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 antiipated German 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. The disastrous news from France changed attitudes about overseas evacuations. Parents had submitted 210,000 applications by July when the scheme was closed.
With the outbreal of War, the Government launched its domestc evacuation proram. Parliament discussed the possibility of overseas evacuations. The discussion focused on evacuating children to the Dominions.
Various arguments were used against it. The Government got bogged dow in a variety of olitical and technical questions. The impracticality of moving large numbers of children overseas was brought up. Some MPs thouht it was a defeatist measure and to even suggest the possibility would cause panic. The MPs and government officials thought the ongoing evacuation to rural ares was proceeeding successfully and more than adequate. While the government dithered, a variety of private schemes went forward. [Fethney, pp. 27-28.]
Primeminister Chamberliain resigned and the King asled Winston Churchill to form a government (May 10). This was the same day that the Germans struck in the West. Geoffrey Shakespear was a Norfolk MP in Churchill 's cabinent who became responsible for the evacuatins. Neither Shakespear or Churchill were initially in favor of overseas evacuations. Shakespear began, however, to have second thoughts because of the need ti find additonl billets. He moved to create the the Children's Overseas Reception Board. Others continued to resist the idea, including Chuchill. The Primeminister was especially cocerned that at a criical point in the wr it would be seen as defeatist. Churchill also believed that the evacuees would be vulnerable to U-boat attacks and that ecorts were not available to protect the liners.
The Germans did not attack France's vaunted Maginot Line, they went around it ny attacking neutral Netherlands and Belgium. The Panzers leading the German Western Offence had broke through to the Channel, forcing the BEF to evacuate at Dunkirk. The Panzers then moved south toward Paris. The French were unable to stop the Germans. They pleaded for more British assistance, especially aircraft. The RAF informed Churchill that they would be unable to defend Britain if more RAF units were committed to France. The French decided to sue for peace which essentially meant surrendering to the NAZIs (June 17). The French signed the Armistice put before them. They were not allowed to make suggestions or even discuss the German terms (June 22). Britain ws now alone.
The Cabinent was agin discussing overseas evacuations with Chirchill opposing the idea. It was at this point that the Primeminister received a note from the French Government gthat they were going to seek terms from the Germans (June 17). This was a terrible shock. Although it was clear that the French were losing the battle, a French surrender was still a shocking development. Even Churchill at this time was unsure if Britain would be next. The BEF hd been saved at Dunkirk, but had been stripped of its equipment. The Canadi an Frst Division was the only fully equipped division in Britain. Suddenly the idea of saving some British children did not look so unrealistic. The War Cabinent decided to present the CORB proposl to Parliament.
As soon as CORB was announced, applications began to arrive in large numbers. Within in just a few days over 0.2 million applications flooded in to the beleagered CORB office. The small CORB staff could not hanfle the applications and had to lose further applications. I'm not sure just how the children were selected from the applications received. One source indicates a "stringent" selection process was eastablished, but we have not yet been able to determine much about the prcess.
The Battle of the Atlantic was in full swing at the time. The Germans were not only attacking Britain from the air, but U-boats were sining the merchant vessels upon which the British war effort depended.
It is clear that the British merchant marine was in 1940 under a lot of pressure. The Admiralty had undersestimated the capabilities of the German U-boats and over estimate the Royal Navy's anti-submarine warfare capabilities. The U-boats were sinking merchant men at an alarmin rate. The prospects of moving hundreds of thousads of children was a daunting undertaking. Although it seems to us that space on the ships would be much more onstrained in the incoming than the outgoing vessels.
Son parents began to receive official confirmatin that their children had been chosen. They were advised not to discuss the selection and what to provide the child to take with them. They were also informed of the place and time of departure.
Actual evacuations began in July. The children boarded liners in Liverpool, Britain's principal port for the North Atlantic routes to Canad ans America. There were tearful goodbyes there as the children prepared to leave. A total of about 3,100 children were evacuated under the CORB scheme in the 3 months that CORB conducted the evacuations. They left in small groups aboard various liners. The numbers varied depending on the various groups available. The largest numbers were sent off to Canada. Smaller numbers were sent to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. There were also children sent to America, but I don't think they were sent as part of the CORB sheme.
The CORB evacuation children were sent mainly to the four Dominion countries: Canada 1,532 (nine parties), Australia 577 (three parties), New Zealand 202 (two parties), and South Africa 353 (two parties). Some also some to the United States (through Canasa). One o the American evacuees has provied us details about his and his beother's experiences: Alan and Graham.
German U-boatssank two liners carrying CORB evacuee children. The first was the Dutch Liner Volendam which carried 320 children destine for Canada. It was part of convoy OB205 composed of 32 other ships. U-boats attacked the convoy (August 30). U-60 sank the Volendam but it was able to deploy its life boats and the children were saved. The liner City of Benares was not so lucky. It left Liverpool carrying 90 children also bound for Canada,
Fethney, Michael. The Absurd and the Brave: CORB--The True Account of the British Government's World War II Evacuatin of Children Overseas (Lewes: The Book Guild, 2000).
Wallace, Dr. R.C. Chairman of the National Committee for Children from Overseas, radio address, November 3, 1940.
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