England: World War II Evacuees--Harry Smith (1939-40)

Figure 1.--

Prime Minister Chamberlain on September 3, 1939, announced that Britain and France were at war with Germany. Harry Smith, a 10 year old boy at the time, remembers the announcement clearly, although like most boys had no idea what it mean for him ot his country.

I was ten years old and my parents called me and my brother in from playing in the street so the whole family was gathered in the kitchen, listening to the BBC. My brother and I did not really understand what was happening but we were told there could be a war and we knew that was serious. I was especially scared because my friend, Tom, had left London a few days earlier, as his parents thought there would be a war and I was desperate for him to return Finally we heard the news broadcast. My parents sat silent with shock of the prospect of another war, potentially as bad as the last one. When the announcement had finished my mother began talking as if nothing had changed and told my brother and me to go out to play. I rushed outside and called my friend Stanley and we naively set off to look for the war.

Somebody said they were desperate for people to fill sandbags at the hospital to protect the windows, so we dashed down there. Most people were very scared about the war and were happy with the preparations the Government made. It was widely believed that London would be reduced to rubble within minutes of war being declared. "When we came home my parents gave me a special tea and told me to start packing as I was going on a long outing in a few days time." (Often the children being evacuated did not know what was happening to them).

Harry did not know what was happening to him and was unprepared for the long journey. "I thought it was a Sunday school outing down to the seaside. And I looked out of the bus window and I saw my mother crying outside. I said to my brother 'What's mummy crying for?' and my brother said 'Shut up!"

Parents wanted to do everything possible for their children's safety so by the summer of 1939, 3.5 million children had been evacuated to safer areas and gas masks had been issued. The children who were evacuated had mixed experiences. Some were treated dreadfully but others enjoyed their new lives so much that they did not want to leave. When the evacuees arrived they had to wait in a village hall for local families to come and chose them. Families picked children on the way they were dressed and brothers and sisters were often split up. Local families were reluctant to take two boys so Harry and his brother were split up. "Eventually I realized what was happening and being tired and hungry, waiting in large new surroundings with all these strange people examining me I sat down and burst into tears. My brother had already gone and I was the last person to be chosen due to my untidy appearance."

Harry wrote to his parents- "Dear Mum and Dad, I like the place and the people but I would like to come home. I went to the school today but I didn't like it so much as our school... I amuse myself going to the fields or looking at books. I'm wearing my long socks but I don't want anymore. Was it hot yesterday because it was here? We have no garden to play in. There is a girl living here. I wish I could come home".

Many evacuees were called home by their parents during the "Phoney War" (1939-40) but when the bombing began, like Harry, were evacuated again. Harry Smith was called home by his parents in February 1940 but sent back when the Blitz began, in October 1940. This time he was unlucky with the people he was staying with. "The women said, "Here's your meal" and gave us a tin of pilchards between the two of us and some bread and water. Now we'd been in a rich woman's house before so we said, "Where's the butter?" And we got a sudden wallop round the head. What we later found out was the woman hated kids and was doing it for the extra money. So the meals were the cheapest you could dish up." Food was also rationed. Typical rations for an adult for a week were 3 pints of milk, 1/2 pound of sugar, 3oz butter, 3oz cheese, a shilling´s worth of fresh meat, 2 slices of corned beef, 20z of tea, 2oz of jam, 1 egg, 3oz of margarine, 3oz lard and 4 slices of bacon.

During the Blitz, school life was interrupted and many children lost out on their education. Apart from children being evacuated and having to settle into new environments many younger teachers left to fight or the country and help in the War Effort. Retired schoolteachers were forced to replace them . "The war changed my life completely and I regret being unable to have a better education." There were paper and food shortages, the teachers were boring and we had to learn telephone signals and plant vegetables instead of doing schoolwork.

For the evacuees life at home was also very different. "Every night after sunset we put up the blackout curtains and we even had to paint black cows white so we could identify them in the dark." Many houses had bomb shelters. "At home we had an Anderson shelter in the back of the garden which was very uncomfortable to sleep in." "When I was evacuated there was no garden so we used the cellar." The Blitz began on 7 September 1940 on the East End of London and many people were killed. "Suddenly, at 2:00 the next morning we awoke in the cellar when we heard a bomb crashing into the house next door. We lit candles and could see a chair dangling from the ceiling, supported by a slat in the roof."

The worst experience for many British children, during the war was being evacuated away from their family and alone in a new environment with different people. However, many good things also came of the evacuations. Many lives were saved and some children enjoyed a much better standard of life in the time they lived away from the big cities.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: September 10, 2002
Last updated: September 10, 2002