World War II Air Campaign: Overseas British Evacuation of Children (September 1939-February 1941)


Figure 1.--Britain with the outbreak of World wr II organized a massive evacuation program. This was primarily deigned to get the children out of the cities which the Germans were expected to bomb. No one expected France to be defeated. After the fall of France (June 1940), the chances of the NAZIs overunning Britain as well was very real. Suddenly parents wanted to evcuate children to America and Canada. Here are British overseas evacuee children waving from the port holes of a liner leaving Liverpool as part of CORB evacuation prgram. Pathe News

The 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. One of the most moving account of these evacuationscomes from Martin Gilbert, an historian that HBC has drawn on extensively.

European Refugees

Even before World war II broke out, there were large numbers of refugees in Europe. These included both Jews and anti-Fascists. Jews ansd anti-NAZIs began fleeing Germany after the NAZI take over (January 1933). The NAZI seizure of Austria (March 1938), the Sudentland (October 1938), anbd the rest of Czechoslovakia (March 1939). The rise of Fascism in central and southern Europe also created refugees. The Spanish Civil War added to the numbers seeking safty, especially after the collspse of the Republic (early 1939). Britain did not take in many of these refugees for both financial and security reasons. A rare exception was the Kindertransport (1938-39),

Planning the Evacuation (Summer 1938)

The British as it looked like war was coming over Czechoslovakia began developing a plan 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. 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 Committee for Imperiasl Defense presented an evacuation olasn 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 drewcup 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.

Outbreak of War (September 1, 1939)

The announcement of the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (August 1939) made it clear that war was eminent. This time the NAZI target was Poland. But this time the British and Fremch would not back down. The Germans invaded Poland (September 1), but the British and French made diplomatic approached to convinced the Germans to withdraw. The Germans ignored the British and French iniatives. With no resonse from the NAZIs , Prime Minister Chaperlain announced with great reluctance that Britain was at war with Germany (September 3).

Initial Domestic Evacuation (August 31- 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. Chaos 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.

Early Overseas Evacuations

We note overseas evacuations from the very beiining of the War. We are not sure who organized the first evacuations. They appear to have been private undertakings. Some families had means. Others had relatives or friends abroad. There were university contacts. [Wllce] Doctors hd assocuates abrad. Fratenal orders like the Rotarians and churches offered to help.

Battle of the Atlantic

World War II occurred before the avent of trans-Atlantic air travel. Liners were used to transport the children and this proved to be dangerous because of perhaps the key campaign of the War--the Battle of the Atlantic. If Britain's sea life lines coud be cut, the country could not continue the War. The Germans from the on-set of the War launched a commerce war against Britain. Both surface and ships and U-boats were involved, but it was the U-boats that quickly emerged as the greatest threat. And this put the evacuee childen trying to cross the Atlantic to saftey in danger. The evacuee children were among Britain's first civilian casualties of the War.

Athenia (September 3, 1939)

The first British civilian casualties of World War II occurred when a German U-boat sank the Cunard passenger liner Athenia chartered from the Anchor Donaldson Line (Srptember 3). It was sunk without warning west of Scotland by U-30 commanded by Oblt. Fritz-Julius Lemp. This was the day Britain entered the War. The U- Boat had been shadowing the liner and attacked when it recieved news that Britain and Germany were at war. Oblt. Lemp thought that the Athenia was an armed merchant cruiser. Athrenia was carrying evacuees from Liverpool to Canada. I do not know the number or the details concerning their evacuation. This was before CORB was set up. There were a total of 1,103 passengers in addition to the crew. Survivors were rescued by the British destroyers Electra, Escort and Fame as well as the merchantmen City of Flint and Southern Cross and the Norwegian tanker Knute Nelson. The survivors were brought to Galway in neutral Ireland. There were 118 passengers killed. There were 316 Americans onboard of which 28 were killed. With the outbreak of War, many Ameicans in Europe were trying to get home. Oblt. Lemp was not disiplined for the attack. Hitler immediately ordered that under no circumstances were further attacks to be made on passenger ships (September 4). Hitler's action was interesting. We know from German actins in Poland that he was not concerned with civilian casualties out of any moral scruples. His order here probably stemmed from two concerns. First, he was not particularly interested in a war with Britain. He hoped to evetually come to terms with Britain so he could persue the war he did want, a war in the East with the Soviet Union. Second, he knew that Germany's use of U-boats in World War I had brought America into the War. He did not want to make the same mistake as the Kaiser. There are accounts by children of their ordeal. These are oral recordings made at the time by the child survivers and later by adults who remember the attack.

Fall of France (June 1940)

The fall of France was a disaster of immense proportions. In World war it was France that carried the bulk of the fighting on the Western Front. The defeat of the French Army and the BEF was so total and the Luftwaffe so overwealming that many doubted that Britain could survive. An invasion was widely expected. The French surrendered to avoid damage to France. It meant, however, tht the Grmans had the simmer months to prepare a air assault and sea invasion befoe the British could prepare. The Dunkirk inevacuation had saved the BEF, but the Army wa virtually disarmed. For many, it no longer seem that evacuating the city to the countryside meant safty.

Operation Sea Lion (June-September 1940)

The German Plan to invade Britain after the fall of France was code named Opertation Sea Lion. The BEF had managed to escape capture at Dunkirk, but had to abandon their heavy equiment. This mean that while Britain still had its army, it was an unarmed army. The American Naval Attaché reported that the Britih were no more prepared to defend the coast than Long Island. The British asked for surplus World War I destroyers, but President Roosevelt was not yet ready to authorize this. He did ask General Marshall to find surplus arms, mostly small arms, that could be rushed to Britain. [Freidel, p. 336.] The Gernmans were also unprepared. The Wehrmacht had not anticipated the dimensions of their victory in France. There had been no planning for an invasion of Britain. Bliztkrieg was essentially modern warfare, rapid land movement supported by aircraft. There was, however, no naval component. The Panzers stopped at the Channel ports. The Kriegsmarine received less support than the other two services. It did not have the capability to tke on the Royal Navy for a Channel crossing. And Hitler was unsure of the operation from the beginning. He confided in Admiral Raeder, "On land I am a hero. At sea I am a coward." And with France defeated, he wanted to ebnd the war in the West and prepare for his ulimate objective, seizing Lenbenraum in the East. He was still unaware how the his bad faith over Czechoslovakia had changed Britain, even appeasers like Chamberlain. Hitler hoped that he could bring about a British Vichy without an invasion. And he was willing to guarantee the Empire if Britain would accept a German-dominated continent. His vision was in part racial, seeing in Briain Aryan stiock that would eventually come to terms with Aryan Germany. It is not clear to what extent Hitler ever seriously contemplated an invasion. Here historians disagree. Some believe he simply wanted to threaten the British, asuming that they would agree to seek terms. Hitler believed that at least threantening invasion would force the issue. With France defeted, Hitler ordered his generals to organize the invasion of Britain.Without the needed naval forces, the Luftwaffe would be used to prepare for the invasion. Air superority over the channel and southeaster England would have to be achieved. Hitler ordered the Lufwaffe to destroy the RAF. Göring assured him that this could be easily accomplished.

Evacuation Plans

The British Government developed plans for evacuating 1 million children to the United States and Canada and other overseas domminions. After 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 desperation of the situation after the fall of France is seen with this plan. Only the possibility of an eminent NAZI invasion could have convinced British parents to send their children overseas.

Childrens Overseas Reception Board (CORB) (May 1940)

The War news inspired private groups in America and the Dominions to offer a safe haven for British children. There were groups in Austrlia and New Zealand willing to take in chidren, but the distances involved meant that it the overseas evacuations would mostly be to America and Canada. The Government estblished the Childrens Overseas Reception Board (CORB) (May 1940). It ws assigned the responsibility of organise the overseas evacuation of children to the Dominions. [Wallace] It was at this time that the long anticipated Gernmen Western offensive was launched(May 10). Within weeks the BEF had to be evacuted from Dunkirk an France fell. It looked to mny as if Britain as next and the Panzers would be moving up Whitehall. Parents had submitted 210,000 applications by July when the scheme was closed.

Selection

I am not entirely sure how the children were selected for the CORB overseas evacuations. Many more applications were received then it was possible to move overseas. CORB had to close the applicatin process. Many people after the fall of France thought the war was lost. The CORB selections were not done on a first-come, first-served basis. CORB classified and priortized the children. [Wallace] It is not clear just how this was done. Charges soon appeared in the press that the well-to-do were being given priority. CORB arranged for the transportation. The Government paid the passages. Quite a number of children had already been evacuated. This tended to be children from affluent fmilies with money and overseas contacts.

Numbers

Overseas evacuations were more complicated than the domestic effort. The process was slow. And sending a chld oversas was a major decession. The number actually evacuated overseas was not large, but the precise numbers are not known. We have seen various estimates. One source suggests that 2,664 children were evcuted overseas by the CORB. Another source estimated that about 3,300 children were evacuated to the Dominions. Parents with means or overseas managed to evacuate about 13,000 children on their own. We believe that most of the Ameican evacuees were arranged privately. Many of these children were evacuated beforethe CORN scheme was launched.

Destinations

The destinsations varied. The major destinations were the United States and the Dominions (Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the Caribbean). At the time America was neutral, but the Dominios had joined Britain in the War. We believe that the largest numbers of chidren were sent to America and Canada, but do not yet have data on the various countris involved. The two most importabt were America and Canada, because of the relatively short distances of a trans-Atlantic pasage. America had strict immigration laws. I'm not sure how that was delt with. Canada as a Domminion which joined Britain in the War was more open.

Ships

We believe that the ships used for the overseas evacuations were passenger carying liners,but do not yet have details. Liners tended to be relatively fast ships and thus safer than the slower cargo vessels. As the convoy system had been adopted by the time the evacuations began, however, the liners could only go as fast as the convoy to which it was assighned. And tragically the hard-pressed Royal Navy in 1940 was woefully short of escort vessels and anti-sumarine warfare (ASW) tactics were still poorly developed. We do not have a complete list of ships used for the overseas evacuations, but they included: SS City of Benares, Duchess of Atholl, Samaria,, and Volendam. Some of these were Cunard liners. They seemed to havev carried groups of about 200-300 evacuee children. Most of the ships made for Montreal because that was where the convoys headed and U.S. ports were at first closed to the British convoys because of the American Neutrality Acts which President Roosevelt was attempting to have repealed. We note some ships docking at New York. We are not entirely sure yet just what the rules were.

Battle of Britain

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.

U-boat Attacks (August/September 1940)

Two ships carrying child evacuees were torpedoed. One was the Dutch liner Volendam. The Volendam was part of a 34-vessel convoy with only one destroyer as an escort. At this time in the War the Royal Navy was extremely short of escorts. Volendam carried 320 CORB children. The Rangitata had a smaller number. Volendam was torpeoped (August 30). Here the crew managed to get the life boats off and saved the children. They were returned to Glasgow. The other was the City of Benares. Here the children were not so lucky.

City of Benares (September 17, 1940)

The City of Benares was an ocean lineer which left Liverpool with 200 British and foreign civilian passangers and 93 CORB children escorted by nurses, teachers, and a clergyman (September 13). It was destined for Canada. Another ship Diomed with 18 CORB boys and plane wings accompanied Benares. They were part of convoy OB213. (OB meaning outward bound.) The convoy was 600 miles on the way to Canada in the mid-Atlantic when the Admiralty peeled off three escorts to protect an incoming convoy. The weather was rough and deteriorating forecing the convoy to slow. This left OB213 vulnerable to U-boat attack. Benares had the lead position in the convoy which was sailing straight, taking no evasive mesures. U-48 was persuing the convoy. Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt fired two ships into the lead ship--Benares. He scored direct hits. U-48 then attacked other ships in the convoy. The crew attempted to launch the life boats as Benares began to sink. The rough weather made this difficult. And many of the passarngers in the life boats that were launched perished in the extreme conditions. HMS Hurricane searched forsurvivors, but found only bodies. Miracuolosly two girls clung to each other on an overtuned life boat. They were found just in time--15 year old Beth Wilder, and 14 year old Beth Cummings. Other rescue vessls picked up two life boat with 13 other CORB children, including one of the girls' little brother. One had been at sea for 8 days.

Program Ended

The trhreat of an eminent German invasion had abated after the RAF began scoring victories in the Battle of Britain (September 1940). Once the Luftwaffe had to shift to nighttime ttacks, it meant tht they had faukled to gin air surperority oiver the planned lsning beaches. And if the invasion was go come in 1940, it had to come inn Seotember. The weather ruled out an invasion in October, November and the winter months. Churchill when he learned of the Benares disaster moved to end the overseas evaucation scheme. [Gilbert, 20th Century, pp. 321-342.] He had never liked the CORB project and there is some suggestion that he was not aware that it had been activated. The Benares disaster was a public relations disater for both the CORB program and the Admiralty. The British public seemed more enraged at the admiralty than at the Germans. The fact that the escorts were peeled off, Benares was at the head of the convoy, and the convoy was not taking evasive action all feaured prominanly in the subsequet inquiry. There were only two more CORB sailings. One ship departted before news of the sinking were reported. The last group of CORB children were 29 children sailing on the Nova Scoti (September 21). The convoy was attacked by U-boats, but Nova Scotia delivered the children safely to Canada. [Fently, p. 146.]

Royal Family

When the Blitz began, there was some discussion of evacuating the Royal family from London or even overseas. The Royal Family, however, became a symbol of resistance to the NAZIs as they toured bombed out areas of the East End. Queen Elizabeth put a quick end to the speculation when she explained, "The Princesses will never leave without me, I will not leave without the King, and the King will never leave." She kept a revolver Winston Churchill gave her and practiced with it. When Buckingham Palace was hit by the Luftwaffe, she remaked, "Now I can look the people of the East End in the face." The Royal Family did not forget about the evacuees. The princess's made an overseas broadcast to the evacuee children.

Personal Accounts

One of the most moving account of these evacuationscomes from Martin Gilbert, an historian that HBC has drawn on extensively. His family was Jewish and as it looked that the NAZI's next step was an invasion, they were even more terrified than other Brits. Martin was sent to Canada as a very young boy of about 3 years. He was taken in by a loving Toranto family. He is still close to their young daughter. [Gilbert, Prsonal Story] The writer, Anthony Bailey has written a couple of good books about his experiences as an evacuee in Dayton, Ohio A HBC reader has provided a wonderful account of the experience of his and his brother's experiences with they were evacuated to America--Alan and Graham.

Return Home

The British decided to begin bringing the chidren home in 1944 after the tide of the war had changed. The U-boat menace had been broken (mid-1943). There was room on some of the troopships because so many Americans and Canadian soldiers had been sent over in 1942 and 43. A now 7 year old Martin Gilbert remembers returing to what was for him a new country. He was sent by rall to New York and thn sailed aboard the Mauritania. He was horrified to see the bombed out buildings when the ship arrived in Liverpool. One of his mot vivid memories of war-time Britain was the excitement of an upcoming vist to the cinema to see Tom Sawyer. That night the theater was hit by a V-1 buzz bomb. When he arrived in a crocodile of other childre, the theater was in rumble and a sign advertising "Tom Sawyer" was flapping in the wind. [Gilbert, Personal Story] A British reader tells us, "A big problem for these children was returning home to the United Kingdom. The family sent out children and and some were teenagers when they returned home--and teenagers with non-British outlooks. Accounts from parents describe missing their children growing up. The children speak about the difficulty of forming good relationships with their parents. Of course some had no difficulty coming back home."

Revisionist History

Saving the world from a new dark age planned by totalitarian powers (Italian Fascists, German NAZIs, Japanese Militarists, and Soviet Communists) is one of the great achievements of the Anglo American peoples (America, Britain, and the Dominions). There are those, mostly with left-wing orientation, that do not like to allow the credit due to the Anglo-American people and who find ways of denigrating what was accomplished. A good example is an interesting website prepared by the British National Archives (NA), a prestigious institution where you would expect to find high scholarly standards. The web page is Evacuation to Canada. It was prepared for children and has some merits as it shows children how to use historical documents. The NA Education Web Manager, Clare Horrie, unfortunately has chosen to use the NA and tax payer funds as a platform for her revisionist views, perhaps without even knowing it as such attitudes are so prevalent in American and British universities. She has loaded the site with a healthy does of doctrinaire social class material, stressing how well to do people were involved in the program. That is a fair subject, but it should not be the focus of the page. The focus should be on how Britain was standing up to the NAZIs and why British parents were rightly terrified as to what might happen to their children. Ms. Horrie, however, excludes this very important topic and others so she she can insert her left wing ideology. She tells us, "I would like to make clear that the word count for the introduction to the lessons is small and we do not have the scope to provide the detail you suggest. We have chosen to focus on Canada alone as these are the records we have and in the scope of the lesson format we cannot use an infinite number of sources. In the lesson we outline our purpose in order to manage pupil expectation." [Horrie] While space is limited, she had no trouble finding plenty of room for left-wing class warfare. And there are blatant inaccuracies in the piece. She excludes the United States in your her list of destinations. Many of the evacuees arriving in Montreal and got on trains taking them to families in America. Just because a ship docked in Montreal does not mean that Canadians cared for them. She explains this by telling us, "Often when we think of evacuation we think of people evacuated from London to the countryside. However, this doesn't tell the whole story. Some children were evacuated to other British Dominions (countries that were part of the British Empire) such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. In this exercise you will find out what happened to a number of children who were evacuated to Canada. The USA is excluded from the text as only British Dominions are listed." [Horrie] This is simple falsehood and excusable for a reputable historian. The United States took in far more refugees (often routed through Canada) during the 1940-41 period she is discussing than the distant Dominions (Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa). Excluding the United States is simple historical falsehood, trying to cover up the huge effort by President Roosevelt and the American people to save Britain in its time of maximum peril. Ms. Horrie should be ashamed of herself. A good example can be found here: London family: Alan and Grahm.

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.

Fethney, Michael. The Absurd and the Brave: CORB--The True Account of the British Government's World War II Evacuation of Children Overseas (Lewes: The Book Guild, 2000).

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

Gilbert, Martin. In Search of Churchill: My Personal Story.

Horne, Alistair. Bundles from Britain (Macmillan, 1993).

Horrie, Clare. Education Web Manager. British National Archive. E-mail message (Ocober 1, 2013).

Lively

Mann, Jessica. Out of Harm's Way. The Wartime Evacuation of Children from Britain (Headline Book Publishing, 2005).

Parker, Keith A. "British Evacuees in America During World War II," The Journal of American Culture (1994) Vol. 17 (4), pp. 33–40.

Wallace, Dr. R.C. Chairman of the National Committee for Children from Overseas, radio address, November 3, 1940.






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Created: August 22, 2002
Last updated: 8:11 PM 12/13/2015