THERE WOULD BE an expressive shaking of the head, a very Gallic shrug of the shoulders, and then: Ils sont les objecteurs de conscience, alors. It explained the otherwise inexplicable. But only partially, for it is doubtful whether the French ever fully understood them. Through Syria, Egypt, Tripolitania and Tunisia, through Italy and into France, they worked and bantered and quarrelled together. There were crises and strains at regular intervals, but no more than you would expect in a hospital to which few races can have failed to contribute at least something, a hospital which could on one occasion boast that, in a ward of eight patients, it had a Russian, Spaniard, Frenchman, Dutchman, Dane, Senegalese, Syrian, and an F.A.U. man. Somehow the crise would always pass and they were friends again, friends in the heat of battle, friends in the uproariously cosmopolitan atmosphere of the hospital's routine life, friends particularly when, four and a half years later, the war over, there came the final parting, and the Band of the Foreign Legion, seventy instruments strong, turned out at seven in the morning to play a group of British nursing sisters and les Quakers out of France. The whole thing, you would say, could not have happened in real life; but it did happen, and it worked.
In August 1944 you might have driven north from Naples under a blazing Italian sun, through the small town of Aversa, then along the narrow, cobbled streets of the village Albanova, where military transport in profusions from tank-transporters down to jeeps, jostled and jammed in the twisting lanes intended for nothing more unwieldy than man or horse or goat. There, on a large expanse of sun-parched grass, reached from the village by a furrowed track, with here and there an elm, its trailing vine wedded to it, casting its shadow strongly across the path, you would have found them resting after strenuous times on the Cassino front. Some sandy brown marquees and smaller tents were standing, though most were packed away ready for the next move; they were the wards, the reception room, the theatre, the women stall's quarters, the French officers' mess, the smaller tents of the hommes de troupe or the bivvies of the Senegalese. Somewhere in the middle you would find a small marquee half open, with table and ricketty chairs, a small library of dog-eared books, and a wireless set, while rough tables stood outside for messing. That was the home of the F.A.U. contingent.
Along the far side of the field, their radiators driven up against the undergrowth of a thicket, stood a row of Bedfords, Fords and Chevrolets, most of which, decrepit but still game, had carried the hospital since it first left England early in 1941. The trucks which were not already full of tentage and hospital equipment were fitted out with stretchers, mosquito nets and shelves and all modern comforts and conveniences to form for their Unit drivers a hide-out which any Boy Scout would envy. Then, beyond the trucks and thicket, you would see a large can of water swung perilously from a tree to improvise a shower-bath, and, beyond that again, the open-air laundry where Ralph Davis was seeing to it that the Senegalese did at least a little work in between their bouts of helpless merriment or their animated conversation in an unknown tongue.
Here and there a French officer or type would walk around; languidly a Senegalese, with a vast expanse of jet black face and shimmering teeth crowned by a red fez, would be having a game with an Italian urchin who had slipped into the camp in search of a scrap of food; occasionally a nursing sister would cross from one tent to another, and an orderly would be called. Otherwise there would be little movement apart from the hammering of the Unit mechanics behind the trucks; for only by constant servicing could vehicles so old, so weary of travel, keep to the road at all. Stripped to the waist, brown as filberts, covered in oil and grease, the Maintenance Section worked to prepare for their next move.
Everywhere there was an air of informality, of intimate friendliness. It was the Hadfield Spears Hospital taking things easy after one of the many campaigns in which it had already played a part, before it moved on to further work.
No doubt this story, being the story of the F.A.U., will concentrate too much on the Unit's contribution to the Hospital's work. It was indeed a joint effort, an experiment in international co-operation under none too easy circumstances.
IN THE AUTUMN OF 1940, Mrs. (later Lady) Spears, alias the novelist, Mary Borden, was organizing, in co-operation with Lady Hadfield, a mobile hospital to work with the Free French Forces on similar lines to an earlier hospital which had worked with the French Army before the fall of France. The F.A.U. was asked to provide a section of fifteen men to drive and maintain the Hospital's trucks. There were the usual protracted preparations and the usual interviews. As the Red Cross and St. John had no part in direction of the Hospital, there seemed no reason why they should allow the men to wear their uniform or carry the Geneva Convention cards. So arrangements were made direct with the War Office for cards and brassards which brought the section within the scope of the Convention. Later the Red Cross and St. John gave their sponsorship to this as to every other section of the Unit engaged on military casualty work. Then there was an issue about the arming of ambulances by the French, which the Unit could not accept.
But at last, early in December, the invitation was finally accepted, and a section assembled with Raymond (or, as the Unit knew him, Nik) Alderson in charge; two days after Christmas they moved down to Camberley, the base of the Free French Forces at the time in England. The work itself seemed to be just what the Unit was looking for; the Free French were a small body and their Service de Santé almost without trained medical orderlies at the time, so that Unit men who had some knowledge both of medical work and mechanics would be filling a real need.
The Hospital was, throughout its history, attached to the First Free French Division, which consisted of those men who had rallied to De Gaulle in 1940. As the Division grew, so did the Hospital grow in size. In some ways, indeed, it was a regular military hospital, for it was the main hospital unit attached to the Division and worked under the direction of the Service de Santé, but, containing a number of British volunteers, it had a greater degree of latitude and self-government. So there was a good chance that the type of difficulty which later arose through the more orthodox and rigid practice of a regular military hospital with the British Army could be avoided.
As originally planned, it was a mobile hospital of eighty beds; the surgeons, doctors, pharmacists and administrators were officers of the French Army, all responsible to the Médecin-Chef. There were also French N.C.O.s and other ranks who worked in the administration and the kitchen, and in addition, forty-five Senegalese who did the unskilled work and were always a source of interest and gaiety in the camp.
On the British side there was Lady Spears, the founder and directrice, who herself travelled with the Hospital until June 1942; thereafter she visited the visited the Hospital at intervals of six months or so.
There were eight nursing sisters responsible for the theatre, the wards, and reception, and six women drivers of the M.T.C. who drove and serviced the six staff cars.
The F.A.U. section of fifteen, which gradually grew to thirty-eight as the Hospital expanded, worked, as already stated, as orderlies on the wards and drove and maintained the trucks. They had other functions too. For some time they provided the Hospital's Quartermaster and its electrician. They were responsible for the laundry and linen, for the mortuary and many of the numerous other odd jobs that occur in a hospital, and it was always primarily their job to load and unload the trucks and set up the camp when they arrived at a new site.
At Camberley there were a few weeks of inevitable waiting. "These weeks", wrote a member, "were a trying period for everybody. We had no knowledge of the habits and psychology of the Free French, very little of our equipment, and only the haziest ideas of our place and function in the unit. Also the living conditions at that time were more squalid than at any other, and there seemed a danger at the very outset of starting off with dirty habits and dirtier conversation. If we avoided these things we owed much to Nik's example. Nik himself arrived extraordinarily rapidly at an understanding with our French officers. Besides linguistic fluency, he showed the much more valuable fluency of mental communication, of grasping fine shades of meaning. He compared once his conversations with our officers to various types of bridges, with one a footbridge, that you skipped merrily across, with another the Albert Bridge, used always for a slow and ponderous traffic, and with another Tower Bridge---closed altogether at certain hours of the day."
Gradually confidence and understanding grew, but it was slow business.
When at last, on 23rd March, they left Greenock on the Otranto they thought that they were going to join the French troops then operating in Eritrea and the Sudan. They still thought so when they landed in Durban and, like so many other sections of the Unit that were to follow them, enjoyed the sumptuous and warm-hearted hospitality of South African Friends.
The voyage was uneventful enough, and more comfortable than that of most Unit parties going abroad for military medical work, for they shared the Sergeants' Mess. There were French classes, Shakespeare readings, bridge parties and the making of many new friendships. But there were still some strains. A member wrote:
"We are up against the fact that the mélange which makes up the whole of our Hospital is looked at by the authorities as something between a crazy gang and a travelling circus and we have to try and build up another impression. Yet at least we have set ourselves exacting standards. And the conflicts come out and are resolved at the devotionals. Before we embarked this couldn't be done. There were interruptions; the party was often incomplete. Here, although the jamming of fifteen people into a cabin doesn't help, yet the devotionals have really come to life, and are a vital part of our day. Fifteen is a good number for reaching a spiritual unity to which everybody gives something. . . . Our meetings can give a sense of common purpose, which is intimate but not narrow, outside oneself and yet possible to grasp; I've never experienced this before. When we land we may well have more days of uncertainty and hanging about than we expect. We shall be very lucky if we can become absorbed in work at once. If not, we shall need this purpose and faith we're beginning to build more than ever."
On 6th May they arrived in Suez ; there they discovered that they were not going to Eritrea and the Sudan at all. They were going north to Palestine. In fact, after a journey through a heat wave of 120° across the Sinai Desert, when the drivers had to wear gloves because the steering-wheels were too hot to hold, they found themselves in the vast and straggling camp of Sarafand between Jerusalem and the sea, a camp well known to tens of thousands of British troops. Here they were joined by the O.C. of the Hospital, Colonel Fruchaud, who was a distinguished French surgeon and had experience of war surgery in the Spanish war, where he had developed Trueta's technique of plaster surgery. They were joined, too, by a French detachment which had come up from Eritrea, and shortly found themselves moving north-west in a long convoy through the stony hills and fields of Samaria and Galilee, then across Transjordania, until they finally crossed the Syrian border at Deraa.
It was their first experience of work in an actual campaign---an internecine war between the Free French and the Vichy French.
"We received the patients at night as we could not use the road by day. We operated all night and evacuated all the patients in the morning. We were at first right in the front and then, as they got further up, we worked with an advance dressing station between us and the fighting.
"We moved up towards the north in a great convoy and slept the night en route. Next day we moved up again to put up our Hospital on an unpromising piece of desert. We reached the site. at two o'clock and were operating, with the tents up and two wards prepared, at six. We operated through the night and at lunchtime next day we were moving again with an advance section. That evening we had to set up after twenty miles of mountainside with no road and an overloaded convoy. In each place we found that we had to make different programmes. There were no hard and fast rules. First we sent up the tenting men in a car to peg out the ground for the tents on suitable sites, which for the big marquees is a reasonably technical job. Then follows a marquee for the reception tent, half of which is the X-ray ; the sterilizer; a marquee for the theatre and two for the first ward; and most important, some of the kitchen equipment and personnel. The advance party can get the tents up and reception prepared while the main party is loading at the old site and coming on."
The campaign brought casualties in an unending stream, and for the first of many occasions proved the value of having mechanics who could also turn their hands to work on the wards when needed. The Hospital came under fire, being machine-gunned by Vichy planes. And then at last they moved, away from the dust and flies of the Syrian desert to the green of the Damascus oasis. They reached the city on the evening of the day it was captured and were joined by the party of five reinforcements that had come up under Michael Rowntree from Cairo.
Tents gave way to the convenient wards of the Italian Hospital there remained plenty of work so long as the fighting lasted. It was all very confused. A great many of the patients were black colonial troops from both the Free French and the Vichy forces, tirailleurs many of whom, simply obeying the orders of their capitaine, had no idea whom they were fighting or why. Everyone was relieved when, on 13th July, news came that hostilities had ceased.
A few days before, the Section had been stunned by its first casualty. James Tonks, with a French captain and an American (one of a group of sixteen American Field Service men who worked with the Hospital for a few months at this time), was on his way to Jerusalem to collect medical supplies. As they drove along a difficult road covered with a ground mist they went over the edge of a bridge that had no parapet; James and the Captain were killed. They were buried in the military cemetery at Damascus, and later a memorial stone carved by Hugh Powell, a sculptor and member of the Section, was set up in the lovely Friends' burial ground at Brummana, from where, on the pine-clad slopes of Lebanon, one looked straight down the mountainside to Beirut on the Mediterranean shore two thousand feet below. James was twenty-four when he died. Nik Alderson wrote in his private diary on the day of the funeral:
"In a community as tight as ours has become every man has his own niche, and Tinkle's was a very special one. As the numbness dies off we are going to miss him more. I tried to convey at devotional that we shall remember him cheerfully and joyfully as he would wish to be remembered."
Settled in Damascus after the armistice, they found that there was less work, though always between campaigns there was routine occupation with medical cases and accidents. Nik Alderson began to look around for other work. There was an obvious need very close at hand. At best the medical facilities for the Arabs of the Damascus oasis and for the Bedouin of the surrounding desert had been rudimentary, and since the war had almost disappeared completely. Malaria, dysentery and eye disease, especially trachoma, were rife. Nik conceived the idea of a series of mobile clinics which would use the Hospital transport, while drugs could be procured from a variety of sources. With the support of Lady Spears, he paid visits to Area Commanders and Generals, to the Syrian Minister of Health, to village headmen. Gradually the clinic rounds began. For some time the Unit men would take turns at going off from the Hospital on the clinics; it was a welcome change from hospital routine. By the end of the year the clinics were well established, and they became a major field of Unit work.
Meanwhile, in August, the Hospital had moved from Damascus down to Beirut on the coast. For a week they wrestled with a filthy wing of the Maurice Rottier Hospital, which was alive with vermin, large and small, from rats the size of small rabbits downwards. The section soon betook itself to sleep on the terraces of a sports stadium nearby. But it then moved to the delightful Hôpital St. Charles, which had previously been run by German nuns.
"A hospital standing above the sea on a variety of different levels so that to get to my office from the wards I have to go up and down six flights of steps; a hospital with wide verandahs and a number of small rooms for the patients, holding in all eighty. At the bottom, in the garden, a grove of banana trees with a well-worn track leading to a high wall with a ladder over it and another ladder the other side. This, on the other side, is Maintenance, the playground of a Jesuit school; Paul had his workshop there and the lorries were strewn among the trees."
In September the section grew. In July eighteen men had set sail under Freddy Temple, travelling on the same boat as the larger party for the Middle East under Peter Gibson. They had come up to join the Hospital in Beirut. Other outside activities were developed; drivers were provided for a wheat distribution scheme organized by the Spears Mission in view of the serious shortage at the time in Syria and the Lebanon. It was another change from the routine ward work. Beirut too brought contact with a world other than the Army. There was a large and hospitable American colony centred round the American University, as well as a number of Friends who met each week for worship; and at Brummana there was the Friends' School. The record of hospitality shown to successive members of the Unit by friends in Beirut and Brummana will be one of the lasting memories of all who were fortunate enough to serve there. Even in London, from the frequency of their mention in Unit reports, Leavitts and Dodges, Turtles and Cortas, Soltaus and Levonians, became familiar names. At Christmas 1941 a Unit choir was formed; led by Stephen Verney, it sang carols to the Hospital patients, the American University and the patients of an Australian C.C.S., and broadcast for half an hour just before the midnight Mass from the Holy Nativity at Bethlehem.
So life passed pleasantly enough. But the respite in Beirut did not last long. The French troops in Syria had been moving down to the Western Desert to take part in the campaign, and on the last day of 1941 the Hospital left Beirut on its way to Egypt.
THEIR LIFE, like that of the sections with the British Army, became the life of the desert. They were nomads, pitching and striking tents, with stable intervals of varying length when they would get down to the real business of tending the patients who passed through their hands, or repairing the vehicles on which the Hospital was packed. Life became simpler and harder, conditioned by primitive factors of weather and water supply, by sand that felt red-hot under a scorching sun, sand that whirled up in sudden storms, that got into eyes and mouth and ears and food and sleeping bags.
The life had much to be said for it. In the evenings the Unit became a centre for anyone who wanted to drop in---large squads of English soldiers, American ambulance drivers, and assorted Frenchmen. They lived in improvised comfort, which reached its acme in two large burrowed underground apartments; one, built by David Smewing and David Rowlands and called "The Davids ", rivalled its Northfield counterpart, while "Throckley Hall", the home of Neville Coates and Tony Armstrong, brought nostalgic memories of Tyneside.
For a fortnight they worked near Halfaya Pass and then moved up sixty miles west of Tobruk. Here the Hospital was divided. Rommel was advancing, and a part withdrew to Tobruk. But a light surgical unit was detached and sent out southwards into the desert with the French, who were to pass by way of Fort Mekili and El Azragh to Bir Hacheim; This was the beginning of what became a regular habit in the Hospital, the sending on of a poste avancé, a Forward Theatre unit. A Mobile Theatre truck had been procured and this, together with three or four other vehicles to carry the equipment, manned by a surgical team and about half a dozen F.A.U. men, would be sent on to perform the same function as Headley's Light Horse or the Robin Line vehicles with the British Army. The work on the poste avancé was often hard and sometimes dangerous. But it brought the Unit into informal and intimate contact with the French officers and men who made up the party. Differences of language were forgotten and a curious tongue was developed known as "Spears", a macaronic riot of English, French and Arabic. "I'm going to my tent to fetch my mess-tin" would become "I'm going to my gitoun to cherche my gamelle."
The main section, now in Tobruk, was settled from February to the beginning of May in a ward of the much-battered Italian Hospital, which was occupied by a British General Hospital. Three or four F.A.U. men continued to staff this ward while the rest were lent to the British Hospital, which was seriously understaffed. The work was hard, and very necessary, the surroundings very drab. The Acute Surgical Ward, for instance, was an enormously long and narrow room holding nearly sixty beds. The wall at the far end had been shattered by a shell, and was sketchily covered by a tent canvas; the ceiling was of crumbling plaster, which rained down under the barking of the anti-aircraft guns. Meanwhile the Maintenance section, consisting of the few men who were not working full time in the Hospital, were down by the sea, still on the unending task of keeping the vehicles fit for the road.
It was while the Hospital was at Tobruk that the section received its greatest blow of all. On 14th February news came from the Forward Theatre that Nik Alderson had been killed. Three days before, Nik had written his last report, a short airgraph, to Gordon Square. It was mainly concerned with the clinics back in Syria, but then went on: "We have had some busy and exciting hours but no casualties. The main Unit (am now writing in the bottom of a slit trench---halt for dive bombing) has now started on some of the hardest and most satisfying work we have done since the Unit came out-working in a filthy hospital among tired and understaffed personnel doing a really splendid job which has been much appreciated. They act as our base, thirty-eight miles back, using one ward of the General Hospital as a French Hospital. I went back to see Mike Yesterday. Hell of a noise, lucky it is the bottom of the page, will write properly before forty-eight hours are out." Three days later a flight of German planes swept over the camp and dropped a single bomb. It hit the slit trench where Nik was sheltering, killing him outright. He died at the age of twenty-three.
It was Nik more than anyone else who had made the group and brought to it the unity and strength which lasted throughout the four and a half years of the section's life. He had courage and a genius for friendship. Only a month or two before he died, he had decided to resign his leadership of the section in order to return to the clinics in Syria, where his heart was. While still in Syria he had written in his diary: "This medical mission has given me an idea to work for; it has made tomorrows and filled the days: I have been given new impetus by it." He never saw Syria again, but four years later, on a house fitted up as a permanent clinic at the village of Tel, north of Damascus, a plaque was fitted with an inscription in Arabic: "This Medical Clinic is dedicated to the memory of Raymond Alderson of the Friends Ambulance Unit, to whose inspiration the origin of the Spears Mobile Clinics was largely due. Raymond Alderson was killed in the Western Desert in 1942." It was the memorial which he himself would have most liked.
On Nik's death, Michael Rowntree became leader of the section with Pat Barr as second-in-command. The work continued in Tobruk without incident, while the Forward Theatre arrived at Bir Hacheim, the desert fortress which the French were to hold during its celebrated siege. There it stayed for two and a half months.
The use of the Red Cross and the interpretation of the Geneva Convention brought one of the few major disputes. The section had already protested successfully against an order to remove the Red Cross from the vehicles. Now a question arose over the refusal of the section drivers to use their lorries, clearly marked with the Red Cross, to transport troops and war material from Alexandria to the front. It was the old problem. Pacifists in a war zone are under the orders of their commanding Officer and have a duty to see that those orders are obeyed as scrupulously as by the soldier who is under sanction, but there are always certain things which they cannot do, and the French, who took a "realistic" view of these matters, felt that they were being pharisaical and absurd. It was a tribute to both sides that the long discussions which went on were carried out extremely amicably. Fortunately for the Unit, the command of the Hospital had been taken over in May 1942 by Commandant (later Colonel) Vernier; he remained until the end. He was a brother of one of the few French pacifists, Philippe Vernier, who suffered imprisonment for his faith between the wars, and he was well acquainted with the outlook of the religious pacifist, though not one himself. He became a close friend and champion of the Unit and saw it through many difficult moments.
In May Rommel launched his attack. The Hospital had to withdraw from Tobruk to Sollum, to the foot of the escarpment and Hell Fire Pass. There they set up by the sea again and spent a busy month receiving the patients from the evacuation of Bir Hacheim. In June they moved still further back, and the poste avancé rejoined them. Then they all joined the general retreat.
The solitary coast road was jammed with military traffic withdrawing to the Delta. After a halt of a few days near Alexandria to await orders, they found themselves in the desert again, eight miles out of Cairo on the road to Suez, but in the middle of July they moved into the large and modern Lycée Français at Heliopolis. "Our last move, though the shortest in actual distance that we have ever done, was among the most difficult, since it was complicated by the fact that we had to take our patients with us, and we were pretty full at the time. This meant turfing the patients out of the beds at the camp; packing up and loading all the beds, mattresses and linen; transporting them the six miles to the school ; returning to fetch all the patients, the walking cases and the rest of the beds, and getting the milling throng of eighty-odd sorted out and bedded in the new hospital, before we properly knew our way around. Then there was the kitchen, which had to provide an early breakfast on the old site, pack up, instal itself at the school, and provide a lunch at the other end. "
It was unfortunate that the move took place on the quatorze Juillet, as all the patients began to celebrate in no uncertain manner, and Tony Armstrong, who was alone on duty that night, had a hectic time shepherding to bed errant légionnaires."
In August a party of four arrived from England. There were more moves. From the school they went back to tents again, to the Army Camp at Mena, under the shadow of the Pyramids.
While in Egypt the men were of course frequent visitors to Daly's. In the desert too they from time to time ran into one or other of the sections with the British. There were occasional changes of personnel between them, or loans of members to tide over busy periods, though they were always difficult to arrange since neither side would confess that it was the less busy of the two.
Now, for the first time in the Hospital's history, there was little to do since the patients were being sent to the permanent French hospital in Cairo. So no one was sorry when in September they moved back to the coast, to Buselli, where they were to stay for three months. Accommodation in the Hospital had been increased, and there was now space for 250 beds. It was none too many. Great events were pending. The Allies were building up for the battle of El Alamein. On 23rd October the barrage started; the battle raged for ten days and in the end the tanks were through.
AT ALAMEIN the French Division was operating on the extreme left wing, and the poste avancé had moved up to a position just behind the front. The serious patients were taken direct to them; they were operated on, and then evacuated down the line to the main Hospital at Buselli. For three or four nights both sections worked at full pressure. The poste avancé, working in a subterranean operating theatre, could judge the progress of the battle by watching the guns and seeing the columns of tanks roll past. At Buselli they got their news at second-hand from talking to the patients and from counting the number that came in each day. The number of patients reached the highest figure they had experienced, for El Alamein was not won without heavy casualties. Then the line was broken and the chase was on, the long pursuit to Tunis.
The French Division, however, which had suffered heavy losses, was pulled out of action. The Hospital quietened down, and the forward theatre returned to base. It did not mean that work came to an end. When the Division was in action patients were evacuated as soon as possible in order to keep the beds free, but once the Division was withdrawn, they were kept until they recovered or until a move was made. The Division, consisting of a small band of expatriate Frenchmen, was a remarkably cohesive unit, and the Service de Santé, afraid of losing its men permanently if they were evacuated to British hospitals, did everything possible to keep its wounded and sick within the Division. For this reason they retained their patients longer than would have been the case in a comparable British hospital.
The New Year came, and before the end of January the Hospital moved back to Tobruk, setting up under tents about two miles outside the town. The Division was being regrouped. So they had to make the best of desert life again. But it was no hardship. The desert was at its best ; all along the Mediterranean fringe for a short but wonderful season the ground was covered by a carpet of flowers. As before, considerable ingenuity and intense rivalry was shown in building habitations out of stones, petrol tins filled with sand, or anything that was handy . The desert was scoured for material.
The disposition at this time of the F.A.U. section, now up to thirty-eight men, was typical of the general arrangement. In the Hospital itself six men were working on wards, two in reception, two as orderlies in the theatre, one in charge of the laundry, and one of sterilizing; ten more made up the vehicle maintenance; there was a full-time electrician who kept himself to his generators and his coils in a truck from which miles of wire radiated to all parts of the camp; there was a Quartermaster, a man in charge of water and the post, one of tent maintenance, and one, an expert at the gentle art of scrounging, of the important department of ravitaillement. These, with the section leader, made up the Unit section.
Le sport flourished. A Desert Football Championship was organized in the Division. The Spears team, consisting mainly of F.A.U. men, with two or three Frenchmen and one Senegalese, came out second in the league. The team was enthusiastically supported; feeling on the touchline ran high, as the cry, "Allez Spears ! " re-echoed across the field.
It was in April that the great move came. The French had by this time re-formed, another brigade had come down from Syria, and they were off once more to the front, by now just past the Mareth line. The Hospital's fifty-odd trucks formed part of a column of several thousands of French trucks that were moving up to Tunisia. They took ten days in all, passing through the refreshing green of Cyrenaica, across the dreary desert stretch between Benghazi and Tripoli, then on through Gabes to Sidi Bou Ali, just north of Sousse. At last, 1,500 miles from Tobruk, they encamped in an olive grove.
Immediately the French went into action against the Enfidaville line. Another forward post was sent to Takrouna. But after only ten days, on 7th May, the Eighth and First Armies entered Tunis. It was the end of the campaign.
Soon afterwards the Division moved back from Tunisia to Tripolitania, apparently for reasons connected with discussions then in progress between General de Gaulle and General Giraud concerning the amalgamation of the two French armies. The section, strengthened by a further party of seven reinforcements from London, found themselves at Zuara, fifty miles west of Tripoli, and there followed a quiet period during which many members managed to get away on leave, some to revisit old haunts in Beirut, others to explore new ground in Algiers.
For the F.A.U. this period was chiefly notable for the starting of a new section with the French. General Leclerc's column, which had made a spectacular dash from Chad, was being formed into a new Division, and to staff its Bataillon Médical the French authorities asked for a section of thirty men. Three men were detached from the Hadfield Spears Hospital, with Hamilton Mills in charge. Their new Division was at the time just across the road; they were joined by other F.A.U. men from Egypt, and by a larger party from England. Their story is told in a later chapter.
Once more the Hospital was on the move. Back in Tunisia, it finally settled on the coast at Hammamet, and was installed in the Hotel de Golfe ; some of the wards were in the hotel itself, others in tents in the grounds. The staff occupied pleasant little villas built in the Moorish style, some right on the sea-shore.
Christmas came. It was celebrated with a series of uproarious "Spears parties" which became a feature of life in the Hospital. Les Quakers would be taken off in skits by the French officers, the French would in turn be taken off by them, and the women would be taken off by everybody. Innumerable songs and poems in the curious Spears patois would be composed and sung, while visiting Generals were entertained with rollicking displays of Anglo-French unity and the Entente Cordiale.
Not all the section was there for Christmas Day itself. Casually, on Christmas Eve, the Colonel had announced that six men were to leave next morning on a 4,000 miles journey to Casablanca to collect more ambulances for the Division. They were not seen again for six weeks.
In the spring rumour was rife of a further move to come. Indeed, there were few occasions in the Hospital's history when some rumour or other was not rife. But now it looked as if the Division was to cross to Italy to join the Corps Expéditionnaire which had operated there throughout the winter. Some new trucks were procured and, after many ordres and contre-ordres and false starts, the order came to proceed to Italy. On 17th April they left Hammamet for Bizerta.
THE CRANES LOOKED perilously near to breaking point as they swung the heavily laden trucks on board. Then the two Liberty ships, first the Samuel Adams and, four days later, the John Trumbull, put out to sea. Past the tip of Cape Bon they sailed and on within sight of Pantellaria and Malta to Augusta; on beyond the snowy peak of Etna, through the Straits of Messina where Scylla and Charybdis still guard the passage; on past the volcano island of Stromboli, erupting at sunset, and round the hump of Vesuvius into the Bay of Naples. On 4th May 1944 the passengers set foot in Europe, most of them for the first time for three years; for the French it was a further stage on the long road home.
Soon they went into action. At the small village of Casapesenna, near Albanova, they received orders to move up by night to San Clemente, just south of the Garigliano river. "The convoy wound slowly up along the dusty Italian roads, where the nightingales sang in bursts of song, so loud that they were heard above the noise of the engines. Early next morning we arrived at our new site, a field above the battered village of San Clemente, looking across to the mountains which were still held by the Germans." At the time the Germans were holding the line of the river and the Allied Forces were building up for a major assault in which the Division was to play its part.
It was the loveliest site which the Hospital had ever occupied. Men who had spent three years in the desert wastes of Africa could not get used to the green freshness of the Italian spring or the sound of church bells instead of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.
Orders had been received not to set up the Hospital for fear of attracting attention. But three days later, on J moins Un, the word came that it was to be erected with all speed and casualties expected next day. There was a furious spurt of activity and accommodation was prepared for two hundred.
"That evening of 11th May was fine and calm, and the mountains across the river looked solid and impregnable; we thought of the men now waiting within a mile or two of us, many of whom we knew personally, who were to attack at five o'clock next morning. The worst part of an attack for those at the rear is waiting and wondering how many of their friends will be brought into the hospital, perhaps to pant away their lives in a hot tent ward. At 11 p.m. precisely, the silence, which was broken only by the song of the nightingales,. was shattered by the roar of guns, from the sea to Cassino. The barrage had begun, a barrage heavier than that of Tobruk or El Alamein; it went on unceasingly all night."
Then another member of the section takes up the story:
"The barrage had been hard at it all night; we knew this only too well, as the camp was just in front of the guns. Then as dawn broke gloriously over the mountain held by the enemy five miles away, the barrage lifted and we knew that the offensive had begun.
"By 9 a.m. we were told to expect an unknown number of wounded, and by 11 they began to come in. First an odd ambulance at a time, and then more and more, until the two reception tents could hold no more, and they had to be left on their stretchers outside until their turn should come, the more fortunate ones under what shade there was to be found, the others under the full Italian sun.
"We cut off their filthy clothes, washed them, and gave general first aid attention, until the doctors could examine them. The worst cases were either operated on at once, or taken into the Resuscitation tent for blood transfusion, or a drip saline, or just for special watching. The light ones often had to face a long and gruelling wait All three operating theatres were going all out, day and night, with a surgeon, anæsthetist, sister and F.A.U. orderly in each.
"At first things moved swiftly, for we were fresh, and perhaps a dozen of us were on the job in the reception tents ; but as the day drew on some had to go off to work in the wards, which were now filling up. . .
"But still they came in, until as the sun was setting the inflow ceased. We were able to get something to eat, and some at least of us to snatch a few hours' sleep ready for the work that began again in the morning. We had taken in 150 wounded that day and all had received treatment and hospitalization. But if some of us could snatch some rest, the theatre staff could not, and apart from a necessary break for a meal, they were still working when dawn heralded another day like the first.
"There can have been few, if any, except those who were on duty, who were kept awake by the artillery that night; even the night; even the patients seemed too tired to care, and if one could ease their pain ease their pain with a shot of morphia, slept well enough."
After three or four days of this kind of life, the French carried their sector of the Garigliano line and advanced thirty or forty miles. The Hospital moved up again into the Liri Valley, to the village of San Giorgio that looked across at Cassino. Now the French were attacking a sector of the Adolf Hitler line, hinged on the town of Pontecorvo on the Liri. Casualties were again heavy, and the Hospital was hard at it for the best part of two weeks.
It was here at San Giorgio that the Hospital came under its only serious experience of shelling, probably from a tank that was at large. A number of shells exploded among the tents, many of which were riddled with shrapnel. Mercifully there were no serious casualties. The patients were all moved on to the ground, and in the theatre where they were operating on a serious abdominal case, the patient was moved off the table on to the ground and the operation went on.
In June came further moves; from San Giorgio to a site near Frosinone, then down to Palestrina, near Rome, which the Allies had entered on 4th June. But still they were not settled. On they moved to a site seventy miles north of Rome, then twenty miles on to Lake Bolsena, where the Hospital was set up on the water's edge. Ten days passed and the Division was withdrawn from the line. They returned southwards to Albanova, north of Naples. And there they rested, the section paying frequent visits to the newly-acquired flat in Naples which was at the time the Unit's Italian Headquarters.
They were nearing the last phase and, for the French, the most exciting phase of all, the day for which they had laboured and toiled and fought for four years. On 6th June the Allies had Landed in Normandy; the rumour went round that there would be further landings on the Mediterranean coast of France. It was supposed that the First Division, along with the other French Divisions, would take part within the framework of the American Seventh Army. Re-organization and re-equipment went on apace.
ONE MORNING IN LATE AUGUST the camp awoke to discover that the Colonel, two of the sisters, three of the French and David Rowlands had disappeared. They had left in the night to take part, so it was later learnt, in a "Surgical Commando" with a landing party which was to land in France on D minus 1 Day. There was some pique in the Hospital that people had not been told about it.
A few days later the wireless announced the landings on the Riviera coast, and the Hospital received its marching orders once more. From Naples they moved off on 29th August, passed by the Straits of Bonifacio between Corsica and Sardinia, and landed at Fréjus, twenty miles to the west of Cannes. As the coast of France loomed up in the early morning light, the whole Hospital assembled on deck for a special ceremony. It was a day to be remembered.
There came the business of unloading, carried on with surprising speed. The trucks were unloaded on to landing craft, and drove straight on to the beach up a track of wire-netting. By midnight the whole Hospital was ashore.
The difficulty now was to find the Colonel and his Commando party, for there had been no news of them, and to rejoin the Division. The advance had been unexpectedly speedy; by the time the Hospital landed the Division was already attacking Lyons So the convoy set off to catch up. They drove to Avignon, crossed the Rhone, then up to St. Etienne and Lyons, where they overtook the Commando party.
"It has been a fascinating journey, and for the French, of course, extremely poignant, as several of them have found their families again. The welcome that we have been given has been terrific. Everywhere we have been there have been cheering crowds lining the roads, laughing and shouting, and pressing on us flowers, fruit, wine and kisses. It has been very embarrassing at times, and sometimes almost dangerous, as one was apt to receive a fig or a bunch of grapes in the eye as one drove past. Of course, being with the French, we are taken for Frenchmen until we begin to talk to them, and probably get certain amount under false pretences. On the other hand, when they discover that we are English, they are no less interested and enthusiastic. We are usually the first Englishmen they have seen for four or five years, and there is no doubt about the warmth of their feelings towards us."
The Commando party had an exciting tale to tell. Having spent two days on the coast south of Paestum on manoeuvres and intensive practice in loading and disembarking from landing craft, they moved off to Corsica, whence, in 14th August, the Invasion Convoy sailed. They steamed all day over a sea as calm and blue as only the Mediterranean can be, and when night came on France was just over the horizon. Under cover of darkness one party after another got away in landing craft; soon the équipe chirurgicale itself heard its craft crunching on to the beach in inky blackness. The sky was suddenly full of flares; machine-guns and mortars were already in action. In the darkness and confusion the party was separated. Allied planes appeared; they dive-bombed the woods ahead, then raked the beach itself with machine-gun fire.
At the dressing station which David Rowlands and his companion had improvised in a small railway building nearby casualties began to arrive. But no sooner had they begun than a stick of Allied bombs dropped along the line, the last hitting a corner of the station. Staff and patients were buried in debris. A hurried removal, the finding of the Colonel and the rest of the équipe, long hours of operating in a nearby house, then on to Marseilles whence they drove and operated their way across the Rhone and up to Lyons, which they entered while fighting was still in progress in the streets. And there the main party found them.
The front was still moving quickly and, after a few days in the old Château of Buxy, they moved to Dijon, which had been captured the day before. They set up in the magnificent military hospital, only completed by the Germans since the war began.
"It has every modern contraption and is quite the most luxurious hospital we have occupied, though as it has a capacity of 1,000 beds we are only occupying a part of it. One of the greatest features of the place is the hot baths; there is plenty of hot water, and we can lie and soak out the dirt of months. It is astonishing, but one can count the hot baths of the last three years on the fingers of one hand. The last I had was in Algiers in November 1943, and before that at the Leavitts in Beirut in December 1942."
From Dijon eastwards to Belfort, then on to Villersexel, where they were again installed in a château. Winter was coming on and the weather getting colder; they had to say goodbye to old friends. The Senegalese in the Hospital, together with three battalions of them in the Division, had to be withdrawn and sent down to the south of France or back to Africa. The laundry became a poorer place without them; there were no more native songs and dances and childlike merriment. They were replaced by locally, recruited Frenchmen, many of whom had been in the Maquis during the occupation.
For the F.A.U. it was a time of considerable heart-searching and discussion as to how much longer they would be justified in remaining with the Hospital. Some felt that as there was now a large supply of French personnel available, British volunteers would not be needed. There had already been an influx of French personnel without the background of common experience which had welded the original members into a strong team. Further, some members of the section were afraid of what would happen if they accompanied the French into Germany; they might be associated by their very presence with actions inconsistent with the outlook of the F.A.U. and the Society of Friends. Already they, had been involved in a certain amount of difference of opinion with the French in Italy over the question of the treatment of Italian civilians and civilian property. In Germany it was likely to be worse. For the French could not easily forget how grievously they had suffered.
However, the majority felt that there was still valuable work to be done so long as the Division was in action, and that to leave the job unfinished at this late hour would be indeed unfortunate. There was more cause than ever to cultivate good relations with the French, particularly since the French themselves were for the most part very anxious to retain them. Accompanying the French to Germany, while undoubtedly presenting difficulties, would in itself be an opportunity, and the Unit might do some good. Colonel Vernier was particularly relieved when the decision was taken to stay.
Meanwhile, it became possible to arrange home leave, starting with the men who had been away for nearly four years. By May 1945 the whole section had been home in turn, but no sooner had the leave rota begun than fighting on the sector flared up again, and for the first time in the Hospital's history two postes avancés had to be sent out, to Lure and to Breuches-les-Luxeuil. Personnel was short, but fortunately the latter was seldom busy; at the end of October the three sections were reunited at Lure, twenty miles from Belfort, and the Hospital was installed in an old pension in the main street of the town. It was just before this that Pat Barr resigned his position as second-in-command of the section after two and a half years of office, and was succeeded by Neville Coates.
Moves were by no means at an end and each move meant hectic activity for the best part of a day. The beginning of December brought a surprise. The Division was suddenly withdrawn from the Belfort sector, where the line had moved forward into the plain of Alsace, and was sent right across France to deal with the German pocket of resistance around Royan, north of Bordeaux, at the mouth of the Gironde. As usual, the Hospital went with it. Hardly had they set up, however, when Von Runstedt launched his offensive in the Ardennes, and the Division was hastily recalled to Alsace to meet the growing threat to Strasbourg. A small surgical team was left behind.
The small team had an unusual experience. After a heavy R.A.F. raid on the town, a German delegation came out under a white flag to ask for medical help for the French civilians. Four trucks were got ready, the roads had to be specially unmined, and under, a truce they set off. A German staff car met them to lead them on and they were soon in enemy territory. They set up in a village school outside Royan, but then found that the more serious cases had already been dealt with by the Germans and numbers over-estimated. And so, on the following morning, the Colonel having during the night attended chez les Boches to the only case of childbirth which Spears ever handled, the convoy, with a cargo of petits blessés, moved back into liberated France.
After a long and chilly journey, over roads inches deep in snow, the main Hospital arrived in Alsace and set up at Le Hohwald in the Vosges, about twenty-five miles from Strasbourg.
"We are installed in a really fairy story place ; the Hospital occupies two large hotels in this small village, which is a winter sports resort in the hills. There are all the story book elements ---a completely snow covered landscape, pine trees, the houses built on Swiss chalet lines, and all the children of the village going about on either skis or toboggans."
But for the Division it was not a fairy story. It was engaged on hard fighting, and the Hospital filled up. Only desperate resistance prevented the Germans from retaking Strasbourg, and conditions were made more terrible by the weather. Many of the wounded had to lie for hours in the snow, and there were a large number of cases of pied gelé.
But gradually the fighting died down ; the attack had been repulsed. Having journeyed thousands of miles in four years through three continents, they might have expected that there would be no further change of scene. The war was obviously nearing its end. But in March they moved to yet another front, down to the Riviera, where the Division was to attack along the line of the Italian Alps. Leaving behind the hills and the snow, they arrived in Cannes in bright, warm sunshine, with the mimosa flowering everywhere. It was a curious and perhaps ill-fitting end to the life of a hospital which had toiled through heat and snow. In the surroundings of the world's playground, they had a month of hard work. The Hospital itself was in the Hôtel Bristol at Beaulieu, six miles east of Nice. The Division was already attacking the Massif of the Authion which blocked the road into Italy. It was the worst and wildest country they had encountered, and towards the end of the attack it took as much as twenty-four hours to get a wounded man from the mountainside on a stretcher to the forward theatre. It was hardly surprising that few seriously wounded prisoners were brought in; it was more surprising that there were any at all. For the second time they had two forward theatres out. Fortunately while the poste at Lantosque was working solidly throughout the attack, that at St. Etienne de Tinée had little to do, so that personnel could be interchanged to avoid cracking under the strain of several successive days and nights. The sight of wounded pouring in was all the more heartbreaking when it was obvious that the end of the war could only be a matter of weeks, if not days. The mountain positions were carried and the Division was not to be stopped from moving down into Italy and occupying part of the plain the other side. A special road was made for the purpose, which in forty kilometres climbed to 8,000 feet and down again, and included a hundred and four hairpin bends, of which seventy-five could not be negotiated in one by a standard G.M.C. lorry. Over this road the forward theatre went to set up a final post in the Italian village of Demonte, some sixty-five miles south of Turin. They were there when VE-Day came ; shortly afterwards they returned to Beaulieu.
The war in Europe was over and the Hospital's work was done. Its last days were marred by an unfortunate incident. On 18th June there was to be a grand ceremonial défilé through the streets of Paris in which the Division and the Hospital were to take part. The Unit section had some discussion whether it should participate. It was the old problem of medals and victory parades and where to draw the line. But without it the Hospital could not produce enough drivers, and so it was agreed to provide drivers for the six original Bedford lorries, the Old Contemptibles of '94 which, together with four staff cars and two jeeps, were to take part in the parade.
So on 5th June the Hospital left on its last convoy run up to the Paris area. On the morning of the 18th the convoy of twelve vehicles left the little village of Trilport-sur-Marne at 4 a.m. and drove into Paris. The prescribed speed for the défilé was to be fourteen kilometres an hour. Actually it took place in fits and starts, varying between ten and seventy. The streets were thronged; there were scenes of wild enthusiasm. "With a few halts and slackening of speed, we went round the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs d'Elysée and into the Place de la Concorde. We got a glimpse of General de Gaulle and the Sultan of Morocco and then divided into two parties . . . . Other units continued parading on their own until late in the afternoon." From the crowd at the edge of the Place de la Concorde the cry, "Vive Spears," rose from a group of old patients as the Hospital contingent drove past.
It was two days later that the incident occurred which brought the Hospital to an unexpectedly sudden close. A Note de Service was received by the Colonel ordering the entire Hospital to be closed down, the material disbanded, and the staff dispersed to various depots by 22nd June. The date was in fact extended because to disperse in two days was a manifest impossibility, but the order remained. To the F.A.U. and the other British personnel whose passages to England were already booked it made no practical difference, but for the French it meant that they were broken up and dispersed among various other units. It is not here the place to discuss the reasons for the incident. There was some strain at the time between the French and British over the question of Syria, and the sight of the Hospital in the parade may have added to a sense of injury, or it may be, as General de Gaulle stated, that the order was merely implementing a decision taken previously, quite independently of the parade, to disband the three semi-private hospital units attached to the French Army.
It was obviously a political decision, and the French in the Division did everything within their power over the next few days to live it down. Never was the Entente Cordiale more vigorously upheld. The Colonel assembled the whole Hospital, and spoke warmly and feelingly of the closeness of the bond which united the two peoples. Articles were inserted in the Paris press on the same theme. There were meetings and parties of farewell. And on the morning that they left Trilport to drive to Dieppe, the Band of the Foreign Legion regaled them for half an hour at crack of dawn. As a final demonstration, while they were assembled on the quay at Dieppe waiting to embark, two jeeps drove up with the Colonel and several of his officers and nurses from the Hospital. The final ceremony was fully in the tradition of four and a half years of warm if sometimes crazy partnership. For half an hour or so, to the astonishment of the other British troops on board, they sang the songs, English and French and both, that had been sung at so many Spears parties in Asia, Africa and Europe. As the boat at length pulled out from the quay, the French officers on shore stood at the salute.
IN AN EARLIER CHAPTER the fortunes of the sections with the British Army were followed up to the time when, just before the battle of El Alamein, the Germans were fifty miles from Alexandria. The sections had returned from the desert with the military formations to which they were attached; their mood was partly one of disappointment and uneasiness, partly of satisfaction that valuable experience had been gained by which they could profit in the next phase.
Into this situation a new party arrived from England. As early as January 1942 the question of further reinforcements had been raised. There was constant pressure from home to find openings for the growing Unit; in the field senior Army officers were asking for more Unit workers; the Red Cross wanted more men for stores, and the Hadfield Spears Hospital, now in Egypt, could also do with more.
A further point had arisen. It was becoming increasingly clear, as Unit sections were now at work with the British and French Armies and in Syria, while another section was due for Ethiopia, that a senior Unit officer was needed in the Middle East who would be responsible for the whole field. Already there had been difficulties in arranging loans or transfers of personnel between the Hadfield Spears Hospital and the British Army work. The Syria Clinics were expanding and further workers would have to be transferred to them. In general, with possibilities of further work afoot, there would be great advantages in pursuing a correlated policy. So it was agreed that a senior officer, or, as he came to be called, an O.C.M.E. (Officer-in-Charge Middle East), should be sent out. The choice fell on Ralph Barlow, who was in charge of relief work in London and Deputy Chairman of the Executive Committee.
Arrangements were made for Ralph and thirty-three men to sail. But the shipping position was at its worst and there were long delays. The party was assembled, then disbanded to other work at home, while with each new little crisis in the Middle East the question was raised whether they were really justified in requesting more hostages for an uncertain future. But in the middle of June the party sailed. It was emphasized that its members should have no illusions as to what might be in store for them; having left England in June, they might find that by September, when they arrived after the long voyage round the Cape, the situation would be completely different. They had to be prepared for anything. Indeed, the war news being what it was, there might be no Egypt for them at all.
On the voyage they were faced, as was Peter Gibson's party a year before, with the necessity of making rapid adjustments to Army life, though some members had gained valuable experience on a course with the R.A.M.C. in England. In general, life was uneventful. Arriving in Durban they moved to an Army Transit Camp to wait. Friends' hospitality knew no bounds; they organized meals and baths and drives and concerts. As the delay in shipping continued, a hospital section was opened at the King Edward VIII Hospital for Native and Indian Patients. Sixteen men were disposed in pairs on departments most suitable for giving them experience ; the arrangement went on for three weeks. The news from Egypt was as disturbing as ever. But shipping became available and, on 7th September, the party reached its destination.
Constant correspondence and regular visits from Unit parties going off to the Far and Middle East brought South African Friends and the Unit very close together; one very welcome expression of this was the constant stream of literature and knitted comforts which arrived in Egypt, to be followed later in the war by relief supplies. Maurice Webb of Durban, who more than anyone inspired the hospitality and support, was made a member of the Unit Council.
The party arrived in Egypt to find itself in the thick of discussions arising out of the Agreement with the War Office. Under the Agreement the War Office took over responsibility for the accommodation of Unit members, a responsibility which had so far been carried by the Red Cross. The change might mean barracks, which would rob the Unit of its own headquarters. In August, before the terms of the Agreement were known to him, Peter Gibson had arranged to meet increasing numbers by taking over the whole of Daly's and one of the villas next door. It was also clear that new premises would be needed in Cairo, which would in fact be a more convenient centre than Alexandria. Arrangements were made to take over a fourth-floor flat in a block next door to Bab el Louk station, not the most salubrious part of Cairo but one that was convenient.
If the Army was to provide accommodation, naturally the Red Cross would wash its hands of the responsibility. Further correspondence ensued and further headaches, and meanwhile there were over thirty extra men to be housed. Some nights at the Abbassia Barracks in Cairo, followed by the Mustapha Barracks in Alexandria, were the prelude to the division of the party, half being held back at Daly's for training in driving and mechanics, while half went to the 64th General Hospital to acquire some further experience of Army work. At last, to ensure that it had its own accommodation and its own Headquarters office, the Unit agreed, to pay the bills itself, so becoming in this respect independent of the Army and of the Red Cross. Ralph Barlow was installed as O.C.M.E. in the flat at Bab el Louk and was joined by Peter, Gibson, John Bailey, and the workers at the 15th Scottish.
So Bab el Louk usurped the place of Daly's as the Gordon Square and Middlesex of the Middle East. Soon Eric Green, who had gone out with the latest party, joined the staff as Accountant for the Middle East sections; he gradually assumed the role of maître d'hôtel, and with the help of the quartet of Arab servants, who cannot remain unmentioned in any record of the Unit's work, he brought in a high standard of comfort, working wondrous transformations on the Army rations which were the basis of the food. The flat itself was built round the four sides of a central courtyard. It had large and airy rooms, with glass doors connecting each to the other. Trains in the station immediately below, a printing press in the basement, and an open-air rollerskating rink across the road provided simply the fortissimo passages to the constant clatter and hubbub of what must be the noisiest city in the world. For its permanent residents Bab el Louk became a home, and a comfortable leave hostel for those working in field sections. Those who blew in from the desert perhaps disdained the table cloths and napkins, and some would miss the gay informality and overcrowding, the "mucking-in" of Daly's.
With its base at Bab el Louk, a Middle East and later Mediterranean administration grew up, and the Unit passed out of the tutelage of the Red Cross. Ralph Barlow, during his months of office, was ultimately in charge of all sections in the Middle East. Responsible to him were Peter Gibson for British Army work, Michael Rowntree for the Hadfield Spears Hospital section, John Gough for work with the Syria Clinics, and Eric Green for finance. In addition to these sections, he visited Ethiopia, though that section had in practice to remain independent of Cairo because of difficulties of communication. He paid a short visit to Teheran to investigate the possibility of Unit members helping with Polish refugees who were at the time pouring down through Iran. His function was to develop a unified policy based on an assessment of the value of the work that was being done in various fields, to balance conflicting claims for extra personnel that might be available, to pay regular visits to sections, to represent the F.A.U. to military H.Q., and to keep the Executive Committee at home abreast of any developments or possibilities of new work in his area.
THE NEW PARTY had to be assimilated, new work had be found, and there was nothing for it but to try again on the basis of experience gained. The Unit decided that the main answer to what it was seeking would be a much larger section working under its own officers, who would be responsible to the Army officers concerned; a section large enough for each member to avoid the feeling that he was an individual working on his own, indistinguishable from a private in the R.A.M.C. It was furthermore decided Director of Medical Services that the place for the larger Services that the place for the larger section was the No. 1 Mobile Military Hospital which still had working with it the small group of Sambo's Circus.
The Unit was now facing Alamein and the months which followed it. At the end of January 1943 Tripoli fell, to be followed in May by Tunis. Events were moving fast. In July the first Allied troops landed in Sicily; in September they reached Italy which, after a week, surrendered.
The arrangement concluded with the Directorate of Medical Services just before Alamein required the Unit to provide thirty-six drivers for the No. 1 Mobile Military Hospital, of which Lt.-Col. Croft was Commanding Officer. Peter Gibson was to lead the Unit section, responsible, as Unit officers always were, for all matters of internal policy and discipline. The new venture was discussed by a section meeting, which was on the whole anxious to go ahead, though some wondered how far previous pitfalls could be avoided. Peter Gibson, whose enthusiasm for making a success of the Army work was still undamped, and who had taken more than his share of knocks and disappointments, regarded it as a challenge which he accepted gladly.
Unfortunately things went wrong from the start. One cannot perhaps blame the Colonel that he found it difficult to appreciate or grant what the Unit was trying to achieve, that his first concern was the success of his hospital, and that he was not prepared to have in it an independent group, each member of which was not individually under his own personal control. An unfortunate incident caused them on the very first day to start off on the wrong foot; when, on receiving instructions from G.H.Q., the, first twelve Unit men joined the six already there they found themselves unexpected and quite superfluous, since adjustments had not been made in Army numbers to accommodate them.
The rest of the party arrived just before the Hospital moved off into the desert. Peter Gibson was to take charge of the Unit section, but the Hospital authorities refused to accept him. There had been no posting order for him, and from the Colonel's point of view, his presence was unnecessary. Eventually he had to pick up his own posting order from G.H.Q. and bring it to the Hospital, which he found already on the move. Unfortunately the rain of incidents became the proverbial downpour, and this time it was certainly the Unit's fault. As they drove in difficult convoy on an overcrowded road, there were three or four minor accidents in which Unit drivers were involved; not unnaturally the drivers were removed from their vehicles and replaced by Army personnel. They felt like children who had disgraced themselves just at a time when it was important to be on their very best behaviour. So with tension filling the air they moved on to Fort Capuzzo, where the Hospital set up its theatre.
Still the Hospital authorities insisted on treating Unit members as individuals to be dealt with through the Army's officers and not its own. Ralph Barlow arrived from Cairo to straighten matters out, but there was little progress. Then they moved again; at the end of November they passed through Cyrenaica, and reached their destination eight miles south of Benghazi, where they stayed until the middle of January.
Here the Unit drivers were assigned to their extra jobs as ward orderlies, workers in the reception office, stores, theatre, resuscitation, workshops, while others were responsible for rations or water duties. Peter Gibson himself was put on the pack store, which provided something of an F.A.U. centre where section business could be transacted and devotionals held.
Gradually the tensions eased as the Unit got down to regular work ; friendly relations were established with most of the privates and the N.C.O.s, though there were further incidents. Work continued steadily and the Hospital gradually filled up. The period at Benghazi was marked by frequent air-raids, for it had become a supply port of major importance for the desert armies and so an important target. Very often in the evenings the enemy planes would come over while men stood and watched a fantasia of tracer bullets, flaming onions, bursting shells, searchlights and bomb flashes.
As everywhere, the Unit managed to make itself comfortable.
"Many of us are caravan dwellers, of course, but some have built themselves houses. Ray and Philip have a really palatial affair, and nearby live Angus McDonald and Ken Myers in a thing which Gordon described as 'very Nonconformist'. Around the town various caravan dwellers dispose themselves. There is 'The Gables' in the factory quarter and the 'Maydrop Inn' on the outskirts."
At Christmas they had parties and carols, with very welcome glimpses of other Unit sections. Then, on Boxing Day, came the storm, culminating in a hurricane which wrecked Benghazi harbour and interrupted the flow of supplies to an extent which General Montgomery described as the equivalent of a major defeat in battle.
"At about 2 a.m. I wake with water flooding underneath my valise and groundsheet. I have to evacuate, like a rat leaving a sinking ship, and splash my way across through the downpour to Resuscitation, which is fairly dry. Bed down on a stretcher till morning. Still raining at daybreak and continues heavily till mid-morning. By this time the camp is a glistening morass, an almost impassable swamp. The kitchen stands marooned amid a great lake of water. The main track through the camp is under six inches of water. Stretchers and blankets are soaked under the patients. For most of the day, between showers, we see to draining the water from the wards and camp road, and laying blankets and kit out to dry . . ."
A week later a stiff breeze in the morning became by the afternoon a gale. Tents collapsed or were lifted bodily into the air ; canvas, poles and furniture were inextricably mixed; medical equipment was smashed; whole wards were blown away; and in the night came a deluge which made the ground as soggy as it had been on Boxing Day.
But they were in for a further move. The armies were advancing on Tripoli and it was obvious that the Hospital was on its way there. In fact, it was to be the first major medical unit into the town, but at the last moment was beaten to it by a South African Casualty Clearing Station; No. 1 M.M.H. comforted itself with the knowledge that the latter had exceeded its orders. The journey into Tripoli itself took place in an interminable queue of miles of Army trucks.
"We soon found ourselves in a long line of traffic and some of the drivers told us that they had been there for three days. By this time the moon was up, but progress was extremely slow and I think that between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. we covered approximately two miles. In its way it was quite amusing because every time the convoy moved fifty yards it was found that somebody had fallen asleep on the wheel and had to be awakened before the rest of the convoy behind could move on. Eventually we came to the great "blow". Bright moon by this time. An N.C.O. at the top to give you friendly advice on how to negotiate it. The transport sergeant and one or two others at the bottom of the dip to urge you on as each truck took its turn. A run downhill of 200 yards, a sharp incline and right hand bend approximately one in three, and if you made that you were up. Only one truck which was missing badly failed to make it . . . ."
Here in Tripoli they took over a school near the Azizia Gate, where they functioned in many respects as a base hospital, being in fact relieved by a General Hospital in March. Air-raids played an. even greater part than at Benghazi. When Tripoli harbour was cleared and hospital ships began to arrive from Egypt, one of the functions of the Hospital became that of holding patients for evacuation by sea. Unit members were hard at work, and their jobs continued on the whole much as at Benghazi.
On the surface relations were quiet and appeared to be improving. Shortly after their arrival in Tripoli a note appeared in Daily Orders saying that great credit was due to all responsible for the smooth working of the last big move. But it was all very difficult, part of the difficulty being that the very points at issue were so intangible. One or two cases did arise in which members felt that they had to make a stand on grounds of conscience; in other cases individual Unit members, through carelessness or foolishness, obviously put themselves in the wrong; but for the most part it was lack of sympathy, a feeling that both sides were constantly on their guard, ready to pick out lapses rather than combine readily into a working team.
The Hospital continued busy, with large numbers of patients arriving from the battles on the Tunisian border and occasional large-scale evacuations by sea. And a further move just inside Tunisia was followed by one of the busiest periods in the Hospital's career, for it covered the Mareth and Akarit battles. Casualties in unprecedented numbers were coming through.
The Hospital had been established on a site that was half desert, surrounded by a few scattered groups of olives and fig trees. The weather, too, was freakish, bringing either cold north winds from the sea or suffocating Khamsins from the southern desert.
"A hot, dry, windy day with sand in everything---eyes, nose, ears, throat---and a terrible all-pervading lethargy which made life almost insupportable. There was no relief anywhere---out of the wind it was hot and airless; elsewhere it was like standing at the mouth of some enormous furnace. Maintenance this morning was an agony of sand and oil. Thirst looms larger than ever before in this campaign, since we are on a ration of half a bottle of water a day. Fortunately they have now discovered a well free from salt, and it is possible to add milk to the tea without its curdling at once."
One day 1,100 cases were registered by Reception. The surgeons operated all night in the theatre.
Further moves brought them to Sousse; they were now the foremost Casualty Clearing Station of the 8th Army. The upper floors of the civilian hospital were taken over and the theatre tent set up in the grounds. It was in this setting that the work of the Hospital reached its peak during the last days of the North African campaign, dealing with surgical patients ranging from a Divisional Commander to large numbers of prisoners-of-war.
The campaign came to an end, and on 21st May the convoy set out for Egypt. Three weeks later the Hospital came to rest at Moascar in the Canal zone, not far from Ismailia. In a speech at a riotous dinner held on their return to Egypt, the Colonel announced that the Hospital had treated 16,000 and staged 4,000 patients in eighteen months. The Unit's contributions to the staff over the latter months had been the modest one of thirty-six men out of a total of a hundred and twelve.
For the F.A.U. the return to Egypt was virtually the end. Negotiations had been going on with the Medical Directorate in Cairo. The Unit had reported to the Directorate that all was not well, and after full and frank discussion, it was decided that it should remain until the campaign was over, and then withdraw.
It was with mixed feelings that members left in the middle of July. When it came to the point they were sorry to go, and there was plenty of evidence that the Hospital was sorry, to see them leave. Hard work together had introduced a curious and perhaps illogical comradeship. One member wrote:
"Leaving the Mobile was sad for many of us, as often happens, and personally I think the administrative difficulties and the dissatisfaction had much less effect on our work than seemed likely at first. In other words, I think the section in No. 1 was a success in more ways than it was a failure."
The final word came from 'the Colonel himself in a letter to the Unit. "The last of the F.A.U. have departed. Personal regrets are felt at their departure by both sides. There are points of view in which F.A.U. and military folk do not see eye to eye, and in this I feel that a commendable tolerance was shown by all . . . . It is gratifying that a great degree of working co-operation has been achieved despite academic difficulties, and that a great deal of very good work was done."
So ended the great experiment.
UNDOUBTEDLY THE MOST successfully sustained chapter in the Unit's work with the British Army was its Blood Transfusion work. When the Unit first took part in it at the 64th General Hospital in Alexandria and the 15th Scottish in Cairo, it was at an experimental stage. The keenness and enthusiasm of Colonel Buttle to build up the work and use, if necessary, Unit men outside establishment where expansion could not be rapidly covered within the Army scheme, led them to feel that they were often making a contribution to a job which might otherwise have remained undone.
Work with the 64th General began almost immediately after the return from Greece, and has already been described. In the autumn of 1941 five more members at various times started work under Colonel Buttle at the 15th Scottish. Three were soon moved to desert sections, leaving Denis Greenwood and Douglas Mackenzie, who were joined in the spring of 1942 by John Marshall. In May 1942, Colonel Buttle made a further request for six men, three for the hospital and three for field units. Further men were added in succeeding months and numbers fluctuated, but at the hospital there was always steady and increasingly responsible work, while forward in the desert Unit men found small Field Transfusion Units coming as near as anything could to establishing the relationship which they had so often sought in vain.
The 15th Scottish Blood Department, which came to be known as No. 1 Base Transfusion Unit, where the F.A.U. played its small art, became responsible, with a few exceptions, for supplying all he 8th Army area with blood. It was the only source of blood-grouping serum and plasma in the Middle East. In moments of emergency several hundreds of bottles of blood were issued in a day, so that a considerable organization was required to provide blood donors, to prepare taking and giving sets, to procure and sterilize bottles, and to send the blood on with the utmost speed to the desert Transfusion Units.
At the 64th General in Alexandria, some, though less, blood was collected for sending to the desert and to ships of the Mediterranean Fleet. But, from the standpoint of interest the workers there had the additional advantage of clinical work, since they were concerned with the Hospital's own transfusions. Two members in particular found themselves very busy in the Hospital Bleeding Department. In No. 1 B.T.U. the F.A.U. did no clinical work and might at times feel that they were not very important, never seeing the more positive and life-saving part of their work. It required considerable stamina, for instance, to spend every day for weeks and months on end on the important but dull work of sharpening needles.
Writing early in 1943, two of the workers said:
"The members of the F.A.U. are now almost all working together and share a very considerable responsibility for the bottling, classifying and issuing of all blood-grouping serum. They produce all the blood serum used for transfusion, and all the blood taken for transfusion passes through their hands in order that the bottles may be capped under sterile conditions. . ."
What it involved in terms of activity can be judged from the following extract:
"This past month has been quite a memorable one in the history of the Base Transfusion Unit. A demand for blood was only to be expected during a 'push', but this push produced a rush far in excess of anything previously dealt with. To cope with the situation a mobile bleeding team was sent out to a region where there were large numbers of potential donors. We set up shop in a series of tents; we had the use of a small laboratory with one small and inadequate water tap and no gas supply. A small, dark and dirty, store room was cleared and converted into a 'sterile' room---liberal use of strong disinfectant soon reduced the numbers of bugs to reasonable levels. So we worked from morning until late at night amid blood and sand. Measured in gallons of blood, the amount produced would be impressive. In terms of the men who volunteered as blood donors, it becomes more impressive still. On the memorable day, for instance, when we were asked to send 400 bottles, this involved the blood grouping of 2,000 men, the choosing and bleeding of the 0/4's, after which every bottle had to be corked and packed; they were all in the desert the following morning. We of the F.A.U. felt quite proud to be able to play our humble part in this great achievement."
Douglas Mackenzie, who was a qualified bio-chemist, though officially still a member of No. 1 B.T.U., dealt with "all the bio-chemical estimations required by the Hospital and with all bio-chemical material beyond the scope and equipment of other Middle East hospitals. The range covered was a wide one and included most of the chemical side of the sulphonamide research which was being done. He soon became responsible for the work of the department, under Colonel Buttle." With Major (later Lt.-Col.) Pulvertaft, with whom he also worked, he was later able to contribute some of the results to a professional journal. Denis Greenwood, in turn, was given control of serum production, which carried him into research work.
Against the background of this work at base, which was obviously valuable, sometimes inspiring and often monotonous, the Unit went on to work with blood sections in the field. The importance of blood transfusion in the immediate treatment of the seriously wounded had been fully recognized, and several small mobile refrigerator units carrying stored blood had worked in France during May and June of 1940. Later, units called Field Transfusion Units were formed and several began to operate in the Middle East. An F.T.U. was a small unit carrying in general only medical equipment of a specialized type and was therefore unable to function except when attached to a larger medical unit. It however possessed its own transport and was able to move quickly from one medical unit to another if required. Usually it worked in close co-operation with a Field Surgical Unit, assisting it in pre-operative treatment and selection of cases. When manned by Army personnel, it consisted of an R.A.MC. officer in command, with a corporal in charge of the transfusion team, and one or two other R.A.M.C. men and a driver for the refrigerator truck.
|15 and 16. The Hadfield Spears Hospital|
In November 1941 Gerald Needham had gone forward with No. 3 Field Transfusion Unit. Francis Mennell also went out into the desert, in November 1941, and after a short spell back in Cairo, returned to No. 1 F.T.U. with which he remained for two years until in the summer of 1943 he resigned from the Unit, the first resignation in the Middle East to join the Forces since the early summer of 1941. In the spring of 1942 John Rose had a brief spell in the desert with No. 6 F.T.U., but had to return to Cairo for health reasons, to be re-attached to the 15th Scottish.
It appeared that the self-contained and informal basis of a mobile F.T.U. would be an excellent one for a whole Unit group. In September 1942 therefore, just before Alamein, No. 7 Field Transfusion Unit came into being; except for the M.O., Captain Dean, it consisted entirely of F.A.U. men. Gerald Needham was in charge of the Unit group. A happy clerical error of Ralph Barlow's typist altered Gerald Needham's name to General Bleedem. In October the team moved up and joined the Greek Unit, Gerald Needham and George Croft serving as blood orderlies, while Ralph Angus and Howard Lilley looked after the ambulance and the heavy truck which contained the refrigerator. The only other member of the team was a highly temperamental dog, a so-called Alsatian which Howard had acquired. They started off in their first week with two transfusions, a gentle initiation to what was to come. Then work began to intensify.
After the German retreat from Alamein, the team went forward fast. They had done a lot of work and on more than one occasion found themselves almost among the tanks which were still clearing up pockets of resistance. Tony Alit replaced Ralph Angus, who had to be sent down the line with jaundice. Then the team changed its attachment and found itself outside Benghazi with No. 1 Mobile, bringing the total numbers of the F.A.U. there to forty-one. "Mobile Friends" had to supply many pints of fresh blood, while the F.T.U. was able to rally round with the repitching of tents and the debogging of trucks during the Boxing Day floods.
Just before the final push for Tripoli they joined a Light Field Ambulance of the Highland Division to move forward on the coastal sector. With further changes of attachment they entered Tripoli two or three days after its fall, there to be expanded into a Tripoli Base Transfusion and Bleeding Unit. Further F.A.U. members were added from Cairo and Alexandria.
A member of the section, writing about the work, said:
"It was the sympathy and help of Colonel Buttle and the co-operation of Capt. Dean, our first M.O., which set things going to launch 7 F.T.U. as it was launched. The working conditions were incredibly easier for us than for a mixed unit of part soldiers and part voluntary conchies, and the F.T.U. seemed to me the happiest working arrangement that I came across between the F.A.U. and the British Army. I have always particularly rejoiced at the friendly, happy atmosphere there was."
Then the Unit was divided. The Base Unit stayed behind, while a newly-formed F.T.U. under George Croft took over the field work. They moved forward in the middle of, March and had a busy period in the battle of Mareth. On they moved as far as Sfax, then right back to Alexandria, some by hospital ship, some by road convoy, to spend some weeks in the canal zone. It was clear that they were destined for Europe and that the new M.O., Capt. Lucas, with George Croft and Donald White, were to take as much blood as they could carry and land with a detachment. Ralph Angus was to follow with the heavy truck, "Heather." They went off down the Red Sea to practise landing on the shores of the Gulf of Akaba.
Embarking at the end of June, they sailed in convoy through the Mediterranean; the convoy grew to an immense size, and, at sunset on the 9th, they caught a glimpse of the top of Mount Etna floating in a bank of cloud. It was an impressive first sight of Europe.
On D-Day they landed on the south coast of Sicily. Bearing with them their heavy equipment and the blood, they established themselves in a dirty, flea-ridden cellar cut into a cliff. And there they got to work.
Henceforth the story of No. 7 F.T.U. was one of constant movement, forward through Syracuse and Catania and Taormina, across the Straits to Reggio, where they were housed in a cool and pleasant monastery; then on to Sapri, Taranto, Bari, and finally to Vasto. They were the first pacifists to enter an "enemy country attached to the invading forces, and they felt their responsibilities keenly. At Vasto, by a bit of Army juggling, the Unit members were transferred to No. 9 F.T.U. and, in due course, to No. 15, but the work remained the same. A month before Cassino they moved west of the Apennines, spent a month helping the section of the Base Transfusion Unit which had meanwhile been established in Naples, and joined an Indian C.C.S. for the Cassino attack. "We had a hectically busy spell such as I had not experienced since the Mareth battle in Tunisia; and Indians not understanding what is being done for them, are not the best patients. Gurkhas with abdominal wounds were often known to get out of bed and walk out of the ward tent, trailing rubber transfusion tubing and bottles of blood after them." From Cassino the advance was rapid, up from Frosinone and Rome to Assisi and Arezzo, forward again towards the Lombardy Plain and north beyond Rimini, where they were to be found when the war ended and they were finally withdrawn.
Meanwhile, back in Tripoli the Base Unit had become No. 5 Base Transfusion Unit, and, under Major Wolstenholme, was undertaking full-scale production of blood and salines on the Cairo model. The section spent the summer grouping and bleeding and despatching, making saline solutions, assembling apparatus for taking blood.
A move to Sicily was pending. On 19th August the main party went forward to Catania and set up in the Institute of Forensic Medicine in the University, where quarters had already been prepared by No. 7 F.T.U. An all-F.A.U. grouping team was formed; later a second, and there was deadly rivalry between them. Two months later they moved on to Bari and set up in a former clinic and a match factory adjoining. And the atmosphere was indeed that of a factory rather than a laboratory. A detachment was sent to Naples, which became a collecting and distributing point for blood. In Naples there was growing up a Unit community of some size, for, in addition to the blood workers whose last of several billets was a villa on the slopes of the newly-erupted Vesuvius, there was a Red Cross Stores team in the town, twelve men in a Typhus Research team, and from early March onwards Peter Gibson in a new office as O.C. Italy.
Work both in Bari and in Naples continued, on a large scale. The B.T.U. supplied all the blood for the British troops in Italy, and the daily demand from forward areas grew to four hundred bottles each of blood, plasma and saline. Unit numbers crept up with individual additions until there were eighteen at base and four in the field. By the autumn they were feeling the strain. Always at base members felt that they wanted to be forward with the field units. A number were awaiting repatriation, and there was a sense of unsettlement. They had been through a fatiguing summer. In addition, there was an influx of R.A.M.C. men with an inevitable reduction in the Unit's share in the general scheme---the grouping teams ceased to be all-F.A.U. ; nor was this section free from the misgivings caused by the revision of the War Office Agreement late in 1944. Towards the end of the year a forward base was established in Ancona, as the front on both sides of the spine of Italy had been creeping up and Bari became too distant to be effective as a distribution point. A few months later the war came to an end, and, in the middle of June, all Unit members were withdrawn.
Blood work was voted a success; and success was primarily due to the sympathetic interest and encouragement of B.T.U. officers, notably Col. Buttle and Lt.-Col. Wolstenholme, and the R.A.M.C. captains under whose commands the Field Units worked. With the Other Ranks too relations were friendly, and occasions of friction rare, though the anxiety of the Unit to be on the more responsible jobs could cause uneasiness; responsibility for an Army N.C.O. meant promotion and more pay, while for a Unit member it was simply more interesting and valuable work.
Indeed it should always be remembered that the ultimate responsibility rested on the Army. Although Unit men attained considerable proficiency no amount of experience would have exonerated them in case of accident, since they were not medically qualified. Thus they always served under R.A.M.C. officers who were on the spot in case of difficulty.
The work itself held a special appeal.
"Was there perhaps something intangible, yet of inestimable value in the whole work, something reaching far back into early life in the transmission of life's blood to another in desperate need? If one dropped a bottle of saline it was merely mopped up; if one dropped a bottle of blood it was always a greater crime, almost a betrayal of trust. Many of the donors gave for the sake of the beer they received, but there were always those who thought that if one of their mates was needing a drop of blood then he should have it even though he might be miles away. And if, by our efforts, we were able to convey that boundless goodwill and add to it something of our own to those in need, then the drudgery, boredom, weariness, were amply justified."
REFERENCE HAS ALREADY been made to the Unit's close relationships with the Joint War Organization of the Red Cross and St. John. In the early days when the Unit was struggling to establish itself, it found that, if it was to enter a fighting zone, it must be sponsored by a body internationally recognized under the Geneva Convention. So, by arrangement with the Red Cross (the abbreviation that will be used henceforth, implying no disrespect to its twin, St. John), the Finland party was affiliated to it ; members wore the Red Cross uniform (to which, later, F.A.U. shoulder flashes were attached) ; the officers carried Red Cross rank, and any major decisions were taken in consultation with it.
So, when the first party reached Egypt from Sweden, it was to the British Red Cross Commissioner that it reported. Later parties which went overseas were similarly sponsored. The attachment to the Red' Cross was undoubtedly of very great value in advancing the Unit's work in its early days.
So, in Cairo, the Unit began its work with the help of the Red Cross. It drove Red Cross ambulances, and for some months negotiations for work with the Army were carried on through the Red Cross, or at least with its active co-operation. Furthermore, the Red Cross had assumed responsibility for the section's accommodation.
But gradually, as numbers grew and the Unit acquired experience, it came to stand on its own feet. It began to negotiate in its own name with the Army, and, when the Agreement between the War Department and the Unit was concluded in the summer of 1942, the direct responsibility of the Red Cross ceased. There was still regular consultation, but it was based on friendship and custom rather than on constitutional requirements. In particular, the two organizations collaborated closely in the planning of civilian relief work from 1943 onwards.
While all the Unit's early work was carried out ultimately on the responsibility of the Red Cross, whether in base hospitals or in Greece or in the Western Desert, there were certain pieces of work which were undertaken for the Red Cross organization itself, and it is of these that this section will speak.
When the survivors of Greece reached Egypt, they found that the two main departments of the British Red Cross in Cairo were its Prisoners-of-War Personal Enquiry Bureau and its Stores Department. Immediately two men were set to work in the Prisoner-of-War Department and one in the Stores.
In the Prisoner-of-War Department the work consisted mainly of following up and answering enquiries. In the first six months of work 9,000 enquiries were answered, including over 7,000 personal interviews. Work came in waves; for instance, there was a spate of activity after the fall of Tobruk with the very large number of prisoners taken.
It was in the Stores Department that the Unit's activity continued longer. Stores in themselves do not sound inspiring. Picture a large warehouse, one of several in Cairo, full of furniture and equipment for military hospitals and convalescent homes; there would be stacks of hospital furniture, medical equipment of all kinds, dressing-gowns and pyjamas, boxes of soap, toothbrushes, packs of cards and other games, a thousand and one articles intended mainly to improve the amenities available for wounded men. In the first period of the war in the Middle East, all the X-ray equipment in use with the British Army was provided by the Red Cross.
To receive and arrange and distribute supplies on this scale, organizing ability was essential. Under Colonel Jardine, the Deputy Commissioner, Rainsford Evans started work, and he was joined by others until, by the end of 1942, there were seven Unit men attached to the Department. Material was constantly arriving, and the fight had to be waged daily against the chaos that would ensue if the supplies as they flowed in were to remain unsorted and unchecked.
Meanwhile another piece of work connected with the Stores had been undertaken by the Unit. At the end of June 1942, when Egypt was in danger, it was decided to evacuate a large part of the Red Cross stores to Palestine. Dick Harris was placed in charge of Red Cross transport to organize the convoys. So every week during the summer and autumn two convoys of four trucks a week would leave Cairo, sometimes driven by members of the Unit, sometimes by native drivers with a Unit man in charge. For men back at base from the desert it became a very popular job. The first part of the journey from Cairo across the canal and the Sinai Desert was as bleak and desert-like as anything experienced in Libya, but then they reached the hills and the watered valleys and the orange groves of Palestine. Visits were made to Jerusalem and Galilee.
The months after Alamein took the front hundreds of miles away from Cairo. In order to bring the stores within reach of the units which required them, an advanced store was organized to move forward in the desert and soon there was established in Benghazi the Cyrenaica sub-store, which for many months, under the charge of Jack Eglon and subsequently of Norman Barns, provided Red Cross amenities for hospital ships and convoys, for medical units and small detachments in the desert. Then in April 1943 a further branch store was established in Tripoli to serve all the medical units in Tripolitania and Tunisia. All this work was organized and manned by the F.A.U.
The war moved across the Mediterranean, and the Red Cross followed. Through Sicily they passed and into Italy; a store was set up in Bari, then moved on to Naples, where the main Italian store was set up. The work extended to Rome, Ancona and Florence. Meanwhile Unit men had undertaken work for the Red Cross in a store in Jerusalem, and Jack Eglon, returning to Cairo after his period in charge at Benghazi and then in Tripoli, was sent over to Athens as soon as Greece was liberated. It was an interesting return to Greece, for it was Duncan Catterall who in the spring of 1941, had gone over to work in the Red Cross store in Athens before he was taken prisoner.
It was when serving in Sicily with the Red Cross stores, almost immediately after the occupation of the island, that Norman Barns and Leo Davies, appalled by the conditions in the civilian hospitals in Catania, cajoled the Red Cross into releasing them so that they could turn their attention the problem ; thus they claim to have been the first British civilian relief workers on the continent of Europe after the liberation had begun.
Unit members found the work not perhaps exhilarating but certainly steady and hard and satisfying. It continued until the early summer of 1945 when the war was over. Then three members joined the Red Cross staff permanently, to carry on in Italy: the others were moved to other work.
The opening of an office for the F.A.U. in Naples has already been mentioned. When in the spring of 1943, after the loss of Tom Tanner and Peter Hume, Ralph Barlow went off to China, his place as O.C.M.E. was taken by John Rose. Ralph himself had to return from China to England for reasons of health. He ended his Unit career at Gordon Square as Officer for Overseas work, continuing as Deputy Chairman of the Executive Committee, a function which engaged him full-time for four months in the latter half of 1944, when the Chairman went on a visit to the Mediterranean sections. Meanwhile, as Unit work developed in Italy, Peter Gibson had been installed in Naples to take charge: For the Unit the Middle East had now grown into the Mediterranean, and so O.C.M.E. became O.C.Med. Jack Frazer came in from Ethiopia to be assistant to O.C.Med.
Increasingly the balance shifted to Italy, and Rome was soon more central than Cairo. The constricted fourth floor flat in Naples, which from its balcony commanded the full sweep of the Bay and Vesuvius and Capri, gave way to a more pretentious flat in Rome, two hundred yards from the Tiber, north of St. Peter's. It had belonged to a Fascist General who had absconded to Spain, and the walls were covered with the most unpacifist trophies of the Ethiopian war-spears and skins and native shields. Here the Unit's Mediterranean Headquarters were established in November 1944, when the Bab el Louk flat was closed, and remained until the end of January 1946.
ALMOST IMMEDIATELY after the withdrawal from the No. 1 Mobile Military Hospital,. the Medical Directorate in Cairo was asked whether further all-F.A.U. teams on the lines of the "Greek" Unit or No. 7 Field Transfusion Unit were a possibility. As a result, in mid-July 1943 seven Unit men were posted to No. 12 Field Surgical Unit then being formed in No. 22 General Hospital under the surgeon-in-charge, Major Till. Five days later the seven men reported and were allotted their tasks. Henry Headley, who had marked himself out for the work by his experience with the Greek Unit, was in charge of the F.A.U. group, the others filling the posts of theatre assistant and orderlies, clerk to the unit, and drivers and mechanics.
There was great concern that the section should be a success; not only was it likely to be a very suitable type of work but it was to be the test case. If it succeeded it would be the answer to No. 1 M.M.H., and, apart from the blood work, it now represented the entire future in the experiment of co-operation with the Army, and it could not be allowed to fail.
Soon the Unit left the Canal Zone for Haifa. There was fighting in the Dodecanese. On 29th September an advance party, consisting of Major Till the surgeon, Captain Dornan the anæsthetist, Stephen Peet and Dennis Westbrook, left Haifa, taking with them one truck and half the equipment with emergency surgical packs. They embarked on the destroyer Eclipse and sailed for Leros. There they were transferred to a tramp steamer and landed on Cos two days after leaving Haifa, where the remainder of the party remained under Henry Headley.
The advance party set up in an Italian agricultural centre and cleaned out the room for a theatre, using a passage as sterilizing space, but early in October a German convoy landed on the unprepared island and, after twenty-four hours, gained complete control. The "hospital" was captured before breakfast, being the nearest building to the landing point, and the surgical team were called to work for two or three days, dealing with battle casualties, British, German and Italian. The bulk of the Field Ambulance to which they were attached was evacuated to Greece, but the German medical unit that was due to arrive was sunk and the work of No. 12 F.S.U. was continued. The team worked throughout the attack on Leros on all types of casualties as well as working for local inhabitants as a medical room in quiet periods.
They were prisoners. They had hopes of repatriation through Turkey or, with the help of a letter of appreciation which the German Commander wrote for them, of early return through regular channels as medical personnel. Conditions on the island were easy-going and it was not until they were evacuated to the mainland of Greece that they were officially registered as prisoners-of-war or put in any way under restraint.
In December the four members were flown to Athens; then there was an eleven-days' journey in a cattle-truck, followed by internment in Stalag XVIII A in Austria. After three months, Stephen Peet and Dennis Westbrook were transferred as medical personnel to Stalag IV D in Saxony, where they served on the staff of a repatriation camp, meeting Bill Miall and George Greenwood, two of the sixteen prisoners-of-war who had been captured in Greece. Here they remained until they were freed by the Russians, working on a variety of cases, their work being intensified towards the end by a flow of prisoners, concentration camp inmates and sick of all kinds.
For some time the future of the section left behind in Haifa was in the balance. However, early in November, it was decided to replace the captured personnel, and eventually John Fleming and George Watson took the place of the captured Unit members. The team returned to the Canal Zone and, with one or two further changes, arrived back in England, where it was re-constituted with further Unit men. Henry Headley was retained by the Unit in England to help with training, while the team, with John Fleming now in charge, landed in France on 23rd June at Courseulles-sur-Mer. They were the first F.A.U. men to land in north-west Europe.
During the year in which they were in Europe, the only Unit section to serve with the British Liberation Army on military casualties, they moved twenty-five times through France, Belgium and into Holland, being attached to various larger medical units. They were early into Germany and across the Rhine, bringing the total of operations performed since their landing up to 720. With the green fields and shattered towns of Normandy, of Belgium and Holland and Germany, taking the place of desert or Greek islands, their work was the same as it had always been for the Unit's military medical sections---the contribution of what skill they had to offer as drivers and medical orderlies to relieve the suffering, to save the lives of their fellows wounded in the battle. They found it deeply satisfying work.
The end of the war found them still in Germany ; after a few weeks, their work finished, they were withdrawn.
One final piece of work was undertaken alongside the British Army. In the autumn of 1944 the heel of Italy was filling up with Jugoslavs, civilian refugees in camps on its southern shores and military casualties flown in across the Adriatic. The original plan was that special hospitals should be set up for them, and the Unit agreed to provide orderlies. So, on 8th October 1944, forty-seven men under Henry Headley arrived in Italy ; they included reinforcements for various existing sections, and twenty-five to work for the wounded Partisans.
Already, however, plans had changed from those originally discussed with the Unit. The Partisans, instead of being accommodated in hospitals of their own, which would be short of staff, were spread over existing military hospitals. So the new section on arrival was posted to 93rd General Hospital at Barletta, north of Bari, where fewer than one in five of the casualties were Jugoslav. There was no greater merit in nursing a Jugoslav than a British soldier. But the section had been sent out because the hospitals intended for the Jugoslavs were going to be seriously short-staffed. British military hospitals had their full complement of R.A.M.C. men, and the old difficulty of feeling superfluous arose once more. There were twenty-five of them amongst four hundred R.A.M.C. personnel, working on wards, on the X-ray department, on blood transfusion and in the theatres. Personal relations with the O.C. and other members of the staff were excellent. In fact, the main misgiving was simply that they could be much more usefully employed elsewhere. For relief work was developing rapidly and many turned longing eyes to the work which their fellow-members in Italy and elsewhere were already doing among destitute civilians
Eventually, in March, six men were transferred on loan for work in the Dodecanese. Shortly afterwards a further proposal was made that eighteen should be transferred to the Army's Civil Affairs branch in Austria, and this led to the final withdrawal on 12th May. The actual members withdrawn were interchanged with others working in Italy to form the team for Austria, but the net result for the Unit of the short adventure in the 93rd General Hospital was a very welcome increase in the men available for urgently needed relief work among civilians.
THIS STORY OF five years with the British Army could easily have been written with the highlights emphasized, the failures tactfully glossed over. That would have been untrue to what happened. And in fact, when the story is fully told, it becomes a much greater tribute to both sides---to both the Army and the Unit. For it is only when there are possibilities, and obvious instances, of failure, that success, when it is achieved, means anything. Almost all Unit members who served in the desert would agree that the achievement, in so hard a school, of friendship and some degree of understanding between groups with views opposed upon a vital issue outweighed in the final reckoning the doubts and difficulties which lurked constantly in the background. And unless such co-operation can be achieved within a nation the members of which have otherwise so much in common, there is little hope of it among the nations of the world.
With Armies in the Field, continued
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