World War II: First British Evacuation (September 1939)

Figure 1.--The British evacuation of city children was voluntry and up to the parents. Such was the fear of German bombardment and poison gas, that very large numbers of parents signed up. City children were primarily evacuated by train, but busses were also important for short trips. Here children were left off at school by their parents and than the children with their teachers are getting on to the busses taking them to either their their rellocation billets if cloe by or train stations if further north.

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 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 Londin and other cities with the Battkle of Britain begabn in preparation for an invasion.

Dress Rehersal (August 28, 1939)

The Goverment staged a dress rehersal for the evacuation after the children were ordered to return to school early.

Evacuation Order (August 31, 1939)

As a result of the Munich crisis,an evacuation order was almpst given in 1938. Thus when Britain went to war with Germany, the British Government had a plan to safeguard the civilain population, especially children, from aerial bombardment. The order was given even before Britain formally declared war. The Government ordered the evacuations to begin (August 31). British parents and teachers heard the alert on radio--"Pied Piper Tomorrow". This set in motion the evacuation nearly 1.5 million children teachers, pregnant mothers, and handicapped adults. Much of it was coordinated through the schools. Within a few days, massess of Britains, mostly children had been evacuated from the cities. Eventually 3 million British children would be evolved in the evacuation. It was the most extensive movement of people in British history.

German Invasion of Poland (September 1, 1939)

Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The invasion was made possible by a Non-Agression Pact that Stalin had approved with Hitler. The Luftwaffe largely destroyed the obsolete Polish Air Force on the first day. And Luftwaffe bombers hammered Warsaw and other undefended Polish cities. Wehrmacht armored units using a new tactic called Blitzkrieg or lighting war breached the Polish frontier from all sides. The Germand struck from the north (East Prussia), the west (Germany proper), and the south (occupied Czechoslovakia). The Poles attempted to defend all of Poland and their dispersed forces were unable to stop the German thrusts. They soon sliced deep into Poland defeating major Polish formations. The fighting continued for more than 2 weeks, but after the Soviets struck from the east, any hope of effective resistance was broken. The Allies in the WEst made no real attempt to launch an offensive against the weekly defended West Wall. the country.

Evacuation (September 1-3, 1939)

England was not prepared for war, but the idea of aerial bombardment had so terrorized the public, that plans were ready to protect children. The Government planned to evaccuate 3 million. It was up to the parents and parents decided to keep about half of the children. In the end about 1.5 million were evacuated. Up until the last minute, the children were not sure this was the real thing when they reported to school with their book satchels and gas masks. Manyb thought it was another drill. The children living in London and other major cities were immediately tagged liked parcels and shipped out by special evacuation trains. The evacuations were mostly conducted through the schools. Despite the imense number of children involved, the actual evacuation went fairly smoothly despite the caos in the stations as tearful mums waived good-bye to their nippers. The children sang songs like "The Lambert Walk" and "Wish Me Luck as You Wave Goodbye". There was also a song about the "Bogy Man" that the children liked. Other children said good-bye to their mums at their schools. Often schools marched en masse to the stations with their teachers. Caos ensued as train loads of children began arriving in the country side. Host families had signed up to care for the children, but there was enough. The Government had organized the evacuation, but it was left up to each local community to process the children. At many locations trains arrived with new loads of children even before the first group had been processed.


Clothing was a factor complicating the evacuations and care of the children once billited. The problem was not so much for the evacuation itself, but rather living an extended time away from home. Civil servants as it became increasingly clear that Hitler maeant war and could not be apeased began finalising plans for the evacuations of London and other major cities. They soon realised that clothing, especially warm clothing would be a problem (May 1939). They concluded that while the situation in London or towns in Kent and Hampshire would be OK, there would probably be problems in the Midlands and the North. Authorities issued a circular in 1939 informing parents about the amount and type of luggage to be taken by the children to be evacuated. They advised parents to provide each child in addition to a gas mask, a change of underclothing, night clothes, slippers or plimsolls, spare socks or stockings, toothbrush, comb, towel and handkerchief, warm coat or mackintosh, rucksack, and food for the trip. Parents were instructed to have the children wear their heaviest clothing and warmest footwear to make best use of the luggage. Evacuation practices confirmed that warm clothing and sturdy footwear would be a problem. Thus the children often look like it was a frigid day even though the weather wa not that cold. Middleclass children had the needed items, but many working-class children did not. Many children had neither warm clothing nor strong footwear (summer 1939). Some children only had worn plimsols. Liverpool became known as Plimsol City. As the evacuation unfolded, the greatest problem proved to be sturdy footwear. [Welshman] There were, however, many other problems. All to many inner-city children did not even have underwear, let alone a change to pack in their luggage. That was not a problem if their hist families, but there were many host families with strained circumstnaces themselves. One author writes, "There were all sorts of social issues that the evacuation brought up. On the whole, children tended to go from inner cities and a lot of those children of course were poor. There were very high levels of poverty, unemployment and underemployment in the Thirties and a lot of people were living on very low wages, what we now say is below the poverty line. A number of the children were suffering from malnutrition, and a lot were living in extremely poor housing conditions, and it was a revelation to a lot of those people in the countryside who hadn’t realised quite how poor and how badly looked after some of the children were." [Gardiner]

War Declared (September 3, 1939)

As Britian and France had treaty agreements with Poland, they were obliged to declare war. Prime Minister Chamberlin a year earlier had returned from Munich with an agreement signed by Hitler which he waved to the press claiming that it guaranteed "Peace in our times". It was not a surprise. Hitler had violated his pledge only 6 moths after Munich by invading what was left of Czechoslovakia (March 1939). He knew at that time that his efforts at appeasement had failed. Now deeply dismayed he had to address the British people by radio. It was the most monentous announcement up to that time that had ever been made on radio. A deeply shaken Chamberlin told the British, "... the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the ... No such undertaking have been received and consequently this country is at war with Germany. ... it is evil things we shall be fighting against." Later in the day King George addressed his people, "For the second time in the lives of most of us--we are at war. ...." The British and French declared war, but made no real effort to wage war beyond instituting another North Sea blockade. The Poles would be on their own. Chamberlain did turn to his long-time critic, Winston Churchill, who he recalled to the Admiralty. While Chamberlain was not surprised, Hitler was. He had not expected the Allies to go to war over Poland. Hevhad assured his intimates that neither Britain ir France would dare oppose his invasion of Poland. He was, however, correct that they would not strike in the West while he devouered Poland. So there was no immediate adverse consequences to his miscalculation.

Non-official Evacuees

The official evacuations were voluntary and all done by the Government with no cost to the parents. The parents, however, had no control about where the children were sent. They did not learn where the children were until letters began arriving from the relocation areas. In addition to the official evacuations, there were thousands of private evacuations. Here the parents had control over the evacuation and the mothers stayed wityh the children. It was a much less traumatic experience for the children. These were families that had the means to relocate all or part of the family. It also involved families with relatives living in small towns and villages or even farms. These were areas that the Germans would not target because of the lack of meaningful targets or low population density. Children were not the only evacuees. City hospitals throughout Britain were also evacuated. Evacuees also included expectant mothers, the blind, and crippled. There were 31,000 Edinburgh mothers evacuated with their children. At the time, the men were the principal bread winners. They were expected to stay at their jobs which at the time meant mostly the cities. Wives and depedents were free to locate as the parents decided and many with means or relatives outside the cities did so. Others decided to remain in their homes. There are no detailed statistics on the number of these evacuees.

Reception: Host Families and Communitites (September 1939)

Communities all over Britain prepared reception areas for the evacuess. These were usually church halls, schools, and various public buildings. The children who arrived mostly by train were gathered together at the reception areas. Here there billeting assignments were made with local families. Post cards were sent home informing each family where the children were staying. 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. Accompanying the children to supervise their care went about 100,000 school teachers. A family had to be found to take in each of the evacuee children. Some of the matches are a matter of legend. In some cases some of the poorest children in Britain from the inner city slums of London, Liverpool, and Glasgow found themselves living with aristocratic families in oppulent mannor homes. They then attended the local schools. An example of the schools that took in evacuee children was the Kirkmichael School in Ayrshire which hosted children evacuated from Glasgow.


The British evacuation of children from the cities was massive. There was no way that camps could be built for the 3 million children that the Government estimated could be evacuated. Nor was it delt that that caring for the children in a massive camp sysyem was best for the children. Thus the approach was for families outside of the cities to care for the children. And as part of the program, teachers and support staff were sent along with the children to make sure they were being properly cared for by the families and single individuals that took them in to their homes. Some of the children were billited in schools. And there were camps built, but not very many. The vast majority of the evacuees were cared for in homes. Most volunteered. In some cases pressure had to be applied, but most Brits saw it as their patriotic duty and humane Chtisian responsibility. We do not know how many camps were actually built, but as far as we can tell not very many. We are not sure how the camps compared to home plcement. We suspect that the younger children may have been happier in homes. But the decesion to coninue home placement was orobably the lack of resources to nuild a huge camp system and the staff needed to run it.

Traumatic Experience

The abrupt separtaion of many very young children from their parents was a traumatic experience. The younger children were not really sure what was happening, except that they soon realized that they missed their mums. Many of the boys considered it a great adventure, especially the poorer children from the inner cities who often had not even seen the country before--let alone lived there. Some of the girls seemed less adventuresome than the boys. After the initial separation other traumatic expeiences occurred. In some paces the chilften were lined up and prospective hosts allowed to pick who they wanted. Living with strangers was also traumatic. The children involved had widely varying expeiences with their host families. Many children were treated like one of the family and have wounderful new experiences un the country. Some children were treated better by their host families than their own parents. A small number, however, were badly abused.

Letters Home

The best insights as to the childrens' experiences can be found in their letters home. Mny made out beautifully, but were terribly homeick for their mums. The worst time was Christmas. Others wrote her rending appeals to be allowed to come home. We hope to evntually add some of these letters here. Hopefully our Britih readers will provide us some of these letters.

German Terror Bombings (September 1939- June 1940)

The British concern was especially deep because of the Luftwaffe attacks on civilian populations. The Germans had bombed London during World War I and it was widely believed, for good reason, that under the NAZIs would occur again if another war broke out. German air attacks on undefended Spanish cities confirmed what many ferared (1936-39). Thus the evacuations were ordered. And even before the Blitz on London, the British watched in horror as the Luftwaffe was used for terror attacks on defensless Warsaw and other Polish cities (September 1939). One historian writes, "The bombing of Warsaw early in the war made it clear to the Allies how Hitler intended to fight his war. It was to be Schrecklichkeit ('frightfulness') with no regard for the civilian population." [Snyder] Actually the avowed purpose was to cause civilian casualties. This was followed in 1940 by a similar attack on Rotterdam as part of the German western offensive (May 1940). Next it was Britain's turn.

Many Children Return Home (Winter 1939)

Following the declaration of war, the Germans did not launch Luftwaffe rads on British cities. In fact, the Luftwaffe was a tactical force and did not have the capability for any extesive air campaign against Britain from German bases. The fighting was largely restricted to Poland. The Allies made no rel effort to suppot Poland besides declaring war and institutingf a naval blockade of Germany. The fighting in Poland was over by early October. There was little fighting on the Western front. The press took to calling the war "The Phony War". There were no important German bombing raids on Britain. The children for the most part were understandably unhappy and wanted to come home. As a result, many parents began bringing their children home. There was of course a great desire on the part of the children by Christmas 1939 to come home. Some children stayed put, but parents brought most of them home. Many children, about 75 percent, had returned home by May 1940 when the Germans finally launched their long anticipaed Western offensive was launched.

Some Children Remain (January-May 1940)

Not all the September 1939 evacuees returned home from the reception areas when German bombings did not occurr. Many did, but quite a number did not. About 25 percent of the children still remained in their evacuation billets after Christmas. Most of these childen wanted to come home as well, but their parents resisted tearful letters and insisted they stay put. There were various reasons, mostly continued fear of German bombing. Authorities in many evacuatins towns a villages tried to look after them in various ways. And as part of this effort, over 0.1 million teachers and other helpers were sent along with the children and had to locate. The teachers and helpers sent letters home helping to put the parents at ease and telling them what the children needed such as washing things, clean clothes, sturdy shoes , and a favourite toy or book. Host families might help with this as well. Unlike the children who returned home, most of the teachers and helpers remained in place. The care and supervision of the children in their billets varied quite a bit, depending on the individuals. Evacuees could go to the movies. They also received sweets and parties were organized. Many city children were fascinated by the countryside. There were all kinds of surprises such as cows and pigs. Most younger city children had no idea where milk came from. And they say vegetables growing in gardens. One boy famously complained about all the dirt, 'ours come in tins'. The evacuee children also benefitted from activities organized by host families, this again varied from family to family. Some of the host families were not caring, but most were to various degrees.


Gardiner, Juliet. "British evacuation,"

Welshman, John. Churchill’s Children: The Evacuee Experience in Wartime Britain.


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Created: 4:19 AM 6/11/2013
Last updated: 8:27 PM 12/15/2017