Wednesday, October 1, 2008

From Children: the Invisible Victims of War published in October 2008 by DSM

‘The boat on which I crossed was one of those in which England was sending children to Canada. The scene on deck was touching and amazing. A thousand children were at play in the sun around the guns that protected them. Three warships escorted us.

Whenever I think of that ship I feel as if I were recalling a dream. This giant floating nursery seemed unreal. On deck hundreds of little folk, with blond and brown curly heads rushed about, laughed, shouted, climbed on the rigging, hoisted themselves up the companion stairs, fell, wept, then laughed again…

Sometimes I would get up at dawn and stretch out on deck in order to enjoy for a time the silent beauty of the oc ean before the children took possession…

In the same cabin with me lived Adrian, a little boy of eight, who was making the long voyage alone. Throughout the whole trip Adrian proved himself a reserved and dignified companion. Educated in an English school, trained to self-control from infancy, he was neither timid nor overbold. He tried to do everything for himself…He was neat, thoughtful and brave…’ *1

Let me begin with fifteen phrases from a book that is not about the evacuation:

Parents had to make painful decisions about what were the safest havens for their offspring.

He never re-established a close relationship with his parents.

His ‘floating free independence’ and ‘detachment from close relationships’ sprang from his transient childhood.

Susan did not at first recognize her mother at the railway station but she settled down quite quickly.

Parents found it difficult to realize that if they let their children go for that length of time they will forge other loyalties and affections because they need surrogate parents.

At the time he ‘just accepted it all’.

‘Same kind of bulldog pluck’.

She apparently showed ‘Churchillian qualities’.

Full of excitement.

Acquired a ‘premature independence’ as a means of coping with the pain of separation.

Children develop to varying degrees ‘a detached character as a defence against the fear of rejection’.

Very few of the people I have read about or talked to were entirely negative about their
childhood…they usually tell of blessings, as well as hardships.

It seems that the long British tradition of sending children away from their parents had helped to form the national character.

The stiff upper lip also helped give both civilians and servicemen their resilience needed in both world wars of the twentieth century.

Most young people like adventure and novelty and, as long as they have enough family contact, they gain as much as they lose.

These fifteen snippets are not about wartime British evacuees; they are about peacetime British children living with their families during the last years of the British Raj in India but sent home to England for schooling. But they dovetail with the attitudes and experiences of the former. They come from Vyvyen Brendon’s book Children of the Raj*2 and she herself even compares the two sets of children. She writes:

‘They were in many ways akin to Raj children being sent to Britain in normal times:

They were despatched for their own good but without consultation;

They travelled so far that returning home was virtually impossible;

They did not know how long their exile would be;

And they were told that if things went wrong they should remember that they were British and ‘grin and bear it’.

I start with these glimpses of life in the late thirties, because they may help the modern reader understand why some overseas evacuees coped so well with a separation that by today’s standards seems extraordinarily harsh. 1940 was a different world. This may seem obvious, but worth being reminded of it when we transfer today’s attitudes onto yesterday’s practices. Hindsight is marvellous, as is the propensity of younger folk to pontificate with assurance on matters they were not involved in. This has been particularly irritating to those who were evacuated within Britain and who have resented the way some of them have been depicted. It was, indeed, this misrepresentation that largely led to the formation of the Evacuees Reunion Association. This misrepresentation has been less the case among overseas evacuees, where it is more the fact that little is ever heard about their experiences that is irksome to some. What they share with internal evacuees is that within their
respective groups they have divided, often entirely opposite views on what happened to them.

In 1940 more than 200,000 British children were signed up to be evacuated overseas, many thousands of whom opted to go to North America. In the event, according to Foreign Office official figures, only 10,133 children went to Canada and the United States, although the actual figures are likely higher.

Looking back nearly seventy years, one can say confidently that the evacuation plans for North America were completely unrealistic, in practice harmful to family life and in the event turned out to be unnecessary. One can also say with equal accuracy that the evacuation of children to North America enriched the lives of thousands on both sides of the Atlantic, broadened the horizons of hosts and evacuees, helped bring home to Americans Britain’s plight, and that consideration of it was politically necessary. Martyn Pease wrote me: ‘My own view as a participant is that the critics have the better of the argument’. And he cites the death of the children in the City of Benares tragedy. Whereas his sister, Veronica Pease Farrington, thinks it was a fine idea because of the threat of a German invasion. She loved her host family and the USA and lives there. ‘It completely changed my life’, she says.

There were particular circumstances in Britain in 1939 and 1940 that made overseas evacuation an option that is never liable to be repeated and one that in many cases is favourably regarded by the participants. They include the nature of the threat and the fact that travel and communications had not made the great leap forward of the last part of the twentieth century. It must be remembered that in the spring and early summer of 1940, after the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk, it looked as if Britain would be invaded and that the Germans might win. If either had happened most parents would have been glad that their children were out of danger and today’s historians might well be praising their foresight. ‘There was the notion that if Britain fell to the Nazis we children would represent British survivors’, writes evacuee Meg Weston Smith, ‘and of course this aspect of whether the evacuation was a good idea was never put to the ultimate test. That was putting a big onus on small shoulders but keeping our Britishness was never questioned. We took a distinct pride in sticking up for Britain’.

In 2007 I asked more than a hundred evacuees to North America whether, with hindsight, they felt the evacuation was a good idea or a bad mistake and whether their subsequent life benefited or was adversely affected by it. Not a very profound question but one that produced heartfelt answers from fifty two of them*3. Their responses do not make this chapter a comprehensive picture of the whole but more a snapshot of the thoughts that remain after nearly sixty years. I will not attempt to cover the whole North American evacuation story, the reasons for it, and the adventures experienced, as I deal with them fully in my book See You After the Duration*4 as does Jessica Mann in her comprehensive account of overseas evacuation around the world in Out of Harm’s Way*5.

One thing should be said at the outset about overseas evacuation: generalizations are inappropriate. Evacuees ranged from babies to young teenagers, some came alone and some with their siblings, a few were accompanied by their mothers, some went to family members, some were part of a university or company initiative while many went entirely privately. Some by upbringing were used to family separation and some were away from family for the first time. Some fitted in and some didn’t, some were emotionally capable of coping and some felt that their lives were ruined. Some had ‘the time of their lives’ and some even now can’t bear to talk about it. Some were made fun of and some were arrogant. Some were less than two years in North America, most five years and a few even longer. Fault lines ran within families with one sister loving her time and another hating it, one brother benefiting enormously, another scarred for life. It is also hard for evacuees to separate their learning experiences in formative years spent abroad from learning experiences they might have had anyway if they had stayed at home.

That there was not more widespread trauma is surely due in part to the fact that we were, indeed, an accepting generation. Jessica Mann has written, echoing the Indian experience;

British society has been accustomed for centuries to empire-builders sending their children away from hot climates to foster homes or boarding schools. Our contemporary horror at the idea of parting children from their parents is a post-war development and although it is often tempting to use that early “trauma” as the excuse for all my deficiencies, I have the impression that the majority of the evacuees survived intact and even enriched*6’.

A usual question that is asked when an evacuee is met is ‘Where were you evacuated from?’ and then ‘Where were you evacuated to?’ In the case of overseas evacuations, the first question is in many ways less relevant. The more appropriate question might be ‘Why were you evacuated?’

Why We Went

Pre-war government thinking about internal evacuation began as early as 1925 and by 1931 meticulous preparations were being made, years before the great exodus under Operation Pied Piper began on September 1st 1939, the eve of the war. Overseas evacuation planning, in so far as it involved government, began only nine months after the war had begun, in June 1940, with the first ship sailing a month later, in the circumstances an incredible achievement. The fact that before the war an invasion was never expected is underlined by the fact that many children in 1939 were evacuated to the south coast! One evacuee, Susan Scrutton, stressing the different concept, as she saw it, described it as principally ‘spiritual not physical’. ‘Internal evacuation’, she explained to me, ‘was largely to get children away from bombing whereas in the view of her family, it was to get hers away from the threat of Nazi indoctrination’. It was of course both, and the motives varied considerably.

To ask now whether overseas evacuation was right or wrong is almost pointless. It happened. But there are two groups of people whose views would, with every justification, be respected for taking the negative view. One would be the parents and communities of children who died at sea in the sinking of the City of Benares. Several sets of siblings died in the sinking of that liner including the five Grimmond children, and the eleven children from Sunderland who were on board of whom only one was saved.

The other would be those who were Jewish and whose parents were acutely aware of what was happening at that time to fellow Jews in the concentration camps across the Channel. Evacuee Lord Janner is sure the evacuation was a good idea. ‘My father was an outstanding leader of the Jewish community and knew that he was on Hitler’s death list’. With an invasion expected, his parents decided that his sister and he should be sent to safety. ‘The problems arose when the ships were sunk. One was just a day ahead of the ship in which I was evacuated to Canada and my parents said that if they had known that there was this risk, they would not have sent me away’. Journalist Martin Revis, who was evacuated to Canada through the Ford Motor Company initiative, thinks that it would have been better if the whole scheme had been limited to Jewish children or those whose families were targeted specifically by the Nazis. One must also surmise the regrets on the part of parents whose children were killed by bombs in Britain where they had turned down the offer of overseas evacuation.

John Bedwell is in no doubt that his father made the right decision. His father had been a German prisoner of war in the Ruhr from 1916 to 1918 and a witness of the food riots as the German economy collapsed. John’s mother had died two years earlier and so his father also had to look after three children. So for John the evacuation was ‘a good thing’. Rev. Alan Jones says that his father, who was manager of the Grosvenor House Hotel, where many evacuees were processed, had had close contact with Germans prior to the war and ‘knew more than most how inhuman Hitler’s regime was’. He felt he was faced with a choice between ‘having my brother and me subjected to the same merciless thuggery of the SS should Hitler invade, a distinct possibility in May 1940, or go to the comparative haven of his business friend’s house in Beverly Hills’. But, like many, he says, ‘There is no simple answer. The deprivation in being separated from mother and father was and still is a gut wrenching feeling for some. However, we did survive’. His wife still cannot come to terms with his parents’ decision to have the children go to America.

Brian Bohun Barlow’s father wrote to his son:

Always remember the reason we allowed you all to go to America was this part of the world has gone mad, and a mad dog (Hitler) has been let loose in our civilization, and his brain works for destruction*7’.

In the spring of 1940, when it looked as if Britain would be invaded, offers of refuge for children poured in from the dominions and from the USA. Companies like Kodak, Hoover and Warner Brothers, and the Ford Motor Company in Canada, decided to take children of their employees in Britain. Universities made similar overtures as did organisations like the English-Speaking Union of the United States which was the first body to raise the question of American families taking in English children.

The overseas evacuation had already become a political and emotional issue as reports appeared in British papers of children of better off families enjoying American and Canadian hospitality. Elspeth Huxley spells out the issue*8:

Why should the son of the rich man sleep in security in New York’s gay lighted towers, the roar of traffic bound on peaceful errands in his ears, while the son of the poor man dozed in crowded shelters below our dangerous cities, menaced by the bomber’s drone? It was unfair; and something ought to be done’.

In response to the clamour, and despite the concern of the Foreign Office that we should not convey to the American government any sense of the weakening of our resolve to stand up against Hitler, the government set up a scheme, CORB, the Children’s Overseas Reception Board, so that the opportunity to get out of the country would be available for all, not just for those who could afford it. There is some evidence that Churchill was preoccupied when it was discussed in cabinet because it was the very moment news came in that France had capitulated; otherwise he would have opposed it.

The offices set up were flooded with more than 200,000 applications. The scheme came to an end in September after the City of Benares was sunk and 77 children died*9.

Our mother had grown up in Ireland. In 1922, at the time of independence, her school was occupied by troops with shooting around her house, and her father was ordered to leave the country by the end of the week or be shot. He had been in the British Army in France, as had been my father. So she had good reason to want us out of the war zone. The broadcaster, J.B. Priestley, describing his first night in the Home Guard, wrote, ‘I remember wishing that we could send all our children out of this island, every boy and girl of them across the sea to the wide Dominions, and turn Britain into the greatest fortress the world has known; so that then, with an easy mind, we could fight and fight these Nazis until we broke their black hearts’.

British parents had no idea in 1940 that the separation would last five years, any more than American or Canadian hosts could imagine their generous offers of help, at a time of Britain’s desperate need, would be so stretched out. Not many people were as prescient as Harold Macmillan, later prime minister, who, when asked in 1940 how long the war would last, replied, ‘Twelve months if they win; five years if we do’.

Adventurous Times

It is fashionable these days to decry patriotism; some difficulties arise in even defining what being British or English means. There was no ambivalence on the subject in 1940. Patriotism was tangible to those of us who were British in World War II, not least to the very young. Even if it is what historian John Keegan has called the ‘fierce patriotism of the war child’. Patriotism was an immeasurable ingredient that helped many of us come through largely unscathed from our separation.

In 1939, at the onset of war, I was only seven when I was sent out of London to the country, with my brother aged five. I can remember at my Surrey school that in the spring of 1940 we were put through drilling and marching on the sports field, were occupied with making balsa wood aircraft models or playing with ‘dinky toy’ replicas of bren gun carriers, read about exploits by RAF fliers, knew who won decorations for valour and what they did to win them, and devoured books like the Ace series about the World War I aerial battles. On walks around the school I would catch sight of soldiers camped out, probably troops rescued from Dunkirk, and was thrilled by the sight and sound of the bombers that flew low over playing fields.

As we set off for Canada in August 1940, I called out to my parents, ‘See you after the duration’. In Glasgow we boarded a liner, known officially as SS Early August, which we soon discovered was the Duchess of York. We sailed in a convoy escorted by five destroyers and the battleship HMS Revenge. I was delighted to obtain the autograph of the battleship’s signalman. No wonder that for many of us it was adventure, not trauma, that we remember. Most were too young to appreciate the dangers. My brother and I sat on our bunks playing ‘Battleships’ quite oblivious to what was going on beneath us. Another evacuee, Jim Baynard-Smith, who travelled in steerage below the water line, told me, ‘We children didn’t mind the discomfort, as day by day we played the popular board game, “Smash the Nazi navy”’. For him, too, ‘It was all a colossal adventure’.

For parents it was a different matter. Ted Matthews noted in his diary during an air raid on 10 August, the day that four of his daughters sailed for the US on the same ship as we did: ‘I feel as if I had committed some horrible crime. There are mines strewn across the oceans, submarines lying in wait to torpedo them, aircraft searching for them to blow them to pieces. Yet I cannot but believe that the crime of exposing them to these dangers is less than the crime of keeping them at home to be the possible victims of an invading army. Every minute that passes takes their ship further and further away from that danger. If ever my children read this, I beg them to forgive me for doing this thing. They have no conception of what it has cost to make this decision. They will never know the agony which I suffer at the thought of them tonight’.

Great care had been taken to try and place evacuees with families where they would fit in. Greater care than had been taken with the internal evacuation. We were placed with the Hinchmans. Walter Hinchman was a teacher and had captained the American cricket team. Mrs. Hinchman’s brother had been at Dunkirk. They had six children, the youngest being 16 when we arrived.

Most of us were, as I indicated and as the late Janet Baker (Lady Young) confirmed to me, ‘intensely patriotic’. Tremayne Rodd, in kindergarten on Long Island, learned that America had beaten Britain in the War of Independence. His stout response, ‘It’s not true. I won’t have it’. Ten-year-old Douglas Wilde was quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press, ‘Hitler is trying to scare the people of England, but he isn’t doing much of a job of it’. Like writer Anthony Bailey, we saw our role as ambassadors. He writes*10, ‘Whether because of wartime patriotism or the Portsmouth naval tradition, perhaps transmitted in a school history lesson, I had taken to heart Nelson’s flag signal flown on The Victory before Trafalgar, “England expects every man to do his duty”’.

Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare, who headed CORB and saw off many of the children, said that he usually told them that they did not represent themselves when they were sent overseas, and therefore they could not behave as they liked. They were going as the children of Britain. They were, in fact, like British ambassadors, he used to say, and consequently they must behave even better than they knew how. If they behaved badly people would say, ‘What frightful children! Their parents in Britain can’t really be worth fighting for.’ On the other hand, if they behaved well, people would say, ‘What splendid children these are. We must do everything we can to help their parents win’. He said, too, to the children, ‘When things go wrong, as they often will, remember you are British and grin and bear it’.

We had already imbibed similar attitudes, even if we personally didn’t hear Shakespeare’s words. Soon after our arrival a local paper described a woman observing a group of English children awaiting homes. One fell down, and he must have hurt himself but he didn’t cry. ‘You must be a very brave boy’, she said to him. His reply, ‘It’s all for England’. The paper commented, ‘There are many of us here who are learning new lessons of self-control these days’. At a Western Canadian station an escort found a small girl of seven crying. An eleven-year-old girl went up to her and said, ‘Stop it at once and be British’. The escort recorded that the child immediately pulled herself together.

First days in an American school were a challenge to all evacuees. It depended on age and the preparations made at schools and our relative numbers how we were treated. Many Americans went out of their way to welcome the influx of young British. At our school a Union Jack was strategically positioned so that we could face it when American children were daily ‘pledging their allegiance’ to the stars and stripes. John Bedwell, evacuated to Texas, reports that ‘Battles of the Civil War and the War of Independence from Mexico’ were still being fought and that on alternate days he pledged allegiance to the Lone Star flag. It still rankles with one evacuee to Canada that she and other English girls were punished at school if they didn’t join in singing ‘Our home and native land’. Historian Alistair Horne says that with comments like*11 ‘Why, I was doing Virgil before I left England’ and ‘We don’t wear helmets to play rugger, or gloves and masks to play cricket’ he and older evacuees at his school were sometimes so arrogant that it was almost a mystery ‘why most of us were not massacred within a week of arrival’. On the whole we learned to adapt. As Dr. Kenneth Miller put it to me, ‘I very soon learned not to say “We do it differently back home” but rather ‘So that’s how we do it”’.

We had a wind-up gramophone where we played wartime songs from the first as well as the second World Wars. Whether it was ‘Tramp, tramp, tramp the boys are marching’ or ‘We’re going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line, have you any dirty washing, mother dear’. ‘There’ll always be an England’ became our signature tune, being sung at occasions when evacuees got together. Indeed, Sir Martin Gilbert, an evacuee to Canada, chose it forty years later as his first record on ‘Desert Island Discs’. He says he cried involuntarily, as he read its words in my book about evacuees for which he wrote the foreword. When one evacuee ship was torpedoed without loss of life, passengers had to take to the lifeboats and an escort said later that it was the most moving experience of her life to hear in the darkness, borne on the wind, the voices of the children singing, ‘Roll out the barrel’ and ‘There’ll always be an England’. The BBC who had recorded one singing of the song at departure noticed that the sound at some places seemed muddy. It transpired that the Scots in the party were singing ‘There’ll always be a Scotland’. It was then laid down that those in official parties were to sing ‘There’ll always be a Britain’.

My American hosts had back numbers of the Illustrated London News and The Boy’s Own Annual. Their enthralling pages contained stories of bravery under fire, portraits of the Royal family, crosssections of Royal Naval ships and much more which fed my pride in country. I spent hours going through them. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose broadcast to us, the first time their voices had been heard widely. And Gerald and I were given the chance to hear our parents and broadcast to them. It was an anxious moment when the wrong parents were put on to speak to us.

Like many, I went to summer camp and can still sing college, patriotic and traditional songs we learned around the camp fire. Whether it is ‘Anchors Away’ from the US navy or ‘Off we go’ from the Army Air Corps or ‘from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli’ praise of the US Marine Corps and its extravagant and possibly politically incorrect, ‘If the army and the navy ever look on heaven’s scenes they will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines’.

Every week I had to learn stirring poetry, ranging from Alfred Tennyson’s, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and Newbolt’s ‘Drake’s Drum’ to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ‘Old Ironsides’ and Whittier’s ‘Barbara Frietchie’. My reading at the time also benefited from the fact that my host family still had their children’s books. It meant that they had many Henty stories of empire builders which I read avidly. I soon moved on from Just William through the Ransome books to the adventures of Biggles and my favourites, the stories of Dave Dawson and Freddy Farmer. Freddy was an RAF pilot and Dave an American pilot. I looked recently at a copy of *12. Its chapter headings make clear its approach, for instance ‘Two Junkers less!’ ‘Nazi wings over London’ and ‘England must never die’. The last words of the book: ‘Air Vice Marshal Saunders looked at Colonel Fraser and smiled. “I ask you”, he murmured, “what chance has old Adolf got when he’s up against chaps like these two”’.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 brought a dramatic change for evacuees, including being fingerprinted. As President Roosevelt wrote to King George VI, ‘Our two nations are now full comrades-in-arms’. We joined in collecting scrap metal, digging up lawns for vegetable growing, saving for war bonds. Despite my youth I was allowed to take a turn spotting for planes from the school chapel. Many evacuees were already knowledgeable when it came to aircraft recognition and made model planes or had plane pictures covering their walls. I remember saving cereal box tops to send for a cardboard mock-up of a bomber cockpit, and we used to spend hours learning semaphore and Morse, inventing our own codes, experimenting with invisible ink. Older evacuees found themselves making speeches or christening planes. Shirley Williams, now Baroness Williams, says she became the embodiment of the little girl ally and was always being handed up on platforms like Bundles for Britain.

I was in the crowd, a proud little English boy, when Prime Minister Churchill spoke in Harvard Yard in 1943. ‘Whatever form the system of world security may take’, the Prime Minister said, ‘nothing will work soundly or for long without the combined effort of the British and American people. I therefore preach continually the doctrine of the fraternal association of our people, not for any purpose of gaining invidious material advantage for either of them, not for territorial aggrandisement, or the vain pomp of early domination, but for the sake of service to mankind and the honour that comes to those who faithfully serve great causes*13’.

At my Connecticut school I was entrusted with responsibility for hoisting and lowering the flag, learning to fold it correctly, never letting it touch the ground. We spent time marching and drilling and had a colour guard. My ‘war job’, as it was called, was looking after the chickens. Many of the movies we watched were patriotic ones, like Gunga Din and Corvette K-225. The school newspaper was soon reflecting in its columns the difficulties of rationing, staff shortage and above all the fact that several hundred old boys (alumni) were in the services ‘somewhere in England’ or ‘somewhere in the Pacific’. The war was brought home to us with the death of one boy’s father. We were encouraged to read Time and enter its annual current affairs quiz. As a stamp collector I was aware of the Four Freedoms enunciated by President Roosevelt – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear – and was pleased to add to my stamp collection the new issue of flags of oppressed nations. One night our father phoned. We had no warning. He had been sent to Washington. When I put down the phone, I commented, ‘Gee, he talks just like the movies’. I was proud that he came to school in British uniform.

The last Christmas of the war, 1944, I stayed with another English boy from school in New Hampshire. There I was introduced to a new board game, called ‘Target for tonight’, which consisted of throwing dice to advance on raids over Germany. That was where I first heard of cities like Dortmund, Essen and Hamm. On Christmas Eve I was asked to bring down from the upper house precious, breakable Christmas decorations. I imagined I was one of the Norwegian children I had just read about in the book Snow Treasure who used sleds to spirit gold away from the Germans.

With the passage of years, pressures grew to get the children back home, although the Atlantic crossing was still dangerous. At the onset of the evacuation, those who were affected most were the parents as many children were too young to realize what they were missing or to take in the wider picture. By the time we returned, the wrench was in many cases on the children’s side. Older children wanted to have a share in the action; while parents worried that their children were becoming remote or perhaps too American. For some younger ones the idea of returning was a shock as they had
bonded with host families. To Gerald and me our adopted hosts always remained Mr. and Mrs. Hinchman and he believes it was a deliberate effort to make sure that they never replaced our real parents.

Passages were hard to find, with space reserved for soldiers and supplies for D-Day. Evacuees started returning on neutral or Royal Navy ships, and we came back on an escort carrier, HMS Patroller. Now we could actually see the uniforms we had studied in the Illustrated London News. There was a captured Japanese Zero plane inside the hangar and we even had the thrill of watching a surrendered German submarine being towed to the United States.

The weeks and months after the return proved for many to be the hardest period. After the fear of not recognizing parents came the confrontation with a war-wearied Britain. Margaret and Elizabeth Ewert had adapted to, and been enchanted by, life in the American south and later in New England and had to put myriad memories on hold as they readapted to the English way of life still prevailing. Margaret says that one of the Yale group told her light-heartedly that she thought at first the porter was her father. Heather Hodge found cold and bullying the hardest part: ‘It took me thirty years to realize that living here was not so bad after all’. Grace Baldock had enjoyed life in Canada and did not get on with her parents: ‘My father treated me like a ten-year-old’. For June Roper the evacuation was eventually a good idea. She found out what it was like to live in a happy family atmosphere. She had lived with an RCMP family that was not wealthy but treated her well. Coming back to London was for her horrendous and led to some medical problems. ‘I was 12 when I returned to a grey, bombdamaged
London. I did not really care for my parents but accepted them as I had learnt over the last five years to accept everything. For my mother, though glad I was safe through the war, it must have been hard when I returned and was not the loving seven year old she sent away. School was difficult, but I cope
d’. She added that nobody was interested in her experience. ‘When I found “See You After the Duration” and other books it was wonderful to feel I was not alone’. Muriel Russ found that ‘the freezing houses and food rationing’ were hard to deal with. But even though she attended seven different schools in five years, which was not good for her formal education, she still values the experience and the happy memories. ‘By the law of averages’, she says, ‘there are going to be horror stories of children placed in unsuitable homes and one must feel deeply sorry for them’.

Most evacuees have a positive view of those years, though practically all recognized down sides, many underlining the damage done by separating children from their parents at an early age. Penny Jaques wrote me, ‘The long term problems outweighed the immediate benefits’. She says that the experience of children evacuated within Britain brought home to professionals that children were happier staying with parents, even if in greater physical danger, than being separated for long periods of time. As a result hundreds of children were returned home. But those sent abroad were stuck. Parents and children could never make up for the lost time and there were serious cultural and loyalty problems. ‘My special interest is in the long term psychological effects of separation particularly on younger children. It is a trauma to be parted from a loved parent and children have to develop all sorts of emotional strategies to survive a quite overwhelming distress. Many relationship difficulties and some serious mental health problems in later life can be traced to the trauma of evacuation’.

Bridie Luis Fuentes finds it significant that many former evacuees went into the caring professions in some way. ‘Many children did not have the wonderful experience that you and I had’. Her mother had been an escort on two of the crossings to Canada but had to stop after the City of Benares went down. For Bridie the most traumatic time of her life was returning home from foster parents to parents who were strangers and ‘having to learn to be someone else's child’. She frequently said to her mother, ‘Aunt Priscilla doesn't do it like that’. On the long term positive side she has become ‘more understanding of different cultures’. The children of her foster parents are like siblings to her and when her daughter was married they responded with a gift to the charity in Boston, The Home for Little Wanderers, where she had been cared for before coming to them. ‘I also dislike travelling to a degree where I feel ill at the thought of it, especially going abroad. It has become worse with time too, unfortunately. I can only conclude that being taken from a loving family twice has this sort of effect even though they were all good people’.

To Margaret Fitter evacuation was generally a good idea and benefited the children involved. If Britain had been invaded and lost the war, even more so. For her late brother, Stephen, and herself, it was the best thing that ever happened to them. In later life they often agreed that it was a ‘life saver, and it kept their sanity’. Her English home had been an unhappy and very violent place. ‘Spending nearly five years in a peaceful, normal Canadian home was our salvation’. Stephen became a child psychiatrist and at his funeral many people came to tell her that he turned their life around when they came under his guidance. ‘I think you can call this a benefit of the evacuation…the evacuation years brought me nothing but good. They enriched my life and I’m glad they happened’.

My brother and I have never regarded our evacuee experience as a handicap or a setback. It has always been something for which we are grateful. Is that because our experience was different from others or because the course our lives took and the way of life and attitudes we adopted minimized any drawbacks from the experience? But none of the positives should minimize the really sad experiences of some overseas evacuees. Those who were split up, those who were with families that were unsuitable, or were with mothers who had insufficient funds and could not transfer more from England, or those who had to undergo the humiliating ‘cattle market’ of being chosen out of a group, a more common experience for the internal evacuees. Some evacuees feel that their life was ruined, or that the experience was so traumatic that they don’t even want to talk about it. Some felt that they never fitted in when they returned. One evacuee told me of a friend of his, who was also evacuated, who committed suicide. Would he have done it anyway? Lord Lucan’s sister even thinks that her brother ‘went to the bad’ because of evacuation. Many seldom ever thought about the evacuation again, but just got on with life. But everyone must have been even unconsciously in some ways affected. It wasn’t until a long way into the process of writing and facing the negative experiences of some other evacuees, that I began to think that perhaps there was a downside for me and for my brother as well in a less close family relationship.

Margaret Smolensky isn’t sure that overseas evacuation was such a great idea although it seems to her that it was better thought out than the internal one in 1939 when taking evacuees into one’s home was made compulsory. She and other ‘Corbies’ at their reunions were united in the view that if they, or their parents, had known how long they were going to be away, both would have rejected the opportunity and hosts would likewise would have been less likely to volunteer. At the time ‘most assuredly we older ones looked upon the whole thing as something of an adventure’. She confirms that much depended on the hosts who took them in. Her experiences were far from satisfactory, nevertheless she loved Canada, found much to admire in its people and attitudes and now lives there.

One evacuee told me that he felt the evacuation to Canada was a mistake. He did not feel welcome and when he returned to England at 15 was ‘out of place’: ‘Break up of family life is always regrettable. My parents always acted as they thought in our best interests, but looking back, it is probably best to stick together’. Pat Jones said she never did come to terms with her time away from home and family. Helen Macbeth, one of the younger evacuees ‘bounced happily through the changes of family. We were extremely lucky, as the three of us siblings were fostered together by a childless couple of great emotional generosity, who, for example, built up in me excitement to go “home,” which I couldn’t even remember’. She frequently returns to visit her ‘foster cousins’ and their families.

Evacuees single out particular aspects that they disagreed with. Martin Revis is critical of the Ford Motor Company scheme because he believes that host families who took children felt under pressure in terms of their future careers. His life as a reporter in Fleet Street and twelve years in Africa have probably been more interesting than if he had stayed in England: ‘It has certainly been more restless, and I attribute the difficulties I have had in establishing intimate relations to the lack of affection in those wartime years’. Likewise Doreen Wright felt the Boston Transcript scheme was ‘seriously wrong’ because of the pressure built up by getting communities to compete against each other to see which could take the most evacuees. ‘My foster father was a mayor and I don’t doubt he felt a certain pride in the achievement of the town’. There was also mental illness in the family, education was out of joint, it was an artificial life, and on the whole it was a bad thing we went’
Educational Interruption

The New York Herald Tribune, reporting on the return of evacuees, wrote, ‘The older children are far ahead of the English levels in science, history, modern languages and English, but are equally far behind in Latin and mathematics.’ Many evacuees have referred to the educational setbacks of being away at that period of their young lives but in this sampling few mentioned it. Granville Bantock, from the Actors’ Orphanage, who was in the US for two years, writes, ‘From an education point of view it was a disaster, but I continue to remember it as a wonderful experience’. He is still in touch with members of his host family ‘and in spite of recent events I continue to have much affection for the American people’. Looking back he would rather have stayed in Silverlands, the wonderful ‘country house’ that was the home of his English school. John Bradley, on the other hand, when he returned from Canada as a 10-year-old found himself two years ahead of his fellow students: ‘The St. Albans school at Brockville was private and headed by an English couple, and it is thanks to them, and the Canadian staff whom they had recruited, that I received such a great start in life’.

Roger Cunliffe has no doubt that the evacuation was a good thing. ‘We were in an exceptional foster family, and our foster parents were wonderful parenting role-models when I came to have kids. To live in a second culture is to learn, early in life, that there’s more than just the “Best British” way of doing things. And by extension, then third and fourth cultures become more understandable. Cultures tend to be different from each other, rather than better/worse (the Little Englander attitude). I came back knowing very little Latin, but having learnt English as a language rather than as the by-product of Latin translation (at Eton the masters said they could always spot us SeaVacs by our better use of English); and I was well ahead in science, and enjoyment of it (for years afterwards my US fosterfather sent me a subscription to The Scientific American)’. Conversely, at first at Eton he was a bit of a social pariah, as he didn’t know British ways, and had not ‘been through the war’.

Tim Sturgis feels that he profited enormously from the experience. ‘Educationally, Milton Academy provided a much more liberal and imaginative an education than I was likely to have had in England. I therefore came back to England a more open and less conventional young man, for which I am grateful. Also it made one far less parochial; things could be done differently, policemen didn't have to have funny hats, you didn't have to drive on the left, there was baseball as well as cricket. So one was able to become far more critical of one's own country, which was I am sure good for it and for me. But perhaps the greatest reward was having an American family who had become friends, who visited us in England and whom we visited in America. And this trans-Atlantic social traffic has continued with our children. America is an important and lively factor in the current world, whatever we may feel about its present policies, and the connection with that stimulating country has been able to provide of lifelong interest and benefit’.

Hugo Kindersley feels that his time in New York State was particularly educational as there was mingling with the opposite sex on a scale and in a way that would not be contemplated in England. ‘I was 11 at the time and when I returned to England, aged 12, I was considerably in advance of my contemporaries as far as the opposite sex were concerned though somewhat behind in Latin’. The advantages were somewhat offset by the 18 month absence from his parents at an impressionable age, but against this he could offset the independence gained, and his relationship with his parents became very close again on return. ‘I feel that my time in Canada at that age was beneficial as I have always had an easy relationship with all North Americans ever since. The only factor I found difficult to live with for many years was the feeling that I had been a coward in crossing the Atlantic at a time of crisis’.

Ian Jessiman’s horizons were widened. He learned French and even began to cook which he would never have done at home as his family had a cook and a parlour maid. ‘It has been useful on one’s CV from time to time to have spent two years in Canada’. Chris Kennington is sure that his time in Canada did him ‘a power of good’. He writes, ‘I went out a very spoilt and unworldly child; I came back a good deal less spoilt and slightly more in touch with the world’. He went on to achieve a first class degree in engineering at Cambridge University. John Chalmers speaks of the extraordinary
kindness of relatives with whom he stayed, but was never again as close to his parents. His introduction to ornithology created in him a lifelong interest in the subject and to his writing a book about Audubon: ‘On balance I look back on the episode as positive and am glad to have experienced it’. Barbara Mellor believes she ‘had the best of both worlds’ and ‘went to the university of life’. She was old enough not only to have been adopted by a wonderful American family and have made lifelong American friends but to join the Wrens and ‘do my little bit for the war effort’.

Diana Lamming wrote, ‘I benefited especially in my education with four more years in high school that I wouldn’t have had if I had stayed in England. I made long-standing friendships and was privileged to have had the opportunity to be sent to safety’.

The years in the US introduced a breadth of approach to Baroness Williams that might not have otherwise been there. She enjoyed freedoms she had never enjoyed in England and felt her years in the US gave her a sense of promise of ‘a new world where everything is possible’. She was horrified on her return at the extent to which Britain was ‘mired in class’. It was one of the things, she says, which drove her into politics. Meg Weston Smith, who became a teacher, says her years in the USA generated many deep and lasting transatlantic friendships. It was an exceptionally happy time and a wonderful adventure quite outside her previously sheltered existence in Oxford. ‘The net result of my five years was to open up my mind to a “can do” attitude, to take a broad view, and to be aware that so-called conventions can be different in different countries and that both can be right in their own contexts’.

Betty Corfield ‘for the life of me’, as she puts it, cannot think of any adverse effects of the whole thing, for it opened up so many new experiences and contacts, and widened her perception of the world, of Britain and of the USA in a wonderful way. ‘For me personally, being acutely shy, it gave me a lot more confidence having such a “handle” to talk about. Undoubtedly, those we left took the heartbreak. My mother suffered. She would never go near Euston station afterwards, where we waved our goodbyes’.

For Richard Price the evacuation was ‘a huge plus’ but he doubts whether he would have put his family through the danger of an Atlantic crossing in September 1940 if he had known what we now know. The huge plus came when he started up his own business internationally, ending up with a US company working with the sort of people he had had four years of schooling with ‘and found it so easy to fit into their approach to life’. Felicity Arnott ‘wouldn’t have missed it for worlds’ but, like Richard Price, if her children at that age had been put in such a position she as a parent would not have sent them away. Jean Lamb writes: ‘I have nothing but wonderful thoughts of my time in America 1940-44, but appreciate we were very fortunate. I found it hard when we came home – my grandmother was horrified by my American accent.! As a result of my happy memories I got a job at the US embassy when I went to London to work’. More than fifty years later she is still in touch with the children and grandchildren of her host family. Bridget Whyte, like many of us, rather took the experience for granted and hopes that in later life she somehow conveyed a gratitude to them that was never articulated. ‘I just looked on them as my family’. John Wilkinson was taken in by an excellent family who even invited him and his wife for their honeymoon in 1956. He found it unsettling to go from a strict prep school to the fairly lax regime in America and then back to the discipline of an English public school. He also found it uncomfortable that one could not pay back all the kindness received during one’s stay.

It did me a world of good’, says Ann Spokes Symonds*14 who was one of the Oxford party and later became lord mayor. Hearing about some evacuees still traumatised from their experiences she says, ‘One realises how fortunate so many of the Oxford party were’. Many of them, as was the case also with the large group from the Actors’ Orphanage, went back after the war to live in the USA.

Of particular value to Philippa Russell from her four years in Canada was ‘to experience the unbelievable kindness and generosity of strangers who, as it turned out, were landed with two girls for far longer than they were expecting’. She also valued as a teacher being able to speak to primary school classes who are ‘doing’ World War II about what it was like for young evacuees, the feelings, as she says, behind the facts.

How much the presence of several thousand British children in the United States played a part in bringing home to the American public the reality of the war in Europe it would be hard to measure. But the links we established have continued to foster the special relationship that is often denigrated. Even those for whom the separation still rankles, expressions of gratitude to North American hosts prevail. Tim Sturgis, who was at the same school as I, expressed our feelings well when he said at a reunion of evacuees from Oxford, ‘Those of us who came were only children, and we took it all very much as it came, amazingly unquestioning. The overwhelming feeling of all of us was the unbelievable, open-ended, and endless generosity of our American hosts. They were memorable years, and a bond has been forged, which has lasted these fifty years’.

The four daughters whose father’s diary I quoted from earlier, returned home safely. Their father wrote to their hosts, the Meems in Santa Fé, ‘Whatever the future may hold for us all I promise that, as far as it is in my power, the adventure of the last four years shall not end at my front door. With the strong emotional bonds which unite your family and mine we have no right to remain strangers to each other. You must know how utterly impossible it is to find words adequately to express our gratitude to you. You must realize how very large is the number of people whose hearts you have touched by your generosity to the children, and whose faith in the ultimate decency and kindness of human beings you have restored’.

Four Hutchison sisters from Glasgow spent the war in Canada and are thoughtful about the experience. Ruth Mackenzie says that her parents did not honestly know whether to send her and her other sisters, but had tried to do what they felt was right. ‘It was certainly done for the best. Making the right decisions in a fast-moving war must be even more difficult’. Her sister, Anne Mackay, feels she has been left a legacy of friendships lasting to this day; understanding of being cut off from home and family; and valuable insights into living in another country. ‘Looking back, I think the whole overseas evacuation was probably unnecessary – but who, then, could have known’. Ruth recalls that many years later when she was in her twenties, she realised that there was a part of her heart closed up. ‘The whole evacuee experience came into my mind and I knew that was where it all began’. By coincidence, she received a letter from her mother who had also been reliving this period. She wrote of sorrow at her inability to help her over the first difficult months. ‘I was unhappy, too’, she wrote, ‘but it was war and I felt I should maintain a stiff upper lip! If I had just been honest I might have helped you to say what you really felt. I am so sorry’. ‘That opened the door to freedom from the past for me, and I know that I need never shut my heart again, no matter what rocks that any of us must climb. No blame; no bitterness. For this I must thank my evacuee experience’.

An English friend of hers, Juliet Boobbyer, was evacuated to Long Island and says that many people felt that the safety of the US, even if it mean separation, was better than Nazi Germany. She doesn’t believe one should make blanket judgements on a situation that people nowadays cannot conceive of in retrospect. Her father, who moved in government circles, had seen what war meant for children and the effect on their health for the rest of their lives. ‘He was only too aware how likely it was that Britain would be invaded. Britain could have been starving. The more children that left, the more for those that remained. The time overseas gave us all a chance to know America from the inside. Some things were good and some painful. There will always be questions for each individual as to whether their parents made the right decision. It is fashionable nowadays to blame difficult experiences and the things that happened in the past on the way we are now. It is not so common to face those experiences and accept them as part of life and then to let them go, so that they become part of the wisdom and understanding of life that we all carry and share with others’.

Ellie Vickers writes: ‘The evacuation offered us all experiences not available to us in any other way at that time. Through it our characters were enriched. I know I learned to be more tolerant, more appreciative, more open, more understanding. I met my future husband and made some lifelong friends. Six years is a long time in a young person’s life, and if it hadn’t been for the fact of wartime, plus my generously understanding parents, it could have left even deeper scars of separation. I had missed growing up with them and we all knew it. But I think we all accepted it and realize I had also been very lucky. Perhaps there was too much philanthropy and not enough realism in the whole idea of a large scale overseas evacuation. It was short lived and risky and could only apply to comparatively few anyway. For me it was an enormously beneficial slice of life, though not without human cost’.

Tim Phillips finds that his wife of 50 years is not very impressed with his overseas evacuation stories and his ‘fleeing the country’ when she had ‘to go into an air raid shelter to do lessons and clear shrapnel off the hockey field before she could play’. Similarly, Martin Revis thinks that any adverse effects of evacuation were ‘very small beer in terms of what happened to children in conflict zones or in concentration camps’. Margaret Smolensky says, ‘When you come to a fork in life you take one path and you’ll never know whether or not the other one would have made you happier or sadder’.

I personally tend to think that we need to be grateful that, for most of us, the evacuation was a small price to pay and can regard those separated years as our war service. I would agree with the final report of American Committee for the Evacuation of Children who were responsible for my brother and me that these years became ‘an applied lesson in international understanding’. Martin Revis speaks for many: ‘I think that the impact of those five years were profound on many of us and I find that as I get older I think about them more often, but without rancour, although I realise that things would have been much different if I had stayed at home’.

As does Brian Joseph, in a slightly more cheeky fashion: ‘Was it a good thing or a bad thing to be evacuated…There were the plusses and the minuses and you add them all up and what do you get? A confused eighty year old. It’s all in the past and I’ve lived the best part of my life and there’s nothing to be gained by agonizing over these ancient happenings. Let us forget all these weighty issues. I had a hell of a good time over there. It may have caused problems but what the heck I thoroughly enjoyed myself, so there’.


*1 Maurois, Andrė, 1941 Why France Fell. London. Bodley Head © André Maurois 1941, reproduced by permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd., London.

*2 Brendon, Vyvyen, 2005. Children of the Raj. London. Weidenfeld and Nicholson

*3 Most remarks by evacuees quoted in this chapter are from emails or letters to the author

*4 Henderson, Michael, 2004. See You After the Duration. Baltimore. Publish America

*5 Mann, Jessica, 2005. Out Of Harm’s Way. London. Headline

*6 Daily Telegraph June 1, 1990

*7 Barlow, Brian Bohun, 2006. Only One Child. Topsham, Maine. Just Write Books

*8 Huxley, Elspeth, 1941. Atlantic Ordeal. London. Chatto and Windus

*9 Nagorski, Tom, 2006 Miracles on the Water. New York. Hyperion

*10 Bailey, Anthony, 2000. America, Lost and Found. Chicago. University of Chicago Press

*11 Horne, Alistair, 1993 A Bundle from Britain. New York. St. Martin’s Press

*12 Bowen, R. Sidney, 1941. Akron, Ohio. Saalfield Publishing Co.

*13 The Harvard Service News Sept 6, 1943

*14 Symonds, Ann Spokes, 1990, Havens Across the Sea. Calais, France. Maoildearg (6200 Calais: 47 rue du Pont Lottin)




Michael Henderson is author of nine books, the latest being See You After the Duration, building on his experiences as a World War II evacuee from Britain to the USA. His book Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate is endorsed by Archbishop Tutu and All Her Paths Are Peace has a foreword by the Dalai Lama. His tenth book No Enemy to Conquer: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World will be published by Baylor University Press in 2009.