Friday, December 30, 2005

An article by Michael Henderson on 'The evacuation of British children to North America in World War II' appeared in December 2005
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Autumn 2006 issue of This England
by Michael Henderson

Like the Narnia evacuee children I had a magic wardrobe. Opening its doors, however, did not transport me to a make-believe land inhabited by Aslan and the other denizens of the wood. Rather I was carried into the very real world of the British lion and the trappings of empire. My wardrobe was not in the New Forest but in New England .

My brother, Gerald, and I were two of the some ten thousand young British who were evacuated to Canada and the United States in World War II and the ‘wardrobe' was a huge cupboard in which my American hosts stored 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, cross sections of Royal Naval ships and much more which fed my pride in country and helped to sustain me in five years of separation from my parents.

I was eight and my brother six when we set off in August 1940. ‘See you after the duration' I called out to my parents. We sailed in a liner, the Duchess of York, in a convoy escorted by five destroyers and the battleship HMS Revenge . I was particularly pleased to secure the autograph of the battleship's signalman. No wonder that for many of us it was the adventure not the trauma that we remember.

For parents it was a different matter. One father, Ted Matthews, noted in his diary during an air raid on 10 August, the day that four of his daughters sailed for the US , ‘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.'

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. The British government set up a scheme, CORB, the Children's Overseas Reception Board, so that the opportunity to get out of England would be available for all, not just for those who could afford it. More than 213,000 children were signed up. The scheme came to an end in September when the City of Benares was sunk and 77 children died.

Our mother had grown up at the time of ‘the troubles' in Ireland . In 1922, at the time of independence, her school was occupied by troops and her father was ordered to leave the country by the end of the week or be shot. So she had good reason to want us out of the war zone. Our parents like other parents also felt that they would be able to pursue their war responsibilities more effectively without us: our father in the War Office and our mother in the Ministry of Information. 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.'

But British parents had no idea in 1940 that the separation would last for five years, any more than American or Canadian hosts could imagine that their generous offers of help, at a time of Britain 's desperate need, would be so stretched out.

Great care had been taken to try and place evacuees with families where they would fit in. We were placed with the Hinchmans. Walter Hinchman was a teacher and he had captained an American cricket team when it toured England in 1900. Mrs. Hinchman's brother had been at Dunkirk . The Hinchmans had six children, the youngest being 16 when we arrived. We owe them all a profound debt of gratitude.

Some evacuees in the United States had memorable encounters. One was taught to swim by Ronald Reagan, another was in the same school soccer team as George Bush, and one young English girl was helped in her math homework by an old man who turned out to be Albert Einstein. Writer Anthony Bailey went trick or treating and was given a silver dollar by Orville Wright, the pioneer of flight. But for most of us life was like that of every other young person, with school work and exams and sports, new sports like baseball, American football and ice hockey.

First days at school were often a trial for evacuees with their classmates making fun of British dress and accents. Most of us were, as the late Janet Baker (Lady Young) confirmed to me, ‘intensely patriotic', and this helped us deal with such difficulties. Tremayne Rodd, an English evacuee 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.' Like Anthony Bailey, we saw our role as ambassadors for our country. He writes, ‘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.”'

Historian Alistair Horne says that with comments like ‘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'. I was inwardly glad that English boys at my school came top in work and sports.

Many Americans went out of their way to be welcoming to the influx of young British. At my 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. I was proud that a painting I did of a spitfire over the Channel was hung in the assembly hall.

We had already imbibed attitudes that may seem quaint by today's standards. Soon after our arrival a local paper described a woman observing a group of English children awaiting homes. One of them fell down, and he must have hurt himself but he did not 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 and courage 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.

‘There'll always be an England ' became almost our signature tune, being sung at many occasions when evacuees got together. Indeed, Sir Martin Gilbert, who was an evacuee to Canada , even 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 to which he kindly wrote the foreword.

Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose broadcast to us, the first time their voices had been heard widely. And we were given the chance to hear our parents and broadcast to them. Though it was an anxious moment when the wrong parents were put on to speak to Gerald and me.

I went like many to summer camp and can still sing the college and patriotic and traditional songs we learned round the camp fire. Every week I had to learn stirring poetry, ranging from Tennyson's ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade' and Newbolt's ‘Drake's Drum' to Holmes ‘Old Ironsides' and Whittier's ‘Barbara Frietchie'.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 brought a dramatic change. 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 top of the school chapel. Older evacuees even found themselves making speeches or christening planes. I was there in the crowd waving my British flag when Prime Minister Churchill spoke in Harvard Yard in 1943.

Then, as the years went by, pressures grew to get the children back to Britain , although the Atlantic was still dangerous. Passages were hard to find, with space reserved for soldiers and supplies for D-Day. We started returning on neutral or Royal Navy ships, and my brother and I came back on a little 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 .

Uppermost in the minds of most children was the fear of not recognizing their parents. Indeed Gerald and I walked right past our mother on the station platform. Then began the process of re-establishing a sense of family. Our parents admonitions were often met with ‘We don't do it that way in America , we don't do this, we don't do that.' So much so, that America became known in our family as ‘We-land.'

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.

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.'

Whatever the downside of evacuation, with family ties weakened and education made difficult, ours was a small price to pay compared to the wartime sufferings of others. In a way evacuation was our war service. The experience enriched our lives and introduced us to generations of Americans and Canadians we would not have known and became, as the final report of the committee that sent us wrote, ‘an applied lesson in international understanding'.