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The New Zealand Dental Services

Port and Shore Establishments

Port and Shore Establishments

A considerable amount of money is being paid to Naval Dental Surgeon Agents for dental treatment of ratings from minesweepers, trawlers and shore establishments at Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin and for denture work carried out by the agent at Auckland.

The result was a complete reorganisation aimed at bringing the service into line with those operating for the Army and the Air Force. The services of the Naval Dental Surgeon Agents were dispensed with except for urgent relief of pain at Lyttelton or Dunedin, on occasions when a ship's movements did not allow time for treatment at Army or Air Force stations. Examinations for page 73 ‘continuous service’ engagements were still done by them and their sterling service was recognised by an official letter of thanks from the DDS on behalf of the Naval Board.

At HMS Philomel new quarters were designed and authorised, and a dental section was seconded from the Army for duty. A full service including prosthetics was then available for Auckland from either the Philomel or Tamaki. The oral surgery specialist stationed at Papakura was at their service and, in ports other than Auckland, any ship not carrying a dental officer sent its men to the nearest Army or Air Force dental section. The Monowai, an armed merchant cruiser, was to have a dental section when she was ready to go to sea at the end of 1941. At long last the Navy was being offered a dental service comparable with that in the other services, but it was not prepared to accept it entirely in that form. The traditions of the Royal Naval Dental Service had to be upheld and a new Corps, however efficient in operation, could not be easily assimilated.

The result was a compromise. HMNZS Achilles took the Squadron Dental Officer, Surgeon-Lieutenant (D) D. M. Page, RN,1 from the Philomel, nominally responsible to the DDS in New Zealand but actually reverting to the system in vogue in the Royal Navy. HMNZS Leander, at that time away from New Zealand waters, instead of being provided with a dental section under the co-ordinated scheme for the three services, had to have special arrangements made for her. Lieutenant J. C. W. Davies, NZDC,2 had to resign his commission and be recommissioned as a temporary Surgeon-Lieutenant (D), RNZNVR. He had to be antedated three years in seniority to offset a disparity between naval and army rates of pay, and similarly, Sergeant F. E. Aldridge, NZDC,3 had to receive the rank of Sick Berth Petty Officer before he could join the ship. To all intents and purposes they became separated from the NZDC organisation and could be used nowhere but in the Navy.

Even this compromise was not effected without considerable opposition from Navy Headquarters. From the comments on the files it is doubtful if the serious dental condition of the Navy in late 1941 would have led to the reorganisation if the attraction of reduced costs had not been thrown into the balance. The estimates are interesting, though only a fraction of what they would be today. Ignoring the pay of the Squadron Dental Officer and his staff, which was common to whatever scheme was adopted, the cost of treatment by civilian dentists for the year ending 31 March 1941 was:

1 Surg Lt-Cdr (D) D. M. Page, RN; Hong Kong; born NZ 1914; dental surgeon.

2 Surg Lt (D) J. C. W. Davies; Hamilton; born Hawera, 12 Dec 1916; dental surgeon.

3 Sick Berth Petty Officer F. E. Aldridge; Hastings; born 21 Nov 1917; dental mechanic.

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Auckland 443
Wellington 475
Christchurch 161
Dunedin 203
Total £1282

The Director of Dental Services' estimate was as follows:

Annual Capital
£ £
1. To provide dental officers for cruisers on New Zealand Station Nil Nil
Transfer of Surgeon-Lieutenant (D) with
(a) Sick Berth rating Nil Nil
(b) Equipment provided by DDS 60 500
2. To provide dental officer for cruiser operating on detached service
Transfer of:
(a) Lieutenant NZDC 528 Nil
(b) Sergeant NZDC as SBPO 277 Nil
(c) Equipment ex Philomel Nil Nil
3. To provide a complete NZDC section for Auckland and to undertake prosthetic work
(a) Personnel 1218 Nil
(b) Equipment 96 550
2179 1050
4. To provide dental service at ports other than Auckland
Discontinue Agents and prosthetic service at Auckland and make use of existing NZDC sections
Saving of 1285
£894 £1050

At £1000 capital outlay and £900 per year, the New Zealand Navy was offered a dental service afloat and ashore, more than it had had before. The Navy was by far the smallest of the three services in New Zealand and its dental problem in comparison was negligible under the general Corps organisation. With the obstacles it placed in the way, it created a problem impossible of solution. Admittedly there were some difficulties of accommodation afloat, but the urgency of the dental problem itself, combined with the insistent demands of the medical and dental authorities, forced acknowledgment of the essential nature of the service. In this connection, Surgeon-Commander H. K. Corkill, RNZNR,1 Director of Naval Medical Services, wrote:

1 Surg Capt H. K. Corkill, OBE, VRD; born Wellington, 21 Nov 1897; surgeon; BEF, France (wounded Apr 1918); Director, Naval Medical Services, RNZN, Jun 1941–Feb 1946; died 8 Aug 1954.

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All opposition quickly faded when the great value of the service became apparent. The service provided by the Army Dental Department proved thoroughly successful throughout the remainder of the war. Not only did it provide for the needs of the New Zealand personnel but it rendered extensive service to ships of the British Pacific Fleet. One feature in particular which excited the envy and admiration of the Royal Navy was the provision afloat of competent technicians and equipment for prosthetic work.

The provision of prosthetic facilities was a sine qua non in the NZDC wherever it operated, at the base or in the field, so without detracting from the sincerity of the tribute from the Director of Naval Medical Services, it cannot be regarded as anything remarkable. It can only be regarded as a further reason why the NZDC organisation for the three services was so much more efficient than that existing in the Royal Navy. Without the naval compromise it would have been more efficient.

From the end of 1941 to late 1943, only one surgeon-lieutenant (D) was appointed with the exception of the Squadron Dental Officer, who already held a commission in the Royal Navy. All other work was in the hands of dental officers with army rank. This was not acceptable to the Navy, who insisted that all officers in His Majesty's ships should have naval rank. This was against the principles of the NZDC, who worked as Corps troops, but it was felt that it was better to accede to the request rather than cause disharmony. An added argument in favour of the change was the attitude of the dental officers themselves. From conversation with some of them it appears that allegiance to an army command, even of a technical nature only, was not appreciated by commanding officers of the Navy, and ‘Toothy’, as he was familiarly called, ‘Trod a very narrow and sometimes difficult path between the Navy and the Army.’ ‘Toothy’ may have been supersensitive, but there is no doubt that he sometimes was made to feel that as an army officer he was not quite in the picture. His attitude was therefore probably the line of least resistance. The result was that all dental officers seconded to naval units were commissioned as surgeon-lieutenants (D), RNZNVR.

Apart from the disadvantages already mentioned, there were individual disadvantages. The rate of promotion in the Navy was slower than in the Army. There was an irritating disparity between the pay of a medical and a dental officer, which was inconsistent with the comparative volume of work. The naval medical officer received three shillings more per day and two shillings more deferred pay, a total of five shillings. There was also a reluctance to give suitable recognition to the special qualifications of the dental mechanic. The rank LSBA (D) was not given in the New Zealand Navy until May 1942, although the Royal Australian Navy made use of it. A first-grade dental mechanic was indistinguishable from page 76 a dental orderly or a medical orderly with no special qualifications. The Naval Board on 18 July 1942 wrote as follows:

As ratings serving in cruisers are only called upon to act in the capacity of dental mechanics on occasions, the institution of the rating DM is not justified, notwithstanding the fact that the ratings borne for dental duties may be qualified for higher duty. It is not in accordance with the Naval Board's policy to allow in complements ratings of a higher grade than those necessitated by Service requirements.

The reasoning was unsound. The ratings had to be fully qualified even to act as mechanics on occasions. The Navy had not trained them but had received them fully trained as first-grade mechanics, key personnel who could ill be spared from useful work with the other services. The last sentence is the crux of the matter: ‘It is not in accordance with the Naval Board's policy to allow in complements ratings of a higher grade than those necessitated by Service requirements.’ The assessment of service requirements was entirely that of the Naval Board, and the greatest mistake of the NZDC was that it did not accept this at its face value and provide a service commensurate with the lower standard acceptable by the Board. The other services would not then have been deprived of the excellent mechanics who were not fully appreciated by the Navy. It is hoped that the disadvantages for officers and ratings serving in the Navy were outweighed by the compensation of more harmonious conditions. Whatever their plumage, however, they still were responsible to the DDS for the dental health of the ship or station to which they were attached.

Despite these difficulties, the dental health of the Navy improved after the NZDC came in in 1941. The description of its somewhat precarious attachment can be conveniently divided into four:


New Zealand.


The Pacific.


The cruisers.