History

Very young evacuees prepare to travel, circa 1940. The experience was not always the exciting and jolly one that contemporary propaganda portrayed.

Evacuation

September 1939-May 1945

Throughout World War Two, in a massively complex and dramatic operation, approximately three million people were evacuated from towns and cities that were in danger of being bombed by enemy aircraft.


Photo: Very young evacuees prepare to travel, circa 1940. The experience was not always the exciting and jolly one that contemporary propaganda portrayed. (Getty Images)

Introduction

Very young evacuees prepare to travel, circa 1940. The experience was not always the exciting and jolly one that contemporary propaganda portrayed. Evacuation

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More information about: Evacuation

The evacuation of around three million people to rural locations beyond the reach of German air attacks deeply affected the nation. This was the first time an official evacuation had ever been deemed necessary and the experience of mass evacuation - the biggest and most concentrated movement of people in British history - remains uppermost in the minds of those who lived through the war. The majority of people who were evacuated were children and, for that reason, the operation was codenamed Pied Piper, fittingly named after the rather menacing German folk character.

Planning the evacuation

The scheme had been planned before the outbreak of war. A committee led by Sir John Anderson was set up and met for three months from May 1938, consulting railway officials, teachers and the police. Local billeting officers were appointed to find suitable homes for evacuees and they set about interviewing possible hosts. Following selection, a host was compelled to take an evacuee; those who refused faced the threat of a fine. In return, hosts could expect to receive payment via the Post Office.

A phenomenal undertaking

The organisation required to undertake the task of moving three million people around the country was phenomenal. For four days the country's major train stations provided a route out of cities. Operations were coordinated by teachers and volunteers. Children were tagged and allowed to carry a stipulated amount of luggage along with their gas masks. They did not have an allocated foster family to meet them and were hand-selected on arrival, which led to the agonising experience for some of being chosen last.

Evacuation didn't just take place from major cities, nor did all evacuees stay in the UK; some travelled abroad. Britain also feared invasion from the sea and the eastern and south-eastern coasts were particularly vulnerable.

Heavy-handed propaganda

The first day of the evacuation was portrayed in the national press as a great success and an example of the people's optimism, strength and commitment to the war effort. But many witnesses remember only chaos and confusion, and parents were heartbroken to see their families divided. And the process wasn't always the answer to securing children's safety. In the same account of an evacuation from Norfolk, it was recorded that: '[The children] sailed from Scotland and, after a week, we were awakened early one morning by the telephone to say that the ship had been torpedoed, but that our girl had been taken by a tanker to Glasgow.'

A life-changing event

For some children this was their first taste of living in the countryside or abroad; not all of them found the change easy to adapt to. Some children were treated badly. Others, however, found new friends and enjoyed new experiences and, when the war came to an end, the return to city life was equally emotional.

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