Laura Clouting
Wednesday 3 January 2018
posters

The threat of German bombing

posters

The threat of German bombing

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.

photographs

The first wave of evacuations

photographs

The first wave of evacuations

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.

An early start to evacuation is made by children of Myrdle School in Stepney. The children assembled at school at 5am on Friday 1 September 1939. This photograph shows evacuees and adults walking along a street carrying suitcases and gas mask boxes. The adults are wearing arm bands which identify them as volunteer marshals.
Schoolchildren who had assembled for evacuation at Myrdle School in Stepney at 5am on 1 September 1939.
posters

Recruiting volunteers

posters

Recruiting volunteers

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.

a depiction of a group of evacuees arriving at a village by lorry. They are greeted by four women, one of whom helps the children to climb down from the back of the truck. Another woman offers a cup of tea to the female truck driver. A small child strokes a dog in the foreground,
Women Wanted for Evacuation Service.
photographs

Leaving the cities

photographs

Leaving the cities

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.

Some of the 175 children being monitored by the Ministry of Health during their evacuation from Bristol to the Kingsbridge area of Devon. The photograph was taken on arrival at Brent Station.
A group of evacuees from Bristol arrive at Brent railway station near Kingsbridge in Devon, 1940.
photographs

Life in the countryside

photographs

Life in the countryside

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.

Teacher Miss Betty Hall helps three-year-old Marion Davison, the youngest evacuee to Dartington Hall, over a stile as part of their nature walk in the countryside surrounding the Dartington estate. Other evacuees can be seen in the photograph, many are holding small bunches of flowers, which they have picked along the way.
Evacuees on a nature walk through the countryside surrounding the Dartington estate in Devon.
art

Nursery school

art

Nursery school

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.

There are a group of infants in the foreground all dressed in identical checked smocks, ankle socks and shoes. Within the group are two toddlers sitting on the ground, looked upon by the older children around. Two of the children standing on the left hold posies of flowers. There are a few more children and four nurses sitting on a grass bank behind.
A Nursery School: Watlington Park, by Ethel Gabain.
posters

Returning home against advice

posters

Returning home against advice

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.

a monchrome image of an anxious looking mother sitting by the trunk of a tree in a rural scene with two young boys playing with a model aeroplane. A ghost-like figure of Hitler whispers to mother and points towards the city shown in the distance to the right. A speech bubble emerges from his mouth.
Don't Do it, Mother - Leave the Children Where They Are, issued by The Ministry of Health
photographs

Another wave of evacuations

photographs

Another wave of evacuations

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.

A policeman helps some young evacuees, and a nun who is escorting them, at a London station.
A policeman helps young evacuees and the nun escorting them at a London station on 18 May 1940.
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V-weapon attacks

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V-weapon attacks

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.

Civil Defence rescue workers search amid piles of rubble as they try to dig survivors out of collapsed buildings following a V1 attack in the Highland Road and Lunham Road area of Norwood, London, SE19. One is using a dog to help in the search. In the background, a half-destroyed house can be clearly seen.
Civil Defence rescue workers search for survivors following a V1 attack in Norwood, London.
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Returning home at the end of the war

photographs

Returning home at the end of the war

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.

This article was edited by Laura Clouting. Other IWM staff members contributed to writing an older version of this piece.

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