World War II Evacuation of Children: Facts & Statistics

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In World War II, Britain became very concerned about the possibility of air raids against civilian targets. Their solution: move the civilians. In this lesson, we'll examine the child evacuation programs of WWII and see how they impacted Britain.

Operation Pied Piper

In 1939, Nazi Germany smashed into Poland and World War II began. This was very concerning for many people (understandably), and in particular the British began worrying that Germany would soon attack their island. They knew that the main targets would be big cities like London, and so the government decided to take the preemptive action of getting civilians out of urban centers and into the more sparsely populated countryside. Known as Operation Pied Piper, the initiative resulted in the resettlement of about 3 million people across England, with another 10,000 or so transported to Australia, Canada, and the USA.

The main focus of Operation Pied Piper was children, and the government put massive efforts into convincing families to voluntarily send their children to live in the country. Many middle and upper class families had relatives in the countryside who the children could stay with, but others had to rely on unknown volunteers, strangers who agreed to be hosts to these children. It was a trying time that left an imprint in British cultural memory, even becoming a substantial focus of C.S. Lewis' famous children's book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Of course, for most British children, the actual experience of evacuation was far less magical.

Evacuation

So, how did this work? The British government spent nearly a year surveying rural villages across England, Scotland and Wales and calculating the number of refugee children each could hold. Homes that became host sites for these children were known as billets. Larger estates were turned into nurseries for very young children, and cities were plastered with posters and propaganda urging parents to voluntarily submit their children for evacuation.

Propaganda poster encouraging the evacuation of children
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Finally, the evacuation day arrived in September of 1939. Operation Pied Piper itself officially lasted for four consecutive days, during which over 800,000 children were evacuated from England's cities. Organizing this proved to be a major undertaking. Aside from over 100,000 teachers who helped the children get from school to the train stations and the 17,000 members of the Women's Volunteer Service, this mass migration required the efforts of countless train conductors, local administrators, and government officials called billeting officers who assigned the children to a host family.

Train station in Devon where evacuated children were unloaded
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Each child was sent with a gas mask, a ration of food, clothes, and a label pinned to their clothing that stated who they were, where they were from, and where they were going. So, hundreds of thousands of children were shipped across Great Britain to live with strangers in an era before we had computers to help coordinate this. What could go wrong? Well, quite a bit. Some children were simply sent to the wrong place, while many arrived to find that the rural villages had not pre-coordinated the assignment of children to homes. Children waited in lines at the train station as families shuffled by with a phrase that became all too familiar in Britain: ''I'll take that one.''

Impact and Life for Children

For many children from urban centers like London, moving to the countryside was an entirely new experience. Many had never been out of the city before. For some, the time spent evacuated to rural communities was relatively pleasant (despite the constant anxiety that exists in wartime). They lived on farms, helped out with chores, and made friends with local children.

Young evacuees on a hay cart in Somerset
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For others, experiences were not so great. Some host families mistreated or straight up abused the evacuated children under their care. In fact, studies conducted as recently as 2009 of people who had been evacuated children, found high rates of clinical anxiety and other conditions associated with childhood trauma and abuse.

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