The destination for history

The evacuation of children during the Second World War


With the start of the Second World War came Operation Pied Piper. This was the plan to evacuate civilians from cities and other areas that were at high risk of being bombed or becoming a battlefield in the event of an invasion. The country was split into three types of areas: Evacuation, Neutral and Reception, with the first Evacuation areas including places like Greater London, Birmingham and Glasgow, and Reception areas being rural such as Kent, East Anglia and Wales. Neutral areas were places that would neither send nor receive evacuees.

Evacuees themselves were split into four categories, focused on specific social groups deemed non-essential to war work: 1) school-age children; 2) the infirm; 3) pregnant women and 4) mothers with babies or pre-school children (who would be evacuated together). 

The Government Evacuation Scheme had been developed during the summer of 1938 by the so-called Anderson Committee, chaired by Sir John Anderson and charged with looking at how the country could respond to prolonged, destructive, aerial bombardment. The report laid out the foundations of a wartime evacuation policy, recommending the evacuation of schoolchildren, mothers with infants and the elderly to safer locales - typically rural communities. This proposal, together with the incorporation of another plan designed specifically by the London County Council (LCC) coalesced into an official government Evacuation Scheme from November 1938, and was one of the most radical works of social engineering ever conceived. By the summer of 1939 the LCC were requisitioning busses and trains in preparation and following a mass registration of both evacuees and billeting accommodation, Britain appeared ready for the worst. 

On the morning of 31 August 1939 (three days before war broke out), an evacuation order was given for the next day. Children began frantically assembling in their schools early on the morning of 1 September and Operation Pied Piper began in earnest. 

It was an epic logistical challenge requiring thousands of volunteer helpers. London alone had 1,589 assembly points and although most children boarded evacuation trains at their local stations, trains ran out of the capital’s main stations every nine minutes for nine hours. Some children in London were even evacuated by ship from the River Thames, sailing to ports such as Great Yarmouth, Felixstowe and Lowestoft. The process involved teachers, local authority officials, railway staff and 17,000 members of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS), who provided practical assistance, looking after apprehensive and tired evacuees at stations and providing refreshments.

Over the course of the first three days of official evacuation 1.5 million people were moved. In England alone 673,000 unaccompanied schoolchildren, 406,000 mothers and young children and 3,000 expectant mothers were relocated. Children had to carry a kit, and a Ministry of Health leaflet outlined what this should comprise: ‘a handbag or case containing the child’s gas mask, a change of under-clothing, night clothes, house shoes or plimsolls, spare stockings or socks, a toothbrush, a comb, towel, soap and face cloth, handkerchiefs; and, if possible, a warm coat or mackintosh. Each child should bring a packet of food for the day.’ Each child had a luggage label pinned to their coat on which was written their name, school and evacuation authority. Separated from their parents, and, sometimes, siblings, schoolchildren were instead accompanied on their journey by a small army of guardians, mostly teachers and WVS personnel.

Evacuation day was inevitably a deeply emotional and, often, traumatic experience for all involved and full of uncertainty and tearful goodbyes. Although some children were excited at the prospect of the forthcoming ‘adventure’, most evacuees were unaware of where they were going, what they would be doing and when they would be coming back. Faced with enormous upheaval and prolonged separation from loved ones, the initial separation was devastating and heart-rending for both mothers and children as whole families were dislocated and uprooted. However, the fear of bombing attacks meant that most parents considered evacuation for the best, as children would be safer away from the city. Yet, evacuation was not compulsory and some parents were understandably reluctant to take part, despite propaganda posters which encouraged co-operation. For those parents who did co-operate it would be a nervous wait of several days to find out where their children had gone with notification coming via a postcard through the mail. 

It was one thing to remove children from at-risk areas, but it was another to find somewhere for them to go. Various options were discussed, with civilians generally preferring the option of camps to be set up and supervised by teachers, but government ministers instead decided to use private billets. It became compulsory for homes to host assigned evacuees, with host families being paid 10 shillings and sixpence (53p; equivalent to £26 today) for the first unaccompanied child, and 8 shillings and sixpence for any subsequent children. Places were assessed in terms of accommodation available rather than suitability or the hosts’ inclination for raising children. This could lead to resentment of those who would be forced to care for children against their will, compounded with that many children did not want to be there in the first place and tried to run away. This problem was particularly prevalent in the lower-class families, as wealthier families often had relatives or school friends in the country to take in their children, rather than relying on strangers.

Obviously, parents and children often missed each other. In the ‘Phoney War’ that followed the start of the Second World War, Hitler was not ready for a full-scale attack on Britain and France. This meant uneventful months passed, giving a false sense of safety, so many children began to come back. Despite warnings by the Minister of Health, nearly half of all evacuees had returned to their homes by Christmas. But, when France fell in June 1940, Britain became the next target and the Blitzkrieg began. Cities such as London, Coventry, Birmingham, Swansea, Plymouth and Sheffield were pounded mercilessly and evacuation became a policy grounded in reality. The south coast of England was also quickly changed from a Reception area to an Evacuation area due to the threat of invasion and so 200,000 children were evacuated (or re-evacuated) to safer locations. This ‘trickle’ evacuation continued until the end of 1941, but even after the Blitz ended, danger remained. Air attacks continued sporadically, then in 1944 an entirely new threat arrived in the form of Hitler’s V-1 flying bombs and V-2 ballistic missiles. This began Operation Rivulet, the final major evacuation of the war. Running between July and September 1944 more than a million people moved out of danger zones.

To try and ease the blow of being separated from their parents, a special song was written for children in 1939 by Gaby Rogers and Harry Philips, entitled ‘Goodnight Children Everywhere’ and broadcast every night by the BBC:

Goodnight Children Everywhere

Sleepy little eyes in a sleepy little head,
Sleepy time is drawing near.
In a little while you’ll be tucked up in your bed,
Here’s a song for baby dear.

Goodnight children everywhere,
Your mummy thinks of you tonight.
Lay your head upon your pillow,
Don’t be a kid or a weeping willow. 

Close your eyes and say a prayer,
And surely you can find a kiss to spare.
Though you are far away, she’s with you night and day,
Goodnight children everywhere

Soon the moon will rise, and caress you with its beams,
While the shadows softly creep.
With a happy smile you will be wrapped up in your dreams,
Baby will be fast asleep. Goodnight children everywhere.

However, it is often overlooked that not all children were evacuated in the first place. Evacuation was a voluntary process and, while blackouts, gas masks and other wartime changes were accepted, many parents refused to part with their children during the war. Parents’ concerns were not helped by the fact that the government could often not even tell them where their children would be going, and so only about 47 per cent of children were actually evacuated in the initial wave. The children left at home endured bombing raids along with the economic and welfare problems of the cities, and yet strangely grew more than their city counterparts. This led to varying interesting theories as to why this was, for example that country children, rather than using that energy for growth, were too active. This was until Anna Freud proved emotional well-being was also important to a child’s growth. This changed the face of child warfare forever.

When the war ended the evacuees could finally return home. Some found their houses had been bombed or their families had departed (or no longer wanted them) but for most it was a happy reunion and brought an end to a prolonged period of fear, confusion and separation. But, for children used to being in the country, and parents not used to having children to deal with, this was not always easy. Many evacuees were now four or five years older than when they left; appearances, accents, outlooks and preferences had changed. Evacuation had reshaped an entire generation of youth, yet without Operation Pied Piper, and the biggest movement of people in Britain’s history, the death toll in the Second World War would undoubtedly have been much higher. 

More than 2.5 million children and countless families, including foster carers (whose role was vital), coped both practically and emotionally with evacuation in World War Two, having to make very real sacrifices in very unsettling times. It’s hard to imagine how society would cope with such a situation today and, thankfully, is a dilemma that most of us have never had to face. Nevertheless, the subject of evacuation is one which continues to resonate.

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