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9th February 2003
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Evacuation: the true story by David Prest

2 of 7 
Operation Pied Piper
Day of evacuation
I'll take that one
Daily Mirror's coverage
Daily Mirror; part two
Daily Mirror: part three
Audio memories
Printable version

Photo of large country house
For some children used to city life,
the countryside proved to be a revelation.

The day of evacuation
Most evacuees have a vivid recall of events on the day of their evacuation. The images are of busy train stations, shouting officials and sobbing mothers.

In London, the schoolchildren sang 'The Lambeth Walk'. Elsewhere there were choruses of 'Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye'. For most it was 'like going on an adventure': a phrase that is still uppermost in the minds of evacuees 60 years on.

"We marched to Waterloo Station behind our head teacher carrying a banner with our school's name on it," says James Roffey, founder of the Evacuees Reunion Association. "We all thought it was a holiday, but the only thing we couldn't work out was why the women and girls were crying."

For the newspapers the evacuation represented an irresistible human story. An upper-class Englishwoman, Mollie Panter-Downes, described the scene in her fortnightly piece for the New Yorker and remarked on the 'cheerful little cockneys who could hardly believe the luck that was sending them to the countryside'.

The stereotypical images were already forming in people's minds.

Parents gave instructions to their children: "Don't complain," "Grin and bear it," "Look after your sister," "Write home as soon as you can."

The failings of evacuation
Broadly speaking the four-day official exodus worked surprisingly well. The real problems came in the reception areas where the Government had left arrangements for the children's arrival and care to local authorities, with little more than an injunction to do their best.

The result can only be described as a typically British wartime shamble. Hundreds of children arrived in the wrong area with insufficient rations. And, more worryingly, there were not enough homes in which to put them.

Twelve months earlier, the Government had surveyed available housing, but what they had not taken into account was the extent to which middle-class and well-to-do families would be making their own private arrangements. Consequently, those households who had previously offered to take in evacuees were now full.

Keeping control of the whole thing became a joyless task. "The trains were coming in thick and fast," says Geoffrey Barfoot who had been seconded from the town hall to act as a billeting officer in Weston Super Mare. "It was soon obvious that we just didn't have the bed space."

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