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Operation Pied Piper: The Evacuation of English Children During World War II

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One of the most, if not the most, emotionally wrenching decisions made by the British government during World War II was its decision to relocate its children out of urban centers to locations where the risk of bombing attacks was low or non-existent. Called Operation Pied Piper, millions of people, most of them children, were shipped to rural areas in Britain as well as overseas to Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Almost 3 million people were evacuated during the first four days of the operation, making it the biggest and most concentrated population movement in British history.

“I’ll take that one.”

— Evacuee host parent

Plans for such a move began during the summer of 1938, in which the country was divided into risk zones identified as “evacuation,” “neutral,” or reception” and lists of available housing were compiled. During the summer of 1939, the London County Council began requisitioning buses and trains. As the prospect of war became more likely, London’s mayor, Herbert Morrison, a Laborite, wanted to begin the evacuation process in August, but was rebuffed by the government led by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, which was concerned that such a move would cause a general panic.

Operation Pied Piper

Young British children are evacuated as part of Operation Pied Piper. Ultimately 3.5 million people were relocated as part of the evacuation. Imperial War Museum photo

When Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Morrison was at 10 Downing Street talking to Chamberlain’s aide, Sir Horace Wilson, about evacuating the children. Wilson protested, “But we’re not at war yet, and we wouldn’t want to do anything to upset delicate negotiations, would we?”

In his thick London East End accent, Morrison growled, “Look, ’Orace, go in there and tell Neville this from me: If I don’t get the order to evacuate the children from London this morning, I’m going to give it myself – and tell the papers why I’m doing it. ’Ow will ’is nibs like that?” A half hour later, Morrison had the document. The evacuation began that afternoon.

One mother in London, after watching her own two children march off, saw two tots leave a line and rush up to a policemen standing in the middle of the intersection, holding traffic until the children had passed. “Bye-bye, Daddy,” they said. The policeman looked down, smiled, and said, “Now be good, kiddies.” The children then got back in line. As they did so, the mother saw tears rolling down the policeman’s cheeks.

In London and other major cities, adults saw long files of children led by teachers or other officials walk toward bus or railroad stations for their journey to different parts of the country. Each child carried around his neck a small square cardboard box containing a gas mask, and on the lapel of each child’s coat was pinned a name card. Brothers and sisters held each other’s hands “like grim death, and refused to be parted.”

One mother in London, after watching her own two children march off, saw two tots leave a line and rush up to a policemen standing in the middle of the intersection, holding traffic until the children had passed. “Bye-bye, Daddy,” they said. The policeman looked down, smiled, and said, “Now be good, kiddies.” The children then got back in line. As they did so, the mother saw tears rolling down the policeman’s cheeks.

Operation Pied Piper Poster

Poster used by the British government in the London Underground to spread the word about the evacuations of civilians in Britain during World War II. British Ministry of Health poster

The first and largest exodus lasted four days. Other smaller evacuations occurred up until September 1944. Ultimately more than 3.5 million people were relocated. Finding homes was often traumatic for the children. As a rule, billeting officials would line the newly arrived children up against a wall or on a stage in the village hall, and invite potential hosts to take their pick. The phrase, “I’ll take that one” became a statement indelibly etched in countless children’s memories.

Corporations and private relief organizations in the United States arranged for thousands of children to stay in the country. Employees of the Hoover vacuum cleaning company in Canton, Ohio, and Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., volunteered to take children of employees from their British subsidiaries. In New York City, a radio interview of six evacuee children living there was broadcast back to England on Sept. 10, 1940. According to a New York Times article, “Baseball received a vote of approval, although this was qualified when compared with cricket.”

Finding homes was often traumatic for the children. As a rule, billeting officials would line the newly arrived children up against a wall or on a stage in the village hall, and invite potential hosts to take their pick. The phrase, “I’ll take that one” became a statement indelibly etched in countless children’s memories.

Given the large numbers and different social classes involved, individual experiences ran the gamut from excellent to terrible. On Dec. 6, 1941, Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud, reported the results of a 12-month study she had authorized. Its conclusion was that “separation from their parents is a worse shock for children than a bombing.” In the 2003 BBC Radio 4 documentary, “Evacuation: The True Story,” Steve Davis, a clinical psychologist specializing in the study of war trauma, stated that in the worst cases, “It was little more than a pedophile’s charter.”

Though the big children evacuation story occurred in England, it wasn’t the only one. British women and children in Singapore began to be evacuated shortly after Japan launched its attack on the colony. After a harrowing experience on their ship, one group eventually reached Australia in early January 1942.

Operation Pied Piper

Children evacuees from Bristol carry bags, suitcases and gas masks as they walk off the platform upon their arrival at the Brent Station, London, U.K., ca. 1940. They later continued on to Kingsbridge, U.K. Bristol later suffered severely from Luftwaffe air attacks. Imperial War Museum photo

The return of evacuees to London was approved on June 1945, but some began returning to England as early as 1944. The evacuation was officially ended in March 1946.

The return of evacuees to London was approved on June 1945, but some began returning to England as early as 1944. The evacuation was officially ended in March 1946.

YouTube features a number of videos about the evacuation. One such video is a mixture of posters, photographs, and Imperial War Museum footage. Another video features a young schoolgirl interviewing her grandmother about her evacuation experience, part of a class project. In it the grandmother states that her host family “was not very nice.”

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...