The British Governments Decision to Evacuate Children From Major Cities Early in the Second World War

The British Governments Decision to Evacuate Children From Major Cities Early in the Second World War

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The British Governments Decision to Evacuate Children From Major Cities Early in the Second World War
As soon as war was declared the British government expected the Nazis
to launch massive air attacks against Britain with its major cities as
the prime targets. Britain knew how disastrous such attacks would be,
in both loss of morale and loss of life, after seeing how devastating
the bombing raids had been in both Shanghai in 1931 and later in
Guernica in 1937 where German planes had been used. To avoid enormous
casualty numbers the government planned to evacuate large numbers of
children from cities to the countryside for the duration of the war.

The British government’s greatest fear was that as soon as the air
raids started children, as some of the most vulnerable people in the
cities, would make up a large percentage of the death toll. To avoid
the calamity of losing such a large proportion of the next generation
the government decided to remove children and other vulnerable people,
such as pregnant women and disabled people, from cities and relocate
them to the countryside. The government saw the evacuation of children
as a way of reducing casualty numbers as well as protecting the most
vulnerable members of society from the bombing raids and gas attacks
that were expected.

The bombing was expected to be both heavy and frequent with major
cities being targeted as soon as war broke out. Britain had already
had some experience of bombing during the First World War but it was
expected to be far worse this time. Although bombing had not been
widely used in World War One it had accounted for the deaths of over

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1500 British citizens. Zeppelin raids were responsible for the
majority of these casualties. Zeppelins were first used to bomb Great
Yarmouth and King’s Lynn in January 1915. English ports had also been
targeted during the early years of World War One. Due to the
inaccuracy of bombing then and the small size of the bombs used these
raids cannot have had any military purpose - they were to lower
British morale and so weaken the war effort. The bombing had got
increasingly heavy as the war progressed despite zeppelin attacks
being called off in 1917. Aeroplane technology had greatly improved in
the twenty years since the First World War and they were expected to
play a larger role in the Second World War.

Although fear of large-scale air attacks was the main reason for
evacuating children several other factors encouraged the government in
this decision. Britain had had a taste of what air raids were like
during zeppelin attacks in World War One. More recently the bombing of
Shanghai in 1931 and that of Guernica in 1937 (where German planes and
pilots had been used to bomb the city) showed the British government
the disastrous consequences of leaving children in cities which were
almost certainly going to be targets. As well as the fear of air raids
the government also expected Germany to make full use of poisonous gas
as a weapon. In preparation for these anticipated gas attacks all
people living in Britain were issued with gas masks. Another good
reason for sending the children away was that it freed up their
parents for important war work in munitions factories and other
war-related jobs.

The government began planning the relocation of “school children,
children below school age accompanied by their mothers…and expectant
mothers” as early as 1934. As well as removing the most vulnerable
people from harm this mass evacuation of children also enabled their
mothers to work without having children to worry about thus providing
the government with the workforce it needed to replace the male
workers who had gone to fight. It also helped the parents to work
without distraction knowing that their children were safe in the
country. Small-scale evacuations were carried out at the height of the
Munich Crisis in September 1938 but the real evacuation began in
September 1939. The government evacuation plan ‘Operation Pied Piper’
had planned to evacuate about 3,500,000 people but in fact only
1,500,000 made use of the official scheme. By the evening of September
3rd 1939, a few hours after war had been officially declared, 827,000
school children, 524,000 young children and their mothers and 12,000
pregnant women had been successfully removed from the danger zones to
safe ‘reception’ areas in the country.

With almost 1,400,000 children relocated to ‘safe’ rural areas people
expected the air raids to begin immediately. Nothing happened in the
six months following this first evacuation. Parents began to doubt if
they had done the right thing in sending their children away and began
to make arrangements to bring them home again. During this six-month
‘phoney war’ an estimated one million evacuees had returned home. When
the Luftwaffe began in July 1940 another major evacuation took place.
Within a few weeks 213,000 unaccompanied children left Britain’s large
industrial cities once more for the country. The government also set
up a Children’s Overseas Reception Board, which arranged for children
to be sent to Canada, the USA, New Zealand and Australia. In the first
few months over 210,000 were registered with this scheme. However,
after a German torpedo sank the City of Bernares on 17th September
1940, killing 73 children, the overseas program was brought to a halt.
On the 7th September 1940, the German air force changed its strategy
and began to bomb London and other British cities such as Liverpool,
Birmingham, Plymouth and Coventry. The governments’ fears of
large-scale bombing raids had been realised. Parents were now
desperate to get their children out of target areas and between
September 1940 and December 1941 over 1,250,000 were helped by the
government to leave the cities.

Throughout these various evacuations the government churned out
propaganda to try and get more parents to send their children and to
get less parents to take them back. They advertised evacuation as a
chance to get their children away from the “crippling dislocation of
city life”. They also advertised for ‘foster parents’ in Scotland,
Wales and the east of England. From the beginning of Operation Pied
Piper the government was extremely organised and efficient,
communicating with the potential evacuees’ parents by bulletins issued
through the schools. Evacuation was strictly voluntary so the
government issued many posters and leaflets designed to persuade
parents to send their children away.

The evacuation of children was a genuine effort by the government to
protect the vulnerable British citizens in large cities. They based
their decision upon expectations of large-scale air raids on cities
using bombs and possibly gas. Such ideas had evolved from the first
bombing raids in the First World War and seemed borne out by the
evidence of the bombing of Guernica and Shanghai. Evacuation seemed to
be amply justified for reasons of civilian morale.

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