Humble dentist devoted to serving

02:37, Feb 02 2013
Jim Tait
Jim Tait

James Francis Tait: b Timaru, October 13, 1918; m Rae White (dec) 3s, 1d; d Wellington, July 14, 2012, aged 93.

Jim Tait was a well-known Wellington dentist who once stood on the Italian submarine Cobalto as it sank in the Mediterranean off Bizerta, in Tunisia, during World War II.

The incident happened on August 12, 1942, when the young sub-lieutenant was serving on the destroyer HMS Ithuriel.

Ithuriel rammed the Cobalto, which was forced to surface after being depth charged by two British destroyers.

When the crippled submarine surfaced, Mr Tait heard his skipper shout from the bridge "board it" - so he and a fellow seaman did just that.

Their conquest did not last long, however, as the sub, minus the Italian crew, who all escaped, sank slowly beneath them as they attempted to get inside the conning tower.


The Tait family has a treasured ragged photo of Mr Tait standing briefly on the bow of the sinking submarine.

His grandparents were born in Scotland, a fact he was particularly proud of. His grandfather was the harbourmaster in Timaru from 1907 to 1916 and his father taught mathematics at Timaru Boys' High School before taking a post as headmaster of Dannevirke High School in 1925. Consequently, the Tait family was raised in South Canterbury and southern Hawke's Bay.

In the mid-1930s his father was appointed rector of Timaru Boys' High School.

From an early age Mr Tait's ambition was always to join the navy, but because he suffered from asthma, he failed the medical, so in 1938 he went to Otago University instead to study dentistry. There, he joined the university territorial unit.

But Mr Tait did not give up on his dream of going to sea. He secretly enlisted in "Scheme B", a scheme where the New Zealand War Cabinet advertised in early 1940 for men who wished to serve at sea to join the Royal New Zealand Navy Volunteer Reserve and be sent to Britain for basic training.

His father wanted him to complete his second year of dentistry study - something Mr Tait was grateful for when he returned to New Zealand in 1945. When lectures in Dunedin began in 1941, Mr Tait was aboard the SS Rimutaka, a passenger-cargo ocean liner, on his way to Britain.

After completing his basic training in Britain he was posted as a seaman to the cruiser HMS Arethusa and spent time in the North Atlantic, where they were one of the ships assigned to look out for the German battleship Bismarck.

He also sailed on convoys to Malta. He then went for officer training and his first posting as an officer was to the destroyer HMS Ithuriel, which participated in the big convoys to Malta, including the famous Harpoon and Pedestal convoys.

Following his warm-water swim in the Mediterranean he transferred to submarines, first to HMS Varangian as navigating officer then as first lieutenant on HMS Virulent. These submarines carried out patrols off the coast of Norway to prevent German surface units from attacking convoys to Russia.

In 1945 he stood down from active service and returned to the comparatively quiet life of a dental school student in Dunedin. He commented in later life that it was not easy for returned servicemen to return to being humble students again after the high intensity lives they had led. Not only were they older but they had previously had all sorts of different responsibilities. He also said that he missed his midday beer or sherry.

After graduating as a dentist in 1948, he took a job at Wellington Hospital, where he worked mainly in the casualty department. On his first day on the job he performed seven extractions.

In 1949, he met his wife-to-be, Rae White, who worked as an occupational therapist at Wellington Hospital. They met when she made an appointment for a filling. In later years, Mr Tait joked that his first words to his future wife were: "You have the biggest mouth I have ever seen."

The future wife's response was equally scathing: "You have the biggest ears I have seen."

The couple married in Waipukurau in 1950.

In 1951 Mr Tait purchased the practice of Dr Caro in Kelvin Chambers, where he worked as a dentist for 35 years.

He and his wife raised three sons and a daughter during what was a very busy time.

As his dental practice was close to Parliament he had many MPs and parliamentary staff as patients. Suffice to say his patient list was diverse and interesting, ranging from a governor-general of the day to poet James K Baxter.

During his time as a dentist he saw many changes come, such as new materials and resins, the high-speed drill, different resins and fluoridation which he said really reduced the numbers of cavities he saw.

He served on the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) and was its branch president in 1966.

He devoted much of his spare time in latter years to the Returned Services' Association, serving at local and regional level and on the national executive council for two decades.

He also represented the RSA at several international veterans' conferences.

A special interest was his membership of the RSA's welfare committee, which he served on until 2005.

In 2003, the RSA awarded this humble man its highest honour, the Badge in Gold.

The award placed him in the exclusive company of people like Prince Philip, Nancy Wake and VC winner Willie Apiata.

He will be remembered as a straightforward, compassionate dentist, very proud of his four children and nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, with an active service ethic seldom matched.

Sources: Tait family, Jeff Annan, David Maloney.

The Dominion Post