The New Zealand Dental Services
CHAPTER 18 — The Battle for Egypt
The Battle for Egypt
THE beginning of June 1942 found the NZDC spread over a wide area in the Middle East. Headquarters, the camp and depot hospitals and two general hospitals were in the Cairo area, i.e., Maadi, Helwan and Helmieh. The Division was in Syria and Palestine with the dental units just described and No. 2 Mobile Dental Unit was in the Western Desert treating non-divisional units such as the Railway Construction Companies. The strategical position, however, was changing and in the middle of June Rommel began his apparently irresistible advance on the Nile Valley.
The New Zealand Division was hurriedly moved from Syria to Matruh to help stem this advance and all units not essential in the forward area were evacuated. This meant a redistribution of dental units throughout the force. No. 1 Mobile Dental Unit and other dental sections in Syria and Palestine moved with the Division, but whereas the field ambulance dental sections remained attached, the Mobile Unit was diverted into Maadi Camp. This was an important decision. While the Division was en route from Syria to the Western Desert the ADMS and the OC 1 Mobile Dental Unit arrived in advance at Headquarters 2 NZEF. The ADMS suggested that the unit should go forward to the fortress of Mersa Matruh which, at that time, the Division was expecting to hold. Bearing in mind the misfortunes of Greece, the ADDS did not agree and asked that the unit be detached from the column and sent to Maadi. It so happened that, at the last moment, the Division did not take a stand at Mersa Matruh but went out into the desert and met Rommel at Minqar Qaim. Mersa Matruh fell into enemy hands and it is a matter for conjecture what the fate of the unit would have been had it gone forward. It would certainly have been of no use dentally and would have added to road congestion in a retreat. No. 2 Mobile Dental Section, which was stationed at Qasaba, found the roads packed with vehicles of all descriptions moving eastwards, indicative of the battle approaching the area. Without instructions or authority from anyone the OC wisely decided to pack up and take his unit to Maadi. Before Major Young left for the field, the ADDS had emphasised that, should the situation in the field deteriorate, he might have to rely on his own page 220 observations and instincts regarding the location of his unit. It was pointed out to him that no one would think any less of him if he brought his unit away from probable capture but that, on the contrary, he would be congratulated upon his good judgment. This, in fact, is what happened. He was given no advice or information from Lines of Communication Headquarters and all evidence pointed to the fact that the unit had been completely overlooked. He sensed that the situation was critical and successfully brought his unit to Maadi. Both Mobile Dental Units were therefore established in Maadi by 24 June.
The 5th Field Ambulance dental section was fortunate in not losing its equipment. The Dental Officer, when the brigade moved into battle, decided to leave his mechanic and heavy equipment at Matruh. The mechanic ‘hitch-hiked’ to Maadi, having first taken the equipment to a New Zealand ordnance depot for consignment to the Medical Training Centre. Had it not been for the fact that a driver from one of the field regiments, while loading blankets from a store about to be fired, had noticed the dental equipment and, on his own initiative, brought it back, it would have been lost. This raises an interesting point for it will be remembered that after the Libyan campaign, when all the dental equipment with the field ambulances was lost, it was suggested that the dental officer should confine himself to an emergency haversack until such time as he could reasonably use his heavy equipment. The near loss in this campaign does not alter this opinion for losses of equipment of all descriptions are inevitable during hurried retreats, and the farther back the equipment is located, the more time there is for its evacuation. Even the personnel and equipment at Headquarters 2 NZEF were on twelve hours' notice to move from Egypt to Palestine at the end of June 1942 due to the rapid deterioration in the military situation. Old files, papers and correspondence were to be burnt, and it was necessary to estimate what equipment could be taken and what would have to be abandoned.
At the beginning of July, the Dental Corps was working in its most concentrated form. From servicing a long line from Matruh to Aleppo, it had been squeezed like a concertina into Maadi Camp. There were twenty-two dental officers in the camp, too many to be kept together, even having regard to the serious military situation.
The units previously being treated by 2 Mobile Dental Unit had moved to Syria and Palestine so it was possible to use that unit, but there was no place as yet in the field for 1 Mobile Unit. No. 2 Mobile Unit moved to Kfar Vitkin with reserve equipment, taking some of the stores from the 2 NZEF Store in case evacuation should page 221 become necessary. Major Dallas of the Base Depot Dental Hospital was given the opportunity to do a tour of duty with the unit, a wise decision to relieve the tedium and reward the faithful service of an officer who had worked hard for long hours in the unspectacular surroundings of the Base.
It was not long before the Division began to notice the absence of regular dental treatment. The first to ask for it was 6 Infantry Brigade, and two sections of 1 Mobile Unit were sent to it. By the time they arrived the brigade had moved forward again. Fourth Brigade was then withdrawn from the battle to Amiriya, and as this brigade was due to rest, reorganise and re-equip at Maadi, the sections returned with it and the whole Mobile Unit concentrated on its treatment. In view of the fact that it took the Mobile Unit about three weeks to make this brigade fit again, it is reasonable to ask what was happening to the other brigades in action in the Western Desert. Were they suffering serious dental casualties in the absence of the Mobile Unit? Was the request from 6 Brigade one of distress or of habit? The quarterly report of the ADDS of 1 August 1942 gives the answer:
A noticeable feature of recent months is the surprisingly small amount of attention 2 NZ Division required during the period of action. The number of men who had to leave their units for dental attention was negligible.
Between 16 June 42 and 27 July 42 only 50 NZ troops in the Field reported for treatment and the total treatment carried out by the three NZ Field Ambulances amounted to 20 extractions and 8 dressings. There was, therefore little need for NZ dental officers at all, whereas in the neighbouring Ambulances of other Forces it is reported that the Dental Officers were working full time on their dental casualties.
The above mentioned figures are abnormally low for dental casualties—particularly for New Zealanders—and it can only be assumed that the benefit of fully organised treatment is being felt throughout the Force.
Although the dental officers with the field ambulances were not overtaxed with casualties they could not be dispensed with on this account, as they were kept busy on a variety of duties. They did not keep their mechanics or heavy equipment with them except when conditions were expected to be reasonably static, and they carried out their duties from an emergency haversack. There were a certain number of jaw injuries to be attended to but, as pointed out earlier, these were much fewer in this war than in the last. The administration of anaesthetics took up an appreciable amount of time. During July 1942 Captain Gleeson of 4 Field Ambulance gave sixty general anaesthetics, quite a large proportion of the total number at the Main Dressing Station that month. His orderlies worked in the operating theatre and were sufficiently successful at this to be selected to assist with the transfusion apparatus, a credit to them personally and to the general NZDC training.page 222
Although there was little dental work required for the Division in the field, there was a different position at the Base. This was so far the longest action in which the Division had taken part and there were more casualties coming into the General Hospitals. To implement the policy that no man should leave the General Hospital-Convalescent Depot-Reception Depot circuit unless dentally fit, it became necessary to augment the staff at both Convalescent Depot and Reception Depot. The ease with which this was done under the existing organisation was a justification of the policy of insisting that there should be no rigidity of attachment to any dental unit. All dental forces could be employed where the need was greatest, without any formalities and merely on the instruction of the ADDS.
Once again it was noticed that the number of maxillo-facial cases was small. Out of a group of 1850 wounded New Zealand troops who passed through the Main Dressing Station there were only six cases and, of these, three were also suffering from extensive wounds elsewhere.
On 15 September 1942, 1 Mobile Unit was able to rejoin the Division at Burg el Arab on the coast and moved with it to the training area at El Ghayata, Qarat Somara and Wadi Natrun. Under great difficulty because of continual movement, an effort was made to catch up with the arrears of treatment and to prepare the force for another period in battle. Meanwhile, 2 Mobile Unit had been operating in many places: Aleppo, Ras el Ain, Rayak, Baalbek, Damascus, Azzib, Kfar Vitkin, Amiriya, in three suburbs of Alexandria city and at Tel el Kebir and Ismailia. On 14 October the unit returned to Maadi to attend to 4 NZ Armoured Brigade.
While the Division was in the training area in September-October 1942 preparing for the battle of El Alamein, 1 Mobile Unit was gaining valuable experience in rapid movement. Hitherto it had, to a large extent, been an Advanced Base Dental Hospital, and once located in an area had remained fixed for some time as in Baggush, the Canal Area and Syria. Here, however, moves were frequent and it was unusual for more than a few weeks or even a few days to be spent in the same place. It found that the Headquarters Group could pitch the hospital marquee in a morning and be working in it in the afternoon. It took two to three hours to strike the marquee, fully pack and be ready to move again. Even then, the unit found that if time was likely to be very short it was better to set up one or more sections which could be moved in an hour than to bother with the marquee.
Personal note to ADDS:
The unit was moved around five separate locations until we set up where we are now, north of the Divisional Sector ready for the show which has just taken place.
Had a few good days' work in which I made some of the unit dentally fit, and then the 6th were withdrawn and we commenced operating.
Most of the casualties from the land action came through us and we had one very busy spell with about 400 in 24 hours—many severe cases for operation among them. Was up all that night giving anaesthetics. The same night we had one extensive jaw injury which kept the Medical Officer, my mechanic and myself busy for a considerable time. The MO had to do an emergency tracheotomy and we had some difficulty in devising a support for the jaw during travel. Put a Stainless Steel wire on to the teeth on the larger fragment and attached it to a Kramer wire from a plaster headcap. A combined effort on the part of all three of us which seemed the best we could do with 40 or more cases, all urgent, waiting for operation. [This case travelled well, arrived in good condition at the General Hospital and progressed well.—Author.]
Have kept up with the dental cases all the time. The matter adjusts itself as, when there is a rush of battle casualties, nothing much comes back for dental treatment.
Have at last had a genuine experience of dentistry under fire. Was finishing a big filling when we had a Stuka raid, with two bombs 50 yards from the dental truck. Patient, orderly and I hit the slit trench at about the same moment—the patient still had a mouthful of cotton rolls…. Filling was undamaged and completed before we examined the bomb craters. We were really very lucky as the whole area was scattered with fragments—through the roof of the theatre, mess tent, etc. No unit casualties.