Category: second world war

Evacuees – millions evacuated from their homes at the start of the Second World War

By , October 4, 2009 1:38 am

Preparing for war – the terrors of air-power

Evacuee children on their way out of London, September 1939

Evacuee children on their way out of London, September 1939

As tensions in Europe mounted, and Hitler’s territorial ambitions became ever more clear, the British government started to prepare for war in the late  1930s.

The bombing of Guernica by German and Italian aeroplanes during the Spanish Civil War, in 1937, caused large-scale damage and death, and the consequences of air attacks on British targets was very worrying indeed.

The government feared tens of thousands of deaths from bombing raids within days of the war starting.

In the summer of 1938, therefore, the Anderson Committee drew up plans to re-locate, or evacuate, millions of vulnerable British people (mostly children)  from at-risk areas, such as cities, ports, and military areas, to safer countryside places.

Operation Pied Piper

Starting on 1st September 1939, when the Declaration of War appeared imminent, millions of British people were evacuated from the areas thought to be at particular risk.

A poster urging people to take in evacuees

A poster urging people to take in evacuees


Operation Pied Piper involved the movement, in 3 days, of an astonishing 3.5 million people. 830,000 of these were school children, 525,000 were mothers and children under school age. The rest were teachers, carers, pregnant women, and disabled people.

Children made up a lot of the evacuees, and were joined by mothers with young babies, and people who were very elderly or seriously disabled.

It was a massive undertaking.  The children were accompanied by 100,000 teachers, an absolute miracle of organisation and coordination.

The whole operation began with the Government order, “evacuate forthwith” on Thursday, 31st August 1939.

Essential kit for an evacuee child

Essential kit for an evacuee child

Many children didn’t understand what was happening. All they knew is that they were being ripped away from their parents.

Neither children nor parents knew where they were being evacuated to until they arrived.  Parents  had to wait to be notified as to where their children were.

The receiving areas were just told to organise the evacuation, and to, “do their best”.

There were many cases of large groups of children arriving in the wrong area without enough food and not enough homes to put them in.

Allocation of evacuees was often done by putting the children in a group in a church hall, and inviting receiving families to help themselves.

This led to a lot of humiliation and upset on behalf of those who were chosen later.

In so-called “receiving areas”, organisations such as the WVS had the power to assess households for the number of empty bedrooms, and to billet children upon them.

An allowance was paid to the host families to cover the costs of feeding, clothing and caring for the children.

Another 2 million people evacuated themselves, mostly to the countryside, some to Ireland, America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Those children sent abroad often didn’t see their homes or families until 1945 /1946.

Schools evacuated together

Poster warning mothers to leave their children in relative safety

Poster warning mothers to leave their children in relative safety

Whole primary schools and secondary schools were evacuated together, with the schools then doing their teaching in country schools and their pupils being housed round and about.

This sharing of school buildings often meant that the two schools operated at different times of day, one in the early morning until lunchtime, and the other after lunchtime until the evening.

The Phony War (Sept. 1939 to May 1940)

Nothing much happened in the War in Britain until May 1940, the so-called “Phony War”.

Many families therefore brought their children and other vulnerable relatives back into the cities, and about 60% had returned home by Easter 1940.

A second evacuation started in mid June 1940 after the fall of France, and approximately 150,000 children were evacuated, many for the second time.

Equipping and identifying evacuees

Each child carried a small case, with a few clothes, and necessities such as a ration book.

They also had their gas masks in a box, and a label was tied to younger children with their name and school on it.

The experience of being evacuated

What was happening at home

What was happening at home

The experience of evacuees was very different. A minority were ill treated, and some even suffered from physical or sexual abuse.

Others had a much better time, and many very poor children who’d never been properly clothed or had enough to eat were given a whole new lease of childhood.

But the wrenches were enormous. Children as young as 5 or 6 were taken away from their homes, parents, and the whole world they knew, and sent to live in a completely different area, with strangers, not seeing their parents for months or even years.

And the children knew why they were evacuees – to keep them safe from bombs. And they therefore also knew the risks to their parents, grandparents, other relatives, and friends, who stayed behind in the cities.





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