World War II Air Campaign: British Evacuation of Children (1939-44)


Figure 1.--This British sdoldier says goodbye to his son during the evacuation of London schoolchildren. It look rathervlike Victoria Station. The boy has his gas mask case over his shoulder and is carrying a small parcel of his belongings. Note the other children in the background with luggage and their identity tags. Image courtesy of the MD collection.

The British Government even before war was declared on Germany in September 1939 sought to safeguard the civilain population, especially children, from aerial bombardment. The Government on August 31, 1939 ordered the evacuations to begin. Within a few weeks, 3 million Britains, mostly children had been evacuated from the cities. It was the most extensive movement of people in British history. Caos insued as the children were tagged liked parcels and shipped out of the cities. The abrupt separtaion of many very young children from their parents was a traumatic experience. The British concern was especially deep because of the Luftwaffe atracks on civilian populations. Even before the Blitz, the British watched in horror as the Luftwaffe in September launched terror attacks on Warsaw and other Polish citids. The vast majority of the children evacuated were sent to the English countryside, usually to live with individual families who volunteered to care for them. After the German victory in France (June 1940) and the Blitz on Brutain began (July 1940), the Government began to see Canada and other Commonwealth nations as safer havens, nor only from the aerial bombardment, but also from a possible German invasion. Some children were evacuated by ship to British Dominions, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. The first child evacuees, or "guest children" were of the wealthy classes, sometimes entire schools were sent through private arrangements to family or friends in Canada. The British public eventually demanded the government pay so that less privileged children were also eligible. The War situation changed by early 1941. A German invasion was no longer though eminent and the Luftwaffe was forced to wind down its bombing campaign. Two ships carrying child evacuees were torpedoed. As a result, the Government in early 1941 ended further evacuation plans. This program has been the subject of both scholarly study as well as a wide range of liteary and theatrical treatment.

Air War

One of the countroversies surrounding World War II is the Allied bombing campaign of Germany. Of course it was the Germans who began bombing civilian populations as a terror tactict to destroy civilian morale. This began even before the World War II during the Spanish Civil War with the bombing of Guernica in 1937?. Once the World War II began the tactic was used on Warsaw (September 1939), Rotterdam (May 1940), and on numerous British cities (1940-41). Once America joined the War in December 1941, a much larger bombing campaign was launched on Germany which by 1943 began to inflict serious civilian casulties. After D-Day (June 1944), the Allied bombing campaign was significantly intensified. The Americans bombing by day, attempting to hit specific targets using the Nordon bomb sites. The British bombed by night and at best could hit specific cities. Large numbers of German civilians were killed, injured, or rendered homeless. Contrary to popular conceptions, the German economy was not effectively harnessed for war. Only when Albert Speer was put in charge did German industry begin to reach some of its potential. The Germans, as a result, despite the bombing were able to expand war production. Here the question that should be asked is how much more they could have expanded production had it not been for the bombing. The bombing significantly clearly disrupted the economy and the ability of the NAZIs to persue their development of new weapons.

Fear

Britain had reason to be concerned about a German air offensive. Britain had been bombed by the Germans earlier. The Zephlin raids of World War I while doing little damage were remembered by the older generation. The Germans also used the Imperial Navy to bombard Btitish coastal cities. These were not attacks on military targets, but rather civilian populations. Government planners were horrified by what the Luftwaffe might do. One estimate suggested that 4 million civilians might be killed in Londob alone. Thus massive evacuation plans were drawn up by the Government".

Poison Gas

The Germans employed poison gas in World War I. The gas agents they used were developed by a super-patriotic Jewish scientist. The Allies used them in response. The British and other Europeans were terrified that the Germans would use gas against civilians in the next war. The British took the threat more seriously than any other country. The British Government isued 38 million gas masks to civilians who were required to carry them. One of the unanswered questions ofWorld War II is why the Germans did not use gas weapons. They had massive stockpiles. The Germans apparently concluded that they were a difficult to use munition. We can only speculate that in the early years of the War that there was no need to use them. In the later phase of the War when they no longer had air superority, it would not have been to their advantage. We do not know, however, at this time to what extent the use of gas was actively considered by Hitler or German military planners. Of course in 1939 no one knew this. The British children evacuated in 1939 all had little boxes in which they carried their gas masks. They had been trained in school how to use them.

Planning (Summer 1938)

The British Government after Hitler seized power, secretly began planning for an emergency evacuation of children from cities (12933). The planning began as early as 1934 and were well thought out at an early date. Planners assumed that British cities would be targetted as they were by Zephelins in World War I. There was great fear that the Germans would use poison gas. NAZI propaganda about their new Luftwaffe only increased official and public concern. The British Government after Hitler seized power in 1933 secretly began planning for an emergency evacuation of children from cities. The planning began as early as 1934 and were well thought out at an early date. Planners assumed that British cities would be targetted as they were by Zephelins in World War I. There was great fear that the Germans would use poison gas. NAZI propaganda about their new Luftwaffe only increased official and public concern. Aerial bombardment was a concern during the 1920s and 30s. After Hitler and Göring publically announce the Luftwaffe this concern grew. Various estimates were made. One estimate suggested thast the Luftwaffe could drop 0.1 million bombs in 14 days. In reality, London was out of reach as long vas the Luftwaffe was operating from German bases. The British as it looked like war was coming over Czechoslovakia began detailed plans to evacuate the cities (summer 1938). The plan was prepared by the Anderson Committee. The Committee divided Britain into three zones (evacuation, neutral, and reception. The priority was to move evacuees from the major urban areas billeted in private housing in more rural counties. The three areas roughly divided the the population in thirds. As the Blitz actually developed, the Luftwaffe hit cities that had not been evacuated. The Committee for Imperiasl Defense presented an evacuation plan to Parliasmednt (July 26, 1938) as Hitler weas ratcherting up tensions over the Czech Sudetenland. The plan established priorities: 1) school children with their teachers, 2) pre-school children and their mothers, 3) presgnant women, and 4) blind and crippled adults. [Baumel, p. 175.] The plan was not operational at the time of Munich (October 1938). While Britain did not go to war at that time, the planning for a future evacuation continued. The Government drewup housing standards. Communities in the reception ares began preparing lists of possible billets for evacuees. A regersal was held (August 28). The organizers found 4.8 million billets. The Goverment in addition constructed a few camps for additional evacuees. As it became increasingly clear that Prime Minister Chamberlain had not suceeded in apeasing Hitler and that there would be war, the Government began publicizing the evacuation plan through local authorities. The option of overseas evacuatins was broughtup. The Government received various offers from the Dominions. They were basically dismissed by authorities as necessary and imnpractical.

Munich (September 1938)

The evacuation order was almost given during the Munich crisis (September 1938). Britain and France braced for war as Hitler demanded the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia and prepared to invade. The Goverment prepared to evacuate children from London and other large cities. Primeminister Chamberlain was, however, determined to avoid war and caved into Hitler's demands at the Munish Conference (September 1938). With war averted, the evacuation was cancelled. The British were, hoewever, had their system ready.

Gas Mask Drills at Schools

No one was better trained with using gas masks than the school children. We note drills with school children training them to efficiently put on gas masks correctly and quickly. Parents were supposed to train the children at home, but they got much more practice at school and became very proficient at it. This dovetailed with air raid drills teaching the children how to behave in case of Luftwaffe raids using conventional bombs. Many but not all children were evacuated from the cities. Many schools continued to operate and of course so did the schools in the countryside. And when the expected bombing did not occur with the outbreak of war (September 1939), many city children returned home by Christmas. The children were well trained and got a lot more practice once the Blitz began (September 1940). The RAF success, however, forced the Luftwaffe to begin bombing primarily at night which meant that many schools were hit when the children were at home. We note an impressive demonstration at a Glasgow school. This was going on all over Britain in every school. It of course was only one part of the school air raid drills. Normally the air raid drills were conducted with the children carrying rather than wearing the masks. But because of classroom drills they were able to quickly put on the masks when instructed to do so. We even see British children at play outside of school wearing gas masks. That seems, however, more like staged publicity images.

NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (Augut 23, 1939)

NAZI and Soviet Foreign Ministers V. Ribbentrop and V. Molotov stunned the world on August 23, 1939 when they signed a Non-Agression Pact in Moscow. The public was surprissed that the two bitter enemies could reach agreement. British officials had been trying to conclude an agreement with the Soviets themselves. Officials realized that the Non-Agression Pact had made a new war inevitable. It assured the Grmans that an invasion of Poland and would not mean a two front war with the Russians in the East and the Britisha and French in the West.

Practice Evacuations (August 28, 1939)

A good deal of preparation ocuured at British schools before the war. The children practived air raid drills and were exprts at putting on their gas masks at a moment's notice. We have noted references to a practice evacuation just before the Germans invaded Poland. After the NAZI-Soviet Pact was signed, it was clear that a German invasion of Poland was immenent. The plans for evacuating the children in London and the major citie were prepared in detail and were in place even before the Munch Crisis (Septemnber 1938). The evacuation order was almost activated at that time. Just what the practice amounted to, we are not entirely sure. We notice press reports dated August 28. Whether this was a nation-wide practice we do not yet know. We think it was primarily the children reporting to their schools for evacuation. We do not know if the practices went beyond the school yards. Whether some of the children were actually sent out on trains we do not yet know. And how many childten were involved with these practices, we do not yet know. Hopefully some of our British readers will know more.

First Evacuation (September 1939)

The British Government even before war was declared on Germany in September 1939 sought to safeguard the civilain population, especially children, from aerial bombardment. The Government on August 31, 1939 ordered the evacuations to begin. Within a few weeks, 3 million Britains, mostly children had been evacuated from the cities. It was the most extensive movement of people in British history. Caos insued as the children were tagged liked parcels and shipped out of the cities. The abrupt separtaion of many very young children from their parents was a traumatic experience. The British concern was especially deep because of the Luftwaffe atracks on civilian populations. Even before the Blitz, the British watched in horror as the Luftwaffe in September launched terror attacks on Warsaw and other Polish citids. The vast majority of the children evacuated were sent to the English countryside, usually to live with individual families who volunteered to care for them. This would be just the first evacuation. When air assautls on Britain did not matrialize, the children began coming home. This meant that with the fall of France (June 1940), many children were back in Londin and other cities with the Battkle of Britain begabn in preparation for an invasion.

Other Evacuations (1940-44)

There were three main waves of evacuation. The first and largest was at the onset of the War (September 1-3, 1939). It was a massive undertaking which took place largely over the space of 3 days. The Germans at the time did not have the capability of a major air assault on Britain. As a result, no bombing occurred which is what had been expected. Gradually the children began returning home. The second evacuation was after the fall of France (June 1940). The Germans quickly moved into French bases along the Channel and launched an air assault--the Battle of Britain. This time they did have the capacioty for a sustained air campaign. At first the Luftwaffe focused on Channel ports and RAF air fields in southwestern England. This time the evacuations were smaller and spaced out over a larger time period as conditions developed in France and the Battle of Britain unfolded. This time as a German invasion threatened, an overseas component was organized. The Battle of Britain inensified (Auhust) and the Germans shifted the attacks to London, the beginning of the Blitz (September). The third evacuation occurred when the Germans began launcjing the V-1 flying buzz bombs after D-Day (June 1944). A HBC reader writes, "I am of course much too young to know of such things but my parents lived in the East End of London during the Blitz, my oldest sister was born in 1942 and was evacuated with my mother to Norfolk in 1944 to escape the flying bombs."

Dispersal Locations

The idea was to disperse the children so they were not in locations likrly to be atacked by he Luftwaffe. This meant that long distances were not required, only to get the children and other protected classes out of the densly populated cities. And the mos efficint way of doing this was to get them into the countyside around their home cities. The London was a special problem bcause of the huge population and especially uring the second evacuation concern over a possible German invasion and landings in the south. Children were dispersed all over Britain, but the children from each city tended to be concentrated in certain relatively close by areas. Many children evacuated from Liverpool went to Wales. Manchester's children went to the surrounding villages and coastal towns such as Blackpool. Children from Leeds most likely went to the surrounding countryside in Yorkshire. Londoners during the first evacuation went to mainly South coast locations as the Industrial Midlands to the north were a prime Luftwaff target. Wales may have been a destination, we are still looking into it. Tyneside (northeast England) children may have gone to Scotland other Lake District locations. Some Kindetransport children went to a Windermere were they lived in a hostel for much of the war.

Battle of Britain (July-September 1940)

The German initiated their long awaited western campaign in May 1940. Paris fell June 14 and France capitulated June 22. The Luftwaffe quickly established bases in France and by July 10 launched preliminary strikes in what has come to be called the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe while better trained and outnumbering the RAF was ill prepared for the campaign. They did not appreciate the ctitical importance of the British home chain radar network. They also had no straegic bomber fleet. The air offensive was to be conducted with two engine bombers that proved highly effective in short range tactical operations, but were not well suited for kinger-range strategic bombing. The Battle of Brirain began in ernest on August 13 with Luftwaffe raids on British airfields and aircraft factories. Hitler had assumed that the Luftwaffe could force the British to capitualte. He saw world politics in racial terms and in relatity wanted the British as allies or at least neutrals in his planned invasion of the Sovie Union. This isresumably why he stopped the panzers before Dunkirk. Unlike his strategy against the Poles, Dutch, and Belgians, there were no German terror bombing of London and other British cities. The Luftwaffe im its August campaign seriously weakened the RAF and Fighter Command was having increasing difficulty maintaining its forward air bases in Kent. Then off-course German bombers accidentally bomb London on August 23-24. RAF Bomber Command on August 25-26 mounted a small reprisal raid against Berlin. Hitler is furious and orders an immediate change in Luftwaffe tactics. Rather than completing its offensive against the RAF infrastructure, Hitler ordered a "blitz" on British cities which began in earnest on September 7. The Luftwaffe wreaked havoc on civilians in London and major English cities. Thousands of civilians were killed. Edward R. Murrow broadcasting from London ("London calling ...") described Britain's valiant resistance to rapt American radio audiences, greatly affecting American attitides toward the Hitler and the NAZIs. White British cities burned, the RAF was given a respite, allowing its forward air bases to recover from the damage done in August. As a result the RAF was able to mount increasingly costly attacks on the German bomber fleets. The Lutwaffe eventually is forced to shift to nightime raids and eventually end the major offensive against the British as the German military in 1941 began preparing for Opperation Barbarosa, Hitler's long awaited dream of invading the Soviet Union which at the time was a virtual German ally.

Overseas Evacuations (June 1940-February 1941)

he British Government developed plans for evacuating 1 million children to the United states and Canada and other overseas domminions. Aftr the fall of France, some this as one way of ensuring that Britain could survive even if invaded. After the German victory in France (June 1940) and the air assault on Britain began (July 1940), the Government began to see America, Canada and other Commonwealth nations as safer havens, nor only from the aerial bombardment, but also from a possible German invasion. The Germans evetually began the Blitz or bombing of British cities (September 1940). Some children were evacuated by ship to British Dominions, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. The first child evacuees, or "guest children" were of the wealthy classes, sometimes entire schools were sent through private arrangements to family or friends in Canada. The British public eventually demanded the government pay so that less privileged children were also eligible. The War situation changed by early 1941. A German invasion was no longer though eminent and the Luftwaffe was forced to wind down its bombing campaign. Two ships carrying child evacuees were torpedoed. One of these was the City of Benares an ocean line with 200 British and foreign civilian passangers and 93 British children with an escort of nurses, teachers, and a clergyman. The ship was torpedoed September 13, 1940. Only two life boatswere ever found, one 8 days after the sinking. Only 15 children survived. Churchill when he learned of the disaster moved to end the overseas evaucation scheme. [Gilbert, pp. 321-342.] One of the most moving account of these evacuationscomes from Martin Gilbert, an historian that HBC has drawn on extensively.

Schools

We are not entirely sure how school was handled. The children were taught in the schools at the villages and towns where they wrere evacuated. In many cases children from a school were evacuated to the same town and village where their teachers were added to the faculty of the local schools and helped look after the evaceuees. Some villages were so small so only a few evacuee children, not a large segment of a city school. Hopefully our British readers can provide us more information on this. Many private schools were boardinf schools located in the country and thus relatively safe. Some of these schools were also evacuated because facilities were needed for the war effort. Isolated country estates had a vriety of uses. This was especially true of schools located along the southern, Channel coast where schools were evauated nboth for the childrren's saftey and because the facilities wer needed..

Saftey

The fact that the children were evacuated to the country and small towns did not mean the children were entirely safe. There were many close calls and some children wereeven killed in their evacuation location. While the Luftwffe after the first weeks primarily targeted London and Britain's industrial cities, with so many planes in the sky and anti-aircraft batteries, there were bound to be incidents in small towns and subburbs. Planes were shot down, Luftwaffe bombers missing or driven off targets sometimes jettisoned their bombs. The British in the Battle of the Beams managed to divert Luftwaffe bombers from city targets which meant that the bombs were dropped elsehere--sometimes fields but in some cases towns and villages. Later in the War, the British tryed to fool the Germans about the targetting which meant again that some V-1 buzz bombs and V-2 missles hit small towns and suburbs.

Coming Home (1945)

Allied Armies by early 1945 had advanced into The Neherlands and Belgium to points where ecen he V-2s could not reach London. As a result, the children could now come home. Many had already come hime. Sadly some of the children were now orphanns because their parents had been killed in the fighting and or the German bombing of the cities.

Books

The World War II evacuations have been the subject of both scholarly study as well as a wide range of literary and theatrical treatment. A HBC reader writes, "I am reading a book at the moment which has an interesting chapter dealing with the evacuation. It is entitled A House Unlocked by Penelope Lively and is a memoir of sorts in which she delves into the history of her grandparents house by using the objects that were in it as a prompt--a system of reference, which help to conjure up the story of the house and the people that lived there. A sampler sewn by the authors grandmother in 1946 invokes the story of the six children that were billeted on the house in December 1940 and who appear in a corner of that sampler. Just one relevant paragraph, "For the adults involved, the single most significant effect of the evacuation experience was a sweeping revision of the way in which they saw their country. For city-dwellers it was an eye-opener about how the other half lived, in every sense. Of those in intimate contact with the evacuees--hosts, officials - many saw the experience as 'a dreadful lesson', recognizing that the blame for the conditions from which so many had come must be laid at the door of the nation as a whole for allowing such deprivation." [Lively]


Figure 2.--This image from "Goodnight Mr. Tom" shows the children on the train as they were being evacuated. Notice the tag on the boy.

Dramatizations

There have been several movies and television dramtizations made about the experiences of the children British evacuated. Curiously we have never seen a German film on this topic. Perhaps were made, but not distributed in America. One of the best TV productions is, Goodnight Mr. Tom (US, 2000?). The beautifully done British TV production, Goodnight Mr. Tom is about a boy evacuee at the beginning of World War II who was billeted on a elderly man. The British evacuated many children from London and the large cities during 1939-41 to move them into safer areas as the Germans in 1940 began bombing British cities in the Battle of Britain. They were taken in by private citizens in rural areas and villages. Most of the films addressing the evacuation deal wirh instances where the evacuee children were mistreated. In this production it was the boy's mother that was mistreating him. The costuming is very accurate. The boys in the village wear a variety of outfits, including both corduroy short trousers and matching lumber jackets.

Recreations

Britain's World War II evacucations are not only remembered in books, aricles, movies, plays, and television, but there are also reenactments of the event. History reenactments is a popular activity in Europe and America. World War II is a little too recent for many reenactors, but this is beginning to change as the War is now over a half century old. The British World War II evacuations is especially interesting to children as the children played a major in the actual event. Inerestingly, although the Germans had an evacuation program involving comparabl number of children, we have never heard of any comparable evacuation recrations in Germany.

Individual Accounts

The evacuees were not all sent to the countryside. Not all children were evacuated to the countryside. A HBC reader reports, "I understand from my great aunt that my grand parents looked after a Dutch boy who had been evacuated to Blackburn, England during the War. When the war ended he returned to live with his parents in Holland. My grand parents were invited to Holland to meet the parents of the boy There was a photograph of him. I do not know what happened to this picture but if I can find it i'll copy it." A German boy and his family managed to escape the NAZIs just before the War began. Steven Muller and his brother were evacuated along with the British children only days after reaching Britain.

1940s Accounts

HBC has collected some individual accounts of British boys during the 1940s. This includes both accounts from evacuees and children who were not evacuated. Otherw writes about their experiences after the War. The British continued to experience very difficult conditions even after the War.

German Evacuation Program

The Germans also had a major, but very different priogram to evacuate children. HBC readers may be interested in comparing the two. The German Kinderlandverschickung (KLV) also operated during World War II (1939-1945). The German KLV program has been much less discussed than the British program, probably because of the NAZI taint. It was less voluntary than the British program and the children were not placed in homes, but in facilities overseen by the Hitker Youth organization.

Sources

Baumel, Judith Tydor. Twice a Refugee: The Jewish Refugee Children in Great Britain during Evacuation, 1939-1943," Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Spring, 1983), pp. 175-184.

Gilbert, Martin. A History of the Twentieth Century Vol. 2 1933-54 (William Morrow and Company, Inc.: New York, 1998), 1050p.

Lively, Penelope. A House Unlocked.






CIH








Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main World War II Europran Air Campaign page]
[Return to Main World War II Air campaign page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[Return to CIH Home page]




Created: August 22, 2002
Last updated: 8:28 AM 10/8/2015