First Aid Nursing Yeomanry

First Aid Nursing Yeomanry

The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) was created in 1907 by Lord Kitchener as a link organization between frontline fighting units and field hospitals. Early women recruits were drawn mainly from the upper middle classes.

During the First World War the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry ran field hospitals, drove ambulances and set up soup kitchens and troop canteens. These women worked in highly dangerous conditions and won 17 Military Medals, 1 Legion d'Honneur and 27 Croix de Guerre.

After the war the women served as drivers for government and military officials. They also trained in the telephonic and wireless communications. In 1926 members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry helped to provide essential services in transport and communications during the General Strike.

In 1938 the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry became part of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). During the Second World War, they provided the nucleus of the Motor Driver Companies of the ATS. On the Home Front the women worked in canteens, hospitals, recreation centres and military headquarters.

In 1940 Hugh Dalton, Minister of Economic Warfare, established the Special Operations Executive (SOE). As Dalton pointed out an "organization to co-ordinate, inspire, control and assist the nationals of the oppressed countries who must themselves be the direct participants."

Colonel Colin Gubbins, Director of Operations and Training, made contact with the commandant of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and arranged for her to provide personnel for the SOE. At first the women were used to produce passports, ration cards, and other forged documents for use in occupied Europe. They were also employed to transmit, encode and decode messages to and from the field.

In April 1942, Winston Churchill gave his approval for women in the Special Operations Executive to be sent into Europe. It was argued that women would less conspicuous than men. In countries like France women were expected to be out and around whereas the Gestapo were suspicious of men on the streets. Women were used as couriers and wireless operators. Women were never sent to Europe as circuit leaders although Pearl Witherington became leader of the Wrestler Network after the arrest of Maurice Southgate in May 1944. She organized over 1,500 members of the Maquis and they played an important role fighting the German Army during the D-Day landings.

During the Second World War the SOE sent 39 women to France. This included Lise de Baissac, Yolande Beekman, Andrée Borrel, Madeleine Damerment, Christine Granville, Virginia Hall, Noor Inayat Khan, Cecily Lefort, Vera Leigh, Sonya Olschanezky, Eliane Plewman,Lilian Rolfe, Diana Rowden, Odette Sansom, Violette Szabo, Nancy Wake, Pearl Witherington and Yvonne Rudelatt.

SOE wireless operators took with them a short-wave morse transceiver that could send and receive messages. It weighed 30 pounds and fitted into a two foot long suitcase. Its frequency range was 3.5 to 16 megacycles a second. The main problem for the operator was that the transceiver needed seventy feet of aerial to function properly.

It was estimated that in towns it would take the Germans around 30 minutes to discover where the transceiver was being used. Where possible, operators worked in isolated areas. They were also under strict instructions to transmit briefly, at irregular intervals, at various wavelengths and from various places.

Each wireless operators was instructed to always spell certain words incorrectly. The reason for this was that if the Germans captured the operator and code books and tried to use the transceiver to trap other agents, the Special Operations Executive in London would be able to discover what had happened and would warn all its agents in the field.

SOE agents were taught that once captured they must try to stay silent when interrogated by the Gestapo for 48 hours. During that time all the people who had been in contact with the arrested agent were supposed to move house and cover their tracks.

It is estimated that around 200 SOE agents lost their lives. Most of these were executed on instructions from Adolf Hitler in September 1944 and March 1945. Those who did not return included Yolande Beekman, Andrée Borrel, Madeleine Damerment, Noor Inayat Khan, Cecily Lefort, Vera Leigh, Sonya Olschanezky, Eliane Plewman, Lilian Rolfe, Diana Rowden, Odette Sansom, Violette Szabo and Yvonne Rudelatt.

Since the war, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry has been known chiefly for its work in the field of military and civil communications. In 1999, the organization was officially renamed the Princess Royal's Volunteer Corps (PRVC), and it is now known as FANY (PRVC).

Primary Sources

(1) Maurice Buckmaster, Specially Employed (1952)

In all, during the period March 1941 to July 1944, we recruited over 460 male and 40 female officers for work in the field. It has always seemed to me surprising that there were so many British or Dominion subjects, whose French was faultless, willing and anxious to undertake such supremely dangerous work. They were in no way conspicuous; the last thing we wanted in them was eccentricity. We denied them glamour, in their own interests; we made them look as homely and unremarkable as we could. In the words of one of them, they were 'just ordinary people, not particularly brave'.

(2) On 13th May 1944, Odette Sansom was moved by the Gestapo from France to Germany with Yolande Beckman, Madeleine Damerment, Elaine Flewman, Diana Rowden, Vera Leigh, Andrée Borrel and Sonya Olschanezky. She was interviewed about these experiences by Rita Kramer for her book Flames in the Field.

We travelled from Paris to Germany together. We did not know each other before. We all did our training at different times, we all went to France at different times. I had never seen the others at Fresnes, although I heard the voice of one of them once. They were not in a solitary cell like mine and they were able to communicate a little with people outside through the top of their windows. We met for the first time in the Avenue Foch.

It was a lovely hot day, a beautiful day. And the Avenue Foch is beautiful, and the house where we were was a beautiful house. I remember little things. One of the girls had a lipstick and we all used it, passed it around and put it on. It was quite a treat. We were young women, after all. And we talked and talked and talked, of course. We talked about when we were captured, and what this one thought about it, what that other one had to say about it. I remember what one of them said because I had the same feelings. She and I, we had a feeling that something had been wrong. The others thought they had been captured because of the work they were doing or the people they were with. She had the feeling, because she had been arrested as soon as she arrived in France, that there was an informant. And I did too.

We were all young, we were all different, but we all had the feeling in the beginning that we were going to be - helpful. That was why we went into it. And to have impressed the people around them as they did is almost enough. They impressed everyone - the Germans, their guards. They behaved extremely well, those women.

Everybody tried to be a little braver than they felt. All of us had a moment of weakness, we did all cry together at one moment, there were a few tears, but after all it was a lovely spring day in Paris. Riding in the van from the Avenue Foch to the station we could get a glimpse of what was going on in Paris, people sitting on the terraces of cafes drinking their ersatz coffe or whatever. I was looking forward to the trip. I had spent a year alone in my cell and I thought. Now I am going to be with these other women.

On the train we were handcuffed, each one of us handcuffed to somebody else, so we were not free to move around or anything, but we did not look absolutely miserable. No, we made the best of it. I remember one of them even asked a guard for a cigarette, and he gave her one.

We were frightened deep down, all of us. We were wondering what was the next thing, a normal thing to ask yourself in those circumstances. Were we going straight to our death, were we going to a camp, were we going to a prison, were we going to - what? We couldn't not think of those things. Our only hope was maybe to be together somewhere.

(3) General Dwight D. Eisenhower, letter to Colin Gubbins of the SOE (31st May, 1945)

Since I assumed the Supreme Command in January 1944, until the present day, its work has been marked by patient and far-sighted planning, flexible adaptation to the operational requirements of Supreme Headquarters, and efficient executive action during operations.

In no previous war, and in no other theatre during this war, have resistance forces been so closely harnessed to the main military effort. While no final assessment of the operational value of resistance action has yet been completed, I consider that the disruption of enemy rail communications, the harassing of German road moves and the continual and increasing strain placed on the German war economy and internal security services throughout occupied Europe by the organized forces of resistance, played a very considerable part in our complete and final victory.

The combination of certain sections of your two organizations, first established as Special Force Headquarters under the joint command of Brigadier Mockler-Ferryman and Colonel Haskell, was the means by which these resistance forces were so ably organized, supplied and directed. Particular credit must be due to those responsible for communications with occupied territory. I am also aware of the care with which each individual country was studied and organized, and of the excellent work carried out in training, documenting", briefing and dispatching agents. The supply to agents and resistance groups in the field, moreover, could only have reached such proportions during the summer of 1944 through outstanding efficiency on the part of the supply and air liaison staffs. Finally, I must express my great admiration for the brave and often spectacular exploits of the agents and special groups under control of Special Force Headquarters.

(4) The Times (8th May 1948)

Some of the bravest figures of the war are commemorated among the names of 52 women to whose memory a modest tablet was unveiled yesterday by Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, Commandant-in-Chief of the Women's Transport Service, at St Paul's Church, Knightsbridge.

The 52 are those members of the WTS (which began in 1907 as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) who fell in different theatres of the war. Of these women and girls 13 met death in German prison camps, after having been parachuted into enemy-occupied territory as secret agents to serve the allies by aiding the resistance movements. There is no formula by which to calculate how much of cold courage was embodied in these 13 women, or what they endured in dying for their countries.