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The Children Who Stayed Behind
By Penny Starns
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Penny Starns
All rights reserved.
Protecting the Nation
One of the most pervading myths in British history is the notion that Britain was totally unprepared for the Second World War. Undoubtedly there were economic constraints during the inter-war period as the country struggled to recover from the debts it had incurred as a result of the First World War, and to some extent these constraints naturally underpinned the concerted efforts that were taken by Britain and France to avoid further conflict. Historical evidence also reveals that the appeasement policy pursued by British Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain towards Hitler in the late 1930s bought Britain some much-needed rearmament time. Aircraft production was increased dramatically from 1934 onwards, and between 1936 and 1939 numerous shadow factories were built. These latter constructions were industrial works that were built with military production in mind, alongside ordinary civilian factories.
During this period twenty-seven new ordnance works were established and, in terms of protecting the nation in readiness for a further war with Germany, British government ministers were far ahead of other European nations – beginning to plan civil defence strategies in 1922. They had realised that the main threat in any future war would come in the form of aerial bombardment, which was later confirmed by the unrelenting air raids experienced by Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. It was therefore deemed pertinent to discuss the prospect of moving all non-essential persons away from potential danger areas into places of relative safety. Aside from the substantial risk of aerial bombing raids, military personnel pointed out that major cities could become actual fields of combat should an invasion occur, and civilians would impede the fighting forces. Worse still, there was a distinct possibility that they could be taken hostage by the enemy in an attempt to force a British surrender. It seemed sensible then, in the event of war, to remove all non-combatants, particularly vulnerable sections of the population to areas that were not obvious military targets.
There were a few alternatives to an evacuation scheme, and these were debated at length in the House of Commons, but none were considered feasible. A few ministers suggested the erection of specialised camps on the outskirts of major cities, but at this stage it was feared that such camps would look like military bases from the air and would thus become targets for enemy attack. In March 1938, Lord Haldane suggested that deep underground shelters were the way forward. The experience of the Spanish during the Civil War, which began in 1936, indicated that deep shelters were more useful in terms of civil defence and that evacuation was a somewhat flawed policy. Evidently the emotional ties that bound Spanish families together had resisted all attempts at separation and deep shelters were constructed in major cities in order to protect the population from aerial bombardment. Lord Haldane also advised that such shelters could later be used as underground car parks; this potential long-term use would offset the initial building costs.
But it was difficult for British ministers to second guess the enemy during civil defence planning stages. Debates played out in the House of Commons demonstrated considerable support for deep shelters – and nobody doubted the protection that such shelters could provide – but they were also very costly and time-consuming to erect. More importantly, it was thought by some military personnel that deep shelters could potentially become the target of gas attacks if the enemy decided to use chemical warfare. The provision of gas masks for the population and instructions on their use were already included within the overall civil defence strategy as a precaution. Chemical warfare had featured during the First World War and there was a strong possibility that the enemy would deploy chemical weapons again. Thus, while the merits and drawbacks of alternative schemes were highlighted in official circles, evacuation quickly emerged as the only sensible and feasible option for keeping non-combatant personnel safe. Crucially, the policy also received support from senior officers within the armed forces. Colonel Wedgwood, who was an avid protagonist for a civilian evacuation scheme, pointed out that the lack of such a scheme would severely undermine the efforts of fighting men. He argued on a number of occasions that civilian evacuation was essential in terms of maintaining military morale:
Imagine for one moment that this country is invaded. Every man worth his salt will be engaged either in the field, or in some munitions factory far from his family. All the time they will be desperately anxious about what is happening to their wives, and children and parents ... Therefore, this problem of evacuation is a very real one and does not apply solely to children. It applies to all useless mouths in every country which is meeting this new form of gangster warfare.
In order to devise an efficient and comprehensive civil defence programme a sub-committee of the Imperial Defence Committee was formed in 1932 and the Air Raid Precaution Bill was presented to Parliament in 1937. The Home Secretary subsequently introduced a clause in the bill which effectively called upon all local authorities in England to provide central government with the information it required to prepare a civilian evacuation scheme. The task of coordinating all civil defence planning was then given to Sir John Anderson, a senior civil servant with an astounding and excellent reputation for administration and attention to detail.
The Anderson Committee first convened in May 1938 and members began their work by dividing the British landscape into designated evacuation, reception and neutral areas. Senior military personnel from all branches of the armed forces were called upon to advise the committee. These officers duly outlined all military bases, industrial areas and cities that were likely to be attacked. On 28 June 1938 Wing Commander R.V. Goddard also strongly advised Anderson not to evacuate civilians to the east coast, since this stretch of land was nearest to Europe and would, therefore, be the most vulnerable to the threat of bombing and invasion. In addition to constructing and implementing plans for a civilian evacuation scheme, Anderson was also responsible for prioritising essential public services, maintaining public order and safety, controlling transport systems and billeting evacuees. He is best remembered, however, for the protective little tin air-raid shelter that bore his name, and which most people kept at the bottom of their gardens in preparation for the German Luftwaffe raids.
By 26 July 1938 the Anderson Committee had drafted a final report with regard to civilian evacuation and made several recommendations. Available accommodation in reception areas was to be provided by private householders; it would be compulsory for them to take in evacuees. The government would bear the brunt of evacuation costs but some families would be expected to contribute towards the upkeep of their offspring. In order to maintain industrial production non-essential personnel, such as the sick, would be evacuated in addition to children. It was also decided that civilian evacuation should be a voluntary process. This latter decision subsequently proved to be the most controversial of Anderson's recommendations. Although historical records suggest that British government ministers were reluctant to adopt an overly authoritarian approach towards the issue of evacuation – for fear of being compared with the fascist dictators of Europe – the decision also reflected a genuine ministerial belief in the art of official persuasion.
Nevertheless, a central government policy that originated in Whitehall did not necessarily have widespread support within individual local authorities, many of which lacked the resources and administrative networks that would be required to cope with large numbers of evacuees. From a government standpoint the evacuation scheme was, to some extent, a straightforward exercise in military logistics, but as the social historian Richard Titmuss pointed out:
The Government were asking a great deal, it was asking parents to send their children for an indefinite period to an unknown destination, there to be committed to the care of strangers. In helping parents make up their minds, much depended, therefore, on the efficiency of local preparations in each evacuation area and particularly on the quality of the relationship between those responsible for the preparatory work – from councillors to teachers – and parents. The art of democratic persuasion, of making people feel confident in the Government's plans, had to be practiced on a local level as well as a national level.
Unfortunately local health and education authorities were none too keen on embracing the official evacuation scheme. They were not included in the government's consultation process and though Anderson had devised an excellent system for transporting evacuees out of the cities, he had not given much thought to how essential services would sustain them in the rural areas. Much of the problem lay with the decision to make the hosting of evacuees compulsory, whilst making the evacuation a voluntary endeavour. As a consequence, a groundswell of resentment surfaced amongst those who would be forced to play host to evacuees against their will, and neither central government nor local authorities could predict the numbers of evacuees who would be involved in the scheme until the process of evacuation began. This situation was clearly a recipe for chaos; one that was not lost on the public as a whole. The problem was further compounded by the fact that evacuee billets were not assessed in terms of the suitability of hosts to look after children, but merely in terms of availability of accommodation. In theory, disabled people and the elderly were exempt from hosting evacuees, but guidelines were often ignored in this respect.
A survey of potential billets for evacuees was initiated by central government in January 1939 and, by this stage, official responsibility for the evacuation scheme had been transferred from the Home Office to the Ministry of Health – since the latter was viewed more favourably by the general public. An army of volunteer interviewers, who were referred to as 'visitors' in official circles, scoured the country and diligently collected information with regard to over 5 million properties. A deluge of Ministry of Health circulars to local councils outlined the role of these visitors and the precise information required. They were not allowed to enter private properties but they were expected to make extensive notes about each property, its location and its owners. The Minister of Health addressed the nation on the evening of 6 January 1939, outlining his proposals and appealing for national co-operation as follows:
There are many big tasks we want to forward in the coming year. We want to press on with housing, with health, to make sure that in the schools, in the homes, in the factories, in the shops, in the countryside, the possibilities which our times open out for a happier life for all are secured. But there are possibilities of an emergency ahead, as well as possibilities of peace. One of the biggest problems is, undoubtedly what is called evacuation, that is to say many people would leave and many people ought to leave crowded or dangerous areas in time of war. Who are they to be? Where are they to go?
Well, first, I do not want you to think that the policy is to empty our big cities. I mean nothing of the sort. Most people will and should stay where they are, carrying on with their ordinary duties; for most of us, in fact, are engaged in work of real service to our country. There will however, be many who should go to places where they will be relatively safer. Of these children must come first. There are many children in Great Britain, eight million of them. Many of them of course are in places of relative safety. But there are a million of these children in London alone. Without doubt there would be, in time of trouble, and even when trouble was feared, a widespread rush to get children away from dangerous areas. Unless that is organised beforehand there will not only be widespread distress amongst families in exposed areas, there will be enormous disorganisation in areas into which people might flock. Take shops in these areas for instance they would be sold out of supplies in twenty four hours if nothing was done. To organise this, it is clear that we have to look for homes for children mainly in houses where people already are. Empty houses and camps will be used as far as possible; but mere numbers make it impossible to rely on these alone. We cannot always rely on summer weather. We may have wintry weather like tonight. In the recent storms many camps where children were, had to be cleared into surrounding houses. What will the method be? Schools will be moved as units with their teachers who will continue with their education. These schoolchildren will need both board and lodging. But when children have their mother or someone else to look after them the householder will be asked to provide lodging only. But it is not only the householder; we have all got a part to play. The local authorities will arrange for reception. The government will provide transport, will put money in the householder's purse, and will see that there is food in the shops at reasonable prices for that purse to buy.
I know that money does not settle everything; so the government and the local authorities are doing their best to make allowances for the thousand and one individual differences. We have to see not only that the houses for instance are suitable for children, but that the children are suitable for the homes. We want this to be a matter of real human relationship and affection, a willing host and a willing guest. The whole nation will have to feel itself as one if such a crisis really comes. And remember, no-one can say 'My house will never be destroyed.' It may be for any of us to ask as well as to give this national hospitality.
Is anything going to be done about it immediately? Yes. That is why I am talking to you tonight. Amongst other things, Mr Colville and I are asking local authorities in England Scotland and Wales to make a survey of housing accommodation by the end of next month. What do we want to know? We want information about the number of rooms and the people already in the house. We want to estimate how many people could be properly accommodated, for we don't want either the guests or the hosts to be over crowded. We also want to know the existing responsibilities of the household, whether, for example, the householder is aged or infirm, out all day, or perhaps himself or her self expecting relatives. Whether a farmer for instance, needs his spare rooms for extra workers; or whether the householder needs extra bedding. Obviously the more information we can get the better it will be for everybody.
So householders will shortly be visited and asked for this information. It will be confidential, collected for this emergency purpose alone, and will be used for no other purpose. I hope therefore, that every householder, whatever his or her personal circumstances, will give all possible help to the visitors. Finally, this work differs from most of our work, the real tasks of which I spoke to you when I began. Here our great hope and prayer about this is that it may never be needed at all. But the foundations of our work must be sound if our life is to be happy; and one of the foundation stones of any nation is that it has thought of danger, faced danger, and decided upon action so that in danger it may be secure.
Government guidelines stipulated that evacuees should not be housed in isolated properties, but when visitors toured the country the pressure to find billets often took precedence over location. Their official guidelines also relied heavily on the 1931 census and definitions of overcrowding as defined within the 1935 Housing Act. Accordingly, the billeting standard was founded on one adult person for each habitable room, children under the age of 10 were considered to be half an adult and under twelve months they did not count at all. On this basis the final survey reports indicated that there was enough habitable space for 6,050,000 people. However, there were gross inaccuracies and glaring mistakes within the pages of these final reports. For instance, they failed to take into account the number of houses that had already been requisitioned by other government departments and the workforce of private companies who were also planning to escape from the cities once war was declared. Some properties were also very close to military bases or installations, which made them likely target areas. Furthermore, according to the 1939 census at least 1,100,000 rooms had been allocated to private evacuees by February of that year. When all these anomalies were corrected the final government survey report indicated that there were enough billets for 4,800,000 people. Even these figures were flawed, since in some areas houses could not accommodate extra people because of water and sewage problems.
Excerpted from Blitz Families by Penny Starns. Copyright © 2012 Penny Starns. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Protecting the Nation,
2 A Mother's Dilemma,
3 A New Generation of Artful Dodgers?,
4 Education in the Rubble,
5 Childhood Epidemics,
6 Health and Welfare,
7 Food, Glorious Food,
8 Child Psychology,
9 The Bristol Blitz,
10 The Plymouth Blitz,
11 The Birmingham and Coventry Blitz,
12 The London Blitz,
13 The Moral Crusade,
14 The Legacy,