During a particularly rainy summer seventy-five years ago, the largest evacuation of people in the history of Britain was being planned. As Europe edged ever-closer to war, the government put its plan to move vulnerable members of society out of harm’s way into action. A strategy for evacuation in the case of enemy attack had been sketched as early as 1931 and the government ultimately opted against forced last-minute evacuation, which officials feared would lead to countrywide panic. Instead, everything was planned to the minute and on a voluntary basis, the authorities circulating multiple calls for the registration of children and their mothers and the elderly. Families were openly informed of ongoing plans and it was decided that the children should be evacuated according to their schools in order to ensure a more orderly process.
The planning and organisation of the evacuation was left to a sub-division of the Imperial Defence Committee, known as the Anderson Committee, and implemented by the Ministry of Health. The children that were sent abroad were under the supervision of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB), a government-sponsored organisation which was ultimately shut down when several ships carrying children were torpedoed while crossing the Atlantic.
The first rumblings of what would become known as Operation Pied Piper began at 4.00 a.m. on the morning of 1st of September 1939, fully two days before the British declaration of war against Germany. During the first few days of that fateful month, more than 3.5 million British people left the major cities to seek refuge in the countryside and overseas. Of this number, at least a million and a half were schoolchildren and mothers with young children, many of them leaving London and the other cities for the first time. An unusual sight, as they carried pillowcases full of essential belongings, while grasping gas masks and wearing tags indicating their name and home addresses, neither children nor parents knew the final destination, but at least they were with their classmates.
Some children returned to London just a few weeks later only to be evacuated again. Others came home at the very end of the conflict to piles of rubble where their homes had once stood.
One of the key bodies of primary evidence for exploring this extraordinary moment in British history was produced by the evacuated children themselves. Many of the hundreds of thousands of letters they wrote home are easily accessible and offer us a unique insight into the thoughts, emotions and survival instincts of these often very resilient children. Several hundred of these letters have been preserved by the Imperial War Museum and are invaluable as historical sources and fascinating in simple human terms. Not only do these letters give us an idea of life in the countryside at the time, they also tell us what the children understood of the world at war and shed valuable light on the ways in which the conflict affected their everyday lives.
I recently had the privilege of meeting Kitty Baxter, who was herself evacuated on September 1st 1939, which also happened to be her 9th birthday. Along with her classmates, she was told to pack for a little trip, and each day they brought their filled pillowcases to school since the administration did not know the exact date of evacuation. She was evacuated with her two older sisters with the precise instructions from their mother that they should not be separated at any point. Evidently, at the other end of the voyage, this request wasn’t fully respected, and Kitty was sent out with her older sister only, her middle sister, Mary, being chosen first by an influential family who decided they only wanted one child. To make sense of her experience, Kitty assigned one word to each of her three evacuations: the first, horrible, the second, interesting, and the third, fun. She attributes this variety mainly to the basic elements of the environment and the different people with whom she lived. The first family made her work like a servant, the second one didn’t really care for her and let her explore all the time, whereas her third billeting was in a brothel. She tells these stories as though they happened yesterday, remembering small details and forgetting major ones.
A lifetime of experience has passed and Kitty is now in her mid-eighties, but the memories are still there, especially those linked with her senses. With each memory, she conjures a scent, a sound, or even a specific taste. She remembers her mother crying when they left the station the first time and when her little brother died of shelter cough. She remembers coming back home for the second time because her dad was killed in action in Italy. And although she received many letters from her mother during her first evacuation, she never got to read them because the housekeeper didn’t give them to her so as to keep her busy with work. She shares the memory of how her middle sister was crying when they were reunited with her because she didn’t want to go home. Mary had apparently enjoyed a perfect life at her billet, with a whole new family with money. The Baxter sister each had three different stories, and three different narratives of evacuation, and the same could be said of every child evacuee.
Kitty didn’t actually get to write letters during her time away from home, but there is an abundance of material available to us from other children. The archives at the Imperial War Museum are home to numerous boxes of letters that map the individual experience of evacuees. For the final project of my MA in Public History, I decided to drawn on these letters to build a workshop/educational pack about Operation Pied Piper for children aged 9 – 11. The benefit of this type of material is the direct link between the past and the present, since we can access the letters and read directly what the person was thinking. For children today, learning about a dramatic episode of their country’s past through the words of another child presents a wonderful opportunity to create a bridge through time.
They get to learn about what it meant to spend a birthday away from mum and dad, how Alan from Lewisham had to thank his parents from a distance for his birthday presents as it was too dangerous for him to travel in the middle of the Blitz. They get to understand how frustrating it was to have to wait at least two days for the mail to arrive, like Kathleen who had to wait anxiously for news from her parents when their home was bombed. To read these letters is to realize what an extraordinary impact the war had on everyday lives, despite, indeed often because of, attempts to physically put children at a remove from danger. Surprisingly, the letters almost never mention the actual conflict, apart from talking about planes and the V1/V2 rockets that could see in the daytime sky later in the war. This allows the children participating in the workshop to learn about the war on a level that would not have been available in a standard context.
As part of the workshop, 21st century children also get to connect with their past even more with a letter-writing activity, allowing them to fill the shoes of an evacuee billeted in Kent, away from everything familiar and facing the prospect of life on a farm. The next step is to find more former evacuees who would be ready to share their experience of writing home from a strange environment directly with the children in the classrooms, of being sent far from home for reasons that must have been quite unclear to the average eight year-old at the time. The power of oral history can thus be used to create a deeper connection and a broader understanding of the impact of the conflict.
The multiplicity of experiences the evacuated children encountered make this moment in time particularly worthy of study, since it touches on social, cultural, political and childhood history. For now, the evacuations remain very much within living memory, and many former evacuees are willing to share their experiences with the children of today. The 75th anniversary of Operation Pied Piper thus presents a unique opportunity for intergenerational exchange and learning about the past.
Claudine Fortin is a graduate of the Université de Montréal and is currently enrolled on the MA in Public History programme at Royal Holloway, University of London.