Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) in WWII: North Africa and the Middle East
The Unit's life became the life of the desert. It was a life of sun and flies and sand, a life of primitive improvisation, making do with too little water, sweltering when the Khamsin blew, waking up to find bedding drenched in dew. They ate and washed out of the same mess-tin; and at regular intervals there was of course the inevitable brew-up in a battered can over a fire of sand and petrol. It was a life familiar to hundreds of thousands of men in the desert campaigns. A Tegla Davies: Friends Ambulance Unit in WWII.
A major part of the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU’s) operations during the Second World War was undertaken in North Africa and the Middle East, working alongside the British and French armies. As Tegla Davies wrote, this became a test of whether “pacifists could serve alongside their fellows in the Army without on the one hand feeling aloof nor on the other that they were violating their integrity of conscience.”
Seven of the men who had avoided capture by the Germans in Greece in 1941 returned to Egypt and were joined by another six from Britain. These thirteen became the core of a group attached to the British Army. They became a vital part of what was, then, the still quite experimental Blood Transfusion Unit, attached to the 64th General Hospital outside Alexandria. When a further 36 men came out to Egypt, they joined the Blood Transfusion Unit at the 15th (Scottish) General Hospital in Cairo.
In addition, the FAU provided transport and medical units for mobile hospitals and casualty clearing stations with the British Army from 1942 to 1943, the period of the two battles of El Alamein.
Another group in North Africa - initially fifteen and eventually thirty-eight men - were with the Hadfield Spears Mobile Hospital Unit, attached to the First Free French Division under General de Gaulle. They worked as orderlies on the wards, and drove and maintained the trucks.
The Hadfield Spears hospital was based at various times in Damascus in Syria, Beirut in Lebanon (where the FAU became involved in a wheat distribution scheme) and Tobruk in Egypt (where they supported the surgical teams in the Forward Theatre near the front line. One of the FAU’s leading members, Nik Alderson, was killed by a German bomb in Tobruk.
A closely-knit group of many nations, the men of the Hadfield Spears began to develop their own language: a mix of English, French and Arabic. In ‘Spears,’ as it was called, "I'm going to my tent to fetch my mess-tin" became "I'm going to my gitoun to cherche my gamelle."
At times, there were difficult negotiations about what was and was not acceptable for pacifists working under Red Cross auspices to be asked to do. The group with the Hadfield Spears were lucky that, in May 1942, command of the hospital passed to a man whose own brother was a French conscientious objector, and who became a great champion of the FAU group.
While the Hadfield Spears Hospital was based in Syria, the FAU began to set up small clinics to deal with malaria, dysentery and other diseases in the local Arab population. When the mobile hospital moved on in 1942, a few stayed behind, establishing clinics among Christians, Druse and Moslems in sparely populated rural areas that had previously had no civilian medical services.
Others of the FAU went to Ethiopia following the withdrawal of Italian forces in late 1942. There the whole medical infrastructure had been left in disarray and the Ethiopian government were faced with building it up again from scratch. The FAU supplied doctors and other medical staff. By the summer of 1944, they were providing over half of all the medical services in the country, with responsibility for several hospitals. Yet by 1945, this work had been handed on to other agencies.
In the spring of 1943, following the defeat of the German army in southern Italy, the FAU crossed into Naples with the French army. It was the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the FAU, working on civilian relief in mainland Europe.