The New Zealand Dental Services
THE story of the campaign in Greece and Crete in which the New Zealand Division fought in 1941 is a jewel of many facets polished into brilliance by military historians, political apologists, moralists, strategists and tacticians. So much sparkle is blinding and misleading when it is intended, as in this history, to polish one small facet only, so little reference will be made to the campaign in detail. All that it is necessary to know before beginning the story is that the New Zealand Division was sent to Greece, fought there, was driven off to Crete, fought again, and thence was evacuated to Egypt with inevitable losses in men and equipment. The whole campaign was extremely mobile and as such offered no facilities for organised dental treatment, but it is reasonable to assume that nobody guessed how fast modern warfare could move. Had they done so the lesson to the Dental Corps might have been less costly but, on the other hand, many prisoners of war in Germany would have been deprived of much expert dental attention.
The decision to send the Division to Greece provided the Dental Corps, in the first instance, with a clear-cut issue according to the blueprint organisation so recently adopted. The men were leaving the training camp and entering the ‘Action circuit’ where maintenance and the treatment of urgent dental casualties became the first consideration. There were three Field Ambulances, the 4th, 5th, and 6th, to each of which a dental section was attached. The ‘Hospital circuit’ was represented by No. 1 General Hospital, which had a dental section with it. Nothing less than this could give a reasonable coverage. Until there was reason to expect some stability in the military operations, nothing more could be used with certainty. Dental units surplus to requirements in the ‘Action circuit’ could only be regarded as a potential hindrance to essential military operations and an unjustifiable risk of trained personnel. Unfortunately, more were sent. On 1 April 1941, after the main body had sailed, eight officers and twenty-four other ranks, with fifteen Army Service Corps drivers attached, left Egypt as a Mobile Dental Section, complete with elaborate equipment. Of this number, one NZDC other rank and one ASC driver were evacuated from page 180 Greece to Egypt; two NZDC other ranks and four ASC drivers escaped to Crete; all the others were taken prisoners of war and all equipment was lost.
It is easy to be wise after the event, and easier still to level criticism and apportion blame, but not quite so easy to recapture the spirit of the moment or to analyse dispassionately the decisions born in immaturity. Many of the records were lost in Greece; the capabilities and limitations of a Mobile Dental Section had not been fully tested; there were differences of opinion over the channels of command and teething troubles in the assimilation of a new unit into an old-established organisation.
The decision to send dental sections with the field ambulances and the General Hospital was in accordance with established custom and needs no comment. It is from an analysis of the movements and activities of the Mobile Dental Section in this campaign that valuable lessons can be learned. Who sent the section to Greece? Why was it sent there? Did it perform any useful function? Having arrived in Greece, was it used correctly? Could it have been saved from capture? To answer these questions with complete accuracy is impossible as there is little conclusive written evidence. It is, however, possible to piece together the fragments into a story, bridging the gaps with deduction as distinct from conjecture.
Before the departure for Greece the New Zealand Division was in Helwan Camp under the dental care of the Mobile Dental Section. It was here that the first confusion in regard to the command of the Mobile Dental Section became apparent. The ADDS considered that Helwan was a base camp and that the complete dental arrangements for troops in such a camp were his responsibility. As such the Mobile Dental Section would come under his command. He based his opinion on the instructions of the Officer in Charge of Administration (OICA) already quoted:
On the other hand, the ADMS (Division) apparently regarded the concentration of the Division in Helwan Camp as analagous to field conditions, in which case the Mobile Dental Section would be under his command. His opinion was based on another section of the instructions from OICA:
While with the Division in the Field, the Mobile Dental Section comes under the command of the ADMS as far as its location and duties are concerned. It should communicate with the ADMS on these matters. If necessary the ADMS communicates with the ADDS, a copy of such correspondence going to the DDMS.
At first sight it may appear of little consequence who was in command of the section, especially as much bigger issues were occupying everybody's minds. Had free use been made of the consultative clauses in the administrative instructions it would have mattered little to whom the Mobile Dental Section was immediately responsible. Unfortunately the ADMS and the ADDS each still held different opinions, with the ADMS in actual command, having as his adviser on dental matters the OC Mobile Dental Section, whose affiliation with the ADDS has already been the subject of comment. The ADDS was unwilling to begin a major administrative battle at this time to assert his authority and was discouraged in his attempts at co-operation. The results of this with respect to the dental condition of the Division have already been described. It also gives us material on which to base the answer to the first question, ‘Who sent the Mobile Dental Section to Greece?’ The ADDS states categorically that he was neither consulted as to where the section was going nor as to how it was to be used, so it would appear that the section could only move on the authority of the ADMS. The war diary of the ADDS bears out his statement as there are only three entries at the date of the movement of the section from Helwan, and it would be strange if, in a diary as full as his in which every discussion was entered in detail, this was the only one omitted. The entries are:
Unfortunately there is no trace of the movement order for the section to leave Helwan and go to the transit camp at Alexandria, the only information being a report from Major Mackenzie that no provision had been made for its arrival. It is inconceivable that had the movement originated from the ADDS at Headquarters 2 NZEF there would have been no advice of arrival, as it would have been an isolated move rather than one of many.
At the time of the move from Helwan to Alexandria the ADMS was already in Greece and would have had time to see something of the conditions under which his units would be working. There could have been few signs of an impending static period of operations in which a Mobile Dental Section could successfully operate. Under normal conditions the four dental sections in Greece should have been able to deal with casualties during intensive warfare and the Mobile Dental Section could have been called over when the page 182 situation became stabilised. The conditions, however, were not normal, as can be seen from an extract from the war diary of the ADMS NZ Division of 31 March 1941:
Since arrival of troops in Greece, and up to date, rations have been largely M & V [meat and vegetable stew], no supplies of fresh meat, bread or vegetables being available until 1 April. Many cases of broken dentures due to hard biscuits have occurred and as these can only be repaired by Mobile Dental Section it is apparent that this unit should be retained and function with the Division.
The biscuits were of the dog-biscuit type and, according to reports, were a test for the strongest teeth. In the New Zealand Division with its high proportion of artificial dentures the results were serious. At one time there were something like 800 broken dentures1 and little prospect of soft rations for the unfortunate owners. The soldier could not eat, and a man who cannot eat cannot fight. This fact alone gives some justification for sending the Mobile Dental Section to Greece in the hope that there would be time for the dentures to be repaired. It is quite certain that the task was beyond the resources of the dental sections already there. It is also difficult to see any other solution to this urgent problem. Whether it was used correctly will be discussed later, but enough has been said to show why it went to Greece.
Having discussed why and by whom the section was sent to Greece, it is necessary to know what happened to it, and this is best told in the words of some who were part of it in the campaign.
1 War Diary ADMS, 12 April 1941.