Evacuating Children In World War II
The trepidation of aerial bombing gripped Britain as a nation, as uncensored images of Hitler’s Condor Legion reduced the Basque’s holy city of Guernica to rubble . The world recognized Hitler fascist regime, and acknowledged Hitler’s supreme air power and its ability to obliterate cities. This terrified the British public, and alarmed the government; as the First World War experience with the air Zeppelin, still left its stigma on British hearts.
The government had to devise a plan to protect its future generation and army. They called this plan ‘operation pied piper’ ironically named after the rather menacing German folktale. This was the biggest and most concentrated mass movement of people in Britain’s History. In the first four days of this regime ‘in September 1939, nearly 3,000,000 people were transported from towns and cities in danger from enemy bombers to places of safety in the countryside’.
By any measure it was an astonishing event, a logistical nightmare of co-ordination and control . Lord Balfour mentioned: ‘unremitting bombardment of a kind that no other city has ever had to endure,’ it was even predicted that in London alone that civilian causalities would amount to four million alone. Indeed evacuation even on the mainland initially was unsuccessful due to the Phoney War, many children returned to their homes and also difficulties getting billet posts because of the interference with lifestyle.
In mainland Britain it was when Hitler changed his tactics to that of bombing British towns and cities in September 1940 that evacuation was taken more seriously. The British publics response to this regime varied, as many wealthy ‘Britons,’ had the luxury of sending their children to Canada or Australia neutral countries unlikely to be attacked. Whilst the poorer citizens of Britain were indoctrinated into the ideology of evacuation towards the reception zones outside evacuation zones.
Here we must take into account that evacuation was not compulsory, the strong and emotive propaganda used had to sway the principles of the public: for instance if we look at this piece published in 1939 by the ministry of health: ‘don’t do it, mother leave them where they are’ this piece of evidence demonstrates Hitler as a spiritual enemy in returning their children would be seen as playing into the Hitler’s hands. In obvious respect, many mothers’s rejected the government’s response to the apprehension of mass bombardment; many had lost husbands and sons and needed their children there with them for emotional support.
Another essential motive why children were evacuated where for fears of low morale, another essential factor which the British public needed to carry on the struggle against Hitler’s aggression. The evacuation policy applied to pregnant women, children, school teacher’s; and perhaps it is important to mention that some animals from The London zoo. The children were presented to host families or of what some argued the ‘slave auction,’ what studies at the era demonstrated was that these ‘auctions’ would have profound effects which would encourage chronic behaviour, for example ‘bed wetting’.
The humiliating and daunting experiences of the ‘slave auction’ left children feeling empty and dehumanised ‘nobody wanted to be picked last,’ these children were usually poor children who appeared unclean and scruffy. Firstly if we look at this piece, written by the daily mirror a picture caption: ‘aren’t they happy,’ from hindsight we can acknowledge, how the daily mirror has used government propaganda to fai??ade the pessimistic side of evacuees ,with illustrations of children playing on beaches.
In contrast to this image we can look at this piece of evidence an account from an evacuee Terri McNeil: ‘who was locked up in a birdcage and left with a chunk of bread and a bowl of water,’ here we can distinguish the juxtaposition between a government biased view and a first hand witness experience, although only twelve percent of evacuees say that they suffered some sort of mental, physical or sexual abuse, we must note that, sixty years on the experience of evacuation still comes back to haunt people. However, this gave children from inner city slums, the opportunity to experience a life of idyllic atmosphere.
People from different classes clashed, and gave the government and wealthier people a chance to acknowledge the huge gap between the poor and the rich, and idealise with their predicament. More over, evacuees since the Second World War still remember their evacuation as their, ‘adventure;’ understandably those who experienced a good evacuation will cherish their memory, for instance In John Reynard’s case: ‘The countryside was wonderful for a boy from the city: the fields, animals, woodlands, the river and the big house, we called the river ‘Ohio’ wartime code so mother wouldn’t know what we were up to’.
Now in this, we can take that he has enjoyed himself with life away from the industrial city. Again in other experiences such as Lillian Evans: ‘we were chosen by a lady. .We were sent round the back door and told to strip off all our clothing, when we refused, our clothes were torn off. We were then forced naked into the kitchen in front of the host’s father and the husband pushed us into a bath containing dettol . After her husband cut off all our hair until we were bald.
His excuse, Children from Liverpool brought lice, scabies and sores into the countryside’ this experience left Lillian mentally scarred . As mentioned above responses to this regime varied. The evacuation of British cities was extremely emotional and unnerving for the children of Britain, but account must be taken for parents and Billet officers and teachers involved in this mass evacuation. Many teachers had been evacuated with their pupils, but it was not always easy to find them classrooms to teach in.
For instance if we look at this log book written by the headmaster: ’57 children were admitted bringing the number on roll up to 206. There is insufficient seating for all the children and some are sitting 3 to a dual desk,’ on the other hand people like Agnes her ‘school got to take over Sizergh castle near Kendel and around sixty girls got to stay in Levens hotel, a smart lake district hotel close by. I ended up sharing the honeymoon suite which had a private bathroom’.
Many described the evacuation as a ‘typical British wartime shamble. ‘ Many people did not except evacuees even though it was compulsory, if we look at Lady Davy reason for not taking evacuees:’ on medical grounds it is not good for her to have ten evacuees in a house with five bedrooms and two living rooms. Because of her public duties, Lady Davy requires more than just her bedroom,’ this was the attitude of a lot of wealthy people.
Billeting officers grew very exhausted and angry, because finding a host for the evacuee grew exasperating, due to social class and attitudes of host family because of status. In all, my overall impression to the attitudes of evacuation is that; social class played a more dominant role in identifying human behaviour towards those of a lesser class, and on a positive note helped the government and those more fortunate to understand peoples plight.
In this,some aspects of evacuation did baffle me, the mistreatment of host families towards evacuees-perhaps this was their way of getting back at the government-Most of the images displayed by the government were biased. Some could argue that the wealthier acted preposterously towards the regime than others of a lesser classer. Who’s to dispute the argument? But reality is more complicated than what some would conclude.
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