The biggest mass movement of people in British history

Evacuation in Britain during the Second World War amounted to the biggest mass movement of people in British history, with around 4 million people leaving their homes to escape the air raids of the Blitz. Many children didn't know where they would end up, who they would live with or when they would see their parents again. How did it feel to be an evacuee, a parent or a volunteer host? And how did the government organise the mammoth task of Operation Pied Piper? IWM Curator Alan Jeffreys tells us more.

Interviewer: “How much were you used to looking after your sister?”

Ronald McGill: “Um, I hated the sight of her; she hated the sight of me, so we always were in conflict. Uh, of course that died very quickly with the outbreak of war and then she hung on to me and I hung onto her really. I became the older boy, I was nine, she was seven and a half and so it changed the relationship completely. Suddenly I became almost like a mum and dad, and it became very close for children, very close.”

On the same day that Germany invaded Poland large-scale evacuation procedures were taking place across Britain. The threat of German bombing of British towns and cities was imminent, and Britain was prepared. Ronald McGill, heard in this recording, was sent away from his home in Vauxhall in 1939 aged nine, holding the hand of his younger seven-year-old sister with little more than a toothbrush and a spare pair of shorts. His parents said they'd see him back by Christmas, but his teachers told the children to prepare for at least a year away from home. Many children didn't know what town they would end up in, who they would live with, or when they would see their parents again.

The choice facing parents to send their children on a train into the unknown did not come easily, but the option to keep them at home was even worse. How and why did these parents make this choice?

Evacuation on this scale had never been attempted by the government before but it was their task to safely transport millions across the country. So, how was this mammoth task accomplished?

Alan Jeffreys: “It was the first time the government had organised an evacuation scheme. There had been aerial bombardment in 1917 with the Gotha raids and people had evacuated from the cities then but there'd be no government scheme in place. School-age children were evacuated, pregnant women, mothers with young children, and the disabled and also their carers and helpers, and teachers as well. The evacuation between 1939 and 1945 amounts to the biggest mass migration of British history.”

A few days after the announcement of war Ronald McGill boarded his own train along with 500 other pupils from his school headed for Reading. The school had been preparing for evacuation for a few weeks and some schools had already started leaving the cities.

Ronald McGill: “Now only that morning were we told it was Reading. So, we marched in there we waved goodbye and the parents stayed on one side of the road and they all cried our eyes out, it was terrible. Although we were all happy and joking by then, we'd had our apple, we said our goodbyes, banged our gas masks on and we were off.”

Within the next three days, 1.5 million evacuees were sent from cities and towns into rural areas considered safe, and over the course of the war around 4 million people left their homes. It was a huge logistical exercise that required tens of thousands of volunteer helpers.

Alan Jeffreys: “The initial organisation is administratively quite thorough, but then it definitely deteriorates after that and it just depends on where they were going. So, a billeting officer in a town or small city would quite often be a local government official but then in smaller towns and villages they were usually volunteers and they just had to do what they could. And obviously people volunteered to take evacuees in, so the people who took in evacuees were compensated they got 10 shillings and six pence for the first child and then eight shillings and six pence for further children that they took in to look after.”

Mary Whiteman: “Mostly the school children went straight to the training college and then were taken, met by billeting officers who offered to find them homes, and it does credit to the town to say that that first night everybody had somewhere to go. And they just counted up the rooms that was the idea you've in the old days, you count how many rooms and how many people.”

As well as the huge logistical challenge for the government, towns, families, and volunteers, evacuation was an emotional upheaval, distressing for both children and parents. Evacuation was also entirely voluntary, so why did so many thousands so readily sign up before the war had even started?

Alan Jeffreys: “In the interwar period, especially in the 1930s, the great fear was of aerial bombardment. The MP Stanley Baldwin said in 1932 and the bomber will always get through and so this was one of the great fears across the nation in the interwar period.”

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. There was also a propaganda campaign encouraging citizens to take part.

Ronald McGill: “My parents were worried, they all thought that our part of London would be devastated by bombs the first moment the war was declared. They had a very real fear - my mother had seen the zeppelins come down over Elstree in the First World War and she thought that was going to happen again. And I actually heard her telling another lady that if Germany did attack, she would rather kill her own children than let them be taken.”

Interviewer: “What did you think of that?”

Ronald McGill: “I just couldn't believe it! I just couldn't imagine the Germans in my house, it didn't make sense.”

Across the country throughout the war and particularly in three separate waves of 1939, 1940 and 1944, children, mothers and vulnerable citizens left their homes, not knowing where they would end up, who with, or for how long. Luggage had to be limited. Parents were issued with a list detailing what their children should take with them when evacuated. Though the list was short for such a journey, in fact many families struggled even to provide their children with all the items listed.

Jannette Tucker: “Oh, we weren't allowed to take too much you know, just sort of a change of clothing mainly, just a few clothes. And we had to wear a mac, strong shoes, that sort of thing but we didn't take a lot of toys or anything, there wouldn't have been room.”

Interviewer: “You know you were 12 and your younger sister was eight?”

Jannette Tucker: “Yes, yes.”

Interviewer: “Did she take anything?”

Jannette Tucker: “Oh yes, she took some toys you know, sort of dolls and that I think, you know. I can't remember which ones but sure she did.”

For many evacuees from poorer inner city areas, it was their first experience of the countryside.

Interviewer: “There must have been some little children who hadn't even been to the country as much as you had?”

Ronald McGill: “Never, some had never been. Literally some had never seen cattle.”

Jannette Tucker: “As I say we were quite excited and looking forward to it really because it sounded interesting to go and live in the country.”

Interviewer: “What did you imagine that meant to go to the country?”

Jannette Tucker: “Oh well I don't know, I suppose see all the animals and trees you know. It seemed nice to us, living in London.”

Alan Jeffreys: “For some people it was the happiest days of their lives their evacuation experience. Whereas for others they missed their family and their home and especially if they were ill-treated by their foster carers. The experiences of the evacuees could really vary to a considerable level.”

In some instances, a child's upbringing in urban poverty was misinterpreted as parental neglect. On the other hand, some city dwellers were bored in the countryside or even used for tiring agricultural work.

John Wheeler: “But I honestly don't remember whether head nits, head lice was more than an initial problem. It certainly was a problem when they arrived because most of them were infected based. Cat and Bill Milcoy in the first weeks they were with us spent more time in the bath almost than they did in bed.”

Alan Jeffreys: “One of the quite important legacies of evacuation and definitely goes on to affect government legislation even during the war but certainly in the Labour government after 1945 was that evacuation drew attention to the economic and social deprivation that really existed in inner cities in the 1930s, and this really came to the fore through evacuation.”

Interviewer: “I was going to ask if you had ever thought whether had you children they would be evacuated? You've seen it as a child, what would it be like as a parent?”

Ronald McGill: “I wouldn't send them. I wouldn't send them unless it was to somebody I knew, or I'd go there first and try and find people. I wouldn't like to do that, too vulnerable, yeah too vulnerable. It did transform my life it really did I can't say it enough. Scarred you in many ways because you lost so many friends and relatives, but I wouldn't have been without it. I think in many respects I was lucky to survive but also lucky to have been there which I'm only realising that in later life.”

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 or homes that were no longer there. Despite the huge undertaking that evacuation was and the emotional distress to the citizens, by 1945 the impact of the air raids on cities across the country had been devastating.

Evacuation had allowed for the protection of millions of children from the worst of these aerial attacks.

Thanks for watching. Don't forget to hit the button to subscribe to IWM's YouTube channel for more videos like this and much more.

Discover more

Women Wanted for Evacuation Service poster
© IWM (Art.IWM PST 15092)
Second World War

The Evacuated Children Of 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.

Thumbnaiil make do and mend
Second World War

Make Do and Mend, 1943

From June 1941 until 1949, buying new clothes was rationed in Britain. This newsreel trailer, made by the Ministry of Information in 1943, is called ‘Make Do and Mend’, introduced by film curator Michelle Kirby.

Winston Churchill visiting the ruins of Coventry Cathedral
Second World War

Could the Blitz have made Britain surrender?

London, Coventry, Manchester and many more were bombed. But could the Blitz have worked?

In this episode of IWM Stories, Senior Curator Ian Kikuchi answers that very question by looking at one the deadliest nights of the Blitz, the bombing of Coventry.

Girls from St George's Church of England School in Battersea, London, take part in an open-air sewing class, by the edge of a river or lake, whilst evacuated to Pembrokeshire, Wales in 1940.
© IWM (D 989)
Second World War

How Children's Lives Changed During The Second World War

The Second World War brought many changes to the lives of children in Britain. For some, the war was a time of fear and confusion that meant separation from families, the destruction of a home or even the loss of a parent. However, for others, these years were the most exciting and happiest time of their lives.

Basque refugee children being cared for at Bray Court in England c. 1938.
© IWM HU 33135
Second World War

Growing Up In The Second World War

The Second World War was a time of major upheaval for children in Britain. Over a million were evacuated from towns and cities and had to adjust to separation from family and friends. Here are 11 ways children were affected by the Second World War.

Visitors exploring the Second World War exhibition
Permanent Gallery

Second World War Galleries

IWM London