Evacuated to the Country

The team at MA Grigg’s country store will be observing the 2-minute silence to remember those selfless individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice. We will remember them.

The evacuation of civilians from British cities to the countryside at the outbreak of World War II was designed to protect mainly children from the dangers of air raids. Operation Pied Piper was launched on 1st September 1939, following the news that Germany had invaded Poland.

The government was prompted to evacuate children, mothers with young infants and the infirm from cities and towns, amid fears that German bombing raids would cause multiple civilian deaths. No time was wasted, and evacuations began two days before Britain declared war.

Evacuated during war

© Public Domain 


Mass evacuation

The massive exodus was planned with precision, with 1.5 million evacuees being sent to safe rural locations over a period of just three days. Although the evacuation was voluntary, people were encouraged to participate for their own safety.

According to official statistics, the evacuees included 827,000 school-age children, 524,000 mothers and under-fives, more than 103,000 teachers and other helpers, 70,000 disabled people and 13,000 pregnant women. The school-age children attended local schools in their host villages. Many urban schools were closed, with organised transport being offered for groups of pupils.

It wasn’t an easy decision for parents, who were being urged to send their children away to live with strangers. It was a case of whether the fear of bombing outweighed the concerns of going to live many miles away, with people they had never met before.


Stay or go?

On the whole, the fear of getting killed or seriously injured during an air raid persuaded most parents to send their children to live in the country with host families. Volunteer marshals assisted with the massive operation to get the evacuees on to the trains, while tearful parents waved their young ones off at the station, unsure whether they would ever see them again.

For many children, it was an early start, assembling at school at 5am, carrying a small suitcase containing clothing and personal possessions – and also their all-important gas mask in a box. They were told how to put on the gas mask, in the event of an airborne poison gas attack.

The logistical implications of moving such a large number of people around the country were massive. Thousands of volunteer helpers took part in the evacuation. Local authority officials, teachers, railway staff and 17,000 members of the Women’s Voluntary Service helped it to run smoothly.


Volunteer helpers

Evacuees were largely looked after in transit by the WVS, who provided practical help at the railway stations and food and drink at billeting halls and reception areas. The long and arduous journey to meet the host families was tiring. After alighting from the train, the children were often picked up in a group from their destination station by lorries.

Children were evacuated from cities and towns across Britain, not just from London. In Bristol, the evacuation saw hundreds of children heading off for Devon, arriving tired and apprehensive at Brent railway station.

Prior to setting off, the parents were given a list outlining the items their children should take with them. Apart from the gas mask, the items included a warm coat, spare underwear, nightclothes, slippers or plimsolls, spare socks, comb, toothbrush, towel, face cloth and soap. Many families were unable to provide their children with everything they needed, due to financial constraints.


Different lifestyles

While the evacuees were being cared for in their host families’ homes, the Ministry of Health was responsible for monitoring their well-being. Householders who took in city evacuees were given money by the government to help with their expenses.

It really was a case of “seeing how the other half lived”. Both parties were equally astonished in some cases. Many evacuees flourished in the countryside and loved their new surroundings, while others had a miserable time and couldn’t adapt.

Many city children had never before eaten fresh vegetables or seen farm animals in the flesh. Sometimes, an impoverished child’s upbringing was wrongly viewed as parental neglect by their hosts.

The older children were expected to help around the farm. Some thrived, while others found it tiring and hated it, bored by the rural lifestyle. Host families would find them fun things to do, such as nature walks around the countryside.

Many English stately homes were voluntarily offered as refuge for young children, or for nursery schools. The evacuation programme was documented by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, who wished to keep a permanent record of the scheme.


Grim warning

Many parents began to regret sending their children away, when the expected heavy bombing raids hadn’t materialised by the end of 1939. Almost 50% of the children evacuated in September 1939 were already home again by January 1940. This led the government to produce posters urging parents to leave the evacuees in the countryside while the threat of air raids was still likely.

The chilling poster featured an image of a worried-looking mother, sitting near a tree trunk in a rural area, with two children playing with a model aeroplane. A ghostly figure resembling Hitler was standing behind, whispering to the mother to send the children home. The Ministry of Health urged the mother to “leave the children where they are”.


More evacuations

Further mass evacuations occurred nationwide in the summer and autumn of 1940, as a result of the German invasion of France in May and June and the start of the Blitz in September. Despite the increased danger, evacuation remained voluntary. Some children remained in the cities because their parents didn’t want to let them go to strangers. Others remained to care for older family members.

As the war dragged on, another wave of evacuations, from cities in the south-east and east of England, began in the summer of 1944. This followed the German V-weapon attacks on the region, beginning in June 1944.

In total, some 3.75 million people were evacuated during the war. Around one-third of the British population experienced the effects, whether they were the children and vulnerable adults being evacuated, the host families or the volunteers who helped run the programme.


Cornwall’s role

As a predominantly rural region, Cornwall played a major role in the evacuation, with the inner-city children marvelling at the beauty of the countryside – something the vast majority of them had never experienced before.

A popular destination was St Just in Roseland, a village six miles south of Truro. According to the BBC’s People’s War archives, children from a number of London boroughs were sent there. All of the pupils from Park Junior School, in the London borough of West Ham, were among the evacuees sent to Cornwall.

One such evacuee was Charles Pascoe, who was interviewed for the BBC World War II archive. He recalled his mother packing food for the long train journey and the excitement of riding on a steam train, which most of them had never done before.

It was 1939 when Charles and his five-year-old sister were sent to St Just in Roseland – something he described as “good fortune”, as he loved the area. He and his sister lived in a quaint cottage, where their bedroom window overlooked the farmyard.


Basic facilities

He said their experiences had stayed with him all his life. The toilet was at the bottom of the garden, with newspaper on a piece of string replacing the toilet roll. There was no flushing water. He recalled all the water used for everything had to be pumped from a communal village well.

The cottage had no electricity, so lighting was provided by oil lamps, while the cooking was done on a wood-fired stove. Yet despite the basic existence, he enjoyed rural life. He went to St Just Village School, where there were two classes.


Harvest time

Even though he was very young, Charles helped with the harvest. All of the local farms helped each other during the war. The work was done by horse-drawn agricultural machinery in 1939, as there were few tractors about.

The helpers, who were mainly women, were given rabbits to take home and cook for dinner. When the harvest was gathered in, a threshing machine would travel around the farms, bagging up the corn, as none of them had a combine harvester.

After the war, Charles and his sister returned home to West Ham, where they were thrilled to see their house was still standing, despite the devastation caused by the air raids. Like many evacuees, he and his sister kept in touch with their wartime hosts for the rest of their lives.


Period of upheaval

Returning home at the end of the war in 1945, the evacuees experienced another period of upheaval. Although the prolonged period of fear and separation had come to an end, many of them had spent years with their host families.

For those who had been very young at the start of the war in 1939, it was a case of returning home six years later to families they hardly remembered. For the villagers saying goodbye to the children they had adopted for the duration of the war, it was also a poignant moment.

Remembrance Sunday 2019 will see services taking place across Britain, on 10th November, to remember the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives in times of war – they died that we might live.