Welsh children during World War Two - the early years

When war was declared against Germany on 3 September 1939, the children of Wales could have been excused for thinking that, whatever might happen in Poland or France, it would have little or no effect on them.

Child evacuees preparing to leave London

Wales was too far to the west to be greatly influenced or affected, out of range of the German bombers, and well protected by the huge might of the Royal Navy.

And yet, contrary to what they believed, the outbreak of war did have an immediate impact on Welsh children when the government, on the day after the declaration of war, closed all of the schools in Britain for a period of up to a week - and Welsh schools were included in the list of closures.

This extra week's holiday brought great delight for children all over the country but its purpose was both pragmatic and sensible - its purpose, in fact, was pure safety. Nobody knew if air attacks would be launched by Germany and schools, along with cinemas and almost any places of public gathering, could offer great targets. That much had been learned by the German zeppelin and Gotha bombing raids of World War One when several hundred civilians had been killed and a school in the East End of London destroyed in one of the later raids.

Much better to shut down these places where large numbers of people congregated, at least for a while. That would, at least, keep people safe. No immediate bombing attacks took place, however, and, to the dismay of the children, most schools re-opened within the week, thus making the extra holiday very short lived indeed.

Evacuees in Newtown and Oswestry

The other event that had an immediate affect on Welsh children was the arrival of hundreds of evacuees in the towns and villages, even in the cities, of the country. The government had laid out plans for wholesale evacuation of children from large industrial centres like London, Liverpool and Birmingham long before war actually began.

In fact there had already been an evacuation programme in operation during the Munich Crisis of 1938 but once Prime Minister Chamberlain had secured "peace in our time" it was abandoned and all of the children soon returned home.

The Polish Crisis of 1939 was an altogether more serious affair and to government planners and civil servants it was inevitable that, sooner or later, war against Hitler's Germany would break out.

As a consequence, Britain had been divided up into three separate regions or sections - neutral, reception and evacuation. Neutral areas were those parts of the country where there was not any great danger while reception regions were the places where evacuated people could be safely housed.

Evacuation areas were those places where danger from bombing was greatest and therefore parts of the country where the most vulnerable members of society - namely the very young - needed to be removed. Most of Wales were designated as a reception area.

The order to evacuate children was given on 31 August 1939, three days before war broke out. Over the following week almost two million people, most of them children, were sent away from their families in the industrial cities of the south east and the Midlands into the countryside of the west. Many of them went to the rural parts of south and north Wales.

In many cases schools were evacuated en masse, teachers simply moving with their pupils. Very young children were accompanied by their mothers but, in the main, it was a case of simply heading for the station and setting off for places unknown and probably never even dreamed about:

"I remember a crocodile of little ones having to walk to school. There we were tagged with a luggage label with our name and details. And then we were taken by bus to the station and put on a train." (Dennis Barratt in Wales At War)

The traumatic effect of such uprooting on these young evacuees, being suddenly snatched away from family and loved ones, from everything that was familiar and known, can only be imagined. And of course there was always the fear that, back home in London or Birmingham, bombs might be dropping and destroying people and places while they slept safe and secure in their beds.

For the children of Wales, the sudden and unexpected arrival of parties of youngsters from Liverpool or Manchester were often moments of high adventure. Local children would stand, staring, as the evacuees disembarked from their trains and follow them along the road to the dispersal centres. The new arrivals were almost exotic for boys and girls who had rarely ventured more than ten miles from their home towns.

In hindsight the evacuation process was far from humane, particularly the way children were herded together in a central location and chosen or rejected, just like cattle at a farmers market. Despite this process, in most cases the evacuees were welcomed warmly enough, although there were always exceptions.

Evacuee children had to attend school along with their Welsh counterparts and in places where the main language was Welsh there were several teething problems. For children from London and other industrial centres, the sights and sounds of the Welsh countryside were, to say the least, unusual. It was effectively the meeting of two cultures and after the initial curiosity had worn off what often emerged were moments of conflict:

"We were Welsh - they couldn't understand us and we couldn't understand them. We understood some of the words they used - "Daft," we knew what that meant. So we had to have a battle, the whole of Llanllynfni children against the evacuees, by the bridge, down at the bottom of the village." (Eluned Giles in Wales At War)

As the months went on, of course, local Welsh children and English evacuees grew to accept and even like each other. Many long lasting friendships were formed and each group - English and Welsh - influenced the lives and development of the other.

When the war ended most evacuees returned home. Indeed, many had already gone, having slipped back to the places of their birth once the main German bombing attacks ended in 1943. But many stayed on and made the country their home. Wales, after all, had been one of the most significant factors in their growth from childhood to adolescence.


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