World War II: British Evacuations

Figure 1.--London got all the headlines, but the first evacuationn was an enormous undertaking involving cities and towns all over Britain. Here evacuees from Birkenhead arrive at Oswestry durung Septembr 1939. Birkenhead is a town across the Mersey fom Liverpool, Britain's major Atlantic port and obvious Luftwaffe target. Oswestry is a market town in Shropshire and relatively safe from German bombardment. Notice the boxes with gas marks, all the children had them in the first evacuation.

There were three main waves of World War II evacuations in Britain. 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 intensified (August) and the Germans shifted the attacks to London, the beginning of the Blitz (September). The third evacuation occurred when the Germans began launching 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."

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 from the very beginning of the War launched terror attacks on Warsaw and other Polish cities. 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 London and other cities with the Battle of Britain began in preparation for an invasion.

Figure 2.--We have no information about this photograph, but believe it was taken during the sevond evacuation (1940-41). This evacuation was more difficult. Many of the children had come home from the first evacuatiin and werebnow aware of what evacuation meant, but the Blitz was now underwear and they were really in danger. Notice the way the chikdren are dressed. They are not just wearing their heavy clothing because they do not have to pack them, it clearly is cold. And we do not see gas masks, although some may have them. One little girlm has the tell-tale string. We would guess it might be November or December 1940, perhaps even January 1941. A British reader tells us, "They seem to be in London, notice the Tube poster at left. the police woman with a helmet also suggests London. They have passed the ticket collecter. The railway official on the left of the picture is one who collects the tickets. If they were leaving this person would be on their right. I would guess that the children are travelling to a embarcation point somewhere in London."

Second Evacuation (June 1940-May 1941)

When London had not been targeted, many Londoners responding to appeals from their children brought them home. There was, as a result, large numbers of children in London and the other big cities. With the German Western Offensive (May 10), it soon became clear that London and other British cities would soon be within range of Luftwaffe bombers. As a result, plans were made for another major evacuation effort. Unlike the first one, it was not done all at one time, but more spread out as conditions unfolded in France. Again it was voluntary based on parental judgement. This time, however, there was an added complication. The children in 1939 had dutifully marched off as told not really knowing whst was in store. For many it was a lark, a great adventure. They had no idea they would be separated from their parents for an extended period. Now they were really in danger, but most of them knew just what to expect and many did not want to go through that again. Many children put up quite a howl and convinced their prents to let them stay. Any parents know just how difficult is is to deal with a teary child. The Goverrment organized evacuations after Dunkirk (June 13-18). This was well before the Blitz, the bombing of London. About 0.1 million children were evacuated. Others followed. And parents could seek to evacuate their children even after the major evacuations. In most cases they were revacuated. The number was smaller than in 1939 because many children had not returned from the first evscuation and other children had convinced their parents to let them stay. Other vulnerable people were evacuated like the elderly. There were also efforts to remove people from ther coastal Channel ports that fronted Germzn occupied France. Another 0.1 million children were evacuated later in June. Most of the adults had little choice but to stick it out unless they had relatives willing to take them in for a time. Further evacuations occurred when the Germans actually launched the air assault on Britain. (July). Many worked for the Government or were involved in war industries and expected to stay. This time it was not just air attack, but the Germans were preparing an actual invasion. Some coastal towns in Kent and East Anglia deemed to be particularly vulnerable evacuated over 40 percent of the population. The British military assumed the expected invasion would come in Kent as it was the country closest to the German controlled Channel ports. The number of official evacues peaked at 1.4 million (February 1941). The Blitz ended as the Luftwaffe shifted east to prepare for Barbarossa (May 1941). Even before this, children had begun to trickle back to their parents.

Third Evacuation (June 1944)

Most of the evacuees by late-1943 had returned home. There were only 350,000 people still officially billeted outside London and the big cities. The German V-1 campaign came as a shock to the British people. They had gone through the Blitz and thought that the Germans no longer had the capability to bomb Britain. Actually the Germans had planned a much more massive assault, but was substantially undercut by Allied bombing operations. All of this was done in secret, both the German plans and the Allied disruption efforts. There was no effort made to prepare the British people. The V-1 campaign It occurred amidst the euphoria of the successful D-Day landings. The Germans began launching the V-1 flying buzz bombs aeek after D-Day (June 13). They had no choice because they could only reach Britain if fired from the French Channel coast and now the Allies were in the process of liberating France. The effort had been delayed and reduced by the Allied counter measures, but finally began. London was the main, but not the only target. Hitler had a fixation on the British capital. Not only had the stubbon resistance of Londoners derailed his war plans, but the British RF was now helping the British to smash German cities to rubble. He hd tried to destroy it once and now hd another opportunity. The result was the third and final British World war II evacuations. The V-1 attacks resulted in a third and final exodus from London. Some 1.5 million people had left (by September). Only 20 percent were were 'official' evacuees. Most sought to klive with family and friends in the country sde and small towns. Tthe evacuation process was officially halted (September) and reversed for almost all areas except for London and the East coast. This was just when the V-2 attacks began. The V-2s had much greater range thn the V-1s. They could devestate an ebtire city block, but were much more complicated to produce and this were not available in the numbers that had been planned for the V-1s. Unlike the V-1s tghey could not be shot down. The British Governmnt did not officially approve people returnong to London until a month after the German surrender (June 1945). The billeting progrm was finally ended (March 1946). There were still some 38,000 people without homes, mny from London. 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."

Alien Internments/Evacuations

The British Government interned enemy alienes (citizes of countries at war with Britain) during both World War II. Most during World War II were German citizen which ironically included Jewish and political refugees from the NAZIS. Smaller numbers of people were interned during World War II even though this time Italians were involved. And the inviduals involved if not a threat were held for generally shorter periods. The Isle of Man was selected by the Government for this purpose. The Isle of Man is safeky nestelled away in the Irish Sea and thus was a secure location for this purpose. They were out if England proper abd thus could not do any damage and the islabd location made especpe very diffucult. The facilities included both requisitioned holiday camos and purpose-built camps. The World War II camps were located near Douglas and included the Peel, Port Erin/Port St Mary, and Ramsey camps. Often individuals were held only a few months until their background could be checked. In addition to tge enemy aliens there were also a few British subjects--political detainees including those held under section 18B of the Defence (General) Regulations. This law authorized the Government to arrest indivuuals seen as a threat to national security without charge, trial or set term. Most were members of the British Union of Fascists like Oswald Mosley and members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Returning Home

Returning home did not come all at one time. Many children came home for Christmas after the first evacuation (Septenber 1939). When the Luftwaffe dod not mterialize, many parents wanted the kids home for Christmas and wre moved by teary letters. This of course meant that many of the evacuated kids were home when the Luftwaffe did come (July 1940). The number of official evacuees reached a peak of 1.4 million individuals during the Blitz (February 1941). But then as the Luftwaffe bombing tailed off, the children began returning. There were 1.0 million (September 1941) Then many kids again returned home after Hitler shifted the Luftwaffe East and the Americans entered the War. The Allies and the Allies not only gained control of the air not only over Britain, but France as well (1943-44). The numbr of officil evacuees plummeted, just 0.4 million (December 1943). And this meant that many of the kids were home when the V-1 and V-2 raids began (June 1944). So off they went to the couhtryside again. Not all children went back and forth. some stayed away from home for 4 years or other long periods. The V-1s and especially the V-2 were so scarry that there was a substantial exodus from London--the main target. Hitler had a fixation on London which had defied him during the Blitz. Some 1.5 million people left June-September 1944). Only about 20 percent, however, were 'official' evacuees. The Government halted the official evacuation process (September 1944). They began reversing the process for most big cities--except London and the East coast. Many children were kept in the countryside until V-E Day. And even then they could not come home right away. Many people had lost their homes, thus there was no home for the children to return to even when their parents wanted them home. Transport had to be arranged and in war time or right afrer the War, this was no small matter. Returning to London was not officially approved until after VE-Day (June 1945). The Government finally ended the billeting scheme March 1946). Nearly 38,000 people still did not have homes.


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Created: 10:55 PM 8/6/2011
Last updated: 8:05 AM 2/18/2016