Operation Pied Piper - The Evacuation of Britain's Children


I'm working on a family history at present where one of my client's ancestors was evacuated as a child during World War 2. This reminded me of my own Uncle Pat, (born 1928) who was evacuated to Barnard Castle. He lived with a farmer and his wife who had no children of their own. At the end of the war they asked to keep him and raise him as their son, but my Gran wouldn't have it!


In this blog post I thought it would be useful for Family History researchers to know more about Operation Pied Piper and how the huge undertaking of the evacuation of Britain's children was carried out.


The First World War had brought home the threat of aerial bombing to Britain's population, initially from 'Zeppelin' airships and then from 'Gotha' long-range bombers. The threat caused far more panic and fear than the reality of the bombing, which, in truth, was on a very small scale; in total there were about 80 bombing attacks made against targets in Britain during which around 1,400 people were killed and 3,300 injured.


However, during the 1930's, the potency of the aerial bomber increased dramatically. This, together with the widely-held doctrine that 'the bomber will always get through', convinced many that Europe's cities would suffer horrific levels of destruction should another war break out.


With this in mind, and with another war looming, plans were laid in the Summer of 1938 for the large-scale evacuation of Britain's children and vulnerable adults from areas deemed to be at high risk. The country was divided in zones, each classified as 'Evacuation', 'Neutral' or 'Reception', and in early 1939 lists of available accommodation in 'Reception' areas were compiled.


Operation Pied Piper was launched on 1 September,1939, following the German invasion of Poland. In London and other major cities, children to be evacuated were collected together and then marched – Pied Piper style - to local rail or bus stations. Each child carried a small, square carboard box around their neck packed with a gas mask, and each had a card pinned to their lapel marked with their details. Personal belongings were carried in whatever case, bag or sack could be provided by the family.


Billetting Officers had been appointed at the points of arrival whose job it was to find homes for the evacuees. Generally, the children would be lined up along a wall and those families deemed to have room were invited to ‘take your pick’. Expediency was the order of the day and no attempt was made to match children and their new

families by social status, nor to keep siblings together. Under such circumstances the individual experiences of evacuated children varied enormously. Many were welcomed into loving families and made friendships that would endure a lifetime. Others were not so fortunate, being seen as unwelcome interlopers, or worse.


It was a huge undertaking – 1.5 million civilians, over half of them children of school age, were evacuated in the ‘critical’ first 3-days. Most children were sent to those areas of England deemed as ‘Reception’, but some were sent much further afield, to Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada and the (still neutral) United States. Other, smaller, evacuations continued up until September,1944, and ultimately 3.5 million civilians (about 7% of the population) were to be shipped away from their homes during the course of the War.


Once it became clear that the expected aerial onslaught would not take place, some families arranged for their children to return home. The Government worked hard to prevent this, however, realising that things could get a lot worse; as, of course, they did with the Blitz of 1940-41.


The large-scale return of evacuees to their families was not approved until June,1945, following the end of the war in Europe. However local repatriations had been going on since early 1944. Operation Pied Piper was finally rolled-up in March,1946.



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