Evacuation - How it affected ordinary lives

War Looms on Britain

With the dark clouds of war looming over Britain, the Government agreed as early as 1938 that the mass evacuation of children, mothers of small children, pregnant women, invalids and the elderly would have to be carried out from major cities to the country and other places of safety. The Government sternly forewarned Britons that sacrifices would have to be made and there would be no greater sacrifice than saying goodbye to loved ones. Children, for their own safety, would have to be uprooted from all that was familiar to them to a strange new world. Indeed over the period of 1939 - 1944 there would be no less than three major transfers of Britons in preparation of the wrath of the German Luftwaffe.

An Image of an Evacuation Poster Informing Civilians of Evacuation Plans

PICTURE: Evacuation Poster informing civilians of evacuation plans

The Munich Crisis - 1938

The first test would come as early as 1938 when Britain was on the brink of war with Germany during the Munich Crisis. Albeit nowhere as large an exodus as would be experienced in less than a years time, small numbers of people were evacuated including children, mothers of small children, many pregnant women, invalids and the elderly. It would prove to be a valuable exercise for the Railways in logistics and organisation. With no doubt it was to help prepare civilians, if nothing else, for what was to come.

An Image of a Little Girl Waiting to be Evacuated

PICTURE: Little Girl waiting to be evacuated

An Image of Evacuees Smiling for the Camera

PICTURE: Evacuees smiling for the camera

The Phoney War and Evacuation

With war imminent, the Government ordered plans to evacuate children (and others) from London and other cities into effect on the 1st September 1939. The Government estimated that 3,500,000 people would be evacuated in this period alone. In fact in the first four days of September 1939 1,500,000 people took up the offer to evacuate to safer areas away from the major towns. Many people preferred to stay at home and take their chances rather than saying goodbye to their loved ones. It is important to remember that the Government always stressed that evacuation was purely voluntary and in no way would families be spilt if they didn't want to. In some ways it may have been easier if evacuation was mandatory as the decision to send off your children weighed heavy. Remember, most families had never been apart from each other and this must have been a heart wrenching decision to make.

However the threat of heavy bombings and poison gas was real in September 1939. Newsreels reported a new form of warfare that Poland had witnessed called the Blitzkrieg which Britain did not feel prepared for. The Government knew that she was no where ready for war but done all she could to rectify this. The Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) was formed to prepare for the Hun invading Britain and although in real terms the LDV was no match for an invading German army, symbolically the LDV was a giant in raising Britain's morale. However, fears of a Blitzkrieg soon turned to more of a Sitzkrieg.

By January 1940 (with Christmas 1939 seeing an upsurge) most had returned to their homes. The war didn't seem real as the Phoney War or Bore War gripped Britain. No bombs fell and rationing, conscription and transport difficulties combined to make this a period of discomfort and anti-climax. Most Britons actually felt cheated that they had sent their children away for no visible reason. However this would change come the summer of 1940 when Britain experienced horrific blitzes on some of her major cities.

Saying Goodbye to Loved Ones

On the 1st September 1939 children assembled with suitcases (or a paper bag if from poorer families) and taken to school. Whilst the children assembled in their school yards to be counted parents waited outside on the road. One of the teachers would then ask all the children to follow him or her in a long orderly line to their nearest railway station or awaiting coach. It is still commented now that children were almost abruptly torn away from their parents and led away by practically a stranger.

All children arrived at their departure points tagged like little pieces of luggage and carrying their gas mask, toothbrush, towel and a change of underwear. If lucky they were given a treat to help with what could sometimes prove to be a long journey. As will be seen below there is a list of what the Government recommended children should bring with them. Many children came from poorer families and would not have much of what was listed below.

With the railways running around 4,000 evacuees specials in the first 4 days of September 1939 this part of the evacuation process proved to be a extremely well orchestrated and generally smooth operation. The same could not be said for the reception parties once the children got to their destinations.

There was indeed a certain sense of secrecy that surrounded children's movements and destination points. Much like troop movements it was widely believed this would help prevent any enemy sabotage attempts.

An Image of a 'Leave the children where they are' Poster

PICTURE: 'Leave the children where they are' Poster

Clothing Required as part of the Government Evacuation Scheme

An Image of a Boys Tag
  • 1 vest
  • 1 pair of pants
  • 1 pair of trousers
  • 2 pairs of socks
  • Handkerchiefs
  • 1 pullover or jersey
An Image of a Girls Tag
  • 1 vest
  • 1 pair of knickers
  • 1 petticoat
  • 2 pairs of stockings
  • Handkerchiefs
  • 1 slip
  • 1 blouse
  • 1 cardigan
An Image of a Boys and Girls Tag
  • Coat (Overcoat or Mackintosh)
  • Nightwear (comb, towel, soap, face-cloth, toothbrush, boots or shoes, plimsolls)
  • Food (sandwiches, packets of nuts and seedless raisins, dry biscuits, barley sugar rather than sugar, apple, orange)
  • Gas Masks

Reception Nightmares and the Slave Auction

As a result of fewer evacuees than the Government had forecast, trains were not at their full capacity. Due to this other children were boarded upon these trains to make up numbers. This sometimes meant that schools were split and dispatched to unplanned destinations. When the trains eventually reached their destinations, Billeting Officers already held lists of households able to take children in. There seemed to be two ways of distributing the children once at the reception areas.

An Image of a Little Boy Eating a Toffee Carrot in 1940

PICTURE: Little boy eating a toffee carrot in 1940

Slave Auction

The householders would select children straight from the reception areas. Farmers always selected the strongest and those capable of doing manual work whereas the housewives would select the cleanest. This picking and choosing later became known as the Slave Auction. Inevitably there were always children left that nobody wanted. This would have a lasting effect on some of the children for the rest of their lives.

Second Method

There then followed the second method. Children were sent with a Billeting Officer tramping around from door to door. This could lead to a humiliating experience for the children if they were rejected visit after visit. It must be remembered that these children were confused and missing their parents. This type of rejection had profound effects. Indeed various studies carried out at the time proved that chronic bed wetting was common place in children evacuated. Indeed the W.V.S. issued a leaflet for civil defence entitled "Bed Wetting for householders taking unaccompanied children" which highlighted the extent of this problem.

Class Divisions

In happier times before the outbreak of war and mass numbers of children descended on sleepy middle class towns, the better off British had no real idea of the poverty and the dreadful living conditions endured by the poor. This stark reality was really brought home with the advent of evacuation. Many of the poorer children had inadequate footwear and clothing. Some of the children had head lice and language could be colourful! Some even brought with them little tricks they had learned such as shoplifting and pick pocketing!

An Image of a 'You ought to be out of London' Poster

PICTURE: 'You ought to be out of London' Poster

The Phoney War Ends Abruptly

If anyone was in doubt whether the war was real, in the late summer of 1940 this would all change. Britain, particularly Southern England, was subjected to devastating raids causing heavy civilian casualties and massive destruction to many of Britain's cities. On the 16th August 1940 Southern England was bombed heavily. London was bombed relentlessly between the 7th September and the 13th November 1940 with only ten days let up. On the 14th November the raids stopped in London and Coventry was battered. All these frightening and deadly raids had an effect and created a phenomenon now known as trekking.

Trekking and Trickle Evacuation

In September 1939 the Government had overseen a reasonably ordered programme of evacuating large number of civilians. However with the abrupt end of the Phoney war in the late summer of 1940 evacuation was more ad-hoc. Individuals began to make their own arrangements for evacuating their nearest and dearest. Some sought partial assistance from the Government to become known as the Assisted Private Evacuation Scheme. The Government would help by giving billeting and travel assistance to those who found their own accommodation. This would be vitally important as the central overseeing of evacuation was now impossible. The evacuation of cities during this period was totally different to that experienced in September 1939. The difference being that civilians were not being evacuated en masse but at their own will in a slow trickle fashion. This trickle evacuation would last up until the end of 1941 when raids in London and the major cities stopped when Germany turned her aggressive war machine on Russia.

Those Leaving the Major Cities to Safer Heavens

Mother and Children

350,000 - 400,000

Unaccompanied Children


Expectant Mothers


Total Number


Britain Begins to Breathe Again

By the Summer of 1944 London in particular began to return to some normality. There were still intermittent bombings but Britain did not experience the same kind of devastating raids she had experienced in the late summer of 1940. However this would change, for a short time anyway, in 1944.

On the 13th June 1944 at 6.25am Germany launched her Vengeance Weapons on the heart of the capital. Firstly came the V-1 weapons and later the terrifyingly advanced V-2 rocket. See our page on Hitler's Vengeance weapons. The main purpose of the V-Weapons was to terrorise the British civilian population so that the war against Germany would not continue. This failed completely with the weapons not being used until Germany had effectively lost the war. However it still caused, in 1944, 1,000,000 women, children, elderly and disabled people to evacuate from the capital.

An Image of a Little Girl

PICTURE: Time to reflect on the true price of evacuation

Time to Reflect

In conclusion, evacuation experiences varied widely. To many it was a happy experience. However to others it was an experience that, at worst, would scar some children into adulthood.

It must be remembered that evacuation did save countless lives and was necessary to protect the vulnerable. Try asking yourself the question "What would you have done?".

It is a dilemma that thankfully most of us have never had to face.