In the 70th anniversary year of VE Day, it’s hard to visualise the end of the war without conjuring images of the many Displaced Persons, recently liberated from concentration or labour camps, flooding across Europe. These lines of gaunt and bedraggled figures trying to make their way home are now embedded in our collective conscience, but it’s easy to forget that only as the Allies began to gain the upper hand was much thought given to the humanitarian disaster that would be left in the wake of victory. To combat this, in November 1943, the allies created the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency – its purpose to manage the relief of the war victims through the provision of food, fuel, clothing, shelter and medicine. For all its good intentions though as the war in Europe came to a close and millions of homeless people took to the roads, the cracks in UNRRA’s management fast appeared, buckling under the weight of its own good intentions, and it came under critical fire, prompting the nickname ‘UNRRA the Unready’.
The original plan was to repatriate the displaced to their countries of origin as quickly as possible, and primary responsibility would fall to the military but it would clearly need help. As a result, UNRRA was asked to provide 450 teams to look after DPs in Germany. The DPs would be rounded up by the military and transported to assembly centres and camps, where they would be fed, fumigated and kept in order by UNRRA.
When the call went out, thousands of enthusiastic volunteers from all over the world, driven by pervasive idealism and convinced that they could make a difference, flooded to recruit. They were largely pacifists, conscientious objectors, nurses who had not enlisted, or those who were seeking a suitable substitute for wartime service. Others, such as the American, Susan Pettiss (who wanted to end her marriage to an abusive husband) saw it as a means of escape. Francesca Wilson, another recruit, volunteered with a sense of adventure, looking for new experiences and the chance of foreign travel. The North American recruits often had a social work background and had undergone a rigorous selection process. Their professional perspectives contrasted with European social workers’ views, which were shaped by their wartime experiences, while the British recruits’ main relevant experience was feeding and sheltering people during the Blitz. Their naïve enthusiasm and do-good attitudes soon took a battering when faced with the reality of the situation.
In Granville, Normandy, a grand hotel fallen on hard times served as UNRRA’s headquarters. It was here that most volunteer field workers got their first taste of what lay ahead. The centre was badly administered and located disconcertingly far from where its task was most urgent. Training, in theory, took six days. In reality, most were there for 2-3 weeks though, sometimes longer. The endless waiting to be assigned a team provided an early warning of the frustrations that lay ahead.
As it was, of the 200 teams requested by the military for use early in 1945, only 8 were produced, and in parts of liberated Germany UNRRA’s task was initially taken over by the Red Cross. The first problem was the lack of decent trucks. Most had been reconditioned from the British Ministry of Supply and had already been rejected by the Army as ‘likely to require uneconomic amounts of maintenance.’ Those that were usable often broke down, and once a convoy finally got on to the road, most lost something on their journey: a truck, a wheel, a driver or the baggage. A further problem was criticisms within the agency of the needless layers of bureaucracy, with countless form-filling exercises, administrative inefficiencies, and documents regularly being lost. Worse still, were allegations of corruption, with complaints that UNRRA’s accountancy was poor and that some of its rare supplies were being traded on the black market. Even the quality of its top management came under fire. By the time UNRRA was initiated anyone with talent or energy was already taking part in the war and the organization was left with the managerial dregs. Many of these deficiencies unfortunately flowed down, with the Red Cross, having inspected DP camps run by UNRRA, even making the shocking claim that conditions in the camps were worse than those in a wartime POW camp.
For the relief workers in the field though, the odds were stacked against them – their teams were understaffed, constantly hampered by meaningless red tape, and, on an hourly basis, having to think on their feet; the first lesson being that whatever they had been taught at Granville was wrong. UNRRA may well have been unready but it’s testament to the thousands of volunteers that by the summer of 1945 it was finally finding its feet. DPs – millions of them – were indeed cared for, fed, clothed, sheltered, and repatriated home. Furthermore, improvised efforts to identify survivors were refined to become formalised through UNRRA’s Central Tracking Bureau, and UNRRA also soon began to create children’s centres where the many thousands that had found themselves lost and abandoned could be cared for. That many UNRRA workers, despite there being no formal search program, spent their free time searching and registering children is testament to the selfless work that many at UNRRA were doing.
It may have got off to a stuttering start but it should be remembered that UNRRA had no precedent and had to learn by doing. Its valiant ambition is commendable, and the voluntary work of those field workers, travelling in old reconditioned army trucks, sometimes with little more than a few bandages and aspirin to deal with the many thousands they met on the road, should be credited too. UNRRA was the first international body trying to do something constructive and concrete about refugees; and yet today we find ourselves in the midst of another refugee crisis. Whilst in 1945 UNRRA largely failed to predict that so many of the displaced would not wish to return home this time we are fully aware of the intention of migrants flooding across Western Europe. Francesca Wilson in her memoir recalls a relief worker from Luxemburg telling her that ‘UNRRA was like a Foreign Legion for peace instead of war’. Is it not time that Europe took the same stance as we did 70 years ago and pool more coherently together to aid those worse off than ourselves?
Jason Hewitt is the author of The Dynamite Room. His second novel, Devastation Road, set during the closing days of World War Two, publishes 30 July 2015.