Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Operation Pied Piper

In 1938, Sir John Anderson, Lord Privy Seal, was tasked with keeping vulnerable civilians (pregnant women, children, elderly, and the disabled) safe within the six cities that had been deemed as potential targets of Hitler’s bombing should Britain and Germany go to war. Anderson devised a plan to evacuate these civilians over a four day period when necessary. On September 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland, Anderson executed the plan.

From the government’s standpoint, the evacuation program achieved its goal. Of the approximately 60,000 English civilians who were killed during WWII, only 5,000 were children. In the opinion of the evacuees and their families-biological and foster-the program was a mixed success. The Imperial War Museum and others have conducted interviews with evacuees, and many memoirs and fictionalized accounts have also been written.

The common thread I found during my research was the fear experienced by the children, whose age ranged from two or three years old to sixteen or seventeen. Most didn’t understand why they were being separated from their parents, nor did they know where they were going or for how long.

With name tags tied to their coats, the children were evacuated by bus, train and boat to locations within Britain as well as overseas to Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Upon arrival, the children stood in churches, community centers, and train stations or on docks gripping their gas masks and suitcases waiting to hear the words, “I’ll take that one.” Once selected by a family, these urban children and their rural hosts dealt with significant cultural and class differences.

Given the large numbers of people involved, individual experiences ran the gamut from excellent to terrible. On Dec. 6, 1941, Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud, reported the results of a 12-month study she had authorized. Its conclusion was that “separation from their parents is a worse shock for children than a bombing.”

Fast forward six years later to the end of the war. Scores of children returned home as veritable strangers to their parents and siblings, never fully adjusting to living back in the city with them. Through hard work, others were able to re-establish family relationships.

I cannot imagine the mixed emotions felt by the evacuees’ parents: a love strong enough to send their children away to safety mingled with regret at missing out on the development of their children.

What would you have done?
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A freelance writer for over ten years, Linda Matchett also writes historical fiction. She is currently seeking a publisher for her series about war correspondent Ruth Brown. Visit her at www.lindashentonmatchett.com


  1. I would have removed myself from the city as well. Evacuated with my children. I can only imagine how frightened the children would have been to have been separated from families.

  2. I think I would have gone with my kids too, if possible. Tough choice. Thanks for responding.

  3. I think I would have found a way to go with the children. I can only imagine how terrifying this would have been! Thanks for the post today, it's something I had not really given much thought but with all the refuges in the middle east and US I can see how hard a decision this must be.

  4. I'm with y'all. I would've gone! Good post, Linda.

  5. I've read about the children sent to Canada on the City of Benares. The ship was torpedoed and most of the children died. That must have been so agonizing for the parents. They thought they were sending their kids to safety.

  6. Very interesting post...thank you for sharing!

  7. Wow, what a hard choice. Very interesting post.

  8. Thanks for your comments, everyone! Terri: I read about the City of Benares incident too-quite sad.

  9. Great article, Linda. I cannot imagine sending my child away for 6 years! Most of us have no idea what most Europeans endured during the war.