Fear that German bombing would cause civilian deaths prompted the government to evacuate children, mothers with infants and the infirm from British towns and cities during the Second World War. Evacuation took place in several waves. The first came on 1 September 1939 - the day Germany invaded Poland and two days before the British declaration of war. Over the course of three days 1.5 million evacuees were sent to rural locations considered to be safe.
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Evacuation was voluntary, but the fear of bombing, the closure of many urban schools and the organised transportation of school groups helped persuade families to send their children away to live with strangers. The schoolchildren in this photograph assembled at Myrdle School in Stepney at 5am on 1 September 1939. The adults accompanying them are wearing arm bands, which identify them as volunteer marshals.
Evacuation was a huge logistical exercise which required thousands of volunteer helpers. The first stage of the process began on 1 September 1939 and involved teachers, local authority officials, railway staff, and 17,000 members of the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS). The WVS provided practical assistance, looking after tired and apprehensive evacuees at railway stations and providing refreshments in reception areas and billeting halls. Volunteers were also needed to host evacuees.
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Children were evacuated from cities across Britain. The children in this photograph are evacuees from Bristol, who have arrived at Brent railway station near Kingsbridge in Devon, 1940. Parents were issued with a list detailing what their children should take with them when evacuated. These items included a gas mask in case, a change of underclothes, night clothes, plimsolls (or slippers), spare stockings or socks, toothbrush, comb, towel, soap, face cloth, handkerchiefs and a warm coat. The children pictured here seem well-equipped for their journey, but many families struggled to provide their children with all of the items listed.
Evacuees and their hosts were often astonished to see how each other lived. Some evacuees flourished in their new surroundings. Others endured a miserable time away from home. Many evacuees from inner-city areas had never seen farm animals before or eaten vegetables. In many instances a child's upbringing in urban poverty was misinterpreted as parental neglect. Equally, some city dwellers were bored by the countryside, or were even used for tiring agricultural work. Some evacuees made their own arrangements outside the official scheme if they could afford lodgings in areas regarded as safe, or had friends or family to stay with.
Many stately homes in the English countryside were given over for use as nursery schools or homes for young children evacuated from cities across the country. This lithograph print is one of a series of five entitled 'Children in Wartime' by artist Ethel Gabain. This work was commissioned in 1940 by the War Artists Advisory Committee, who wanted a record of the civilian evacuation scheme.
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By the end of 1939, when the widely expected bombing raids on cities had failed to materialise, many parents whose children had been evacuated in September decided to bring them home again. By January 1940 almost half of the evacuees returned home. The government produced posters like this one, urging parents to leave evacuees where they were while the threat of bombing remained likely.
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Additional rounds of official evacuation occurred nationwide in the summer and autumn of 1940, following the German invasion of France in May-June and the beginning of the Blitz in September. Evacuation was voluntary and many children remained in the cities. Some stayed to help, care for or support their families.
The German V-weapon attacks on cities in the east and south-east of England, which began in June 1944, prompted another wave of evacuations from these areas.
For some children, the end of the war brought an end to a prolonged period of fear, confusion and separation. For others, it brought considerable upheaval as they returned to cities and families they barely remembered. But the government’s voluntary evacuation scheme was an enormous undertaking that saw millions of children sent to places of safety, away from the threat of German bombs.
Image © The rightsholder (IWM HU 36234).
This article was edited by Laura Clouting. Other IWM staff members contributed to writing an older version of this piece.