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Thursday, July 7, 2005

Sixty years ago my brother and I sailed eastwards across the Atlantic . We were two of the three thousand British children who had been given wartime sanctuary in the United States. In 1940 Britain stood alone.

This article was first broadcast on BBC Radio Devon

Sixty years ago my brother and I sailed eastwards across the Atlantic. We were two of the three thousand British children who had been given wartime sanctuary in the United States. In 1940 Britain stood alone.

Offers to provide safe havens for children flooded in from the Dominions and from the United States. Companies offered to take the children of their sister companies in Britain. Universities did likewise. Committees were formed in the US to find homes and in the UK to secure escorts and ships. ‘See you after the duration,’ this 8-year-old shouted out blithely as we left. Little did parents know that the separation would last five years just as host families might have been hesitant if they had realized that their generous offers of homes was to have to last that long. For all of us it was the adventure of our lives. We were sustained by a sense of patriotism. We had to cope with changes of accent, language, food, and customs. Though readjusting after the missed years of family nurture turned out to be far harder than the initial separation. The big plus has been a broadened view of life and possibilities and the relationships gained with families unknown to us in 1940.

The fear children had in returning home was that they would not recognize their parents and parents that they would not recognize their children. We walked past our mother on the station platform. It was hard for us to live into the minds of parents who had suffered years of bombing and jumped at every loud sound. Our army officer father was used to more obedience than we perhaps gave him. Parent’s admonitions were met with refrain ‘We don’t do it that way in America .’ ‘We don’t do this, we don’t do that.’ So much so, that America soon became known as ‘We-land.’ Writer Tony Bailey says that the toughest question that remains for all who went is, ‘What would we have done, had we been in our parent’s shoes in 1940?’

Likewise, Sir Christopher Meyer, former British Ambassador to the US, believes that those of his generation are often haunted by the thought of what might have happened had they been just a little older.’ Fortunately it is difficult to envisage anything like this ever recurring. For much of the world has become a danger area and after September 11 few British parents would regard the United States as a safe haven. So as we mark the sixtieth anniversary of the ending of World War II there are many Brits, mostly in their seventies, who feel a particular sense of gratitude for their transatlantic cousins. They may not be pleased about all aspects of US foreign policy but they can always contrast these with the generous heart of the American people to which they were introduced early on in their lives.