“In all, more than 3.5 million Britons, about seven per cent of the population, became evacuees during the war.”
By Gillian Mawson
DURING THE First World War, German Zeppelin and bomber raids on Great Britain left 1,500 civilians dead. In the years following the 1918 Armistice, the British government anticipated that future conflicts would see even deadlier areal bombardments. So when war broke out in September of 1939, London quickly moved to evacuate one-and-a-half-million civilians, mostly children, from the nation’s towns and cities to the relative safety of the countryside or the coast. The plan was dubbed Operation Pied Piper.
Most of the evacuees, who had never been away from home before, left their parents and their whole worlds behind, having no idea where they were being sent or when they would even see their families again.
Upon arrival in the evacuee reception areas – located in towns and villages that were considered safe from enemy attack – local families chose children to take into their homes. Many recalled this traumatic process as being reminiscent of a ‘cattle auction’ with brothers and sisters forcibly separated from each other. By May of 1940, fears of a Nazi invasion saw more non-combatants uprooted and relocated inland from coastal areas.
In all, more than 3.5 million Britons, about seven per cent of the population, became evacuees during the war. Here are six things that might surprise you about Britain’s wartime evacuees.
Some Parents Refused to Send Their Children Away
Image attached of evacuees leaving Great Yarmouth railway station
One evacuee recalls a mother who had second thoughts about letting her youngsters leave.
“We boarded our train,” remembers John Hawkins, who was 11 years old at the time. “Suddenly, everyone turned in amazement to see a frantic mother dash from the crowd, force her way through the barrier onto the platform and scoop her tiny, frightened daughter into her arms. She then ran, sobbing bitterly, away from the station.”
A similar incident played out when evacuees were ready to leave the Channel island of Guernsey, by ship, for England in June 1940.
“Throughout the evacuation,” remembers one official, “the ship’s crews were greatly handicapped by parents changing their minds at the last moment.”
Evacuation Was No Guarantee of Safety
Tragically, hundreds of evacuees were killed after being relocated or while en route to safe havens. Air raids and channel minefields posed huge risks to the refugees. In an effort to stem a panic, the government in London hoped to suppress news of the deaths of evacuees.
“There have been cases of evacuees dying in the evacuation areas,” said one MP in the House of Commons. “Fancy that type of news coming to the father of children who have been evacuated … it will have the effect that many children will be brought back from these evacuation areas.”
In one incident, evacuees died when German bombs fell on a Devon town in 1941. Another case saw two boys killed on a Cornish beach that had been converted into a minefield to defend against a German invasion. They had only arrived in the area a few weeks earlier. The grieving father of one of the boys protested that authorities had not warned the newcomers about the minefield and no signs of the hazard were posted.
Another evacuee, Irene Wells, aged 8, was crushed by an army truck.
“The lorry came round the corner quickly then shot across the road towards the church,” said one eyewitness to the tragedy. “It crashed into the railings and knocked the child over. She had been standing at the church doorway.”
Thousands of Mothers and Teachers Were Evacuated Too
It wasn’t just children who were relocated.
“My husband had joined the army and he insisted that I be evacuated with our little girl,” one London mother recalled. “I packed a suitcase then looked around my home. I had to leave everything behind. It was heartbreaking.”
Mrs. Eva Le Page was evacuated with her baby along with “one bag containing six nappies and two feeding bottles.”
Guernsey evacuee, Violet Hatton, was offended by the reaction of the volunteers who met her at Weymouth.
“They thought we spoke a foreign language and that we would be wearing grass skirts,” she remembered. “One even showed us how to use an electric light. We told them we were British citizens and that we had everything like that in the Channel Islands.”
Conditions Were Often Unpleasant
A popular myth holds that city children sent to the country found better conditions there. It didn’t always work that way. Many of the children had come from houses with indoor bathrooms, but ended up in country cottages with no running water, gas or electricity. One evacuee, Richard Singleton, recalls an instance in which he asked his Welsh ‘foster mother’ where the toilet was.
“She took me into a shed and pointed to the ground. Surprised, I asked her for some paper to wipe our bums,” he remembers. “She walked away and came back with a bunch of leaves.”
Jessie Hetherington arrived in Bishop Auckland.
“There were long rows of pit houses with outside toilets and very few bathrooms,” she says. “We had come from a new housing estate where every house had an indoor bathroom. The kindness of most of the hosts made up for the lack of amenities.”
Some Evacuees Relocated to Targeted Cities
Amazingly, refugees from Guernsey, Jersey and Gibraltar were sent into British towns and cities, many of which were targets for German bombers. In fact, hundreds of Gibraltar evacuees were sent into London just as the Blitz began. After sailing from the Mediterranean to Swansea, the refugees were put on a train which took them to London. As they left the station, hundreds of people pushed past them and hurried onto the train. They were escaping London to safety at the very moment the Gibraltar evacuees were being brought in.
As many as 20,000 Channel Islanders were relocated to towns and cities that were under threat of German bombing. Raymond Carre, aged 23, and his family, found themselves in a Manchester air raid shelter,
“There were 100 people, young and old, talking a broad Lancashire dialect that we could not understand,” he remembers. “The sight of row upon row of identical terraced houses, industrial buildings and smoking chimneys was a real shock to people evacuated from beautiful rural islands.”
Thousands of evacuees didn’t want to go home
One boy remembers that the little girl who had lived with them in Cheshire for five years wanted to stay after the war had ended.
“She had forgotten [her family] completely and had come to love all of us,” he remembers. “She was dragged kicking and screaming out of our house by her father.”
Richard Singleton will never forget the day his mother came to take him home to Liverpool.
“I had been happily living with ‘Aunty Liz and Uncle Moses’ for four years,” he recalled. “I told Mam that I didn’t want to go home. I was so upset because I was leaving and might never again see aunty and uncle and everything that I loved on the farm.”
Douglas Wood did not want to return home either.
“During my evacuation I had only seen my mother twice and my father once,” he recalls. “On the day that they visited me together, they had walked past me in the street as they did not recognise me. I no longer had a Birmingham accent and this was the subject of much ridicule. I had lost all affinity with my family so there was no love or affection.”
Gillian Mawson is a researcher, oral historian and the author of three books. Her latest is Britain’s Wartime Evacuees. She has interviewed over 500 evacuees and scoured British archives for documents on wartime evacuation. She organizes evacuee reunions and wartime events and provides research to radio and television documentaries on evacuation. She lives in High Peak, Derbyshire. You can follow her on Twitter @Guernseyevacuee or visit her blog.