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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Evacuation


Location: Britain
Players: British population, mostly children.
Outcome: Approximately three million people were evacuated from towns and cities that were in danger of being bombed, in an operation codenamed Pied Piper.

A group of young evacuees awaits transport
A group of young evacuees awaits transport©
The evacuation of some 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, ironically named after the rather menacing German folktale.

The scheme had already 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.

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 (their parents had received an official government list) along with their gas masks. They did not have an allocated foster family to meet them, but 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 further distances. Britain feared invasion from the sea and the eastern and south eastern coasts were particularly vulnerable. One memoirist recalls how the Norfolk townspeople of Wisbech debated options as war broke out:

'...The scare was on that the Germans would land on the marshes near our town, and the Council arranged evacuation of children to Canada and America for those who were willing to let their children go. After days and nights of heart-searching we decided to let our only daughter go with some of her friends.'

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. According to the Daily Mail:

'Evacuation of schoolchildren from London went without a hitch. The children, smiling and cheerful, left their parents and entrained for unknown destinations in the spirit of going on a great adventure. "I wish all our passengers were as easy to manage," a railway official said. "The children were very well behaved."'

But many witnesses remember only chaos and confusion, and parents were heartbroken to see their families divided and dispersed. 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.' This must have been a very tense time.

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. For others they found new friends and enjoyed new experiences, and when war came to an end the return to city life was equally emotional.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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