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Evacuation means leaving a place. At 11:07 on 31st August 1939, the British Government ordered that all: children over five years of age, pregnant mothers, mothers with children under five and disabled people were to be evacuated from large towns and cities where dangerous bombing raids were expected to the countryside where it was safer. These rural places were called ‘reception areas’ and included villages in: Cornwall, Devon and Wales.

No one was forced to be evacuated, but parents were encouraged by posters telling them that their children would be safer if they moved away to the country.

Operation Pied Piper

Starting on 1st September 1940, Around 1.5 million people were evacuated by the Government, making it the largest mass movement of people ever seen in Britain. It was called ‘Operation Pied Piper’. A further two million people from more wealthy families evacuated privately - some settled in hotels and several thousand travelled abroad to: Canada, the United States, South Africa, Australia and the Caribbean.

Local councils organised special trains for the evacuees to travel on. Parents were given a list of what to pack for their children, including:
  • a gas mask;
  • night clothes;
  • a toothbrush;
  • family photographs;
  • soap and a towel;
  • a pair of Wellington boots,
  • a few playthings,
  • a teddy bear
  • an overcoat;
  • food for the journey (such as: sandwiches, dry biscuits and an apple).

Lots of families were very upset as they worried that they might never see each other again if the bombing was as bad as expected. Evacuees could easily be spotted as their names were written on armbands or on labels which were tied to their coats. Many of them were excited at first because they thought it was like an adventure going to visit somewhere new.

The children would arrive in strange places and be sent to live with people they had never seen before. It was the job of a billeting officer to find ‘billets’ or foster homes for all of them. ‘Pick-your-own-evacuee’ sessions were usually held in village halls. Pretty girls and healthy, strong boys were often picked first, whilst the grubbier children had to wait a very long time before a host family could be found for them. By the time this happened it was usually dark and many of the children were both tired and hungry after their long journeys. It didn’t feel like a fun adventure any more.

Foster parents were paid for looking after the evacuees but this was only enough for: food, bedding and spare clothes. Many evacuees were welcomed by their hosts but some were treated as a nuisance. 

Many children became very homesick and frightened. They had come from city slums and arrived in middle-class homes in the countryside. The shock on both sides was enormous – the children were amazed by the quietness and seeing farm animals like cows for the first time; the country people were surprised how some only had ragged clothes and were infested with lice.

The Civilian Evacuation Scheme in the Second World War HU69022

After a few months, no bombs had fell on any of the big cities and many of the school children who had been evacuated desperately missed their families so by Christmas 1939 nearly half went back home. Many were re-evacuated between 13th and 18th June 1940 however, when the Germans had taken over much of France. A second wave of evacuation also took place in 1944 when Germany attacked Britain with V1 Flying Bombs and V2 rockets.

The evacuees liked to write postcards and letters home. Pay-phones in red telephones boxes did not always work after air-raids, because of bombs.

The local and evacuee children went to school together and most became good friends eventually.