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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

VI: Recruitment of Voluntary Aids

VI: Recruitment of Voluntary Aids

From the end of the First World War until shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, the New Zealand Red Cross Society allowed voluntary aid training to lapse almost completely. A few areas, notably Hawke's Bay (as a result of the Napier earthquake) and Wellington continued with training. Consequently there was not in the Dominion any large national reserve of trained and experienced voluntary aids ready for service in case of national emergency. Not until 1940 was there any major impetus in the formation of new detachments and the volunteering and training of voluntary aids.

When the Nursing Council was formed in August 1938 as a sub-committee of the National Medical Committee, it had the duty of linking up the activities of the Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John as far as they concerned the training and use of voluntary aids. These two societies nominated a representative each, and they, with the members of the Nursing Council, constituted what came to be the Voluntary Aid Detachment Council.

This council held meetings on 24 March 1939 and 13 April 1939. At these two meetings consideration was given to the organisation and training necessary for Voluntary Aid Detachments. A scheme was prepared and this was considered by the National Medical Committee on 18 April 1939, the members of the committee expressing the opinion that it represented a simple and efficient organisation which would give the voluntary aids some practical training in hospital routine and procedure. The report was then sent to the Organisation for National Security on 24 April 1939.

Measures were taken to enable voluntary aids of the Red Cross Society and Order of St. John to undertake training in public hospitals as planned by the Voluntary Aid Council, and numbers page 371 of voluntary aids were trained from 1940 onwards, valuable help being given by the matrons and sisters of many hospitals.

Regulations for the organisation of detachments were issued by both the New Zealand Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John so that sub-centres of both organisations could enrol and train members. Although at first it was noted that groups of older women volunteered more freely than the younger women, this position soon altered.

On 8 May 1940 the National Medical Committee agreed that the designation of the Council be changed to Voluntary Aid Council and recommended that the Joint Councils of the New Zealand Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John should issue a certificate to those voluntary aids who had completed their hospital training satisfactorily.

The scheme for giving voluntary aids some hospital training was pushed forward. These aids were required to hold certificates in home nursing, first aid and hygiene, and it was arranged that they should be given sixty hours' hospital training and twelve hours' theory each year, the practical work being given in periods of either four or eight hours a week. Employers were encouraged to release these aids from their staffs to undertake this training, and by May 1940 some 1000 girls had had their first period of sixty hours' hospital training and a further number were waiting to undertake this training as the opportunity offered.

Each hospital matron had at that time a list of trained aids who could be called on in emergency. Already Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and some of the smaller centres had made use of this scheme and had found it very satisfactory.

In order to assist the staffing of emergency hospitals, further arrangements were made for a short period of experience to be given in hospital kitchens and laundries to women who were experienced housekeepers, so that domestic staffs could be supplemented in the same way as the nursing staffs.

Early in 1941 the Air Force made requests through the Voluntary Aid Council for nursing aids for duty in the RNZAF hospitals in New Zealand, and a certain number were recruited from both the voluntary organisations. (Certain difficulties later arose in that the Air Force wished to use these aids for other than nursing duties. The position was eventually corrected as it seemed wasteful of woman power to use aids for duties other than those for which they had been trained.)

In August 1941 the annual general meeting of the New Zealand Red Cross Society unanimously passed a resolution to the effect that the Director-General of Medical Services be approached regarding the advisability and expediency of making more extensive use of page 372 their trained personnel for hospital duties, not only in the Dominion but more particularly overseas. In passing on these recommendations to the Adjutant-General the DGMS strongly supported them. Word was also received at this time of the decision of the Australian Army to enlist 720 female VADs to serve in AIF hospitals in theatres of war so as to release a proportion of soldiers for other military duties.

Then on 3 September 1941 the Matron-in-Chief took up with the DGMS the question of employing nursing aids in military camp hospitals as manpower was being depleted and the shortage of medical orderlies was becoming more acute. It was thought that in Territorial camps nursing aids would be especially valuable.

In 1941, too, discussions on the subject of the employment of voluntary aids in hospitals had been initiated in 2 NZEF. Preliminary conferences were held in July 1941 and DDMS 2 NZEF recommended in September that hospital nurses, and also a clerical section, be sent from New Zealand. They would enable men to be released from hospitals for field units. It was decided that the employment of women in kitchens or cookhouses was inadvisable owing to the hot climatic conditions of the Middle East.

The upshot of all these developments was that voluntary aids were accepted for duty in service medical units both at home and overseas, 2 NZEF in the Middle East having agreed to their employment in hospitals.

In November 1941 the War Cabinet approved proposals for the selection and despatch of 200 women for service overseas in the Middle East with medical units of 2 NZEF. The unit was to be entitled the New Zealand Women's War Service Auxiliary (Overseas Hospital Division) and was to be under the control of the Matron-in-Chief, Army Nursing Service. Besides the nursing section there was to be a small clerical section. War Cabinet directed that the selection was to be based on fixed quotas from districts in accordance with the density of population. The WWSA was primarily concerned with the selection of the fourteen women for clerical duties, and the National Voluntary Aid Council was the body which undertook the selection of the voluntary aids for the nursing section, the names of those selected being submitted to the WWSA for transmission to the Army.

The selection was completed by 9 December 1941, at which time it was known that the New Zealand Medical Corps had lost large numbers of men as prisoners in Libya. The group was able to be sent overseas in the HS Maunganui on 22 December 1941. Some were disembarked at Fremantle to proceed farther in the Oranje, but the main body arrived in Egypt on 25 January 1942 and were posted to the three New Zealand general hospitals.

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On 17 April 1942 a deputation from members of the Joint Council of the New Zealand Red Cross Society and Order of St. John waited upon the Minister of Defence to put the voluntary aid operations of these societies on a proper footing. Some misunderstandings had arisen following the establishment of the Women's War Service Auxiliary and the direction in January 1942 that women required for the Army would be recruited from this body. The matters raised by the deputation were the subject of a conference with the Associate Minister of National Service. The points raised at the conference were examined by the Director of National Service, whose recommendations for the selection of voluntary aids for overseas service largely supported the system used for the first hospital section sent overseas, and these recommendations were approved by the Minister.

In November 1942 the position was further clarified when the National Service Department advised the National Voluntary Aid Council that in future all voluntary aids required for home service with the armed forces (Army, Navy or Air Force) would be selected from the pool approved by the National Voluntary Aid Council, and this would be the only method of recruitment. Voluntary aids undertaking home service duties could be seconded for duty overseas, but in the case of the Air Force they were required to serve one year on home service before going overseas. In view of this, girls could be accepted for duty in the Air Force at 23 years of age instead of in their 25th year. Voluntary aids could be granted a release for army duties other than nursing only after consultation with the Health Department.

Decisions made in July 1942 altered the title to New Zealand Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (Voluntary Aids), brought in the rank of nurse and replaced the WWSA badge by the NZMC badge.

By February 1944 there were 268 voluntary aids on service overseas in the Middle East and Pacific with 2 NZEF, while there were 50 on duty at military camp hospitals and 119 on duty at Air Force station hospitals in New Zealand.