Operation Pied Piper
During WW2, people were concerned about German air raids killing innocent civilians (particularly children). In order to prevent this from happening, mass evacuations, of predominantly children living in cities, began on the 1st of September, 1939 and was named Operation Pied Piper.
The evacuees were taken to areas that were unlikely to be bombed, such as Devon (as it is a rural area), the children were often taken by their teachers and were transported on trains where their tags would be read to find out their information (for example name, address, school etc.).
On arrival, they would mostly be taken to a town/village hall or the local school where they were collected by residents of that place to live with them until it was safe to return to their homes.
Lucky evacuees got to stay with relatives, but in most cases, siblings were split up and they had to live with total strangers- there are unfortunate accounts where the “temporary parents” forced the evacuees to work long, hard days and did not send them to school. Some evacuees did not see their parents for the entire war, 6 years in total! However, operation Pied Piper was a success as the government relocated more than 3.5 million civilians to a safer location.
The children who had lived in cities all their lives were often very confused and worried about their new environment- some of the children didn’t know what farm animals were or had never seen a tree in their life.
Before WW2, there was very little communication between rural areas, like Devon, and the big cities, like London, so the people living in the city would just not have been educated about farm animals or trees because they couldn’t have communicated with people who actually knew about farming.
Beryl Williams tells her story of being evacuated to East Worlington
I was six years old. With my sister eighteen months older, we were destined to live temporarily in the Devonshire countryside. Our suburban home was in Bexleyheath with orchards fringing the locality. Unfortunately we lived close to an army camp with heavy gun emplacements and in the flight path of enemy bombers making for the Thames docks and shipping, not to mention the Woolwich arsenal and Canning Town industries. It was to be our second evacuation. The first to Ditton in Kent was aborted as it too was bombed.
After an interminable journey by train my sister and I were taken with many other children wearing labels to a tiny remote village, East Worlington. There in the two roomed school we awaited selection. No one was prepared to take two young sisters so we were left discarded like abandoned livestock. Late evening, the billeting officer took us to Grove House a small farm run by Mr and Mrs Burrows and their daughter Mary. A great cavernous chimney opening, revealed a sad fire of faggots of dried sticks over which hung from chains, black cauldrons. This was my first impression of our new home.
Before the hearth stood an enormous wooden settle, more like a panelled screen, which still allowed the draughts to eddy round the huge, cold flagstoned kitchen .We soon discovered we would have to run the gauntlet of a particularly nasty cockerel in order to reach the dry privy; learning to always carry a stick to beat off his advances.
We walked three miles to school in all kinds of weather, winters were cold; my poor sister suffered badly from chilblains; but a pane of glass was missing from our bedroom window all the time we were there. The Head Mistress would make us a mug of hot strong cocoa to accompany our lunch of a thick slice of bread. I was often left in a corner of the school room to read alone whilst the rest of the class struggled with phonetics. I hardly remember tackling arithmetic. On one occasion we were given a lift to school in a pony and trap which carried churns of milk.
One job assigned to us, was to climb the steep hill to a locked building which housed the well. We would pump the water into an earthenware pitcher and carry it back to the house quite a heavy job for little girls. Later on Mrs. Campbell, her son Colin and daughter were assigned one of the front rooms. Her husband was in the army and her oldest child left in a school for the blind in Guernsey. He later became organist in one of the cathedrals in the south. Colin provided us with many diversions including teaching us games such as Truth or Dare, one of the daring requirements being to climb over a gate and confront a gaggle of geese. Mr Burrows, once was very angry as we played amongst his stooks of freshly gathered hay. On Sundays he wore his shiny brown leather gaiters and highly polished brown boots to attend the parish church, with the rest of us meekly following. We passed a chapel but we were given the impression that it was a very inferior place of worship. During Lent we were not allowed to play our favourite game of whist.
They had two cows Molly and Daisy and a beautiful large horse and numerous fowl. It must have been a hand to mouth livelihood but they owned some machinery, a huge wagon and a very handsome gig which were kept in the courtyard barn. They owned some 30 acres including a very pretty copse, an orchard and a well worked garden. Somehow they had raised a family of three girls and a boy, Cyril, who would return occasionally when he would show off his climbing ability. Mary would make butter turning her arm endlessly in the bowl of milk.
Perhaps we were ill nourished, we caught impetigo, my mother was informed we were not being cared for, but my memories of Devon are still of a carefree playing time. We returned to Bexleyheath facing nightly sojourns in the Anderson Shelter, school held in neighbours’ houses, being left alone in the evenings whilst my mother worked as an air raid warden and my father in the docks. He cycled all the way to North Woolwich using the pedestrian tunnel under the Thames.
Ack-Ack guns fired outside our house and search lights criss-crossed the sky. Barrage balloons, restriction on travel, bombed out streets and domestic privations were the forerunners of the scourge of the doodle bug and V2 which caused havoc in our fairly small community. My mother’s best friend was killed in one of these raids causing a lot of damage to our convent school and our own ceilings fell down.
Today we would assess this childhood as deprived, but it gave me an enduring fondness for wildlife and the wonderful countryside of Britain, from this experience of being an evacuee in World War 2. Grove House is now a desirable listed gentrified building. At Christmas time I hear from Mary and once visited her in her bungalow in Witheridge.