Once war had been declared in 1939, a national fear developed that the major cities of the UK would be bombed. Whilst this did actually happen later on in the war – especially in London – the first few months after war broke out became known as the Phoney War, which is considered to have lasted until May 1940. Nevertheless, in September 1939, the British public thought the wisest move was to send civilians away from major cities so as to ensure their safety from bomb attacks.
The Evacuation Scheme was actually drawn up in the summer of 1938, and the mere threat of imminent war was enough to persuade the Government to start evacuations in the few days before the war was declared. A total of 1.5 million people were relocated in the first three days of official evacuation, and by the end of the war this reached roughly 3.7 million. A second surge in relocations occurred after France had been occupied by the Nazis; one of the major allied forces had been defeated, which triggered an intense fear in the British population that the German army were growing more powerful, and were geographically getting much closer. Many people were desperate to get away from the big cities, for fear that they would be the first target in what seemed like an imminent Nazi attack.
Despite the long-term planning that had gone into the evacuation schemes, when they were actually enforced, a lot of errors were made which caused disruption in many communities. Rural areas who were expecting evacuees often found that those who were arrived were not who they expected, having been told a number of different things about the new arrivals. Some areas received too many people, meaning overcrowding in rural villages became a real issue – for example, communities in East Anglia became inundated with people from some of the London Boroughs, particularly Dagenham. After the Blitz began in September 1940, an increased number of people became eager to leave London, and the population of the capital city is thought to have decreased by roughly 25% because of this.
Amongst the vast groups of people who were sent away, there were predominantly children, but also pregnant women, disabled people, mothers with dependents, and ‘helpers’, which often meant teachers. Evacuees who were from the same area did not always end up in the same location, meaning that immense stress and anxiety was rife. Some valuable items were sent away, too, including high-profile pieces from art galleries. Some evacuees came from the continent, (roughly 30,000 people), and from the Channel Islands, which were occupied by the Nazis from June 1940 to May 1945.
Once the war had finished, any evacuees who were still living in their temporary rural homes were returned home to their families. Many went home before the end of the war, since some families struggled with the separation in a time of national turmoil. In the decades since the war, there have been many books, films, and television programmes about evacuation, since it affected the lives of so many people across the country. One of the most famous examples is Goodnight Mr Tom – the book by Michelle Magorian which was made into a film in 1998 starring John Thaw. The story follows a young boy from London who has great difficulty adjusting to life as an evacuee. Some writers of evacuation fiction have themselves undergone the experience, such as Nina Bawdon.
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