilled staff, the R.A.F. has never been in the position to provide more than emergency treatment.

The N.Z.D.C. officers have met this deficiency to the fullest degree with the result that the dental welfare of our personnel has left nothing to be

1 Air Cdre K. L. Caldwell, CBE, MC, DFC and bar, m.i.d., Croix de Guerre (Belg); Auckland; born Wellington, 16 Oct 1895; sheep farmer; RFC 1916–18; NZALO, India, 1945; AOC RNZAF HQ, London, 1945.

page 402 desired…. Lieut-Col. Rout and his officers have on all occasions co-operated to the fullest degree and I have no hesitation in expressing the satisfaction felt by our personnel. I would be grateful if you would convey my personal thanks to the personnel concerned.

A copy of this memorandum is being forwarded to D.D.S. at Army Headquarters, New Zealand.