Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Evacuation in Wartime Britain

Corkickle Railway Station, Whitehaven, Cumbria
During WW2 many evacuees left or arrived via railway platforms
Nowadays primary schools re-enact wartime evacuations from this station.
For additional information click on 'Comments' below


Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(1) The first evacuees of 1939

In the late summer and early autumn of 1939 Britain, and its main European ally, France, were countries on the move because of wartime evacuation. In Britain, according to Angus Calder in his book "The People's War" - one of the definitive works about the Second World War in Britain - in September 1939 alone, population movements affected between a quarter and a third of the British population. People moved from areas thought to be 'vulnerable' to areas considered 'safe'.

Britain was divided into three parts - 'evacuation', 'neutral' and 'reception' areas. As Angus Calder goes on to explain, there were three parts to the evacuation:

1. Firstly, those eligible to be evacuated must be encouraged to go;
2. Secondly, those being evacuated had to be transported;
3. Finally, the evacuees had to be billeted.

In many cases, the evacuations were arranged by official authorities often involving different voluntary bodies and / or churches, for example. However, in some cases people arranged their own evacuation, such as to relatives or friends living in the areas perceived to be less at risk from enemy bombing. In some instances, some people arranged for their own, or their children's, evacuation to safer countries, such as Canada, the U.S.A. or South Africa.

Even so, at this early stage of the war the numbers of evacuees in Britain were significantly less than had been envisaged in the pre-war years. The three English counties receiving the highest proportion of evacuees were Sussex, Cumberland and Westmorland. Even in these three counties, only about half, or a little less than half, of the expected allocation of evacuees arrived.

My home county of Cumbria now includes the former 'reception area' counties of Cumberland and Westmorland. Hence there were relatively large numbers of evacuees that migrated to Cumbrian towns and villages. Over a number of years I have interviewed several people who were either evacuees or whose families took in evacuees. On the whole, this was a time that people generally have remembered with some fondness. However, these fond memories tend to be tinged with at least a little sadness because of the enforced separation from close family and friends who were not evacuated. Where children were evacuated in some instances the evacuation experience changed the whole course of their life.

Tuesday, 16 February, 2010  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(2) Later evacuations of 1940 and 1941

During the 'Phoney War', basically the period up to the middle of May 1940, there was a tendency for many evacuees to 'drift back' from the reception areas back to their home area. However, the German advance through the Ardennes in May 1940 and the subsequent evacuation of the B.E.F. from Dunkirk began a further period of evacuation in Britain. Additionally, about 30,000 evacuees arrived in Britain from countries of mainland Europe, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar.

The 'blitzing' by German bombers of many British towns and cities in the autumn of 1940 and spring of 1941 also led to further evacuation to the reception areas. During this period, there were arguably more mothers and children who wished to evacuate than in the earlier part of the war.

According to the respected British historian Angus Calder, some local authorities refused to evacuate people unless they arranged their own billets. This was not an easy matter for many. Hence, it helped if a family had close relatives or friends in the reception areas. Then, they could at least make billeting arrangements with people they already knew.

(3) A personal link with wartime evacuation

It was around this period of 1940 / 1941 that I understand that my own relatives were most closely affected by wartime evacuation. I have been told that some of my relatives who were living away from West Cumberland made their own private arrangements and were billeted with family still living in Whitehaven, West Cumberland. A number of them were billeted at Corkickle, Whitehaven, within a short walk of the railway station seen in the above photograph.

However, due to constraints of living space in the houses of the West Cumbrian relatives this meant that the evacuees were 'shared round' between various relatives. In the case of my relatives I am led to believe the family did not remain evacuees for very long - seemingly a matter of months. But, at least they were able to find a place of shelter when they most needed it. There would have been many more families that were not so fortunate.

If there was at least one thing families could do in the overall struggle against Nazi Germany, it was to pull together and see things through to the end. Although these ‘private evacuations’ were perhaps not ideal in the long term, at least they enabled many families to get through the war. Another advantage of being able to make a private evacuation arrangement was that everyone would have a better idea of who and what to expect beforehand.

Tuesday, 16 February, 2010  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(4) Understanding the effect of evacuation on families

Much of the information about how wartime evacuation affected some of my relatives comes from what I have been told over the years by different family members. Evidently, the consequences of evacuation affected other families to a greater extent than it did to my own.

As with many wartime events, when it comes down to a more personal level many events went unrecorded. Naturally, this makes it difficult for subsequent generations to fully understand what it was really like during the dark days of the war. Because people may have felt they were not safe in their own homes they were prepared to put up with evacuation, even though it usually meant that families were split up.

However, looking back at evacuation with a post-war mentality, I have the impression many schools cover this aspect of wartime Britain in a positive way really well. In particular it is taught to young children in primary schools in a way that they can understand. For example, many primary schools re-enact the wartime childhood evacuation by taking children on a train journey away from their home area. Once a year this re-enactment of childhood evacuation takes place from Corkickle Station, the one seen in the above photograph. Teachers and children dress up in wartime clothes, carry gas mask cases, and they go away for the day.

Naturally the children, unlike their wartime forebears, know it is only make-believe. At the end of the day, all the children go back home to their families, which of course did not happen when the evacuation was for real. Nevertheless, it does seem to give the younger children some insight into what it must have been like for their forebears.

(5) Summary

During the war, the railways transported people and goods around the country. The visual images of children being evacuated by train tend to be some of the most evocative of the war. Rail journeys at that time could be taking loved ones away or bringing them closer to home.

Among the popular songs in Britain, was one that began, ‘Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye…”. This is a song full of sentiment – mixed emotions of sadness, joy and relief. One way or another, many families were affected by separation – some of them went away and not all of them came back.

Wartime evacuation - and indeed the whole experience of war - tends to separate those who love each other. I have heard this same sentiment expressed in France, so it is true across frontiers. It is also a timeless sentiment – and there is as much truth in it in the 21st century as there was during the Second World War.

Tuesday, 16 February, 2010  
Blogger Cathie said...

Concerning this event, I recommend to those who may not have seen it (though I realize you all must have) the wonderful film by John Boorman called Hope and Glory. And also the book by David Lodge entitled OUT OF THE SHELTER - which tells the story as seen through the eyes of a young child.
Thanks Joseph for reminding us of the difficult experience that these kids went through - and no psychological support at any time.I wonder, has any thesis been written on their trauma? Interesting field of research.

Tuesday, 16 February, 2010  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

The 'inspiration' for this posting really commenced with reading Catherine's recent novel set in France 'Histoires Floues'. So many people were split up during WW2 just because there was a war, and particularly children.

When I was in France in the summer of 2009 the Resistance and Deportation Museum at Tarbes covered a lot about the forced deprtations of WW2 during the Occupation, many of them children. Earlier in the war, when it began, the population movement in France was something akin to what happened in Britain.

In Britain there was not quite the same enforced deportation as in Occupied Europe, although one should not forget that there was internment of many those who had been born in the Axis countries. Many of the people in this category - which sometimes also included children born in the UK - were sent to the Isle of Man, which is not too far from my home area of Cumbria. Peter, one of the mainstays of this site, had his paternal grandfather interned on the Isle of Man.

As I mention above, a few of my father's relatives were able to arrange their own evacuation. Luckily they were not really forced into evacuation or deportation as other families had to face up to. The children do seem to be able to understand about evacuations and deportations, especially when they re-enact what happened and can think about how it may have been for real.

Wednesday, 17 February, 2010  
Blogger Cathie said...

I was asking the question about research on the effect of this separation on children, and I had Britain in mind. In France, the situation was harder on those kids whose parents had been arrested, deported, and who did not know what was happening or what would happen to them. Plus, they had to change their names, and were sometimes forced to convert.
A book has just been published on the ensuing trauma for the children who survived, by a psychologist (PhD) - and the consequences were far-reaching, in that they sometimes hit the third generation. Thank you Joseph for raising the subject. I intend to dig a little!

Wednesday, 17 February, 2010  

Post a Comment

<< Home