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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

II: Training of the New Zealand Medical Corps

II: Training of the New Zealand Medical Corps

At the outbreak of war there were only three members of the Medical Corps in the Regular Force and only one, WO I Kidman,2 was a fully qualified instructor. Medical officers and NCOs for units to go overseas, especially the field ambulances, were largely selected from the members of the Territorial Force who had done some preliminary training for several years before the war, but the Territorial units were weak numerically. At 31 May 1938 their strength was:

page 246
Officers Other Ranks
1 Field Ambulance, Auckland 8 49
2 Field Ambulance, Wellington 13 29
3 Field Ambulance, Christchurch 10 38

There was also a medical unit at the Otago Medical School, and RMOs were attached to units in the Territorial Force.

The officers and NCOs went into mobilisation camps a few weeks before their respective units and received advance training from Sergeant-Major Kidman, and then with his help trained the main body of their unit when it arrived in camp. Medical training followed the lines of the RAMC training manual, but was greatly hampered in the early stages by lack of equipment. At Burnham 4, 5 and 6 Field Ambulances and 4 Field Hygiene Section were mobilised, while 1, 2 and 3 General Hospitals and 1 Convalescent Depot entered Trentham Camp. Some members of the hospital units were trained in nursing duties at the Camp Hospital and Wellington Public Hospital. As part of B Force for Fiji, 7 Field Ambulance was assembled at Trentham.

Towards the end of 1940 a medical reinforcement company came into being but was placed under the command of an infantry officer, who was responsible to the Staff Officer Training. The Medical Corps had its own instructors, one officer and two sergeants, and from the outset there was constant friction between the Staff Officer Training and the Chief Instructor, Medical Corps, over training methods. It became evident, therefore, that some other organisation to fit in with the training requirements of the Medical Corps would have to be considered, and owing to the emphasis placed on the matter by ADMS, Army, Army Headquarters finally authorised the establishment of a Medical Corps Training Depot with a complete establishment of administrative staff and instructors. This unit came under the Camp Commandant for administrative purposes, but was under the direct control of ADMS, Army, for training.

The NZMC Training Depot thus became a self-contained unit and was instrumental in training the officers and other ranks of the NZMC of the successive reinforcements for 2 NZEF. Altogether sixteen reinforcement groups were mobilised and trained at Trentham; in addition, three other complete units were mobilised and trained, 2 Casualty Clearing Station and 24 Field Ambulance for service in the Pacific and the NZMC staff for the New Zealand Hospital Ship Maunganui.

Altogether 236 officers and 4016 other ranks were trained by NZMC instructors before embarking for overseas.

The outbreak of war with Japan necessitated the training of reinforcements for the Pacific, and field practices in jungle warfare were page 247 carried out in thick bush country near the Moonshine bridge at Upper Hutt. This training consisted of manhandling medical and ordnance equipment, setting up RAPs and collecting posts in dense bush, improvising means for carrying patients, providing shelter, and evacuating casualties through extremely difficult country.

The great activity in the home defence forces which followed the outbreak of the war with Japan also added considerably to the work of the instructional staff of the medical depot.

It became necessary to organise many courses of instruction to cover all activities in connection with the work of the NZMC. Arrangements were made to run continuous courses for field ambulance and hospital officers, NCOs and orderlies and for regimental stretcher-bearers, as well as hygiene and sanitation courses for combatant units and members of the RNZAF, and also chiropody courses.

Up to the end of 1941 the syllabus was based on a ten-weeks' course, but then the course had to be condensed to meet demands for a shorter training period. Early in 1942 Lieutenant-Colonel Graves,1 who had been CO 4 Field Ambulance in the Middle East, was appointed OC NZMC Training Depot and was able to introduce subjects to the syllabus based on active service experience overseas. Such subjects were first, the application of Air Raid Precaution principles to NZMC training in general, covering concealment from aerial observation, camouflage and dispersal, and second, the general principles of modern mobile warfare, with special attention to map-reading and compass navigation.

Reinforcements were given a broad training that would fit them for any medical unit and the course covered first aid, nursing, hygiene and sanitation, field ambulance work, general hospital duties and chemical warfare. It came to be recognised that a wide detailed knowledge of some first-aid matters as set out in the RAMC manual was not essential, and only limited instruction was necessary in subjects such as anatomy, physiology, poisons, etc. In first aid attention was concentrated on haemorrhage, shock, burns and fractures. Personnel had to be capable of responding rapidly when called upon to treat men seriously wounded by missiles of war. Wounds such as protruding compound fractures with widespread structural damage differ from the usual casualty in civil life, where often it may be doubtful if there is a fracture until an X-ray is taken. Stretcher exercises were limited in favour of practice in transporting wounded in difficult country, and in vehicles other page 248 than motor ambulances. All this was a matter, a vital and important one, of adapting training to Second World War techniques and demands, and not relying on out-dated experience or studies of the First World War.

Considerable difficulty was encountered in the training of medical officers. Many of the junior officers were quite lacking in military knowledge, they were in camp only a short time, and part of that time was taken up in RAP duties with combatant training units. They did not usually realise until it was pointed out to them that there was a great difference between a doctor and a medical officer. They required thorough grounding in the duties and responsibilities of an RMO, who plays such an important role in morale and health control. On occasions medical officers were in camp only a matter of days before being sent overseas, and training could not be by any means complete.

In March 1942, owing to a shortage of medical officers, it was suggested that certain duties carried out by qualified medical officers in field ambulances could be performed without loss of efficiency by specially trained officers without professional qualifications. It was thought that the appointment of non-qualified medical officers to field ambulance companies would be an advantage as these officers could devote all their time to training and administration, whereas qualified medical officers were often detached from their own unit to carry out professional duties as relieving RMOs or at camp hospitals, and this had at times been the cause of loss of efficiency in field ambulances. As regards the handling of casualties, nonqualified medical officers could only be expected to carry out the work of well-trained first-aid men and of good nursing orderlies. They needed, however, to be good instructors and administrators. There were nine field ambulances mobilised in the Dominion at that time, and by the appointment of non-qualified officers twenty-five medical officers could be released for professional duties or a similar number could be retained in civil practice.

The suggestion was later adopted in New Zealand but not in 2 NZEF and the first course for selection of unqualified officers was held at NZMC Depot, Trentham, from 3 to 22 August 1942. These officers became known as stretcher-bearer officers.

The course of training was later extended to three weeks' training at the Army School of Instruction, Trentham, and twelve weeks' technical training at the NZMC Depot.

2 Maj C. H. Kidman, MBE, MM and bar; Wellington; born Wellington, 28 Mar 1888; NZPS instructor; NCO 2 Fd Amb, 1 NZEF, 1914–19; instructor to NZMC in NZ, Sep 1939–Sep 1942; OC Medical Training Depot, Trentham, Sep 1942–Sep 1944; SO and QM, Army HQ, Sep 1944–Jan 1947.

1 Col P. V. Graves, ED; Waverley; born Hawera, 1 Apr 1896; medical practitioner; medical orderly NZ Hospital Ship Mabeno, 1917–19; RMO 2 Div Cav Sep 1939–Sep 1940; CO 4 Fd Amb Sep 1940–Aug 1941; ADMS, Central Military District, Sep 1942–Aug 1944.