Accounts of Evacuees in WW2

When and how did evacuation happen?


Evacuation was a key wartime strategy to protect the civilian population and minimise panic in areas that would likely be enemy targets, but the plans for evacuation were started well in advance of World War II. Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, and the devastation of aerial bombing campaigns during the Spanish Civil War, served to alert the British government to the threat on war and particularly the need to be prepared for air strikes on major cities (Ross, 2001).

The Anderson Committee served to divide Britain up into areas based on risk of air strike, designating areas as being for evacuation, neutral, or reception areas. In September 1938, the British government announced its plans to evacuate 2 million people in the event of war and had found accommodation for up to 4 million people.

The official evacuations started in earnest in September 1939, with ‘Operation Pied Piper’. The objective was to evacuate priority groups (children, mothers and children, the pregnant, the disabled, and teachers – as outlined in source 2) from the major cities. During this phase, 3.5 million people were relocated to reception areas, mainly by train, and often on a first come first served basis. The haphazard nature of the evacuation meant that groups were sometimes split, reception areas over-subscribed, and evacuees placed with families who were expecting to receive a different priority group or evacuees of the same social class.

After the fall of France, and the onset of the Blitz, further waves of evacuations continued until September 1944. The priority groups now included the elderly and people were also relocated from coastal towns and ports. In this phase of the evacuations, approximately 200,000 children were relocated including children who had been earlier evacuated to these areas from the major cities. The government also provided free domestic travel to those who wished to make their own arrangements (Brown, 2005).

Experiences of the evacuees

From our knowledge of the evacuation process, particularly with regard to the haphazard nature of the allocations to reception areas and host families, we might infer that the experiences of evacuees could be quite traumatic.

This is the case for Mrs Preedy, who recounted her experiences of being an evacuee over 45 years later in her book based on her wartime diary (source 7). She was evacuated with her close friends but was separated from them on arrival at the designated reception area. She was billeted with another girl who was not a friend and “foisted” upon an older and childless couple, which tallies with our understanding that evacuees were often placed with hosts who were expecting a different priority group – in this case, possibly an adult.

The household that Mrs Preedy describes is working-class, with the woman having previously been in service, and the house lacking in heat (as well as emotional warmth), and dimly lit. We can infer that Mrs Preedy is most likely from a middle class background, unused to assisting regularly in household chores, and used to a warmer and brighter environment. This experience again tallies with our understanding that many evacuees were mismatched with host families on the basis of social class.

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