In a recent post, I credited a trip to London in 2005 for inspiring my three WWII-era novels. The idea came to me after visiting the Imperial War
Museum, where I’d strolled through a temporary exhibit called “The Children’s War.” It told how WWII affected British children, including those who lived in big cities, those who were sent to the countryside, and those who were sent abroad. My protagonist and her sister are the last of these, often termed evacuees, “seavacuees,” or “war guests.” And in case you care, like I came to, here’s a rundown of what happened.
Picture it: London, 1939. England and France have watched Germany take over Austria and Czechoslovakia without much bloodshed, but Poland is next on Hitler’s list. They issue warnings, saying there’s no good reason to invade a nation with no military power like Poland, but those warnings fall on the deaf ears of a madman. If he’d go after Poland, mighty England might be next, and the British children will be turned into little Germans before their parents’ eyes. If you’re a parent living in a major British city, what are you going to do?
Not sit back and take it, that’s for sure. As early as September 1, two days before England and France declared war on Germany, the English government organized a mass evacuation of children from London to the
countryside, which was less likely to be bombed. Children who remained in London and other cities were given gas masks that made them look like mutated elephants. Residents of London “blacked out” their houses every night with boards and heavy curtains to keep all light from escaping into the sky so as not to alert a Nazi pilot flying overhead. Fire fighters and air raid wardens patrolled the streets at night, keeping watch for enemy planes and homes with light showing through. Sirens sounded at any sign of an attack, calling all residents to seek shelter in their basements, the London Underground, or Anderson bomb shelters constructed from aluminum siding. Road signs were removed to confuse any Nazis who managed to cross into England, though of course it confused the English as well.
But not much came from this early panic. The British called the first eight months “the phony war,” because the invasion they had prepared for had yet to happen. It hit closer to home when the Nazis took over France in May 1940. England then lost her most important ally, and the Nazis was only a few miles away across the English Channel. Now the English had reason to fear an invasion, and many parents didn’t feel their children were safe enough in the countryside.
That spring and summer, thousands of children were evacuated abroad. A government program known as the Children’s Overseas Reception Board sent children to English dominions, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Though the government program could not send children directly to America, thousands of children went there, staying with family, friends, or complete strangers. Companies such as Kodak and Hoover, which had offices in both England and America, set up exchange programs where English employees could send their children to live with employees in America.
Some children traveled with their mothers or nannies, and some boarding schools evacuated their staff and students together, but most children went alone. The evacuations ended when the ocean liner SS City of Benares was torpedoed by Nazi U-boats on its way to North America on September 17, 1940. By then, the infamous London Blitz had begun and while London was bombed nightly for over 53 nights, Germany never occupied any of Britain except the Channel Islands to the south. The invasion so many parents feared never came about, but by then their children were overseas and it was safer to keep them there.
For further reading, I highly recommend Jessica Mann’s book Out of Harm’s Way, which helped greatly when I began writing my first book about two sisters who spent the war on the other side of the ocean from their mother.
But there is an even darker side to why my girls had to leave England, and I will go into more detail about that next week.