For the people of the modern Czech Republic, the Munich agreement of 1938 was a betrayal. “O nás bez nás!” “About us, without us!”
Intent on avoiding war with Nazi Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain had convened in Munich that September, to resolve German claims on western Czechoslovakia. The “Sudetenland”. Representatives of the Czech and Slovak peoples, were not invited.
On September 30, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to London, declaring “Peace in Our Time”. The piece of paper Chamberlain held in his hand bore the signatures of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Édouard Daladier as well as his own, annexing the Sudetenland, to Nazi Germany.
To Winston Churchill, it was an act of appeasement. Feeding the crocodile (Hitler), in hopes that he will eat you last. For much of Great Britain, the sense of relief was palpable.
In the summer of 1938, the horrors of the Great War were a mere twenty years in the past. Hitler had swallowed up Austria, only six months earlier. British authorities divided the home islands into “risk zones”, identified as “Evacuation,” “Neutral,” and “Reception.” In some of the most gut wrenching decisions of the age, these people were planning “Operation Pied Piper”, the evacuation of millions of their own children, in the event of war.
When Nazi Germany invaded Poland the following September, London mayor Herbert Morrison was at 10 Downing Street, meeting with Chamberlain’s aide, Sir Horace Wilson. Morrison believed that the time had come for Operation Pied Piper. A year to the day from the Prime Minister’s “Peace in our Time” declaration, Wilson protested. “But we’re not at war yet, and we wouldn’t want to do anything to upset delicate negotiations, would we?”
Morrison was done with the Prime Minister’s dilatory response to Hitler’s aggression, practically snarling in his thick, East London accent “Look, ’Orace, go in there and tell Neville this from me: If I don’t get the order to evacuate the children from London this morning, I’m going to give it myself – and tell the papers why I’m doing it. ’Ow will ’is nibs like that?”
Thirty minutes later, Morrison had the document. The evacuation, had begun.
Next weekend, Superbowl 52 will be played at U.S. Bank Stadium, in front of a crowd of 66,655. In 1938, forty-five times that number were mobilized in the first four days of the evacuation, primarily children, relocated from cities and towns across Great Britain to the relative safety of the countryside. What must that have sounded like?
BBC History reported that, “within a week, a quarter of the population of Britain would have a new address”.
Zeppelin raids had killed 1,500 civilians in London alone, during the ‘Great War’. Since then, governments had gotten so much better at killing each other’s citizens. As early as 1922, Prime Minister Lord Arthur Balfour had spoken of ‘unremitting bombardment of a kind that no other city has ever had to endure.’ As many as 4,000,000 civilian casualties were predicted, in London alone.
BBC History describes the man in charge of the evacuation, Sir John Anderson, as a “cold, inhuman character with little understanding of the emotional upheaval that might be created by evacuation”.
Children were labeled ‘like luggage’, and sent off with gas masks, toothbrushes and fresh socks & underwear. None of them knew to where, or for how long.
The evacuation of all that humanity ran relatively smoothly, considering. James Roffey, founder of the Evacuees Reunion Association, recalls ‘We marched to Waterloo Station behind our head teacher carrying a banner with our school’s name on it. We all thought it was a holiday, but the only thing we couldn’t work out was why the women and girls were crying.’
Arrivals at the billeting areas, were another matter. Many kids were shipped off to the wrong places, and rations were insufficient. Geoffrey Barfoot, billeting officer in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare, said ‘The trains were coming in thick and fast. It was soon obvious that we just didn’t have the bed space.’
Kids were lined up against walls and on stages, and potential hosts were invited to “take their pick”.
For many, the terrors and confusion of those first few days grew into love and friendships, that lasted a lifetime. Others entered a hell of physical or sexual abuse, or worse.
For the first time, “city kids” and country folks were finding out how the “other half” lived, with sometimes amusing results. One boy wrinkled his nose on seeing carrots pulled out of muddy fields, saying “Ours come in tins”. Richard Singleton recalled the first time he asked his Welsh ‘foster mother’ for directions to the toilet. “She took me into a shed and pointed to the ground. Surprised, I asked her for some paper to wipe our bums. She walked away and came back with a bunch of leaves.”
John Abbot, evacuated from Bristol, had his rations stolen by his host family. He was horsewhipped for speaking out while they enjoyed his food, and he was given nothing more than mashed potatoes. Terri McNeil was locked in a birdcage and left with a piece of bread and a bowl of water.
In the 2003 BBC Radio documentary “Evacuation: The True Story,” clinical psychologist Steve Davis described the worst cases, as “little more than a pedophile’s charter.”
Eighty years later, the words “I’ll take that one”, are seared into the memories of more than a few.
Hundreds of evacuees were killed because of relocation, while en route or during their stays at “safe havens”. Two boys were killed on a Cornish beach, mined to defend against German amphibious assault. Apparently, no one had thought to put up a sign.
Irene Wells, age 8, was standing in a church doorway, when she was crushed by an army truck. One MP from the house of Commons said “There have been cases of evacuees dying in the evacuation areas. Fancy that type of news coming to the father of children who have been evacuated”.
When German air raids failed to materialize, many parents decided to bring the kids back home. By January 1940, almost half of evacuees had returned.
Authorities produced posters urging parents to leave the kids where they were, and a good thing, too. The Blitz against London itself began on September 7. The city experienced the most devastating attack to-date on December 29, in a blanket fire-bombing that killed almost 3,600 civilians.
Sometimes, refugees from relatively safe locations were shipped into high-risk target areas. Hundreds of refugees from Gibraltar were sent into London, in the early days of the Blitz. None of them could have been happy to leave London Station, to see hundreds of locals pushing past them, hurrying to get out.
This story doesn’t only involve the British home islands, either. American Companies like Hoover and Eastman Kodak took thousands of children in, from employees of British subsidiaries. Thousands of English women and children were evacuated to Australia, following the Japanese attack on Singapore.
By October 1940, the “Battle of Britain” had devolved into a mutually devastating battle of attrition, in which neither side was capable of striking the death blow. Hitler cast his gaze eastward the following June, with a surprise attack on his “ally”, Josef Stalin.
“Operation Steinbock”, the Luftwaffe’s last large-scale strategic bombing campaign of the war against southern England, was carried out three years later. 285 German bombers attacked London on this day in 1944, in what the Brits called the “Baby Blitz”. You’ve got to be some tough cookie, to call 245 bombers a Baby Blitz.
Late in the war, the subsonic “Doodle Bug” or V1 “flying bomb” was replaced by the terrifying supersonic V2. 1,000 or more of these, the world’s first rocket, were unleashed against southern England, primarily London, killing or wounding 115,000. With a terminal velocity of 2,386mph, you never saw or heard this thing coming, until the weapon had done its work.
In the end, many family ‘reunions’ were as emotionally bruising as the original breakup. Years had come and gone and new relationships had formed. The war had turned biological family members, into all but strangers.
Richard Singleton remembers the day his mother came, to take him home to Liverpool. “I had been happily living with ‘Aunty Liz and Uncle Moses’ for four years,” he recalled. “I told Mam that I didn’t want to go home. I was so upset because I was leaving and might never again see aunty and uncle and everything that I loved on the farm.”
Douglas Wood tells a similar story. “During my evacuation I had only seen my mother twice and my father once,” he recalls. “On the day that they visited me together, they had walked past me in the street as they did not recognise me. I no longer had a Birmingham accent and this was the subject of much ridicule. I had lost all affinity with my family so there was no love or affection.”
The Austrian-British psychoanalyst Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud, commissioned an examination of the psychological effects of the separation. After a 12-month study, she concluded that “separation from their parents is a worse shock for children than a bombing.”