World War II: French doctors, English nurses and three grumpy old men

MyFrenchLife™ - - General Charles de Gaulle - Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit in Provence - VE Day

The Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit was a World War II mobile hospital operation staffed by French doctors and British nurses. Immediately after the victory parade in Paris at the end of the war, it was summarily disbanded and sent packing by order of General Charles de Gaulle.  

The Hadfield-Spears legacyMyFrenchLife™ - - General Charles de Gaulle - Hadfield-Spears Coat of Arms - VE Day

British steel tycoon Sir Robert Hadfield had provided the initial funding for a hospital unit in the First World War. Lady Hadfield, a Francophile like her husband, spent most of the year at their villa at Cap Ferrat in the south of France. She explained, in a proposal to the French Consulate in London that:

… the gift of the unit would be the repayment of a debt she owed to France for the happiest years of her life.

In World War II, due to her advanced age, Lady Hadfield turned the running of the contingent over to her friend Mary May Borden who later became Lady Spears.

In 1939 the Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Chirurgical Légère was attached to the French IV Army in Lorraine. When the Allies were routed in the Battle for France, Spears and her party of 25 British nurses and drivers made their way to St Jean de Luz from where they were evacuated back to England.

The hospital unit then re-grouped in Britain before sailing for the Middle East where it was attached to les Forces françaises libres in Syria. As the war progressed it went on to support the Free French in North Africa, Italy and, eventually the Armée française de la Libération back in France.

A day to remember – VE Day

On 8 May 1945 at 3.00pm—le jour de la Victoire en Europe—all the bells of every church in France were officially rung to mark the end of the war and the final defeat of the Nazis.

In June the Brisbane Morning Bulletin published the following article:


…General Charles de Gaulle, when he caught sight of the British flag, summoned General Koenig, and having heard who dared to fly the British flag in an all-French parade, instructed the War Minister to close down our hospital within thee days and repatriate all British members immediately, said Lady Spears…

MyFrenchLife™ - - General Charles de Gaulle - Memorial to a leader - VE Day


So, what on earth could have been behind Charles de Gaulle’s bombshell ordering the disbandment of the hospital unit that had served French soldiers so loyally throughout the war?

The answer is probably twofold: –

  • Firstly – there were many differences of opinion between the three western leaders regarding the conduct and direction of the war.
  • Secondly – interpersonal relations between Roosevelt, Churchill and de Gaulle were almost always fractious.

Here are just a few examples of the insults they regularly exchanged.

Charles de Gaulle and his touchy disputes

MyFrenchLife™ - - General Charles de Gaulle - Roosevelt, Churchill, Giraud & de Gaulle - VE Day


Roosevelt had established diplomatic relations with Vichy and always backed Marshal Pétain over General de Gaulle. When Roosevelt announced that he would not endorse Charles de Gaulle because France had not elected him, the General replied testily that Joan of Arc had not been elected either.

Roosevelt and Churchill had always conspired to keep de Gaulle in the dark about the D-Day invasion. Churchill even threatened that he would put de Gaulle on a plane and send him back to Algiers:

In chains if necessary.

Then in his idiosyncratic French, he added,

Mon Général, si vous m’obstaclerez, je vous liquiderai!

And one of the General’s advisers noted that:

the General must constantly be reminded that our main enemy is Germany. If he would follow his own inclination, it would be England.

Many more recriminations of this kind were routinely flung about by all three leaders.

At this stage of the war, they seem to have been reduced to behaving remarkably like a band of grumpy old men.

Do you think that if their minders had exercised more control it would have had any impact on the outcome of World War II? What do think about Charles de Gaulle’s decision to end the Hadfield-Spears ambulance unit? Share your comments & experiences with us below.

Image Credits:

  1. Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit in Provence by Fondation de la France Libre via Wikimedia
  2. Hadfield-Spears coat of arms Dayala via Wikimedia
  3. Memorial General Charles de Gaulle by ClemetNic via flickr
  4. Leaders in Casablanca by U.S National Archives via Wikimedia

About the Contributor

Ray Johnstone

Ray is an artist & writer. His favourite subjects are nudes and portraits. Art holidays for groups & families are catered for in their 800-year-old house La Petite Galerie in Gascony. They also take up to 6 walkers on the 'best bits' of the Pilgrims Route to Compostela. Check out Ray's 100+ articles - he has his own column called 'Perspectives'

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