BETWEEN THE MUNICH crisis and September 1939, the clouds were gathering.
On 22nd October 1938, soon after Munich, members of the old Unit held their reunion at Friends House. They talked, no doubt, of the sheds at Dunkirk, the typhoid hospital at Ypres, of Courtrai and the ambulance convoys and ambulance trains, but their minds also turned, as was inevitable, to the possibilities of war and their responsibility, should it come, to those of the new generation who could not take up arms. A small committee was set up. It became in due course the nucleus of the Council of the new Unit. But for some months it waited.
Then, in May 1939, came the Military Training Act, providing for compulsory service for young men between the ages of twenty and twenty-one. The administration of the Act was in the hands of the Ministry of Labour--a significant departure from the First World War, when the whole field of military service was handled by the War Office. The Act provided for the recognition of conscientious objection, and the Ministry was given power to set up Local and Appellate Tribunals. The time had come to act.
But what form action should take was not clear. It is easy seven years later to write a narrative of these events, but at that time the future, the immediate future, was even more indefinite than the future usually is. During those few months before the war everyone lived from day to day, from hour to hour, frightened of the morrow, clutching at any hope. There was conscription, and conscription meant that from the Society of Friends and others of like mind there would be conscientious objectors, but how many there would be, what attitude the Government or public opinion would take to them, what work they should do, was still unknown.
In July 1939, Paul S. Cadbury, himself a member of the old Unit and Chairman of the new committee, wrote his first letter to the Ministry of Labour. In it he said: "At the moment I have no concrete plans in mind, as I am uncertain of the alternatives which are likely to be available under departments such as the Ministry of Agriculture . . . . I think, however, it is possible that there may be room for a voluntary scheme or schemes." He asked for an interview to discuss the matter further, and on 28th July he and John W. Harvey, also a member of the committee and Chairman of the already existing International Voluntary Service for Peace, saw Mr. G. H. (later Sir Godfrey) Ince.
There was interest and growing concern, but still uncertainty. The chief uncertainty was whether war would come or not. Late in August, Paul Cadbury and the veteran Arnold Rowntree were on holiday in neighbouring spots in Anglesey. War seemed inevitable. Someone had to act. .A third who was present says that Arnold Rowntree drew himself up to the full height and breadth of his large frame, and, with his booming voice, turned to Paul Cadbury: "You do it, Paul, you do it." It was Samuel anointing Saul. And for vigour and tireless energy and determination to get it done, Samuel had chosen the right Saul.
In the Quaker weekly journal, The Friend, for 1st September 1939, appeared a letter signed by Paul Cadbury and John Harvey. It was a long letter, putting forward details of procedure. It read in part:
"We are concerned that young Friends and others who wish to undertake civilian service at the present time shall be able to do so. Meeting for Sufferings has decided that the Society as such shall not organize a scheme for this purpose. It is probably right that no action should be taken by the Society's Executive Committee which might appear to identify it with any special form of service. There are, however, an unknown number of our members of military age who wish to give positive proof that, although they register as conscientious objectors, they have no wish to be exempt from a period of constructive labour as a result of their convictions.
"If, however, there is a real demand, we believe that it may be right for a group of individuals acting on their own responsibility to start a scheme of work which would be approved by the Minister of Labour as meeting the requirements of this Sub-Section of the Act . . . . If war comes such a scheme could be rapidly developed to train men for relief and ambulance work."
Events were moving with frightening rapidity. The letter had been written in late August and related to militia service. By the time most people read it, it was already out of date. All except the note which the Editor had added after it:
"Since the above letter was written the international situation has become more grave. We understand from Paul Cadbury that plans are under consideration by him and others for a camp at which ambulance training could be given, and he would be willing to receive the names of Friends wishing to undergo full-time training, and those concerned for such work should write to him. He points out, however, that the number with whom it might be possible to deal would be strictly, limited to begin with."
Two days later, Britain was at war. There was no longer any doubt what the job was going to be.
The following week a further letter, appeared in The Friend. The Committee, now a provisional Council of a Unit still unnamed, had met at Manor Farm, kindly lent by Dame Elizabeth Cadbury for an initial camp. The response to the letter of 1st September had been immediate: 300 applications came in the first few days. It had to be agreed that membership of the First Camp should be confined, with few exceptions, to members and attenders of the Society or those who had been at Friends' schools. Preference would be given to men between twenty and thirty years of age.
By 12th September six pioneers had arrived at Manor Farm to convert farm buildings into a camp. Many local Friends gave invaluable help; help came from the Bournville Village Trust; but the mainspring was Paul Cadbury---here, there and everywhere, interviewing prospective members, attending tribunals, seeing officials, turning up at all hours of the day and night with new pieces of equipment for the camp. Indeed, in claiming to have made the Unit what it was, its members sometimes forgot how much had been done in those early days to make it possible. It is never easy to sell a new idea; it was doubly difficult when a war had just begun.
On Wednesday, 27th September, fifty-eight men began their training. The name was still uncertain, but two days later the Council, now established, decided that what had so far been called the "Ambulance Training Camp for Friends" should adopt the old name, the Friends Ambulance Unit. It was hoped that there would be early work in France. As was fitting, Paul Cadbury was confirmed as Chairman of the Council. The Vice-Chairman was Arnold Rowntree, the elder statesman who had urged him on. It had all been a matter of days.
The reception given to the new Unit by the Society of Friends varied. In October it was discussed by Meeting for Sufferings. There was some opposition to the adoption of a name implying an association with the Society, which took no responsibility for its actions. Some believed that the Unit's work in the earlier war was too compromising to the Society's peace testimony ; they disliked the khaki uniform and the close association with the military. And they feared its effect on the absolutist objector. But there were words of encouragement and pleas for tolerance.
The following month a vigorous correspondence in the columns of The Friend carried the discussion further. There was considerable feeling in the Society that the setting up of an organization which would provide alternative service for conscientious objectors might prejudice before the tribunals the case of the absolutist and all those who felt that they could not accept the type of work which the Unit set before it.
It is true that in the early days of the war some tribunals showed a tendency to direct men into the F.A.U. and to use it as a lever when the cases of some conscientious objectors presented difficulties. As soon as it was obvious that at least one tribunal was specifying the Unit as the only alternative service which a conscientious objector might undertake, the Unit itself represented to the authorities that it could not accept members merely because a tribunal gave an applicant no further alternative. The Ministry of Labour gave an assurance that their representative at each tribunal would in future object to any such close definition.
For the Unit would not accept men under direction. It insisted on retaining its freedom to accept or reject applicants, after interview, according to their convictions and suitability for membership. In fact, of the 65,000 conscientious objectors of the war, 5,000 enquired about membership at some time or other, and 1,300 actually joined.
The men who joined the Unit were not prepared to refuse to do the work which they felt it right for them to do; but they were anxious that their work should not be used to prejudice their fellow pacifists who felt that they were called to a different type of work and witness.
THE FIRST CAMP opened with fifty-eight members---Friends, men from Friends' schools, with seven or eight who had no connection with the Society but had views akin. They assembled at Manor Farm.
Manor Farm became the nursery of the Unit. From being lent for the First Camp it became the home of twenty successive camps. There were converted cow-sheds and stables for bunkhouses, and a large barn for lectures ; there were fields and woods, a stream and lake, ideally placed by nature for awkward manoeuvres with stretchers and mock casualties.
The Camp was the same in most respects as the twenty-one that followed (two not at Manor Farm), but always members of the First Camp held their heads high ; they were the real veterans. Only six could carry their heads higher---the six pioneers who had arrived before the Camp had started, to convert stables into sleeping quarters, to construct the bunks, to make shelves and light-traps for the black-out, generally to make the farm ready for human habitation.
Each Camp modified and, in its own estimation, improved the programme of its predecessor, but it was the First Camp that set the pattern. There was a Commandant, Richard Early from Witney, and a Quartermaster, Peter Hume from York. Later camps introduced a Training Officer apart from Commandant. There were six sections, each with its appointed leader and its own stable or cowhouse. Members were unpaid, and so they would remain throughout their Unit service, receiving from the Unit only the essentials of life. From a special Mutual Assistance Fund, organized at the First Camp among the members themselves, those who required it received a small allowance of pocket money. There were lectures in first-aid from Dr. Rutter, who served the Unit to the end and showed more briskness in retirement than most men do in their working lives, while Sister Gibbs from Bournville, combining charm and unembarrassed firmness, taught many an awkward youth the intricacies of envelope corners on the beds, of Nelson inhalers and roller bandages. The Unit's debt to both of them cannot be measured. There were lectures from members of the old Unit; there were route marches too, and P.T. and runs and manoeuvres and "tea and bath" with local Friends on Sunday. In the evenings, silent devotionals after the manner of Friends helped to bring spiritual cohesion.
A motorcycle would drive furiously into the yard and brake suddenly. It was P.S.C. (for so the Unit knew him) bringing the latest news. Plans and prospects were debated and argued after supper. Discussion was easy because the Unit could, for the only time in its existence, be all assembled in one place. There were high hopes of work abroad. In fact it was assumed that by the time the camp was over work abroad would be there. But work abroad was elusive. P.S.C. brought news of discussions with the War Office, with the joint War Organization of the Red Cross and St. John; there were plans and ideas but no definite piece of work in mind.
There were, of course, difficulties. Sixty pacifists in camp together would discuss everything in heaven and earth. There were conflicting ideas on discipline, on how military the Unit should be in its organization. They were questions which dogged the Unit throughout its existence. But they rarely interfered with the doing of the work, for academic discussion falls into its right place when there is a job to be done.
THE ENVISAGED PERIOD of training was coming to an end and there was still no sign of work in France. For the phoney war was on. Should there be temporary disbandment or should further training be sought in this country ? It was decided to hold together, and on 13th November the First Camp moved to London. On the 15th the Second Camp moved in. The succession of camps had started, training in faith that sooner or later work overseas would come.
London meant Whitechapel and Bethnal Green. Peter Hume and Alan Dickinson had been sent before the camp had ended to arrange details, and, with the help of Dr. Henry Wilson of the London Hospital, had negotiated work with East End hospitals but failed to find accommodation. Buildings were looked at in Barnet Grove and Bethnal Green; eventually the London Hospital itself came to the rescue, and the evacuated Ophthalmic Wards, behind the main hospital from the Whitechapel Road, became the Unit's home. In addition, a rambling basement round the corner in Newark Street was rented from St. Thomas's Church next door.
The members divided into six sections, working in six hospitals---the London Hospital and the L.C.C. hospitals of Bethnal Green, Mile End, Hackney, St. Leonard's and St. Peter's.
"We had no beds, only mattresses on the floor, and sixty of us slept in the two Ophthalmic Wards in what we thought then was absolute luxury for wartime.
"Our hospital work developed very gradually. At first the time on duty dragged out slowly, and we did our best tidying beds, shifting screens, and endeavouring to explain to uncomprehending nurses just who we were. Gradually, however, we wormed our way into hospital life. First one hospital, then another, began to allow us into the operating theatre to watch operations. We were still anxious to make sure that we could stand the sight of bad wounds, quite apart from the added interest of seeing a case go through the hospital from the beginning. The training was excellent, and all of us got plenty of practice in all types of nursing.
"In the meantime we were looking for other spheres of service which we could undertake when off hospital duty. East End children were supposed to have been evacuated, and the schools were closed. Some of our professional teachers therefore were able to work in keeping these youngsters off the streets. Others helped in boys' clubs, teaching life-saving, plaster modelling, or perhaps even their newly-acquired knowledge of first aid. Gradually, as the need became very apparent, a few were taken off hospital work and put on full time social work."
Whitechapel brought useful work and excellent training, but it was a disappointment too. Always round the corner was that work overseas, much talked of but never to be found. Meanwhile applications for membership were pouring in.
The Unit had found the two places which became the spiritual home of most of its members---Manor Farm and Whitechapel. The Unit was under way.
NO ONE KNOWS who first suggested it. It was discussed at supper one evening in Whitechapel. Soon everyone was talking about it, just as they had talked of work in Czechoslovakia or relief in Turkey. But now suggestion became assumption. The Unit was going to Finland. There was no question about it.
There were speeches about it at the Second Camp. It filled the minutes of the Council.
On 1st December hostilities had broken out between Russia and Finland. Much later in the war, when office arrangements, contacts with officials, and all the preparations for an expedition overseas became matters of routine, the Unit found it hard to realize what obstacles had to be surmounted in those days when a group of young conscientious objectors wanted to go and help in someone else's war. Money had to be raised, ambulances bought, equipment provided. And all against time.
The first step was to visit the Georgian mansions of Grosvenor Crescent and talk with that august body, The Joint War Organization of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. The Joint War Organization had been approached before the First Camp began, for in the war of 1914-1918 the Unit was affiliated to it; then the men wore its uniform and carried its Geneva Convention cards and brassards. Otherwise as civilians they could not enter fighting zones for ambulance work. The august body had been interested but was obviously feeling its way; the new organization had to show what it could do.
For the next few days interviews abounded in Birmingham and London; so many interviews that surely something must come of them. At last a further interview with Sir John Kennedy, Vice-Chairman of the Joint War Organization, and Madame Peggy de Gripenberg, wife of the Finnish Minister and herself in charge of the Finnish Red Cross in London, produced a cable for the Finnish Red Cross:
"WOULD YOU ACCEPT VOLUNTARY MALE QUAKER AMBULANCE UNIT CONSISTING FIFTY TRAINED PERSONNEL TWENTY AMBULANCES ONE OR TWO DOCTORS STOP UNIT WOULD REQUIRE NO PAYMENT STOP WOULD YOU PROVIDE FOOD LIVING QUARTERS AND PETROL STOP WOULD GO OUT UNDER BRITISH RED CROSS BUT WOULD WORK WITH FINNISH RED CROSS CABLE REPLY IMMEDIATELY."
There followed more interviews. The Foreign Office, the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Economic Warfare, all had a finger in the pie. The Joint War Organization had been helpful and encouraging and had given their verdict that members of the Unit might wear Red Cross uniform and work under their general sponsorship, but on their own responsibility. They could give no financial support since Britain was not itself involved in that war. Indeed, as no war had officially been declared, it was doubtful how much allegiance to the Geneva Convention could be expected from the combatants.
A letter in The Times appealed for money; through it and many other ways £10,000 of an estimated cost of £14,000 had soon been raised or promised. Meanwhile Lord Phillimore was organizing a general Finland Fund, and, with his promise of help, the separate Unit appeal was withdrawn. More interviews.
December passed and there was no reply to the telegram sent to Finland. The men became impatient. How could the Finns be so long in accepting the proffered help ? It was perhaps difficult for the Unit to see itself as others might have seen it. At long last, early in January, the awaited cable came: "WE REGRET NOT FOR SERVICE WITH THE ARMY BUT THE GOVERNMENT MEDICAL BOARD AND OUR RED CROSS PLEASED RECEIVE THEM FOR HELPING THE CIVILIAN POPULATION." It was something, but not all they had hoped for: they wanted service at the front.
Plans had gone ahead through faith; officers had been appointed, with Richard Early as Commandant; twenty Ford ambulances, a kitchen-car and a repairs car ordered; the Swedish railways and the steamship company had promised to take the equipment free of charge and personnel at half cost. On 6th January Alan Dickinson, the Adjutant, and Michael Mounsey left by air for Finland, to make advance arrangements---the first Unit men in the war to leave the country.
Already the main body of the Convoy had assembled at the Youth Hostel in Buckhurst Hill. Enthusiasm was unbounded and spirits high; for everything was very new. At Buckhurst Hill they prepared themselves with lectures and practices, and Epping Forest played its full part in getting the men fit.
Within three days of leaving England Alan Dickinson and Michael Mounsey were in Vaasa on the west coast of Finland, now the headquarters of the Finnish Red Cross. They made their first acquaintance with modern war: crowds moved in and out of the city as the Russian planes roared overhead, coming and going to a fixed time-table. They saw the Red Cross Chairman, Baron Wrede. Contrary to the cable which had been sent to London, they were now told that work under army direction at the front was assured. With preparations made, they returned to Oslo to await the arrival of the main party. In Oslo they first met Harold Delphin, an old friend of Alan's; he appears and reappears throughout the party's records, giving the help which experience and knowledge can give to the strange and ignorant. He took them by the hand and helped them in the buying of skis and ski boots, windproof jackets and all that was needed to combat the northern cold. From Oslo they moved to Bergen and there waited.
ON 18TH JANUARY, exulting in the glory of ten white ambulances, a repairs lorry, stores lorry and two staff cars, twenty-seven men, the first half of the convoy, drove north from Buckhurst Hill. Twenty-five remained behind.
A foretaste of things to come was a violent snowstorm on the Great North Road which introduced them to the indistinguishable whiteness of road and field and ditch and the pattern of snowflakes dancing before the drivers' eyes. They spent that night in York and the next day reached Newcastle; leaving their vehicles to be shipped later, they boarded the S.S. Iris. In the North Sea they passed the spot where a Danish coaler had been torpedoed. They picked up some survivors. On 22nd January they landed in Bergen and met Dickinson and Mounsey.
There followed delay, maddening delay, for the ambulances did not arrive for three weeks. In Oslo they bought equipment; they learnt to ski; they indulged in Finnish saunas, a kind of steambath produced by pitching buckets of water on enclosed stoves; the female attendant would soap each man vigorously, and proceedings would end with a roll in the snow. An additional refinement was the whipping up of the circulation by self-inflicted chastisement with bundles of green twigs. A lorry too was borrowed for driving practice for the less experienced drivers.
On Sunday the 4th February, Richard Early spoke at their evening devotional. He reminded them that now they were to enter the press of the struggle, new tasks and new experiences, they must retain at all costs their sympathy with others whose position they could not share---on the one hand the absolute pacifist and, on the other, the fighting man.
Four days later two vessels arrived in Bergen with four vehicles; the third transport with the rest was expected at Oslo in two days. But, alas, the third had stuck in the ice off Kristiansand. It was useless to wait for it. So the party divided; Richard Early with the doctor, John Gillespie, and six others, moved off with two ambulances and the stores lorry.
They reached Stockholm on the 14th. Their route lay north along the east coast of Sweden for 630 miles to Haparanda, the last point in the country at the northern end of the Gulf of Bothnia. The journey took four days on glassy roads, on which, although the wheels wore chains, skids were frequent and inevitable, particularly as the ambulances, of a normal English type, were too light on the road for such conditions.
Here they were joined by Nils Hahl, their interpreter and liaison officer. He was to prove himself of inestimable value to the Convoy, for he spoke Finnish, Swedish, English and French, and stayed with them to the end. A soldier and a Finn, he became a close friend; he developed a warm sympathy with pacifists and more than most could see their point of view. A year later he was killed fighting for Finland in his country's second war. At Haparanda they learnt also where their work was to be. The map of Finland shows north-east of Lake Ladoga a tissue of straggling lakes, indicated in an atlas by bright blue patches which suggest sunlit lagoons rather than sheets of solid ice swept by winter blizzards. They were to cross this region and work at the front just north of Ladoga.
They were anxious to get on. They crossed the long bridge from Haparanda to Tornio, and found themselves in Finland. At Tornio they loaded their vehicles on to the train and had some sleep ; two stayed tip all night to start the engines at regular intervals to stop them freezing. Next day they set off themselves by train in a passenger coach of great antiquity heated by a wooden stove, the replenishment of which was happily entrusted to the passengers. They passed through the important junction of Iisalmi to Kuopio, where they unloaded the cars and drove them south. As they came nearer to the front lights could not be used. Snowdrifts concealed the ditches, which were dug deep to carry away the melting snows when the thaw came but were now completely hidden, so that cars would slither gently into them, coming to rest at an angle of 45°. Soon they became adept at the use of block and tackle.
At Joroinen they found the road impassable; so trucks were loaded on to a train again, and they reached Savonlinna, where they were billeted in a lake steamer frozen into the ice on Lake Hanki. They met Major Wegelius, the doctor in charge of foreign ambulance units in Sweden, and received instructions; they were to go a hundred miles farther on to Sortavala on Lake Ladoga. They passed on and reached the lake, the name of which became a household word for a few weeks. John Gillespie, the doctor, stayed at Sortavala for work in the hospital, while the rest went on twenty miles to the north-east and eventually reached their destination, Leppasyrja. They reported to Divisional Headquarters. The journey from Buckhurst Hill had taken them five weeks.
THE MAIN PARTY, under the Transport Officer, Oswald Dick, had been left at Oslo, waiting for the S.S. Ek which had been frozen into the ice off Kristiansand. The boat could not reach Oslo, but at last put in at Kristiansand, and the ambulances arrived by train. On the 15th this party drove off: sixteen men with eight ambulances, repairs lorry and a staff car, with the faithful Harold Delphin as interpreter. With only one ditching they reached Stockholm and, on the 18th, followed the previous party's route to Haparanda. In temperatures of -35° centigrade, engines had to be kept running all night. They talked on the telephone with Richard Early and cabled England for two more men who were to be left behind as liaison officers, since it was thought that cable communication from the Ladoga front with England would be impossible. In fact this proved untrue, and when the two arrived they were swallowed up in the main party. Six days later, after a wait at Luleå for overhauls, they crossed the frontier to Tornio, and there entrained. They reached Savonlinna by a different route. Two days later the train bringing their ambulances arrived, and they found their first job in unloading an ambulance train newly arrived from the front. They came in for a heavy air raid, with further raids along the way, but on 2nd March they joined up with the advance party at Leppasyrja. The Finnish Major Jokela arrived to inspect them and consult about their work.
The plan was that the party should be divided into three groups for work on the Ladoga front. Based on headquarters was Richard Early with fourteen others. Ralph Smith took three men and an English speaking Swedish-Finn to Soanlahti. Alan Dickinson, with five and Nils Hahl, moved off to a base some distance north.
For the first group at headquarters a steady job developed. They set to work transporting wounded, visiting P.S.P.s and J.S.P.s, the Finnish equivalent of Casualty Clearing Stations and Regimental Aid Posts. They drove along narrow roads with deep ditches, generally at dead of night. They met convoys of sledges carrying dead. They drove up to the J.S.P.s, returned their patients to the P.S.P.s and thence to base hospitals. At night headlamps had to be dimmed or extinguished altogether; by day they were on a constant look out for planes. Two members had an uncomfortable experience early on. The Finnish tents were like bell tents but had a wood-burning stove in the middle, with the iron chimney serving as a tent-pole. "For once the Finns had left the fire smoking when dawn broke. The tent, well camouflaged and hidden by the wood itself, was noticed by a Russian aeroplane on account of the smoke, and the inmates woken by machine-gun bullets passing through the upper part of the tent and hitting the chimney." Towards the end of their time the tempo of the work increased. All ambulances were out at once all night. Bombs dropped so near their headquarters that they began to wonder if the Russians had located it.
The second party found less work to do. There were few wounded to be transported where they were. Their records speak mostly of their relations with the Finns, especially with the doctor, Captain Flo, a melancholy gentleman whose pastime was to have them read portions of the New Testament to him.
"We have had one or two snowstorms recently, but not heavy ones. The weather is not very cold, but I fancy we are getting used to it, as it is about -15° Centigrade most of the time. But it does not seem unpleasantly cold. A fine day or a bright night is greeted with apprehension and a cloudy day or night is welcomed, especially if it is snowing, as it means less chance of air activity."
One of their difficulties was to find the well-camouflaged P.S.P.s. On one occasion two ambulances missed one by mistake and were turned back by horrified sentries three hundred yards from the Russian lines.
It was the third section that had the busiest time. Their two ambulances, in the next few days, travelled 1,000 miles, which meant hard work and long hours under those conditions. Their driving too was done mostly at night for safety. Overhauling had to be done by day, so that sleep was a problem.
"Pit and Graham collected blankets from the ambulance and, fortified by tea flavoured by paraffin and miscellaneous throat pastilles" (the Finns had a habit of handing throat pastilles round like cigarettes) "followed a Finn down the path into a long low wooden building half sunk in snow. They were shown a shelf on which to sleep.
"About 8.30 a.m. a Finn prodded Pit's leg and indicated that coffee was served on a log table beneath them. After drinking more than was good for them, the problem arose, what was there to do cooped up in a shack with a lot of lorry drivers who spoke no English; luckily Graham had brought a pack of greasy cards along with him, so they played German whist until the magic word 'Soppa' told them that food was ready. Molotovs came roaring overhead every, few minutes, but thinking themselves secure in their hut, they went on discussing personalities in the Unit, until even that topic was worn out."
And so it went on. There was amazing stillness in the heart of the Arctic forests as their ambulances plied to and fro. They learnt the bumps on the road by heart and tried not to throw the patients off their stretchers, a difficult job on a road with ruts which fitted the gauge of the Finnish vehicles but not the British.
At last for the whole Convoy the job had really begun. At last it appeared that they had justified the laborious and hectic preparations and the long journey to this northern front. But ten days after their arrival at the front this job was at an end.
"At breakfast time we heard that there was great likelihood of peace, but the only foundation seemed to be that someone couldn't hear the guns, which might have been because the wind had changed. Then our interpreter came in and said, 'It is peace,' but added, 'It is nothing to rejoice about.' We noticed that the ladies of the house were crying. All the part of the country we were in was now Russia."
Soon the contents of the houses were to be seen piled up at the sides of the road waiting to be removed to the new Finland. Houses were set on fire; cattle were slaughtered to be taken away. There followed scenes such as later became all too familiar to the Unit on many roads in Europe; bewildered refugees driven, from their homes, picking up what belongings they could take with them, making for the unknown.
"Yesterday we left the Russian part of Finland, twelve hours before the Russians reached the small village at which we were staying. The roads are naturally in a bad state, owing to the vast amount of material passing over them. One journey we made was 35 miles in length and took us seven and a half hours to cover. All the time we were passing the retreating Army---hundreds and hundreds of horse-drawn sleighs, large heavy lorries, cavalry, ski troops and worn out men on foot. Our ambulances were about the only motor vehicles which could have made the journey; the Finnish ones being too large to get through. I was very struck with the efficiency of the Finns during the last few days. Convoy upon convoy of sleighs, each convoy consisting of about seventy sleighs, have been making journeys into the new Finland, taking with them every movable household article and piece of furniture and then returning for more. The roads are lined with these household goods wherever a house is in sight. Everything possible is being taken and nothing left to the Russians. None are staying in their homes. Apart from ourselves and twenty other Finnish ambulance men, the countryside is deserted."
For five weeks the Unit, with headquarters at Joensuu and still responsible to the Finnish Army, remained to help with the transport of civilians and of wounded soldiers evacuated from the front. One team organized a canteen for retreating troops.
BUT WE MUST RETURN to England. It will be recalled that Brandon Cadbury and twenty-four members of the Convoy had stayed behind at Buckhurst Hill to await the second group of ambulances. They were there until 19th February. At last they set off: they too had ten ambulances, a kitchen-car and a Ford Utility. In the north there were further delays. They explored the countryside but were not in a mood to enjoy the Roman Wall. Then they embarked at Newcastle on 6th March in company with survivors from a Norwegian ship and some Belgian volunteers for Finland. Somewhere in the middle of the North Sea they heard by radio of the peace negotiations. They arrived at Oslo on the 12th, the very eve of peace. In two days they reached the Swedish capital. Here the Finnish Red Cross urged them on, for although the war was over the main job of transport was beginning. They followed the same route north. When they reached Umeå, more than halfway up the east coast of Sweden to Haparanda, they were disappointed to find that the ice in the Gulf of Bothnia made it impossible to drive straight across to Vaasa. There had been a blizzard raging for four days, and the road across the ice was a foot deep in water and three lorries were already stranded in the middle. So they made for the north, and, on the evening of the 25th, met Oswald Dick and Nils Hahl in Tornio. They drove south and reached Kuopio. Here they waited for consultation with Richard Early, who had meanwhile gone to Helsinki to confirm that work on transport with the Army was the most useful function that the Convoy could perform. A cable from London had urged that they should undertake relief work in the traditional manner of Friends. They were not sure what this meant. If it meant feeding and organizing refugees, the Finns were capable of doing that themselves. Their job was obviously to use their transport for carrying refugees. It was a case of putting everything that had wheels on the job.
The whole Convoy was now to be established at Liperi, a village ten miles from Joensuu, and a small party moved there to prepare for the rest. The quarters consisted of what had been a shooting lodge belonging to the Civil Guard. Two large Swedish Army tents, bought in Stockholm but not previously used, were also pitched, and a thick layer of spruce tops laid to serve as a communal mattress in each tent. Furniture was made---folding chairs and tables which could be packed away in the ambulances and taken elsewhere. On 3rd April the whole Convoy transferred bodily to the new quarters, except for a group of seven which remained at Tohmajärvi for another fortnight. The party settled down once more to the routine of Unit life.
There was further consideration of what the job should be, with an awkward moment when they were pressed to use their ambulances for the transport of uninjured soldiers, a use of the ambulances which the Geneva Convention would not allow. But there were so many civilians and soldiers convalescent after hospital to be moved that the problem solved itself. Over the next twelve days a Unit transport service worked to a rota with a round trip of twenty hours between Joensuu and Kuopio. 35,000 miles were covered, and 2,500 evacuees were moved. The figures in terms of British mileage, on tarmacadam roads, are not impressive, but the cars were constantly on the roads---roads which had been like ice-rinks, but now resembled mud baths. The mechanics worked night and day; there was something wrong with the brakes, or the plugs, or the lights, or the clutch, every time a truck came in. The normal apparatus of Unit life began to appear. Orderly and leave rotas were drawn up. There was a nightly devotional, with a longer meeting for worship every Sunday.
Food became more satisfactory. The Unit had its own cooks, who stayed up half the night to provide food and hot drinks for the returning drivers. There were so many varieties of hard and soft bread that one member started a bread museum which he intended to bring back with him. But it became difficult to prevent members eating the museum if it was more readily accessible than the general supply. Members made progress with Finnish; their inability to speak the language had been a severe handicap, but earlier it had been impossible through lack of time.
And then there was the ramp. The ramp necessitated much tree-felling and sweated labour. No doubt the ramp still stands, an object of astonishment and reverence to the Finns who wonder of giants could have raised so vast a pile. It was intended to make it easy to work beneath the cars. Unfortunately, the gradient was too steep, so that the cars could not mount the length of it. Moreover, it was unhappily made to the measurements of Paul Roake and not of Sam Evans, so that even if one of the vehicles had succeeded in mounting it, any mechanic except Paul himself would have had to stand on a chair to reach it. At the same time vast quantities of snow had to be cleared away to make a park for twenty-six cars.
But there was no prospect of long work. Certainly there was no question of bringing out the further reinforcements who had been hopefully assembled at Buckhurst Hill.
And then, on 9th April, to queer the issue further, came news of the German attack on Denmark and Norway.
A TELEGRAM WAS SENT immediately to the Norwegians, offering the Unit's services. The reply was welcoming. The British authorities in Helsinki were informed. A cable from England suggested that half the Convoy should remain behind in Finland. The Convoy itself felt that this was not practicable or necessary. On the 21st, fifty-six men and twenty-six vehicles left Liperi on the long journey to the north.
They went by train from Liperi to Tornio; one of the coaches was dated 1880. Meals were prepared in the kitchen-car and when the train was going uphill it was possible for the orderlies to dash up the line to the passenger coaches with the food. "I have a vivid recollection of Martin Lidbetter racing madly alongside the train carrying the porridge tureen. Just as he arrived at the carriage door the lid fell off. Giving one despairing glance he abandoned it and leapt panting into the train. Meanwhile Elliott Burgess-Smith leapt off the train lower down, picked up the lid, and caught up the last carriage." Late the following night they reached Tornio. They crossed into Sweden. At Lule they waited for major repairs to the trucks, then, on the 26th, went inland to Lyksele, 120 miles away. They were instructed here by the Norwegian Military Attaché that they were to work in the northern area of Norway; the Convoy was to go to Gäddede, 150 miles to the west on the frontier. An advance party of four hastened on to Gäddede to make arrangements.
When the main body arrived they found that the pass into Norway could be crossed only by night when the mud had frozen. They proposed to start that night, but the road was worse than usual and they spent the 29th preparing. Wood blocks were attached to the petrol tanks to protect the taps, which were constantly being knocked off by projections in the road. There was some opportunity of skiing, but they could not go far because of the nervousness of the Swedish armed guard which was anxious that these foreigners should do nothing to visit upon them the suspicions of the Germans.
Soon after midnight they drove on to the foot of the pass. By the time they arrived, the mud was thawing and the track too difficult, so they waited at Sandmoen. Suddenly two German planes appeared from the east, flying low over the road, and released two or three bursts of machine-gun fire. They were taken completely by surprise and there was no time to take cover; however, the planes ceased firing before they came overhead and continued steadily westward. Three ambulances had received bullet holes in the bodywork and two men had narrow escapes. The chief casualty was a bottle of ink in one man's pack, which broke with disastrous results.
They crossed the pass on the last night of the month, the road becoming increasingly unmanageable as they descended, narrow and twisting, with deep walls of snow on either side, and a surface at first of frozen snow and lower down of heavy, clinging mud like a ploughed field. They had to cut down small trees to fill the ruts. The journey of fifteen miles to Godejord took ten hours, and here the main body stopped. The Norwegian doctors had no clear instructions for them. So they went on to Grong. Here instructions were equally vague; they pushed on to the outskirts of Namsos and reported to a British colonel. Arrangements were made for one section to join the French, one the Norwegians and one the British; the colonel was particularly anxious to have one man remain at headquarters because of "important moves that were impending". They returned to Godejord for what was left of the night.
On the next day Richard Early, Michael Mounsey and Michael Rowntree went down to Namsos to see the colonel again; Brandon Cadbury moved to Raanem to start work, where later he was joined by Oswald Dick and a party with nine ambulances and other vehicles. On the way the latter met the two Michaels, who brought new instructions that half of Oswald's group was to go on to Namsos. Mounsey would come up next day with five more ambulances from Godejord to Raanem.
Oswald Dick hurried to Raanem, handed over five ambulances, and the staff car to Richard, who had returned but now set off again for Namsos where he arrived at half-past eight. Word came: "We are evacuating." There was an interview with a General at British G.H.Q. Should the Unit be evacuated with the troops? Or should it try to save its ambulances and equipment by escaping into Sweden ? The latter course meant the danger of capture on the way and it was doubtful whether they would make Sweden at all since petrol was short. Richard decided on evacuation.
Back at Raanem, when the news arrived, Oswald Dick and Maurice Woodhead left the party and themselves went on to Grong, from where they could telephone to Godejord. Richard Early, having made arrangements for sailing, went down once more to Raanem. There the party of twenty-four made ready to move off to Namsos with Brandon Cadbury in charge. Richard and Ralph Smith followed Oswald and Maurice to Grong, and on to Formofos, to wait for the Godejord group. The latter had received Oswald's call telling them to be ready to move; it was followed by a second call at midnight ordering them to abandon their ambulances and to report post haste to Namsos.
The rest of the story was soon told. They piled hand luggage into the stores lorry and the utility van. The latter split its radiator on a rock and was abandoned. Later the lorry was punctured. Alan Dickinson and Tom Burns walked on; they arrived at Formofos at 2.30 in the morning and found Richard Early and the other three. The rest of the party arrived a quarter of an hour later. They had been told that the evacuation from Namsos could not be later than four o'clock. Oswald Dick had hopefully asked Brandon to try to "hold back a destroyer until that time ". They might just make it.
"We rushed everyone into the repairs lorry and ambulance and went hell for leather to Namsos. Never was anything so thrilling as Maurice's drive in the repairs lorry. It was a magnificent performance, and at three minutes past four we halted amidst the desolation of the quay at Namsos. Three of Brandon's deserted ambulances and the empty width of the Fjord told their own tale . . . . We found two Norwegians trying to rescue a lorry with medical stores from the confused groups of lorries, cars, guns and ammunition which were lying about. They told us that the transports had sailed at half past one."
Twenty-five men had got away. Thirty-one stood on the quay at Namsos. The Germans might arrive at any moment. They hastened back to Raanem and thence to Godejord. Near Grong they picked up a 200-litre drum of petrol by the roadside; it was a gift from heaven. They loaded stores and picked up vehicles, and at nine in the morning set off over the pass. Crossing the pass by day, with conditions more appalling than before, they crawled into Gäddede at 1 a.m. on 4th May. On the way from Namsos they had to abandon eleven vehicles. Now they had with them twelve ambulances and still the faithful repairs lorry, the kitchen-car and the small staff car. Six hours after the Unit passed through, the Germans reached Formofos.
Meanwhile Brandon's party was crossing the North Sea in the French vessel Alcazar. German aircraft roared overhead. Two destroyers in the convoy were sunk. But they arrived in Scapa Flow and so got home.
In the haven of Sweden the first thing to do was sleep; then on to Stockholm. The vehicles were left at Östersund and later presented to the Swedish Red Cross; the Red Cross in turn made them a gift of money. Civilian clothes were bought, and eventually they all found work, paid or unpaid, as schoolmasters, farmers or students. Two were offered posts at Helsinki University. Nils Hahl did everything possible to help in Finland. Attempts were made to evacuate all British personnel from Sweden via Petsamo, but most attempts broke down. At first only John Gillespie got away because he managed to obtain an Irish passport by writing to Berlin. He set off from Petsamo; at Tromso he was stopped by the Germans and sent back, but later he left in another boat. Eventually another five got away, arrived in Iceland On 3rd September, and in Scotland on the 26th.
The rest tried to get visas from the Russians, but in vain. Had they not participated on the Finnish side ? Approaches to the Russian Ambassador in London were more successful. Early in September the British Red Cross Commissioner in Cairo received from his London headquarters a cable offering him "about twenty-six trained voluntary drivers now in Sweden ". He replied accepting the offer gratefully, and the Unit was instructed from London to report to him as soon as possible.
Ready for the journey, the whole party reunited in Stockholm. It was at this point that Unit democracy, which on many occasions in the future was to bring about a change of officers without ill-feeling on any side, recommended a change which was confirmed in London by the Council. Richard Early and Alan Dickinson resigned; Oswald Dick and Michael Mounsey became Commandant and Adjutant, with Ronald Joynes in charge of their scanty finances. And now, on 8th October, the party left in two planes, through Riga and Veliki Luki to Moscow, on from Moscow by train to Odessa, by boat to Istanbul, on the Taurus Express to Aleppo, thence to Tripoli, Beirut and Haifa, finally to Cairo, where they arrived on Monday, 21st October. The next, and one of the largest chapters in the Unit's history, was about to open.
FOR MANY MONTHS the Unit asked itself what had been achieved in Finland, and there was much heart-searching. Had it been worth it ? How efficient had they been ? Was it just a piece of gallivanting? They had done only six weeks solid work and had spent nearly £20,000. But that was one of the chances of war; when they left they had no means of telling that their period of service would be so short. Already Finland and Norway added credence to the tale, as Greece would do later, that it only needed the F.A.U. to enter a country for it to capitulate forthwith.
Something was achieved. Lives were saved and people helped; and that was after all what they had gone for. No doubt the Unit was not as well trained as later it became. Many who were expected to drive large vehicles under Arctic conditions had previously driven nothing larger than the family four-seater.
Much more important was the fact that it evoked, in many for the first time, qualities of initiative and resourcefulness which, when later grounded in longer and more systematic training, were responsible for the Unit's finest work.
They took their job seriously, but always, at least in retrospect, there was about Finland a gaiety and light-heartedness not always present later when the dark days came, when the war became a grim struggle and teeth were set. It brought them into contact with men of other nations and other ways of thought. They experienced the friendliness and comradeship which overcame the barriers of language and different nationalities. They came across some of the difficulties, too, which were inevitable whenever pacifists worked alongside the fighting forces, but were rarely unsurmountable if bigotry and arrogance were not allowed to get the better of human understanding.
There was, for instance, the question of bearing arms. A letter written at the time records: "The Finnish Major Jokela asked: 'So you will carry no guns with you ?' I replied: 'No,' and then he asked, 'What would you do if a Russian parachutist attacked you with a machine-gun ?'" It would be a question difficult to answer for anyone in the heat of battle. With a Finn through an interpreter it was impossible. It was no bad thing that it made the Unit think. Perhaps it made the Major also think.
Difficulties too had arisen over what their ambulances were to carry. Here, as often in the future, the fact that they were working under the Geneva Convention saved the day. In the stress of battle it is easier to explain that one is forbidden to do certain things by the terms of the Convention than it is to argue pacifism.
Finland was a short-lived adventure. But it fired the Convoy's imagination at the time and gave it confidence; it had a shot at a difficult job and found that, on the whole, it could do it reasonably well. For the Unit in general it did two things. It established a tradition and made the Unit better known. The Unit was more likely to be asked to do other work in future, and, not unimportant for a voluntary society, it would make easier the raising of funds for further enterprises.
For us who came later it attained the special status, the special place in the affections, which the first and pioneering effort always enjoys. Those who came back were heroes who livened an evening hour for us in camp or hospital with wonderful tales of Joensuu and Tohmajärvi, of brilliant Northern Lights and hazardous Journeys. The men who went on to Egypt, whom we had never met, were nobler still, demi-gods made of finer stuff than those of us who back in England argued and worried our way through the slump of 1940.
The Early Days, cont'd: Slump and Recovery.
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