Everyone knows the pictures: ranks of small children, smiling ones pushed to the front, the boys with Just William socks and the girls with brutally chopped hair, and each one with a luggage label on the collar and a gas-mask over the shoulder. Few people can have missed all the recent media stories about the evacuation of more than a million city children as soon as war was declared in 1939. Immediate bombing was expected, on the pattern of the Spanish Civil War, and probably gas attacks. Distribution to foster homes in the country was haphazard (‘I’ll take a girl, please – curly hair and no lice’), and mixed in outcome, for both children and hosts. But the bombing didn’t start for another year, after the ‘Phoney War’ had ended. At that point, in 1940, there was further evacuation, overseas to the Dominions.
Most of us who were evacuated are still alive, unlike those old enough, at 18, to go into the Forces. My Jewish friend Monty, billeted with a rural family, was shocked by their manners and by their mealtimes. Not for long, though: when his father was killed by a direct hit he had to go home, to spend the Blitz washing up in his mother’s boarding-house. My friend Jean knew that she’d been sent away for bad behaviour, because her parents never visited. The man sitting next to me at the Abbey service held to commemorate the evacuation loved his Welsh foster home, and felt it was a bonus to have grown up with two nationalities, Welsh and Whitechapel.
The service was dignified, the Dean’s sermon well said, the lesson read by a former evacuee, Michael Aspel. ‘A voice was heard in Rama, sobbing in bitter grief; it was Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted.’ The music was magnificent, spoiled only by a soprano warbling something about ‘Sleepy little eyes in a sleepy little head’ – a song warning the sleepy one, head on pillow, not to be ‘a kid or a weeping willow’. Not likely! I saw no furtive tears; were we not told (oh, so often) how lucky we were, and reminded that we were British? Not crying – not openly, at any rate – was in some mysterious way our ‘war work’.
Westminster Abbey was packed: two thousand people inside, another two thousand watching on a screen in Central Hall. Outside, American tourists were loving the band and the red clerical robes, though perhaps not quite clear what it was all about. A visitor from Kansas asked if I could sneak him in as my son. Cruelly, I had to tell him that at 30 he wasn’t old enough for that.
It was difficult to tell how many among the congregation had been evacuated overseas rather than within Britain. The idea was that people should attend wearing replicas of the luggage labels pinned to them for identification in 1939. Most were wearing these, but there must have been others who, like me, were sent overseas in 1940; obviously, travelling that way, we had no need for labels. The two waves of evacuation were very different. The 1939 one, well prepared in advance, was put into instant action. Overseas evacuation mostly took place about a year later: by the time the Low Countries and France had capitulated, it seemed certain that Britain would be invaded next. It now seems extraordinary, however, that it was considered wiser to send children off on extremely dangerous sea crossings than to keep them at home, invasion or not. Little of this was ever talked about, either before or afterwards, so in our sixties and seventies some of us puzzle over what our parents thought they were doing. My friend Anna’s father had fought in the First World War (as, I suppose, had most of our fathers) and had seen lost children running wild in battle conditions – think of Africa today, or the Balkans. Some mothers feared their daughters would be raped. At the time, it seemed the right thing to do. I suppose.
Around this time a group of former Rhodes Scholars at Yale privately offered to give homes to children from Oxford and Cambridge University families. Oxford accepted; Cambridge asked for time to consider (I would like to know more about that). Our own voyage was arranged, under my father’s direction – he was at the time warden of Rhodes House – and with enormous speed, to leave Oxford on 8 July and sail from Liverpool the next day.