Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) in WWII: Britain – the Blitz and After
When the Blitz began, in September 1940, the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) already had personnel stationed in hospitals in the East End of London. As the air raids on London continued, more and more FAU staff where transferred from hospitals until, by the end of 1940, 200 men were engaged in air raid relief work, with much of the funds for the work coming from the American Friends Service Committee.
The official government Civil Defence services were well prepared to provide fire-fighting, first aid and rescue services. The first need lay in the provision of adequate shelter for the people who had lost their homes.
As many people as possible were evacuated to the countryside. The Friends War Victims Relief Committee, with their experience of wartime refugees, took on this work.
For those who could not be evacuated, Rest Centres became their only home. The FAU ultimately took over the running of ten centres, working in shifts around the clock. After each air raid, more and more people had to be provided with food, beds, blankets, comfort and company.
Some centres had to be established from scratch, making use of empty buildings. FAU staff would set up offices, stores, kitchens, dining and sleeping accommodation and recreation facilities.
At night, many East Enders sheltered from the bombs in railway warehouses, arches and wharves. With hoards of people regularly sleeping, packed together, night after night, conditions deteriorated rapidly. FAU members began to attend the shelters as medical aid workers, but their responsibilities gradually expanded. In Wapping, where the FAU was the only voluntary society operating, they took over many of the shelters, turning them into community centres and organising parties and cultural events. In the City, ‘model’ shelters were established in places like the basement of banks.
The idea shelter worker was described by the officer in charge as, “one who has a patient application to the details of medical work, a cool head and a certain amount of dash in a blitz, sufficient bonhomie to get on with everyone, sufficient sense to organize a shelter committee and to be friendly with wardens without criticizing the authorities too dangerously.”
As the Blitz spread, the FAU sent people to work in Rest Centres in other affected cities, including Coventry, Bristol, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool and Portsmouth. A Mobile Squad was established, which could provide emergency relief to Rest Centre staff anywhere they were needed.
Men from the FAU also acted as drivers for the Food Flying Squads run by the Ministry of Food, providing tea, sandwiches and hot stew to air raid victims.
In 1941, as the intensity of the bombing reduced, the emphasis of the work changed. FAU members began to staff the very necessary Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, including a mobile CAB that ran out of a horsebox. That year, a summer camp was established for the children from bombed areas at Flaunden in Buckinghamshire. Forty or fifty teenagers came at a time, and the camp went on to run for five summers.
The first women in the FAU joined in support of the air raid relief work in London. Their training camp was set up in Barmoor in Yorkshire, and the first eleven women began training early in 1941. Those trained in Barmoor worked in hospitals, shelters, rest centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux. Eventually, of the 97 women trained in Barmoor, 57 would serve abroad, in India, China, the Middle East and northwest Europe.
By the end of 1941, the FAU handed over all civilian relief work to the FWVRC, now called the Friends Relief Service. In Britain, the FAU turned again to hospital work, providing hospital orderlies and support services in a total of 83 different hospitals over the course of the war. Hospital work served a present need, but it also served as training for service overseas, in operating theatres, X-ray, dispensary, out-patients, pathology labs and other departments.
Over a hundred FAU members also volunteered as medical guinea pigs. In 1943, 47 volunteers took part in the testing of a new anti-malaria drug. Later that year, several groups of men were involved in evaluating how the human body responded to blood loss.