World War II: Civilian Evacuations

Figure 1.--The British air raid evacutions are the best kniwn of the workd war II civilian evacuations, but tgere were several others. These London children at Paddington station have already been separated from their parents which you can tell by their expressions. A helper at Paddington Station in London fixing an evacuation label onto one of the children. The photograph is undated, but it may have been one of the later evacuations because we don't see any gasmask boxes.

Refugees connitates indivuduals fleeing invading armies. Sometimes they suceded in reacjing safety. Often they did not. There were also the more controlled movenent of civilians, commonly called evcuations. Here the civilians were moved by the Governments involved or received support and assistance from their governments. The best known evacuation wa the British evacuation of children and other endangered peoples from the cities to protect them from aerial bombing (1939-44). The French (1939), Germans (1942-44), and Japanese (1945) also evacuated children. A smaller evacuation, but very substantial in terms of a percentage of the popultion, was conducted by the Finns because of the Soviet invasion. The With the German Barbarossa invasion, the Soviets began transporting war industrues east. With them vame the workers abd technivuns. Soviets eventually evacuated children from Lenningrad. The Germans evacuated the ethnic Germans from the Baltics and nothwestern Romania (1939-40). The operation was known as 'Home to the Reich'. The Germans did not conduc organized evacuations in the areas as the Red Army approached later in the War because Hitler wanted a fight to the death and local NAZIs were afraid as being seen as defeatists.

Belgian Evacuations

NAZI oppression drove Jews and other targets into neighboring states. Thus Belgium had a refugee problem before the War. Belgians when the Germans struck (May 10, 1940) began fleeing the Germans by heading south by rail, car, and on foot toward France as they did in World War I. Most assumed that as in World War I that the French Army would hold. Within days, the German Panzers slashed through the Ardennes and across northern France and reached the Channel. That made the further movement of Belgian refugees to France impossible. There were, however, large numbers of Belgians on the road fleeing west. They were soon overun by the Germans who allowed them to return home. As a result, there were far fewer Belgian refugees in World War II than in World War I. And this gime the French Army did not hold. Within weeks France itself was defeated by the Germans and the country surrendered. Most of the Belgians who had made it to France, retuned to their occupied country. Thus except for a handfull of Belgians who made it to Britain, almost the entire Belgian population was trapped in the country during the German occupation. The one exceotion was the small Belgian population in the country's African colonies, the largest being the mineral rich Congo. Belgian was liberated by the Allies (September 1944). There was relatively limited fighting. The German garrisin surprised by the speed of the Allied advance in France, quickly evacuated most of the country without any serious fighting. More refugees were, however, created when Hitler launched another Ardennes campaign in the closing months of the War leading to the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944). Again civilians fled the Germans, creating a refugee problem. The Ardennes was, however, thinly populated. The cold winter weather and speed of the initial German advance prevented any large scale movenmnt. Rail movement was not possible and few civilians had cars or fuel. Thus time the Germans led by Waffen-SS units and angered by Belgian support for the Allies and the Resistance committed terrible attrocities aganst both Belgian civilans and Allied POWs.

British Channel Island Evacuation (1940)

The French government was forced to relocate to Bordeaux and declared Paris to be an open city (June 10). The Channel Islands after the fall of France were indefensable for the hard-pressed British and of very limited strategic importance. The British having rescued the BEF were bracing for a German invasion of England with an atmy that had been forced to abandon its heavy weapons at Dunkirk. Most believed that the Germans were preparing to invade. With this background, the fate of the Channel Islands semed of little importance. And defending the Channel Islands was out of the question even if they had been of some impotance. The British Government announced that Jersey, the largest island, was to be demilitarised and declared an undefended zone (June 19), days before the French surrender. They did not inform the Germans. There were two factors affecting the evacuation. One was the decesion of the island governments. The other was the availability of shipping. The British Government consulted the elected representatives on each island (there was no central government) to develop an evacuation program. This proved difficult in the time available because the different islands had varying opinions. The British Government tried to send enough ships to allow islanders who desired to do so to leave, but this proved imposible both bcause of shipping shortages and the reluctance of many islanders to leave. On Alderney authorities recommended evacuation and almost all complied. About 1500 islanders were evacuated. Most departed on the British evacuation boats. Some decided to make their own way, but most found themselves trappd on Guernsey when the Germans arrived. On Sark the Dame of Sark encouraged islanders to stay. On Guernsey the school-age children were evacuated, although parents could keep their children with them if they desired to do so. The adults were to follow, but the GErmans bombed the port before that was possible. On Jersey most of the islanders remained. Available shipping proved limited. The British were not able to evacuate the entire civilian population that wanted to leave. They evacuted all military personnel along with women and children desiring to be evacuated. Only men choosing to join the military were evacuated. The remaining population would have to endure German occupation which many decided to do so willingly. We do not yet have much detiled information on the experience of the islandrs after reaching safety. MIlitary age men went into the services. The Guernsey children reached Weymouth abd were sent north like the children evacuated fron British cities. We do not yet have information on the Alderney evacuees,

British Air Raid Evacutions (1939-45)

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. 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. After the German victory in France (June 1940) and the Blitz on Britain 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 thought 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.

British Evacuation of Singapore (1942)

For 2 years the British in Singapore watched the War unfolding in far away Europe. The Japanese threat escalated as they moved into French Indo-China, especially after the fall of France. The Britisjh in Singapore with the Blitz rahing hardly saw safty in Britain. And the authorities in Singapore did not plan an evacuation to Australia. Rather they went out of their way to assure the population by issuing optimistic pronouncements about Singapore as a bastion of the British Empire--the Gibraltar of the East. Singapore newspapers were heavily censored for any expression of the dnger faced from Japan. Journalists' reports abrpad were also censored. Singapore officials even sent optimistic reports to the British War Cabinet (late-1941). Some individual families evacuated/ Some fathers sent their wices and children hime, but because of the censored press, not very many. Incredibly, official evacuations did not beginuntil well after Pearl Harbor (late-January). Theu continued almost until the Japanese entered the city. Some of the evacuation boats were torpepded by the Japanese. RAAF squadrons had been evacuated before the Japanese invaded the island and the remaining RAN warships were ordered to leave. Naval vessels attempted to protect the merchant vessels carrying civilians from Japanese submarines. Australian Army nurses evacuated on the Empire Star (February 11). They reached Australia safely. The last 65 nurses were ordered aboard the Vyner Brooke which which sailed (February 12). Only 24 of these nurses survived to return to Australia in 1945 after the War. Singapore citizens continued to evacuate the city in the final days. In the final days they not only faced Japanese submarines, but strafing attcks by Japanese aircraft.

Czech Evacuation of the Sudetenland (1938)

Capitulation to the NAZIs is not what the Czechs in the Sudetenland or beyond had expected. They thought the Czech Army aided by the Allies would resist. Thus the Czechs in the Sudetenlnd stayed put and few made plans to leave. Nor did the Czech Government make plans to care for refugees. As a result, when the Czechs announced compliance with the terms of the Munich Diktat, the Czechs were surprised. And the Czechs in the Sudetenland had few options. They poured across the border with barely the shirts on their backs (fugure 1). They left homes, shops, and farms where their families had lived for centuries. And along with them came Jews and anti-NAZI Germans having few illusions about what awaited them. Some 115,000 Czechs and 30,000 Germans fled across the border into what was left of Czech Bohemia. As there had been no preparation for this exodus, they were in a poor state and the Government had nothing prepared to deal with their needs. The Institute for Refugee Assistance struggled to care for them. The Times and other British newspaers prominately featured the jubilation with which the Sudetenlanders received the German Army. Virtually nothing was said about the Czech and German refugees. The anti-NAZI Germans only briefly escaped the consequences of their opposition to Hitler. The SS had their names and the German Government began demanding that the Czechs turn them over immediately after the Sudetenland had been secured. The number of Jews ws relativeky small, but was virtully the entite Sudeten Jewish community. A few more refugees would come. The final count according to Czech authorities before the Germans seized what was left of the Czech state was 150,000 refugees. [Czech Institute for Refugee Assistance] When the Germans entered Prague (March 1939), many of the refugees has not yet been resettled. In the wake of the Wehrmacht as it poured into the Sudentland were the SD and Gestapo with lists of anti-NAZI Sudentenlanders. Wenzel Jaksch, head of the Sudenten German Social Democrats flew to London. He pleaded with the British Government to issue visas for his associates and other anti-NAZI Sudentenlanders. Lord Runciman pledged assiatance, telling Jaksch that the mayor of London was setting up a fund. The London Times published photographs of cheering Sudentlanders greeting the Wehrmacht. There were no images or articles about those fleeing the NAZIs. The British never issued the visas that Jaksch sought. Anti-NAZI Sudentlanders attempted to hide out in what remained of Czechoslovakia. When the NAZIs demanded that they be handed over, the terrified Czech Government meekly complied. [Fest, pp. 569-70.] This was also supressed by the Times.

French Air Raid Evacuations (1939)

The French organized evacuations, but on a much smaller scale than the British. The French evacuated large numbers of school children from Paris. This AP wirephoto of French school boys appeared on August 30, 1939, as Hitler was posed to launch World War II. The caption read, "While troop trains roll across Europe today, these Paris school boys, blanket rolls on their backs and valises in their hands, hurried to school to join playmates in a flight from the city and the dangers of air-raids. Evacution of nearly 50,000 children from Paris was begun." We think the French evacuations were the individual choices of parents and not a French Government action, but our information is still limited. We are not sure yet what happened in other cities.

Finnish Evacuations (1939-44)

The Finns conducted a series of evacuations during World war II. First during the Winter war when the Soviets unvaded the evacuayed border reas and tgem the area ceded to the Soviet Union. Virtually non Finns wanted to live in the Soviet Union. There was another aspect of the Winter War evacutions, especially as the Red Air Force began bombing Heldinki and other Finish cities. The Finns began evacuating children from the cities to sympathetic Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway and Denmark). Here the fear was both air raids as well as the danger that the whole country would be overrun by the Soviet colosus. For a time it looked like the Soviets might occupy all of Finland. And given Soviet brutality toward the Karlian/Ingrian Finns left in the Soviet Union after world war I and toward the Poles in occupied Poland (1939), the Finns had real reason to fear. Finland bordered on Sweden and the Sweedes took in many Finnish children. The Sweeds wre unwilling to risk war with the Siviet Union, but were moved by the plight of the Finns. Beginning with the Winter War (1939-40) and than again during the Continuation War (1941-44).The first wave of Finnish war chilren came during the winter War. The largest number were evacuated during the Continuation War. Many were the children of tge Finns that returned to their homes and farms in Karelia after Hitler laubched Barbarossa (June 1941). Finland never joined the Axis, but became a co-belgerant. Finland became the only democracy to fight with the Axis. And it resticted its war goals to revoverling the land seized by the Soviets in the winter War. It was an enormos task rebuilding homes and starting up farms again. Thus it was thought that they could do all of this beter without the task of varing for younger children. The Finns evacuated a total of some 70,000 children to Sweden. These included children from both Finnish homes and Finnish-Swedish (Swedish-speaking) homes. Given the long border and the fact that Finland was once part of Sweden, there were still a number of Sedish speaking homes. Approximately 15,000 of the children never returned to Finland, especially the younger childre who came to see their adopted parents as their real parents. They were adopted by her Swedish foster family. Smaller numbers of chilren were sent to Denmark and Norway. Than as the resurgent Red Army drove the Germans and Finns back, the Finns evcuate Karelia and other areas ceeded to the Soviets. Finally there wre evacuations associated with the Kapland war (1944).

German Home to the Reich Evacuations (1939-40)

Many Baltic German in the late-19th and early 20th century had emmigrated to Germany. Hitler in 1939 after seizing Poland ordered the remaining Baltic Volksdeutsche "heim ins Reich". Hitler proceeded to negotiate a treaty to bring the Baltic Germans back to the Reich. Stalin did not impede this. This was done before Stalin had yet seized control but had begun to pressure the Baltic republics. Virtually all of Baltic Germans complied. I am not sure if any restructions were placed on what they could bring with them. The architecture of many Baltic cities is all that remains in the Baltic today. The NAZIs as part of the Non-Aggression Pact were handing the Baltic Republics over to Stalin, but did not want to hand over the ethnic Germans. For Stalin the numbers were trifling and he probably saw himself as getting rid of a potential irritant in NAZI-Soviet relations. The Baltic Germans also provided a racially suitable population conviently available to persue German polivies in the East beginning with Germaizing Poland. The Baltic Germans had lived outside of Germany for centuries. Even so, most obeyed the Führer's orders, leaving their homes. Most of the Baltic Germans complied with Hitler's instructions. The NAZIs sent ships to Baltic ports to take on the Baltic Germans. There were about 12,000 repatriated. I'm not sure how families that had inter-married with Estonians were handled. The first group arrived in Danzig from Estonia October 20, 1939. They were held in dreary camps for extended periods while the SS Office of Race and Settlement Office. assessed their racial characteristics and prepared them ideologically. After this they were not allowed into Germany proper, but used to resettle areasc of western Poland. The Volkdeutsche meeting the SS racial standards were assigned areas in occupied Poland. The NAZIs in the Warthegau and other areas of occupied Poland were expelling the Polish population in order to make room for them. Polish farmers were forcibly evicted from their farms with no compensation and the Baltic Germans used to replace them. From there the Baltic Germans were later expelled themselves, this time by the Poles at the end of the War. Most of them finally settled in West Germany. [Bade]

German Air Raid Evacuations (1942-45)

German Kinderlandverschickung (Child Land Dispatch -- KLV) functioned during World War II (1939-1945). The children had to go to rural areas on "holiday" but really they should be out of the cities and towns that had difficulties feeding them and were being bombed by the Allies. I believe that both schools and the Hitler Jugend were involved in organizing the KLV. One reader reports that the HJ was especially important in the KLV organization beginning in 1940, but large numbers ofevacuations did not begin until 1942. About 2.5 million children were sent to 9,000 camps until end of World War II. I believe in many cases their teachers accompanied them. The camps were, however, run by Hitler Youth leaders. They were not very happy places. Strangely, unlike the extensive discussion of the British evacuation of children (1940-41), the German KLA evacuation and camps are little discussed.

German Refugees (1944-45)

At the end if the War and after wards a massive shift of population occurred. Germans who had lived in Eastern Europe for centuries were uprooted. Actually this began with the Germns in the Soviet Union who were deported to Cental Asia and Siberia (1941). Reverses in the East meant that the Red Army began to approach the borders of the Reich. Ethnic Germanns accompanied the Whermacht as they were driven west. These were refugees. NAZI officuals, however, did not begin organizing evacuations in the estern areas such as EastvPriussia or the areas of western Poland that had been annexed to the Reich. Hitler wanted a fight to the death and local NAZIs were afraid as being seen as defeatists. And as a result the German public was often unaware of the danger. And the destruction of Army Group Cebter in the Bagration offensive (June-August 1944) meant that there was no longer arman mikitary firce capable of resisting the Red Army as it drove into the Reich. NAZI officials often only ordered evacuations when the artilery fire became audible. They sped off in their Mercedes as the local people had to take to organize as best they could and take to the road on foot or in ox carts. Few had cars and even if they did, except for important NAZI officials, gaoline was virtually impossible to obtain. The railroads were resrved for the Wehrmacht. Many refugee columns were overrun or cut off by advance Red Army motorized units. Large numbers of German civilians were cut off in Königsberg (modern Kalinigrad) and had to be evacuted by ship. Here the men and 0lder boys were expecte to fight to the death. Red Navy submarines torpeoded some of the evcuation ship leading to terrible loss of life. Their was no comparable stream of refugees in the West. The refugees from the East streamnd into the mahor cities of Eastern Germany where officials did their best to cope withbthe destitute, hungry people. Trafically one of the cities whre refugees sought refuge was Dresden.

German Deportees

The fate of the Volksdeutche is one of the many depressing stories of World War II. The irony is that while NAZIs who set out to ethnically clense newly acquired areas of the Reich, it was the Germans that were ethnically clensed from Eastern Europe. Those Germans expelled are today referred to in Germany as " Vertriebenen " (expelled ones). Nearly all lived in countries invaded and occupied by NAZI Germany. Many but not all participated in NAZI genocidal or explotive programs to colonize the occupied East. As a result, both the Russian Army and partisans targetted them as the Wehrmacht was forced to retreat. Many wisely fled with the Wehrmacht. Others were reluctant to leave the farms and towns where their families had lived for generations. After the Wehrmacht withdrew and after the end of the War, millions of these ethnic Germans were murdered, deported or otherwise ethnically cleansed. Many first hand accounts describe the violence directed at those of German ancestry. A great deal of documentation was gathered by the German Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau. (Yes, the Wehrmacht was collecting evidence of war crimes.) There are many incidents of unimagined savegery. There were women crucified in Nemmersdorf and the wholesale murder of children. [De Zayas and Barber]

Japanese Air Raid Evacuation (1943-45)

The Jpanese began bombing Chinese cities !931) even before actually invding the country (1937). As China had a very small air force, the Japanese milirrists who launched the war did not think their own cuties were threatned. Andcthe same men who launched the Pacific War believed tht the vast distances of th Pacific would prevebt amrica from bombing the Hime Islands. It was one of many hirendous miscalculations. Some 8.5 million Japanese civilians would be displaced from China's wood and paper tinderbox cities as the Pacific war began to go aginst Japan. The United States from an early point began to see strategic boming as the way of deafeating Japan. At first the Home Islands were beyond the reach of American bombers. But American successes and the development of the long rnge B-29 bomber changed this. The Japanese began volunyary evacuations of school children,women, and the elderly (December 1943). Mot dults were expected to stay in the cities and continue oprating war plants. The American air campaign which was at first designed to be launched froim China encountered a series of problems. As a result, the bombing campaign achieved very limited uccess during 1944. This began to change with the American seizure of the Marianas Islands (June-July 1944) and the arrival of a new commader, Cutis Lemay, with new tactics. The systematic destruction of Japanese cities ensued (1945). Whole cities were cinsumed even before the to atomic bombs were dropped. Millions of Japanese civilians fled into the countryside.

Soviet Evacuations (1941-42)

The German invasion of the Soviet Unioncame as a great shock (June 22). Areas of the the western Soviet Union were quickly overun. Evacuation from these areas were impossible. But the areas overun in the north were the areas of eastern Poland Stalin seized (September 1939). That meant there was some time to organize evacuations from Russia proper. To the south in the Ukraine where Stalin had deployed much of the Red Army armor, a massive tank battle was fouught in the Bloody Triange (June 1941). The Germans destroyed much of the Red Army armor, but the battle bought time to organize evacuations away from the border regions. Priority in these evacuations ere given to factory equipment and the skilled workers (and their families) that operated the equipment. The factories were transported by rail to the Urals and beyond. This meant that they were not within the range of the Luftwaffe which did not have ling-range bombets. It would take some time to reestablish production, butby 1943 Soviet war production had begun to reacg pre-War levels. We also believe that Communist Party officials and thrir families had priority. There was not a general evacuation. Civilians were not evacuated from Lenningrad in 1941 before the Germans cut off the city. Asa result, thousands of civilians starved in winter 1941-42. Women and children were finally evacuated in the Spring over Lake Lagoda. Nor was Stalingrad evcuated in 1942. A Russian reader tells us that orphanages were also given evacuation priority. And many of the evacuated orphansere Jews. He tell us that 24 percent of the evacusted children were Jews. We are not sure just when this was decided, befire or after reports of Germans shooting Jews that fell into their hands. Some 0.2 million oephans were evacuated to Uzbekistan. Our reader tells us, "Local people treated the orphabns very well. A blacksmith from Tashken (Toshkent), Shaakhmed Shamakhamudov, with his wife Bakhree were famous for adopted and educating 16 evacuated orphans. For many of those children Middle East became a second home even after the War. a memorial "Friendship of peoples" depicting Shaakhmed Shamakhamudov and recognizing humanism and hospitality of Uzbek people to the evacuated children (1982)."


Bade, Klaus J. ed. Deutsche im Ausland. Fremde in Deutschland (C.H.Beck Verlag: Munich, 1992).

Czech Institute for Refugee Assistance.


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Created: 8:08 PM 2/6/2016
Last updated: 11:18 PM 6/3/2017