Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) in WWII: Finland, Greece and a Prisoner of War (POW) Camp
The first section from the Friends Ambulance Unit to serve abroad during WWII travelled to Finland in January 1940, when hostilities broke out with Russia. The initial group of 27 was joined a month later by a further group of 25. They wore Red Cross uniforms and worked loosely under their auspices. They transported the wounded along roads carved between deep banks of snow, at times coming under Russian bombardment.
In April 1940, when Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, the group offered their services to the Norwegians. The section made the difficult crossing into Norway at night, only to be forced to abandon their ambulances and evacuate to Sweden ahead of the German advance. From there, 25 made the long journey, via Moscow and Istanbul, to Cairo, arriving in October 1940.
For the next few months, the group drove ambulances in the desert around Alexandria. Then in March 1941, twenty of them, with ten ambulances, were sent by the Red Cross to Greece to help carry medical supplies into Albania.
Almost immediately, the Germans attacked and this time sixteen of the FAU members were taken prisoner. For two weeks, they were held in a hospital in Kalamata.
“The place was a stinking mess, and we cleaned it up,” wrote one of the group. “Nobody was getting anything to eat, and two hours after we started we served biscuit porridge and tea for breakfast, and gave them regular meals afterwards ... The men were in a shocking state, and we cleaned them, dressed their wounds, nursed them.”
But this was not to last. In mid-May, they were moved to a prison transit camp in Corinth, where food and water were scarce. One man wrote, “To retain, when terribly hungry, the customary human decencies was difficult indeed.”
A month later, they were “packed like sardines into cattle trucks” and moved to Athens. Then, guarded by Austrian troops, they were marched over the Brallos Pass to Salonika, the Unit acting as medical orderlies for the rest of the column. Once in the camp in Salonika, they were paraded for hours in the hot sun. Doctors in the camp had to combat typhoid, malaria, tuberculosis, dysentery and diphtheria and beri-beri.
The group had hoped to stay together, but that proved impossible. That autumn, they were split up and moved on to permanent Stalag camps in Eastern Europe.
Efforts were being made to get the FAU members recognised as Red Cross personnel, entitled to repatriation under the Geneva Convention. However, it wasn’t until a year later that the first six of the group were allowed home. Towards the end of 1944, three more returned, but six remained as prisoners of war until 1945.
In December 1943, Alan Dickinson, one of the leading members of the group, died in the prison hospital. He had written, "I wanted to be in the section of the Unit that would have the best opportunities of proving its mettle. I wanted to live vividly for my ideal and if necessary die for it."
Describing his memories, Tom Burns, FAU Information Officer who survived the camps, wrote:
“The spectacle would remain, of course: the spectacle of Kalamata, the long, silent queues by the quayside at night, the air attack by the bridge, the herd of prisoners shuffling and trotting past the Town Hall, the New Zealand Major storming and cursing at the German Town Commandant; the spectacle of Corinth Camp, the cooking fires in the dusk, the market at the gates, the crocodiles of men, manoeuvring for position at the cookhouse, the ordure-smeared scraps of paper that fluttered everlastingly about the camp, the machine-gun fire along the wire at night, bathing in steel helmets, the sleeping pits dug in the firm sand; the spectacle of Salonika Camp, the two-hour check parades on the centre square, the bedbugs and lice, Olympus across the bay, the dysentery patients walking naked with shreds of flesh between their skin and their bones, the fruit from the Greek Red Cross, the Serbs on parade, beri-beri; the spectacle of the Stalag at Lamsdorf.”