Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) in WWII

When war began on September 3rd, 1939, the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) was immediately re-formed, to provide opportunities for active service for conscientious objectors. Its major activities were five.

Air-raid relief and hospitals in Britain. A 6-week training camp was followed by work as medical orderlies or porters in understaffed hospitals:  80 hospitals provided this work experience.  When the blitz began in September 1940, many members were deployed in air-raid relief: in Rest Centres, Shelter Work, transport and the Work Squad which carried out maintenance and repairs.  Later, as work abroad opened up, so did further training: in lorry driving and maintenance, tropical medicine, mass catering and foreign languages.

With armies in the field. Members served as ambulance drivers, medical orderlies and blood transfusion technicians with Casualty Clearing Stations and the Mobile Hospital with the 8th Army in North Africa from El Alamein to Tripoli and Sousse, and then on into Italy, while others served with a Free French Mobile Hospital in Syria and North Africa.

Civilian clinics overseas. In Syria up to 24 men served in clinics in the capital and villages near it, and in villages some distance from the larger towns, with one clinic in the Lebanon.  In Ethiopia, after the Italians withdrew in 1941, forty men assisted with medical work and the development of medical and social services.

In Asia, 200 members served in the China Convoy over five years, in a remarkable range of medical and civilian support activities.  In India the FAU assisted with the organisation of large-scale air raid precautions and post-raid information services in Calcutta, followed by flood and famine relief on a large scale.

Civilian relief in mainland Europe. Two members started in 1943 visiting hospitals in Sicily, and by 1944/5 60 were engaged in transport,health and welfare work in refugee camps in Italy.  Greece followed in October 1944, where a Medical Supply and Transport Unit (MSTU) covered 250,000 miles and distributed 30,000 cases of medical supplies throughout Attica and the Dodecanese; while a Field Bacteriological Unit (FBU) conducted an extensive inspection of water supplies in Athens, Macedonia and two of the islands.
In March 1944 a second MSTU landed in Yugoslavia and distributed canned food, milk, potatoes, drugs and supplies for the Partisan hospitals to provincial centres from Split and Dubrovnik, and elsewhere soap, DDT, veterinary supplies, clothing and even the complete equipment for a 200-bed hospital.  A second FBU surveyed water supplies and combatted typhus and dysentery.
In September 1944 the FAU started civilian work in Belgium, Holland and France.  No. 12 Field Surgical Unit had landed earlier, soon after D Day, serving with the British Liberation Army on military casualties.  In Holland the FAU transported sick civilians from vulnerable towns, while in Belgium three sections operated an ambulance service for the victims of German flying bombs, the other two sections concentrating on refugees.
The British entered Germany on 23 March 1945, and on their heels went four FAU teams to care for refugees: registration, de-lousing, catering and camp management.  The work was frequently harrowing: none more so than Belsen, which the FAU were among the first to enter.

The final country was Austria, in May 1945.  Confusion prevailed with displaced persons, ex-internees, prisoners of war and refugees from all parts of Eastern Europe.  FAU work included a “Searcher Service” to reunite families and friends, the sorting of Red Cross and German supply dumps and the provision of food, clothing and welfare at refugee camps, and the care of the German and Austrian Children’s Evacuation Camps.

Service in the FAU was a vocation rather than an alternative employment: food, clothing and pocket money of 25 shillings as month were provided, as against the Army Private’s 75 shillings and the miner’s 280 shillings.  Sixteen men and one woman lost their lives while in the Unit, a death rate proportionately higher than in the Army up till June 1944.

The FAU ceased operations on June 30th 1946.  Many members transferred to the Friends Relief Service (FRS) or UNRRA, United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, to continue their work, and many activities were handed on to other bodies such as the FRS, UNRRA and the local Red Cross.

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Further Reading and Credits

Greenwood, J.O, Quaker Encounters, Volume 1, Friends and Relief, William Sessions York 1975.
Smith, L., Pacifists in Action, William Sessions, York 1998.
McClelland, G., Embers of War, IB Tauris 1997. (Work with refugees and the German population 1945 - 1946)

Photograph reproduced by kind permission of the copyright holders the Religious Society of Friends Library, London.