Documents reveal problems of mass evacuation on the eve of WWII
This week 80 years ago 1.5 million people were evacuated to the countryside to escape the expected German bombs as Britain declared war on Hitler
Newly-released documents have revealed the extent of the huge evacuation process in the lead up to World War Two.
With the outbreak of war expected at any moment – and fearing mass casualties from a sustained German bombing campaign, plans were drawn up for the mass evacuation of women and children from Britain’s major towns and cities.
Over the course of three days from September 1, 1939 – when Hitler invaded Poland and before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany – 1.5 million children, mothers with infants and other vulnerable people were evacuated to areas out of the Luftwaffe’s reach.
Operation Pied Piper – the Government Evacuation Scheme – was overseen by the Ministry of Health, working closely with the local councils, teachers and railway staff.
But the British authorities also turned to the backbone of the home front – the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS).
The organisation was formed in 1938 by Lady Stella Reading as the Women’s Voluntary Service for Air Raid Precautions as Britain prepared for war.
More than one million women joined the RVS during World War Two, and thanks to their tireless efforts the “women in green” – as they became fondly known – were central to winning the war.
The evacuation was voluntary, but the fear of bombing, the closure of many urban schools and the organised transportation of school groups helped persuade families to send their children away.
The RVS met tired and apprehensive evacuees at railway stations, ran reception centres and organised the feeding, clothing and billeting of the women and children.
To mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two, the RVS has opened its archive in Devizes, Wiltshire.
Life in the countryside proved a difficult experience for both the host families and the evacuees – with many hosts having to buy clothing for the children.
Many inner city evacuees had never seen farm animals and poverty was seen as neglect, while some farmers chose strong looking lads to work on the land.
Some householders refused to allow the evacuees to use the cooking and washing facilities and turned them out of the door each morning, telling them not to return until the evening.
A report from the Caernarfon branch in September 1939 stated that North Wales had been treated “abominably” in re-homing families from Liverpool.
“The women were filthy, verminous, and in some cases diseased, they were abusive, refused to be separated from their friends, and quite without manners or morals,” the report said.
“They went back in droves within a week, but they have made it impossible for us to take others.
“The children were verminous but carbolic baths worked wonders. There is a nasty spirit among the mothers and some of the children – ‘The Government pays you for all you are doing for us’ – and the hostesses object when they have clothed a child at their own expense to have this thrown at them.”
In a report of the evacuation of Vauxhall Street School to Swanage in Dorset, the RVS reported in January 1940: “Whatever the differences the war has made to the children still in London, one thing is certain, that the evacuated children are benefiting in every way from being down here.
“Some, who were troublesome in London, have completely changed since they left their homes.”
In Lincolnshire, the county organiser suggested in a report written days after the first evacuations that the Government should set up nursery homes.
“These women who are used to dirty homes feel unhappy and cannot settle in the much cleaner homes where they are billeted, whose occupiers naturally resent their dirty ways,” the organiser wrote.
“I feel everything would have been alright and difficulties could have been coped with if no mothers had arrived at all, and preschool children could have been kept together in nursery homes and properly looked after.”
Within a few weeks of the outbreak of war – the “Phoney War” period – many mothers and children had left the countryside and returned to their extended families after the widely anticipated bombing campaign had failed to materialise.
By early 1940, it was estimated that around 80% had returned home. But that summer, another wave of evacuations took place after Hitler invaded France and the launch of the Blitz.
Further evacuations took place from June 1944 following the launch of the German V-weapons against towns and cities in London and the south east.