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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

CHAPTER 1 — Pre-war Organisation of the Navy in New Zealand

page 159

Pre-war Organisation of the Navy in New Zealand

I: Permanent Forces

Constitution and Medical Staffing

During the period preceding the war, the Navy in New Zealand and adjacent Pacific waters was represented by ships and establishments of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy, for the maintenance of which the New Zealand Government had assumed responsibility, together with two sloops of the Royal Navy, based for convenience on New Zealand, but maintained entirely by the United Kingdom. On a peacetime manning scale, the medical requirements of this small force, including the Royal Navy components, were supplied by 5 medical officers, 1 dental officer, and 12 sick-berth ratings.

Since the inception of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy in 1920, it had been the policy of successive governments to increase the proportion of New Zealanders serving therein by a steady influx of ratings trained in the base depot, HMS Philomel, at Devonport, Auckland. By 1939 this proportion had risen to about 54 per cent of the total ratings, though it was much smaller in some special categories such as the sick-berth branch, which was still supplied in the main by Royal Navy ratings.

The New Zealand Navy possessed only some half dozen officers of its own, the remainder, including all medical and dental officers, being supplied on loan from the Royal Navy for periods of three years. Occasionally such loan officers had included a New Zealander belonging to the medical or dental branch of the Royal Navy and serving a commission on the New Zealand Station as part of his naval career.

Preliminary discussions had been initiated by the Naval Board in 1939 with a view to entering medical officers for permanent service in the New Zealand Navy. Those consulted had noted particularly the limited scope which such a career appeared to offer, and page 160 stressed the desirability of opportunities for hospital experience and periods of exchange into the larger fleet units of the Royal Navy. The outbreak of war interrupted these discussions before any conditions of service could be determined.

Medical Administration

Until 1938 the administration of this small medical organisation was the responsibility of the Squadron Medical Officer, serving afloat in the ship carrying the Commodore Commanding New Zealand Station. In that year, consequent upon the appointment of a Chief of Naval Staff at Navy Office, Wellington, some of these medical administrative matters were transferred to the shore establishment, the senior medical officer, HMS Philomel, being appointed Director of Naval Medical Services in addition to his normal duties. The appointment of Squadron Medical Officer was however retained, as certain important administrative responsibilities remained in the hands of staff officers serving afloat with the Commodore Commanding New Zealand Squadron.

Naval Base, Auckland

The base establishment at Devonport, Auckland, which included the training depot Philomel, the dockyard and naval stores, had been undergoing a process of expansion and development over a number of years to cope with the growth of the Navy and the requirements of the larger ships serving on the station.

Unfortunately, the medical department had not been able to share in this development and was still housed in the original small hut which had been regarded from the first as a temporary expedient. The fact that civil hospital accommodation was always readily available in Auckland for naval personnel had no doubt influenced the decision to defer the erection of a more commodious establishment though plans had been long prepared. The existing building, though styled ‘sick quarters’, provided accommodation no better than that in sea-going ships, while the equipment was in many respects below the standard of the cruisers. It afforded accommodation for minor illness, including isolation cases and venereal patients, but was inadequate for the training of sick-berth ratings, New Zealand entries into that branch being sent to Flinders Naval Depot, Australia, for the necessary instruction. The small establishment performed a very useful function within its limited capacity, dealing with such cases of minor injury and illness which were to be expected in a training depot, conducting final medical examinations of recruits and medical boards of survey on invalids, and maintaining a small pool of sick-berth ratings for replacement of those at sea.

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Medical Stores

Medical stores for all ships and establishments were obtained from the United Kingdom, each ship rendering a demand half-yearly on one of the Royal Navy medical depots, while extraordinary demands were met by local purchase. Apart from some emergency chests, no reserve medical stores were held in the base. It became apparent, however, by 1939 that dependence on local purchase would be unwise owing to the increased demands of civil hospitals. Increased demands for stores were therefore placed in the United Kingdom with a view to creating a reserve in New Zealand, and the arrival of these consignments in the first two years of the war permitted the establishment of a base medical store from which ships were subsequently able to draw all necessary supplies.

It was perhaps fortunate that New Zealand naval commitments in the early months of the war did not impose a greater strain on the meagre stores available, but the experience of that period indicates the necessity for developing and maintaining adequate reserves for such emergencies, and the unwisdom of depending on outside sources of supply after war has broken out. For example, the relief which had been confidently expected from orders placed by the Coates Mission to the United States in 1941 was suddenly cut off when that country herself became actively engaged in hostilities, and although some assistance was obtained through the Far Eastern Supply Group, the quality of these stores left much to be desired.

The United Kingdom, however, despite the steady drain on her supplies and the difficult shipping position, continued to supply the bulk of our naval medical requirements, and it is pleasing to record that in the closing stages of the war New Zealand was able to offer much of these stores to ships of the British Fleet refitting in Auckland.

II: Reserve Forces

To provide for immediate expansion in the event of war, Naval Reserves of trained and partly trained personnel had been gradually built up in New Zealand over a period of years. In the medical branch these consisted of eight medical officers of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (New Zealand Division), seven of whom were fit for full active service. No reserve of sick-berth staff existed apart from one or two ex-naval sick-berth ratings.

The war of 1914–18, in which New Zealand had few naval commitments, had not established any precedent upon which the possible medical requirements could be based. British experience of that war had suggested that the function of RNVR medical page 162 officers was to provide immediate additions to medical complement required in war, to take medical charge of ships when qualified by experience, and by reason of their civil clinical experience to provide specialist services ashore and afloat. Medical administration and staff duties had, however, remained entirely in the hands of permanent officers of the naval medical service. There had been no reason to expect that New Zealand would follow any different line, but as events were to show in the war of 1939–45, the Reserve medical officers in New Zealand were required to take over the greater part of the medical organisation from the outbreak of war, and by the middle of 1941 had assumed the whole responsibility.

Available medical officers of the RNVR (NZ Division) had peacetime experience varying from one to twelve years in the Reserve. In addition to training with their respective shore units, all had served short periods in sea-going ships to familiarise themselves with naval medical routine, while one had served in a previous emergency for some months as senior medical officer of a cruiser.

It is important to note that the peacetime obligation entered into by members of the RNVR implied immediate availability for overseas service. While it was true that mobilisation of the Naval Reserves could only be effected by proclamation, it was well understood that naval preparedness might create a demand for services before a state of emergency had actually been declared. It is to the credit of the Naval Reserves in New Zealand that calls for services in a number of different capacities were answered promptly and willingly in the days immediately preceding the outbreak of war.

One Reserve medical officer, Surgeon Lieutenant Pittar,1 an Auckland eye specialist, joined the Achilles at two hours' notice on 29 August 1939 on her departure for an unknown destination. The ship returned to New Zealand six months later after lengthy patrols which had culminated in the Battle of the River Plate, but this officer proceeded overseas again almost immediately to serve the remainder of the war in his specialist capacity in Royal Navy establishments. His senior medical officer in the Achilles was also a New Zealander, Surgeon Lieutenant Hunter, RN,2 who was serving on loan from the Royal Navy.

1 Surg Cdr C. A. Pittar, VRD; Auckland; born Auckland, 11 Sep 1905; ophthalmic surgeon.

2 Surg Lt C. G. Hunter, DSC, RN; born 31 Jan 1913; medical practitioner; reverted to RN Jul 1940.