World War II British Evacuations: Information, Facts & Statistics

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

During World War II, thousands of people were evacuated from Britain's busiest cities. They were evacuated in order to keep them safe from German bombing raids. Some left by boat, but most were sent to the British countryside.

Early Plans

Even though World War II didn't officially begin until Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Britain already sensed they were in danger and needed to make plans to evacuate their citizens should the need arise. They knew that Germany was going to be a problem with Hitler's rise to power.

Hitler's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, caused Britain to step up and officially order an evacuation. Luckily, everything had been planned the year before. The government evacuation scheme, led by Sir John Anderson, worked with teachers, railway officials, and police officers to find suitable homes for the evacuees. Those that hosted them were paid for taking them in.

1939

Evacuations were ordered in September 1939. The first round of evacuations was code named Operation Pied Piper and evacuated approximately 1.5 million people, plus 100,000 teachers acting as chaperones. Most of the evacuees were children. Unless set up beforehand, most evacuees didn't know who they would be living with or where they would be living. Most had come from urban areas, so moving to the country was quite an adjustment for many. There were some snafus, however. Some were sent to the wrong city or some arrived at a place that was already full of evacuees.

Train stations were often scenes of chaos
children

Children brought gas masks with them as well as suitcases
masks

Half the evacuees would go home after a few months, but the government didn't think it was safe yet. They produced propaganda flyers urging mothers to leave their children safely in the country.

The British government urged mothers to leave their children in the country
poster

1940-41

Evacuations weren't limited to the British countryside, however. 3,000 evacuees were sent by sea to Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. Overseas evacuations didn't last very long, as the threat of German U-Boats launching torpedoes was always present. The overseas evacuations were officially cancelled after a ship, the City of Benares, was torpedoed on September 17, 1940, killing 175 adults and 87 children. There were other voyages later, though, that had been privately arranged.

After France fell to Germany in June of 1940, more evacuations began. Most evacuees were from coastal towns and other areas in Southeastern England. By then thousands of evacuees from other European areas had begun to arrive in England and they too needed places to stay.

The Blitz

The next mass evacuations came on September 7, 1940, as 300 German bombers began dropping bombs on London. This was the beginning of 57 consecutive days of German bombing. After this initial attack, the bombings would continue to May 1941 and become known as the Blitz. Those that had made arrangements to leave and had a place to go were allowed to travel for free. Evacuees included the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women, and the ill. Other people given travel accommodation were people who had lost their homes in the bombings. Although there aren't exact numbers of how many evacuated in the chaos of the Blitz, about 1 million people were made homeless, 250,000 homes were destroyed, and two million homes were damaged.

The Blitz of 1940 damaged many parts of London and surrounding areas
fire

1942-46

The number of evacuees fluctuated between 1942 and the end of the war in 1945. In June of 1944, the Nazis had perfected their V-1 and V-2 missiles, and the subsequent attacks on London prompted a new wave of evacuations, as the bombs ended up killing 6,000 people and injuring 18,000. About 1 million women, children, elderly, and the ill were evacuated during this time. Most Londoners didn't return until June of 1945, a few months before the war would officially end. Evacuations would officially end in 1946.

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