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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

II: Reserve Forces

II: Reserve Forces

To provide for immediate expansion in the event of war, Naval Reserves of trained and partly trained personnel had been gradually built up in New Zealand over a period of years. In the medical branch these consisted of eight medical officers of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (New Zealand Division), seven of whom were fit for full active service. No reserve of sick-berth staff existed apart from one or two ex-naval sick-berth ratings.

The war of 1914–18, in which New Zealand had few naval commitments, had not established any precedent upon which the possible medical requirements could be based. British experience of that war had suggested that the function of RNVR medical page 162 officers was to provide immediate additions to medical complement required in war, to take medical charge of ships when qualified by experience, and by reason of their civil clinical experience to provide specialist services ashore and afloat. Medical administration and staff duties had, however, remained entirely in the hands of permanent officers of the naval medical service. There had been no reason to expect that New Zealand would follow any different line, but as events were to show in the war of 1939–45, the Reserve medical officers in New Zealand were required to take over the greater part of the medical organisation from the outbreak of war, and by the middle of 1941 had assumed the whole responsibility.

Available medical officers of the RNVR (NZ Division) had peacetime experience varying from one to twelve years in the Reserve. In addition to training with their respective shore units, all had served short periods in sea-going ships to familiarise themselves with naval medical routine, while one had served in a previous emergency for some months as senior medical officer of a cruiser.

It is important to note that the peacetime obligation entered into by members of the RNVR implied immediate availability for overseas service. While it was true that mobilisation of the Naval Reserves could only be effected by proclamation, it was well understood that naval preparedness might create a demand for services before a state of emergency had actually been declared. It is to the credit of the Naval Reserves in New Zealand that calls for services in a number of different capacities were answered promptly and willingly in the days immediately preceding the outbreak of war.

One Reserve medical officer, Surgeon Lieutenant Pittar,1 an Auckland eye specialist, joined the Achilles at two hours' notice on 29 August 1939 on her departure for an unknown destination. The ship returned to New Zealand six months later after lengthy patrols which had culminated in the Battle of the River Plate, but this officer proceeded overseas again almost immediately to serve the remainder of the war in his specialist capacity in Royal Navy establishments. His senior medical officer in the Achilles was also a New Zealander, Surgeon Lieutenant Hunter, RN,2 who was serving on loan from the Royal Navy.