A Girl’s War: A Childhood Lost, Part 1 of 2

A Girl’s War:  A Childhood Lost, Part 1 of 2
Operation Pied Piper The evacuation of Britain’s cities at the start of World War Two was the biggest and most concentrated mass movement of people in Britain’s history. In the first four days of September 1939, nearly 3,000,000 people were transported from towns and cities in danger from enemy bombers to places of safety in the countryside. Most were schoolchildren, who had been labelled like pieces of luggage, separated from their parents and accompanied instead by a small army of guardians – 100,000 teachers. By any measure it was an astonishing event, a logistical nightmare of co-ordination and control beginning with the terse order to ‘Evacuate forthwith,’ issued at 11.07am on Thursday, 31 August 1939. Few realised that within a week, a quarter of the population of Britain would have a new address. ~~ BBC Evacuees in World War Two – the True Story by David Prest. On September 3, 1939, anticipating a possible German invasion, the British government, with the words, “evacuate forthwith,” launched Operation Pied Piper, the evacuation of over 1.5 million British children to the presumed safety of the countryside. On that unseasonably hot autumn day, with identifying labels pinned to their coats and gas masks hung around their necks, children gathered to participate in what adults told them was “an adventure.” If the parents thought the journey such a good idea, the children must have wondered why so many mothers were crying; and why some parents snatched back their children and took them home instead of letting them go on this “special outing.” The children were chosen randomly, as one said, “like cattle in a market,” to live with unfamiliar families in unfamiliar surroundings for weeks, months and, in many cases, years. While some evacuees had a happy life and did not want to go “home” when the war ended, other children received harsh, and in some extreme cases, abusive treatment. Maria, a thirteen year old girl, said “It was a terrifying experience leaving my mother at such short notice. We travelled by train and it was quite a long journey. I could hardly breathe. When we arrived at Wales, I was the last child to be chosen by a host family. In the end, I was chosen by a tall, healthy looking lady. But I soon found out that she was very cruel. When I got to the house she told me to take my clothes off. But when I refused, she tore off my clothes and I was forced to go into the Kitchen. Then, I was shoved into a tin bath which contained Dettol in it. Then my host father shaved my head until I was bald. The experience of evacuation has made my life a misery.” ~~ Blog, World War Two 1939-1945 I was one of those children and in my memoir, A Girl’s War, I share my personal journey. A Girl’s War recounts how I was sent to a boarding school at three years of age, abruptly separated from my parents and my brother, when my father became ill. That first Christmas I contracted measles and pneumonia and spent the holidays in the school sanitarium. My mother insisted that I be allowed to attend the Linton Camp Residential School, specifically built in 1939 for evacuees, where my brother was a pupil. Nobody told me that my father had died just before Christmas, but the “big boys” at the Linton school knew of his death because my brother, Keith, attended the funeral. The children soon made sure that I also knew of my father’s death. The move to the Linton school left me confused and fearful, mistrustful of adult promises, with a lack of trust and an extreme independence. Rita Glenister, from North London, stayed with a working-class family in Somerset and was treated like a member of the family, given love and affection and secured friendships to last a lifetime. Norma Reeve, from a lowly background in the East End, was taken in by a titled lady with servants and a butler who served Norma her meals. Little things, like going to the pictures, learning to bake bread, walks in the woods and the generosity of those who took evacuated children into their homes, have remained constant in the minds of evacuees. For many it was a life-enhancing, mind-broadening experience, leaving them with memories they treasure to this day. Others, however, were beaten, mistreated and abused by families who didn’t want them and didn’t care about them. The painful experience of John Abbot, evacuated from Bristol, reflects the darker side. His rations were stolen by his host family, who enjoyed good food whilst John was given a diet of nothing more than mashed potatoes. He was horsewhipped for speaking out and, with a bruised and bleeding body, was eventually taken in by the police. Then there was Terri McNeil who was locked in a birdcage and left with a chunk of bread and a bowl of water. ~~ BBC Evacuees in World War Two – the True Story by David Prest

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