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The New Zealand Dental Services

CHAPTER 6 — Organisation in New Zealand—Air Force

page 63

Organisation in New Zealand—Air Force

BEFORE 1937 there was no organisation for dental service to the Royal New Zealand Air Force, but in April of that year the Director of Dental Services awakened the interest of certain senior Air Force officers by personal interviews and private correspondence. As a result he was asked to forward an account to them of the organisation and regulations governing the dental services to the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy as a pattern for study. This started the ball rolling, but there was a temporary check because of the opinion expressed by the Principal Medical Officer that the dental services should be organised as part of the medical service under his command. He asked that the Air Board support him in this and postpone any action until his return from Australia some months later.

At this time there were two Air Force stations in the North Island, Hobsonville and Ohakea, and one in the South Island, Wigram. All personnel were permanent members of the Air Force and were not likely to exceed three hundred at each station except for short intervals. The men were inclined to attend the cheapest dentists for their treatment, often with unsatisfactory results. The DDS suggested that part-time dental officers be appointed, one to each station, to work at specified fees. Apart from allocating space for dental surgeries in the plans of the sick quarters to be built on the stations, nothing was done until after war was declared. Then the call for recruits forced the issue, and on 17 September 1939 the DDS of the Army, Lieutenant-Colonel Finn, was gazetted as Director of Dental Services to the Air Force and was faced with the task of building a dental service from nothing.

In October he arranged for all airmen then serving, approximately 1400 of them, to be examined by civilian dentists in the same way as the men for the First Echelon had been examined. The purpose of this was purely to provide some data on which to assess the requirements of an Air Force dental service. No decision was made regarding treatment until 18 December 1939, when the Air Member for Personnel, the Assistant Air Secretary, the Adjutant-General, the DDS, the Director-General of Medical Services and the Army Secretary met for that purpose.

page 64

By this time the strength of the Air Force was approximately 3000, with a monthly entry of about 300, and naturally officers commanding stations were frequently inquiring from Air Headquarters what facilities were available to provide their men with urgent dental treatment. Until some finality could be reached arrangements had to be made to send the men to private practitioners on the authority of the station medical officer and refund to them the cost from the Air Department.

The result of the meeting was that a scheme was approved by Cabinet on 15 January 1940. Dental sections were to be established at the larger Air Force units and travelling dental sections were to deal with the smaller stations. A provisional establishment, based on an estimated ultimate strength of 7000, was authorised as one Assistant Director of Dental Services, twelve dental officers, nineteen orderlies and nine mechanics, a total of forty-one. The cost of the scheme was estimated not to exceed £16,000 per annum and was to be an extension of the Army Dental Service, administered by the DDS, staffed by NZDC personnel at army rates of pay but attached to the Air Force for duty. The £16,000 meant about £2 5s. 8d. per head, which was about half the estimated cost of having the work done by civilian dentists.

Almost immediately it was realised that the scheme was based on a miscalculation of the rate of growth of the Air Force. The British War Cabinet inaugurated an Empire Air Training Scheme to train no fewer than 20,000 pilots and 30,000 other aircrew per annum for the Royal Air Force. An advanced training ground was established in Canada and elementary schools were set up in each Dominion according to its capacity. Under this scheme New Zealand agreed to train 1400 pilots annually. Of these, 520 were to be trained to elementary standard to proceed to Canada for advanced training, and the other 880 were to be fully trained to go direct to the RAF, with the exception of a few to be retained for duty in New Zealand. In addition, initial ground training was to be given to 546 observers and 936 wireless operators and air gunners who would receive their main training in Canada. This was a heavy commitment and led to considerable expansion of the organisation and a complete change of policy. The NZDC was affected by the change and the original organisation became obsolete before it had even been established. It was therefore decided in April 1940 that every air station should have a permanent dental section and that the original proposal of servicing the smaller stations by travelling sections should be abandoned.

To appreciate the NZDC problem it is necessary to know something of how the RNZAF provided the men for the Empire Training Scheme. On entering the service a recruit was first sent to a Ground page 65 Training School to receive initial training in subjects he would meet later in his career and to be introduced to service conditions. There were two of these schools, one at Levin,1 where the RNZAF had taken over the Government training farm at Weraroa, and the other at Harewood, in the South Island. Air gunners, observers and airmen pilots went to Levin, while flight riggers, flight mechanics, radio mechanics, wireless operators, fitter armourers, armourers and instrument repairers went to Harewood.

From Levin the air gunners and observers, after a course of from four to eight weeks, left for Canada for further training. The airmen pilots, as yet untrained in flying, had a general course of six weeks and then went to one of the four Elementary Flying Training Schools at Harewood, Taieri, Whenuapai or New Plymouth. Here they learned to fly in light aircraft and were either sent to Canada or to one of the Service Flying Training Schools at Wigram, Blenheim or Ohakea to complete their training in more advanced types of aircraft. From the Service Flying Training Schools most of them went to the United Kingdom, a few being kept for operational or instructional duties in New Zealand.

Similarly, those who went to Harewood Ground Training School received courses of various lengths and then went to such stations as Rongotai, Hobsonville or Wigram according to their classifications. After further instruction they either went overseas or to a New Zealand station for duty.

Hobsonville, Ohakea, Woodbourne and Wigram were operating at the outbreak of war and Levin was established within a month. During 1940, Whenuapai, New Plymouth, Harewood, Taieri and Rongotai were established, and before the end of the year dental sections were operating on all ten stations. They were staffed by officers and other ranks of the NZDC who had received several months' experience of military and Dental Corps routine in army camp dental hospital groups. They remained in army uniform, being merely seconded to the Air Force. This arrangement persisted throughout the war and by it the DDS was able at any time to transfer personnel between the Army and the Air Force.

When considering the ultimate goal of dental fitness for the Air Force, little distinction could be made between classifications as to the quantity of work to be expected. The time available for treatment became the factor to influence the dental organisation. Obviously, air gunners and observers who were undergoing a course of from four to eight weeks before leaving for Canada had to receive priority over men whose training in New Zealand would last several months. Where time was limited more dental personnel had to be page 66 concentrated. Also, when the training staff were trying to instil into laymen in a few weeks a mass of technical knowledge and skill that in peacetime would have taken as many months, they were liable to begrudge the time spent at dental parades. The policy therefore was to do as much treatment as possible at the recruit training schools, with a priority always for those leaving for overseas. At the Elementary Flying Training Schools priority was again given to those who would do their advanced training in Canada, leaving the work for the rest to be done at the Service Flying Training Schools. When the men arrived at the Flying Instruction School or the General Reconnaissance Station, the dental officer's duty was that of maintenance only, except for the station staff and WAAFs.

It can be seen that each station had its own problems, but the general dental organisation was co-ordinated so that at some stage of his career every man was rendered dentally fit. Owing to the delay in authorising a service for the Air Force and in supplying suitable accommodation, even of a temporary nature, it was some time before this object was achieved. It was April 1940 before the first three dental sections were established at Levin, Ohakea and Woodbourne, and the rest of that year was concerned chiefly with establishing further sections and attacking the leeway of work. It was not until 1941 that there was a true correlation of the work of all sections and a culmination of the policy of rendering all recruits dentally fit soon after entry and maintaining them so at all times. From then on the Air Force received a comprehensive service covering recruits, staff at headquarters and on all stations.

Establishments varied on the different stations according to their size and function from time to time. Dental sections or multiples of these were therefore moved from station to station according to the needs of the moment. All control was from the DDS at Headquarters through the RNZAF organisation, which was similar to that of the Army with a Northern, Central and Southern group. The very rapid growth of the Air Force was met by adding more and more dental sections until the dental service became comparable in size to that of the Army in New Zealand. The report of the Chief of the Air Staff for the year ending March 1942 shows that, during that period, 5591 embarked for overseas and at the end of it the total strength in New Zealand was 11,867; and this was before the large-scale reorganisation which took place to meet the Japanese threat had had full time to take effect.

With this reorganisation in 1942 the RNZAF became an operational rather than just a training service. Mostly in the North Island, many new stations were built to accommodate operational squadrons and operational training units and to cater for the American page 67 squadrons which were expected in New Zealand. Training was concentrated in the South Island, particularly at a large group station called the Delta. This station was run in much the same way as the group army camp at Linton, and the dental organisation was much on the same lines. It was bigger than anything previously attached to any Air Force station in New Zealand. Peak expansion of the Air Force in New Zealand was reached in 1943–44, by which time the danger to New Zealand had receded, and from then on there was a gradual closing down of stations.

The service to the Air Force emphasises the advantage of Corps administration. Isolated units of the Navy, Army or Air Force were seldom far from either a static or a mobile dental section. Central control, fully cognisant of concentrations and movements of troops of all services, could deploy with a fluidity unhampered by administrative difficulties. As stated by the DDS in his fifth annual report for the period 1 April 1944 to 31 March 1945:

It will be appreciated that certain RNZAF Units rely on Army dental sections for their dental treatment as being the most economical method, due either to their location or small establishment. Likewise there are instances where army and navy personnel are reliant upon the RNZAF dental services.

To summarise:


Because of its division into groups or stations, the RNZAF was best serviced by the attachment of dental sections or their multiples. The only exception to this was the organisation at the Delta which resembled the organisation of a mobile dental section.


The staffing of the Air Force dental sections by NZDC personnel from the army dental service gave a fluidity of movement to the whole Corps, which was of advantage to the three services and made it possible to cope with the rapid changes in Air Force organisation.


The dental problems of the three services were identical and could only be controlled by one DDS, unhampered by service jealousies, and using his dental forces with the one aim of establishing and maintaining dental fitness in all the armed forces all the time.


All overseas personnel were made dentally fit before embarkation, and the happy relationship between the Air Force and the Dental Corps which exists today is sufficient tribute to the efficiency of the organisation and the tactful administration of its staff.

1 Later transferred to Rotorua.