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Across the Atlantic: Evacuated to Canada

by woodlands

Contributed by 
People in story: 
John Bourne
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Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
07 December 2003


Having lived through the Russian revolution and endured the privations and starvation of those times, my mother, Alisa, was determined to protect her children from what she imagined would be a repeat performance.

The unreality of the early months of the war, found our family living in a semi in a small Hertfordshire town; settled there because there was both a boy’s and girl’s school. Down our road one tommy was billeted above the garage at Lincoln House. We became firm friends. One day he seemed most agitated on my appearance. “Can’t you hear the church bells?” he asked me. “Don’t you know that they are ringing because paratroopers are dropping?” He told me to get home as quick as I could. Invasion had started, he said.

The government encouraged parents to evacuate their children. Wherever possible to overseas countries. Safety was paramount and they promised that all shipping would be in convoy until safe waters were reached.

Dunkirk fell and invasion seemed imminent. At this time my cousin’s school was being evacuated to Canada en bloc. They had a few spaces on the ship and these were offered to relatives, who were nothing to do with the school.

So I found myself on board “The Duchess of Bedford”, the only boy in a girl’s school.

Well, there was a lot to explore that first night on board and I missed supper, but some kind-hearted cook found me a ham sandwich.

The British Navy escorted us out of Liverpool, until more urgent matters took them off elsewhere. “The Duchess” was left to her own devices and sailed well north, as this was considered the safest route to take.

Curious to see why a bunch of excited girls were to one side of the ship, I went to look and saw us slipping past a small iceberg. Clearly visible were two polar bear cubs; no sign of mother, but we all knew about families being parted. At some time after this a U-boat circled our ship, fired off a few rounds of what I imagine was machine-gun fire and disappeared. Presumably it had no torpedoes left, for the Germans did not seem to have any hang-ups about sinking shiploads of children being evacuated.

Montreal was reached and the school was billeted in a large house, by the river St Lawrence. As I was the only boy, aged 6, I could not possibly sleep in the same room as any of the girls and was banished to the verandah, outside the fly-screens.

Our plight was mentioned over the local radio and many generous Canadians came out to take members of the school back to their homes for the duration of the summer holidays. Mosquitos had made a good job of my face and other exposed flesh and my finger nails had completed the task. So it was that my sister and I were the last to secure a placement. On viewing me Eve Weston was somewhat reluctant to take us home. It was my good fortune that she made her decision, for I spent three of the happiest years of my life with her and Don. My sister, Margaret had to go back to the convent school (in new premises in Toronto) when term started.

I could give you a long tale of remembered life as an evacuee in Canada, but suffice to say my war really ended here.

My father had retired from the Foreign and Colonial Office in 1939, but eventually they found him a war-time occupation in the Windward Islands. So mother and father packed up their car and household belongings and had them shipped direct to the West Indies. These were lost with all the crew when the ship was torpedoed. They themselves, had decided to sail to the West Indies via Canada, to see their children. By this time, Don and Eve had persuaded the convent school and my parents that it would be in our best interests if my sister and I were to live together with them. So my parents came to us for a week, but stayed for two. Had they taken the ship that they were supposed to, they would not have survived the war. It was sunk with all hands lost.

My parents sailed via Bermuda, where my father made a diplomatic call on Government House and, much to his great pleasure, signed his name in the visitor’s book immediately under the signature of Winston Churchill.

In 1943 we left Don and Eve to join our parents in the West Indies for the duration of the war, but that could be another tale.

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