WHO staff under fire

Listen to the original audio files from the evacuation

In July 1956, President Nasser of Egypt announced plans to nationalize the Suez Canal. By September, the military and political situation in Egypt was very unstable. On 1 November 1956, at the WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean in Alexandria, the order for evacuation came from the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold. It was announced that not only internationals would be taken but also locally recruited staff and dependents who wanted to leave. Some people had to make agonizing decisions about whether to stay or to leave with the one piece of baggage allowed.

The last few hectic hours were filled with putting papers in order, making lists and issuing travel documents between black-outs. In the early morning, Dr Shousha, Regional Director, said a determinedly cheerful goodbye to his staff, watching them leave for the port in a line of taxis, flanked by the custodial staff on the running boards.

Staff boarding troop ships

Once the quay was reached, men, women and many children and babies were loaded on three US Navy troopships amid the intermittent firing of anti-aircraft guns as nearby airfield installations were bombed.

Staff transferring to a larger ship

On reaching Suda Bay, Crete, the 2000 evacuees were transferred in lighters to the troop ship, “General Alexander Patch.” WHO nurses took over the nursery where they cared for 15 babies all less than nine months old.

Staff arrival in Naples

Four days after leaving Alexandria, the contingent arrived at Naples at 7 o’clock in the morning where they were greeted by a US Navy band, as well as by press photographers, movie cameras and Red Cross and United Nations officials.

Train to Geneva

After a brief rest in Naples, staff returned to Geneva, where they were welcomed by relieved colleagues.

Our thanks to Ronnie Peters, an administrative assistant to Dr Shousha at the time, who told us this story, and gave us her contemporary slides, and a record with an eye witness report by information office Pamela Palmer. We would appreciate hearing from any other former WHO staff who were involved in this event—especially those of you who were recruited locally.