Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) in WWII: Civilian Relief Work in Mainland Europe
Following the German invasion of Greece in 1941, the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU’s) work had been confined to North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. But as the Allied advance began in 1943, the focus of the FAU began to shift towards civilian relief work in Europe.
Plans were drawn up with other voluntary groups for Mobile Hygiene and First Aid Units to organise emergency medical facilities in newly liberated areas. Relief and Refugee Units would run refugee camps and provide general civilian relief. Field Bacteriological Units would provide laboratory facilities for emergency public health work, such as testing water supplies.
In the spring of 1943, following the defeat of the German army in southern Italy, the first FAU members crossed into Naples with the French army. There, the Unit worked with the Red Cross in dirty, overcrowded hospitals that were suffering from severe shortages of supplies.
Another group of twelve formed part of a group tackling an outbreak of typhus in Naples in early 1944. When the epidemic subsided, this group transferred to work in Italian and Yugoslav refugee camps. The FAU dealt with overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, supplied improvised bedding, soap, disinfectant and medical supplies, organised food rations and tried to find local employment for the refugees. A smaller group, who had been working with Yugoslav refugees in North Africa, went on to provide transport and Field Bacteriology Units in the Balkans.
Further north in Italy, in the Aventino Valley, whole villages had been mined and destroyed. Here nine members of the FAU and three from the AFSC undertook to help the demoralised population to rebuild their homes. They established a system of barter, trading timber for other building materials, and helped to build or repair homes for hundreds of people. This small-scale project inspired a much larger reconstruction scheme run by the United Nations Refugee Relief Agency.
The FAU had been among the last to leave Greece in 1941, and they were among the first to return in 1944. Working as part of the joint Medical Supplies Transport Unit, in six months, they helped to deliver 30,000 cases of medical supplies. They also provided Field Bacteriology Units, ran refugee camps and dealt with malnutrition.
Relief work in northwest Europe began in September 1944. In northern France, the Unit ran a refugee camp and worked in transit camps where refugees were being moved to more secure locations. In the Netherlands, they arrived shortly after the Allied landings at Arnhem. Here again they worked in transit camps, dealing with ten thousand refugees in October 1944 alone.
Once Allied troops entered Germany in February 1945, FAU sections helping to set up dozens of refugee camps between the Rhine and the Baltic, dealing not only with refugees but those released from forced labour camps.
At the end of April 1945, the Unit took part in the relief of Sandbostel concentration camp, between Bremen and Hamburg. This camp – a smaller version of Belsen - held 15 thousand prisoners of war and 8 thousand political prisoners. The Unit took on the task of feeding the camp survivors.
In June 1945, the women joined the FAU teams in north-west Europe for the first time, acting as welfare workers in the camps. By this stage there were almost 150 FAU members stationed in Germany, spread across the zone occupied by the British Army.
Until late 1945, the FAU, like everyone else working in Germany, had been under official orders from the Military Government not to fraternise with the German population. But as the numbers of displaced persons dwindled, the Quakers, along with the Red Cross and others, asked to be allowed to carry out relief among the German people. Restrictions were relaxed and during the winter of 1945/6, the Unit, along with the Friends Relief Service, which ultimately took over the work, helped to provide food for starving German children, particularly in bombed cities of the Ruhr valley.