Magazine article The Spectator

Stiff Upper Lips

Magazine article The Spectator

Stiff Upper Lips

Article excerpt

Athough there have been many books, articles, radio and television documentaries about the evacuation of children from cities to the countryside before the outbreak of the second world war, the subject continues to fascinate even 60 years later.

Radio Four is marking the anniversary with a five-part series, Evacuation: the True Story, the first of which began on Monday in the Start the Week slot. It was, as the presenter Charles Wheeler described, the biggest mass movement in British history. In the first three days in September 1939 before the outbreak of war, one and a half million people were moved out of the cities. Eight hundred thousand of them were children between the ages of five and 15, the remainder were mothers or expectant mothers.

In the late Thirties, the government feared there might be more than 4 million casualties from bombing raids on the cities and set about, in great secrecy, planning an evacuation of mostly children. It placed in charge of the task a senior minister, Sir John Anderson, a former governor of Bengal who, the programme thought, was rather a cold fish. One of his private secretaries, now Lord Allen of Abbeydale, recalled that Anderson -- after whom the air-raid shelter was named - `didn't have normal sentiments'. But he was a good administrator and getting people out of the cities generally went well. He assumed that parents would be only too willing to allow their children to be entrusted to the care of others for months or years. The shambles lay at the other end when they arrived. Many local authorities weren't prepared to cope with the deluge of evacuees that descended upon them by train, many of them from city slums.

The programme spoke to many of those who ended up in Wales or Dorset or Somerset, including a man who founded the Evacuees Reunion Association: `Nobody knew where we were going, parents didn't know. I was wildly excited.' Others were deeply unhappy. On the first day, 250,000 went from London alone. One woman interviewed burst into tears at the memory of it, which seemed rather odd. Was it that awful for her? I wondered. Wheeler thought that more planning and less secrecy by the government in the run up to war might have given the children a softer landing. …

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