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- 07 November 2003
An Evacuee Remembers
When war loomed on the horizon between the United Kingdom and Germany in 1939, British parents were faced with a difficult decision — should they send their children away to strangers in a place of safety or let them stay home in a possible target area? When it became obvious that a war between our two countries was inevitable, thousands of children were evacuated and relocated miles away from all things familiar.
For my own mother the decision was not difficult. Having survived a zeppelin raid during WW1 when she rather foolishly sought shelter in a shop displaying china and glass, she knew the terrors that air raids could bring. So, on the appointed day she delivered me to my school with a battered suitcase containing my clothing and other necessities, my gasmask, and a label attached to my coat to show who I was and where I had come from. Tearful farewells were followed by a bus ride to the railway station and a train journey to an unknown destination, and once we were on our way, I knew that my mother, in turn, was making her way to yet another school where she was assigned to help escort those children to another place of safety.
All the schools on the borders of Kent and London where I lived were evacuated and my particular school arrived in deepest Sussex a few days before war was declared. As soon as we arrived we each had to send a postcard home giving our new addresses, and I found myself billeted with a nice family comprising parents and two daughters, one younger than me and the other slightly older.
A few days later, on the very morning war was declared, we three girls had gone to the village about a mile from the house to buy sweets. Suddenly the very first alert was sounded. The older daughter and I were bundled into a cellar beneath the shop but the slippery younger sister managed to escape and ran all the way home screaming at the top of her voice “The Germans are coming, the Germans are coming!” It still brings a smile to my face when I think about it but of course no raid took place that day and soon all was peaceful again.
It might have been that the village school was too small to accommodate so many extra children, but for some reason, after two or three weeks we were all moved a few miles away to another village. We were taken directly to the church hall where the local residents were invited to select their evacuee. The prettiest and most appealing children were chosen first, of course, rather like choosing a pet from a litter of puppies, and sad to say my friend Barbara and I were among the last to be left sitting on the floor of the hall.
One of the more important residents in this second village was an author, famous then, and although now dead, still famous today. He owned a very large estate and because of the amount of accommodation he was judged to be able to offer, he was made to take twenty boys. I often wonder if the authorities ever discovered that those children never once enjoyed the comfort of his home and were made to sleep in a barn normally used at lambing time by his sheep.
A couple not long married eventually accepted Barbara and me. The wife was a middle-aged hard-faced water-waved peroxide blonde and I remember her husband as an elderly rheumy-eyed grocer’s assistant. Perhaps I’m being uncharitable, the intervening years having made my recollection of them worse than they really were, but Barbara and I soon discovered there were worse things than being homesick. We had to do all the housework, without the benefit of electricity I might add, throw the carpets over the washing line and beat the dust out of them, wash the floors, clean the copper and brass, do our own washing and ironing, as well as prepare vegetables and do all the washing up. We were only 13 years old, and time has shown that a lot of us kids were used as unpaid skivvies by our host families. After a few weeks the woman claimed that two children were too much work for her (even though she wasn’t doing any) and one of us had to go. Perhaps I’m being a cynic to think that Barbara was chosen to stay because her father owned a butcher shop, but I shall never forget how she cried when she realised she was going to be left there on her own.
A couple with a baby lived in the cottage I was moved to. He was a farm labourer and she was a shrew. He would bring home rabbits he had shot which I was made to skin and clean. It was obvious they were reluctant to have me, that I had been thrust upon them against their will, and I was made to feel most unwelcome. My father at that time worked for a fruit wholesaler in Covent Garden and used to send me a box of fruit every week but I rarely saw any of it. After I’d been there for about a month my parents came to visit me; I was so pleased to see them and of course my foster family was as nice as pie and I was afraid to spoil things by saying anything that might rock the boat.
By this time our school had taken over a large manor house about two miles out of the village. Some of the children were lucky and were provided with bicycles by their foster families, others were given a penny each day for a return ticket on the local bus, but many of us had to walk there and back in the worst possible weather. Our new school premises had the most enormous staircases going to the upper floors and I was always in trouble due to my difficulty remembering which room I should have been in. Breaks, or playtime as we called them, were spent in the grounds, good fun most of the time, spent throwing leaves at each other or climbing trees, but I was so homesick and as Christmas was fast approaching I managed to persuade my parents to let me return home. Bombs and bullets were preferable to being safe but unhappy.
My home was not far from Biggin Hill, a Battle of Britain airfield in Kent, an area known locally as ‘dog fight alley’, so we soon got used to being in the line of fire. It was not long before bombing raids became a regular feature and the sound of gunfire was ear-splitting, especially at night when most families slept in their Anderson shelter in the garden (which filled with water up to ground level in winter). Eventually people got rather blasé about the raids and began sleeping in their houses again, and if sounds of action were heard overhead they would just get out of bed and sit under the stairs or under a table.
In time lots of children came home from evacuation and the schools began to re-open. Sadly they became daytime targets and there were many casualties. During one daylight raid a bomb hit the school at the end of our road and several children and the headmaster were killed. At another school a German raider machine-gunned the children and teachers while they were in the playground during the lunch hour and several were killed, including more than one child from some families. The children were all buried in a communal grave in the local cemetery, together with their teachers. On another occasion the street door of my house was blown off its hinges and landed on top of me when a bomb exploded close by but on the whole my family was lucky and we survived the war unscathed.
At first people were reluctant to venture out at night but before long they started to go out again, to the cinema, to the dance hall, or just to meet friends for a drink. If the air raid warning sounded, the opportunity was always there to go to the nearest shelter, according to how one felt.
It all seems a very long time ago now, but witnessing the assault on the World Trade Centre in America on September 11th did bring back some very unwelcome memories.
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