Thursday, August 12, 2010

SEVENTY years ago this month, as an 8-year-old, along with my 6-year-old brother Gerald, I set out on a journey across the submarine-infested wartime Atlantic that was to transform our lives.

With hundreds of other young children we were in a liner, the Duchess of York bound for North America.

Gillian Heal, from Appledore, and her brother were on the same ship. We 'seavacs' were in a convoy with five other liners escorted by a battleship, an armed cruiser and five destroyers. We used to sit on our bunks playing Battleships and were too young to appreciate the irony or the danger.

But, even if some of us on our ship were too young to appreciate the danger, most parents did, though they were reassured by the government releases that promised that children would be well protected. The father of four girls who were on the same ship as I, wrote in his diary the day we left Glasgow: "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."

Older readers will be familiar with and even have participated in Operation Pied Piper, the 1939 evacuation of more than a million children from cities to escape German bombing. That evacuation brought many, including whole schools, from other parts of the country to Devon and developed links that continue until this day.

It has recently been commemorated in a 56p postage stamp featuring three young evacuees and is also remembered by the Evacuees' Reunion Association and its members who walk by, luggage labels in their lapels, at the annual November 11th Remembrance Day ceremony.

Not so well known is the evacuation of thousands of children overseas, first a trickle who went privately and then under a government scheme, called CORB, the Children's Overseas Reception Board, launched in May 1940, so that the prospect was open to every child irrespective of whether families could afford it or not.

Within a week of the announcement more than 200,000 children were signed up to go.

This later evacuation was probably less to do with the threat of bombing than the prospect of a German invasion. It took children from all parts of the country including Devon as far as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and the United States.

Though Brian Hall-Tomkin, from Northam, says: "It is just as well that I was evacuated from Exeter to Toronto, Canada, as our house was totally destroyed in the Blitz."

The fact that in the three month period of July, August and September 1940 only 10,000 children went overseas is due to the terrible tragedy of the sinking of the City of Benares in September with the deaths of 77 children and the decision by the government to bring the official scheme to an end.

For all of us who got through safely, the years in America introduced us to a new world. This was a time when the American culture, food, sports, music and the like were not as universal as today. Many schools as well as hosts went out of their way to be welcoming to us. My school, also attended by Jeremy Thorpe, later Liberal leader, went out of its way to put up a Union Jack we could face when American children pledged their allegiance to the Stars and Stripes. Our English accents soon faded, my short trousers were replaced by corduroy knickerbockers or dungarees, our school syllabus and classroom experience was quite different.

Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose broadcast to evacuees and evacuees were given the chance to talk to their parents. Then after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, America got on a war footing.

Like young Americans, we grew vegetables, collected scrap metal, even spotted for planes. I heard Prime Minister Churchill when he spoke at Harvard University in 1943. My father came on a mission to Washington. He phoned unexpectedly. When I put down the phone I said: "Gee, he talked just like in the movies."

The return home was perhaps more traumatic than the evacuation itself. We were that much older and more aware of what was going on and, for younger ones, it was hard to leave adopted parents and return to families who in some cases they no longer remembered.

My brother and I returned on a little Royal Navy escort carrier HMS Patroller. Brian returned on a neutral Portuguese ship to Lisbon as did Gillian. Then he flew to England via Ireland in a Catalina flying boat while Gillian in a KLM Dakota almost didn't make it.

"We were attacked over the Bay of Biscay by a German plane," she remembers. "Thankfully, because of a thick cloud bank we were able to lose the attacker and proceed up the Cornish coast. The first sight I had of England was Lundy Island below us through the clouds, then we turned and landed at Chivenor. The plane was quite shot up and the pilot did not think it would make Bristol."

I was recently asked to be on a panel in London to assess the long-term effects of those years abroad. I am in touch with more than a hundred evacuees and can confirm that for most, though not all, the experience was a happy one.

Even if it meant an upheaval in family life and an interruption in education, our predominant thought continues to be one of gratitude to the American families who opened their homes. Most of us remain close to this day with the families who were our hosts.

Those years in America meant a widening of horizons. One evacuee said: "It gave me much more self-confidence." And another: "It gave me a sense of space and freedom and that everything is possible."

Baroness Williams says that she was horrified on her return to Britain at the extent to which Britain in comparison to America "was mired in class" and that "it was one of the things which drove me into politics". One evacuee wrote to me describing the work she did and added that it was probably not coincidence that she and her brother and other evacuees went into caring professions.

Another wrote me that to experience "a second culture is to learn early in life that there is more than just the best British way of doing things".

One of the committees responsible for arranging for evacuees to go the United States, summarised the experience as: "An applied lesson in international understanding." So it probably had a part in my decision and that of my brother to devote ourselves to creating international understanding and for me to write books in that vein.

Somewhere between the claims that inflate 'the special relationship' between our two nations and the dismal voices that write it off completely there is, as one ambassador put it: "A cohort of people with that special knowledge and appreciation of the US that is more important than crude statistics."

The daughters whose father's diary I quoted from earlier returned home safely. Their father wrote to their hosts, in Santa Fe: "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 realise 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."

Brian, who loved his years in Canada among friendly and industrious people, considers that possibly the biggest mistake in life was to come back to Britain: "But at 8½ I didn't have any choice!"

In the United States, Gillian's house on Virginia Beach, a wooden, breezy place built on the sand dunes was her idea of heaven.

"Returning to live in Devon 30 years later in a house looking across the beach at Westward Ho! perhaps means Virginia Beach had a much more profound effect on me than I realised. A circle had been completed in my life."

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