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The New Zealand Dental Services

3. The Cruisers

3. The Cruisers

HMNZS Achilles: Before August 1939 this cruiser carried the Squadron Dental Officer, who was a surgeon-lieutenant (D), RN, but at the outbreak of war and during her glorious action with the Graf Spee he was at the Naval Base and the cruiser was without a dental officer. As a result, the dental health of her complement seriously deteriorated. It was not until June 1941 that Surgeon-Lieutenant (D) D. M. Page, RN, returned on board. The Admiral's sea cabin once again became a dental surgery, but not for long. It was more often needed either for a Flag Officer or for sleeping accommodation for other officers near their action stations. The dental surgery was therefore transferred to the gunroom pantry, where the light and ventilation were poor and the outer port page 79 propeller throbbed incessantly. Even in harbour the accommodation ladder obscured the scuttle and it was difficult to work in comfort.

Dentistry in a cruiser was often interrupted. Heavy calibre shoots meant that all breakable equipment had to be dismantled, while rough weather and high speed made operation impossible. In action the dental officer had to work with the medical officer in the care of wounded and, in any case, all his equipment was dismantled, as instance the report from the dental officer in January 1943:

January 5 (A.M.), the ship was hit by a bomb resulting in casualties. January 5 to 9 inclusive no dentistry was attempted. Sterilizer badly damaged and engine foot-control soaked in water and repaired by ship's staff.

The Achilles went to England in early 1943 for a refit and on 12 April her dental officer left her for a course in the treatment of jaw injuries at East Grimstead, Sussex, being discharged on leave at the end of the course. She was recommissioned in May 1944 and joined by Surgeon-Lieutenant (D) A. De Berry, RNZNVR,1 who had come to England in HMNZS Leander, arriving on 26 January. From 8 February to 13 May this officer also attended at. East Grimstead and from 15 to 19 May had a course in ‘damage control’ in London.

There is no doubt that at sea there was only a possibility of maintaining dental comfort and the standard of dental fitness had to deteriorate, but there were other factors which influenced the position and accentuated the difference between the naval dental service and that of the other services. The question is, whether as much was done under this system as would have been done under the organisation already proving so successful in other theatres of war.

In the Achilles from 1 July 1944 to 28 February 1945, 1160 fillings were found on examination to be required but only 702 were done. Likewise, 539 men needed treatment but only 272 were made dentally fit. The ship's complement was 850, which with one dental officer ashore would be well within his capabilities. Taking fillings as a reasonable basis for comparison of the rate of work afloat and ashore, it was 22 a week as against 63 for a similar period. Having due regard for the handicaps of bad weather and gunnery, the discrepancy was too much. The reason was that the naval assessment of the value of dental fitness was below that of the New Zealand Dental Corps. The dental officer was too often used for duties outside his profession. One dental officer in the Achilles reported that he could not avoid being called on for cipher duties, which took up as much as a whole forenoon, until he took the bull by the horns and refused to do any more. In the meantime, while decay was eating into the mouths of the ship's company, the dental officer was frittering away his time as a supernumerary clerk.

1 Surg Lt (D) A. De Berry; Auckland; born Hokitika, 25 Feb 1914; dental surgeon.

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HMNZS Leander: As already described, the report from the commanding officer about the unsatisfactory dental service precipitated the reorganisation of the service to the Navy in 1941. Apart from this, there is little difference in the dental organisation from that in her sister ship Achilles. When she was damaged in action in 1943, her dental staff went ashore but rejoined her when she sailed for England on 25 November 1943. They returned to New Zealand in the Achilles when the Leander ceased to be attached to the New Zealand station, being replaced by HMS Gambia.

HMNZS Gambia: On 27 September 1943, the DDS received the following communication from the Naval Secretary:

I have to inform you that telegraphic advice has been received from the High Commissioner for New Zealand that a Surgeon-Lieutenant (D) RN has been appointed to HMS ‘Gambia’, on loan to the Royal New Zealand Navy.

The Naval Board concur in a proposal that a New Zealand Dental Officer be sent to join HMS ‘Gambia’ in order to relieve the Royal Naval Dental Officer, and I have to ask you to nominate an officer for this appointment from the dental officers at present seconded to the Royal New Zealand Navy. The officer selected will be required to take passage approximately mid-October next.

Captain H. C. B. Wycherley, NZDC,1 was selected. He had been seconded to the Navy since June 1941 but resigned his commission and was recommissioned as Surgeon-Lieutenant (D), RNZNVR, joining the cruiser in England in January 1944. At the same time LSBA (D) J. E. Batten,2 who had been serving in the Achilles, transferred to the Gambia. When the cruiser returned to New Zealand in November 1944, Surgeon-Lieutenant (D) E. H. Stephenson3 took Wycherley's appointment and LSBA (D) T. E. Gill4 that of Batten.

During Stephenson's appointment certain interesting changes in the equipment and design of the surgery took place. The first concerned lighting. During a 6-inch-gun shoot the lamps vibrated more than was considered safe and were suspended from the bulkhead in a manner that made it difficult to remove them quickly. After removing the inner lining, two iron staples were welded to the deckhead itself, a piece of five-ply wood was fastened to the staples by rubber shock-absorbers and to this were attached the three ‘Controlens’ panel lamps, each having two shock-absorbers. The bulbs could then be removed when there was a shoot and damage to the rest of the system was unlikely. The second concerned the water supply to the unit. The cruiser was expected to spend long periods at sea and fresh water was therefore strictly rationed.

1 Surg Lt (D) H. C. B. Wycherley; Palmerston North; born 1910; dental surgeon.

3 Surg Lt (D) E. H. Stephenson; Christchurch; born Gisborne, 1916; dental surgeon.

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Experience in the Hospital Ship Maunganui showed that the unit could function with salt water with only some tarnishing of the bowl, which meant periodical replacement at small cost. The saliva ejector could operate at a pressure of 30 pounds but the circulating system could only provide a pressure of 25 pounds. The answer was to instal a small booster pump, bringing the water to the unit by means of a half-inch pipe. The pump was actually made, but there was trouble in getting a suitable 230-volt DC motor to work it and before the ship went in to refit, hostilities had ceased and the necessity had gone.

Towards the end of the war the NZDC in the New Zealand cruisers had to bow further to the system operating in the Royal Navy. In April 1945 a Fleet Dental Surgeon, Surgeon-Commander (D) S. R. Wallis, RN, was appointed to the British Pacific Fleet. He was on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief and was accommodated in the flagship for fleet administrative and ship's duties. All correspondence relative to dental matters and personnel of the fleet, demands for stores and returns of treatment had to be passed to him. The New Zealand cruiser was part of this fleet, so the dental officer was in the anomalous position of being subject to direction on policy matters from two sources. There was no friction as it was recognised that the organisation was customary in fleets of that size in the Royal Navy, but it is submitted that the system was less efficient than the Corps system used by the New Zealand Dental Corps for the three services. Regular examination and treatment are necessary if a force is to be maintained in a state of dental health, and this can be done only if dental reinforcements can be readily mustered and as easily transferred. By insisting on the dental service being part of the Navy system the fluidity of movement was lost. The dental service became confined in watertight compartments, not only in the ships it served but in relation to the rest of the Corps. The details of organisation of a service in seagoing ships away from their bases for a long time are, admittedly, more difficult to arrange than in the other services, and the appointment of a Fleet Dental Surgeon was one method of co-ordinating the dental work of the Fleet. If the Navy consisted of ships perpetually at sea, fighting the war as lone rangers, it would be the only system, and the lowering of the dental standard of the officers and ratings would have to be accepted as a service exigency. Such, however, was not the case, and under a Corps organisation embracing the three services dental reinforcements could have been quickly made available to catch up with arrears of work whenever opportunity offered. The main point is that reinforcements must be available immediately, and this is only possible if the dental services are under one command. The insistence that the dental service to the Royal New page 82 Zealand Navy be even partly segregated from the main organisation made this impossible. The dental forces at the service of the Fleet Dental Surgeon were puny compared with those that the Director of Dental Services could offer.

HMNZS Monowai: In this ship, an armed merchant cruiser, was a modern dental surgery in addition to all facilities for prosthetic work. Much of her work was done at the base, Philomel, when she was in Auckland, but at sea she carried a dental section in charge of an officer of the NZDC. She was not at sea for such long periods as the cruisers, so a comparison of the dental health of her complement with that of the cruisers is inconclusive, the conditions of work being entirely different.