The experience of children in Britain – forced to interact with the adult realities of the Second World War (September 1939 -September 1945) – is a largely untold story.
In 1939, in England and Wales, the majority were very young – nearly 6 million were under 10 years old.
During the war years, their lives were turned upside-down. Evacuation, air raids, deaths of family members, playmates and neighbours, the destruction of homes and familiar landscapes, disruption to schooling, fear of gas attacks, shortages, fathers away fighting and mothers working, homelessness and emergency accommodation – 34 million changes of address took place during the six years of the war – affected their lives.
Children were as much in the front line as adults. It was a time framed by fear and bewilderment, but also often one of freedom, excitement and new experiences.
Mass Evacuation of Children
In the run up to the Second World War, the government feared high civilian casualties as result of German air raids.
Two days before the British declaration of war on Germany (3 September 1939) in a huge logistical exercise involving thousands of volunteers, a mass evacuation scheme began – Operation Pied Piper. It saw a first wave of 1.5 million children, pregnant women, mothers with infants and the frail and disabled, evacuated from urban target areas to safety in the countryside. It was non-compulsory. Some better-off parents often made their own private arrangements.
A second wave followed after the fall of France summer 1940, including children sent to America, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Australia. The overseas scheme was largely abandoned due to public outrage following a U-boat attack on an evacuation ship, the SS City of Benares,17 September 1940, which saw the loss of 260 lives, 77 of them children.
Evacuees were allocated to host families who were paid. Children were of every age and background. Hosts were sometimes shocked by the behaviour and the obvious poverty of some of their charges.
For many children, living with a strange temporary family in a rural location was a great adventure and most were well cared for. Many from the inner city had never seen the countryside or farm animals before. Others found the experience dull and boring and pined for the buzz of city life. For some it was a time of misery, neglect and homesickness. Some tried to run away.
In the first few months after the outbreak of war, the expected German bombing raids had not happened (the ‘Phoney War’). There was a false sense of security. By January 1940 almost half of evacuees were brought home by their parents. The government produced posters to try and persuade them to leave their children in their places of safety.
Child Casualties of Bombing Raids
September 1940 saw the start of the Blitz – the sustained and merciless campaign of night-time bombing attacks on major British urban and industrialised areas by the Luftwaffe (German airforce). London itself was attacked on 57 consecutive nights. Town and city centres across the country were devastated. Thousands of residential streets were reduced to rubble.
During the eight month long offensive, 7,736 children were killed – nearly one in six of the 43,500 civilians who died. Many lost relatives, including brothers or sisters. Others were orphaned. 7,622 were seriously wounded.
Gas Masks for all Children and Adults
Following the use of poison gas during the First World War a little more than 20 year earlier, Britain feared that Germany would use the toxic agent on civilians in air attacks.
38 million gas masks were issued, one to every adult and child, including babies. They came in a brown cardboard box with a strap and were to be carried at all times without exception. People caught not carrying one faced a heavy fine.
Children, however small, were trained how to use what was a technically advanced piece of military equipment. Most training occurred in schools with daily gas mask drills. A teacher would suddenly shout: ‘Gas, gas!’ and children would quickly put on their mask.
The natural rebellious streak of children saw some using gas mask boxes to carry personal things such as toys or sandwiches. Others found they could blow comic ‘farts’ out of the side of the mask.
Parents often bought metal gas mask cases that were stronger than the regulation cardboard ones which tended to fall apart. Some were personalised with home-made decoration.
Life in Air Raid Shelters
There were millions of air raid shelters in Britain during the war years – domestic, public, commercial and private; improvised and professionally constructed.
Two million corrugated-iron, arched Anderson shelters were delivered for burying in people’s back gardens. Morrison shelters – a strong table-like structure with a cage round it – were for erecting in living rooms. Communal shelters were built in town and city streets. The public also took shelter in cellars, church crypts, in underground stations or beneath railway arches. Factories and businesses often constructed their own shelters.
When the Luftwaffe began night-time bombing, shelters became places where people of all ages ate, slept and socialised, sometimes for hours.
Some families with Anderson shelters domesticated theirs, replicating their home comforts in miniature with a primus stove, tea and rugs.
Public shelters could be cold, damp, smelly and very crowded. People brought in musical instruments, gramophones and radios to help hide the terrifying noises of sirens, bomb attacks and anti-aircraft fire, especially from their children.
With fathers away and many schools closed, children had the freedom to run wild. To deter immoral behaviour and vandalism, public shelters were often locked in daylight hours.
Schools and Education
Schooling was massively disrupted during the Second World War. Young teachers had been called up to fight. Books, stationery and equipment were in short supply. Over 2,000 school buildings were requisitioned for war use. One in five schools was damaged by air raids.
Many schools were entirely evacuated; others converted their cellars and basements into rudimentary classrooms. Lessons were held in church crypts, chapels and even pubs. Many children avoided going to school altogether.
Overall, the war was highly detrimental to children’s education, with literacy and numeracy failing to reach the required standard when peace finally came.
Play and Imagination
Children’s games inevitably mirrored their wartime experiences. In this image, Doreen, Susie and their dolls sit in an improvised air raid shelter made from an upturned armchair covered in blankets. ‘Warden’ Hugh checks to see if they are safe.
Bomb sites were officially strictly off-limits, but children explored and played in them anyway.
Ruined landscapes and the shells of houses, where nature quickly took over, became excitingly dangerous adventure playgrounds, offering materials for improvised weapons and for building camps, secret hiding places for war games, and opportunities for vandalism and looting.
Bomb sites were a landscape of unstable masonry, twisted metal, broken pipes, electrical wires and ruptured gas mains. Several children playing on them were reported killed or injured during the war years.
Children, natural collectors of everything, usually began avidly hunting for shrapnel scattered in the streets the morning after air raids.
Bullet casings, shell fragments, tail fins from incendiary bombs, shards of metal from crashed aircraft, rare nose caps from shells, all were swapped or traded for toys and other items, along with badges and military insignia. Anything still warm from a recent detonation was particularly prized. It was not unusual for children unknowingly even to bring home live ordnance to the horror of parents.
To children, the airmen of the Royal Air Force (RAF) were war heroes. Identifying RAF and Luftwaffe aircraft as they flew overhead or engaged in aerial combat was a highly popular past-time. Young people became extremely skilled at recognising aircraft, not just by shape and markings, but by sound too. Clubs and books abounded for enthusiasts. There were even exams.
Children’s Contribution to the War Effort
During the war, most children officially left school at 14 and many aged 14 to 17 were employed full-time in agriculture, factories and offices. Those over 16, including Guides and Scouts, also helped with Civil Defence – working as volunteer messengers or fire watchers.
Younger children engaged in the war effort by salvaging scrap metal, paper, glass and waste food for recycling.
Food shortages saw the government introduce food rationing in January 1940 – meat, eggs, cheese, butter, sugar. Vegetables were promoted, with the public offered new recipes and – through the earlier ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign – encouraged to grow and eat their own.
Every spare piece of land in the country was turned over to growing food, even parks, sports fields and golf courses.
Children contributed by growing vegetables in their own gardens or at school.
Child Refugees come to Britain
‘Kindertransport’ (children’s transport) was the British government-supported rescue effort that helped 10,000 mostly Jewish children, mainly from Germany and Austria, reach safety in Britain in the months before the outbreak of the Second World War.
It was the most traumatic time for these children who were aged 5 to 17. They were told they had to leave family and friends behind – their parents were not allowed to accompany them.
Many did not speak English. Teenagers were placed in hostels. Younger children lived with foster families, often non-Jewish.
Many of the rescued children’s parents died in concentration camps or were killed in the war. After the war, without any family, these children had to build new lives in Britain. Some did return home, while others re-joined their families who had fled the Nazis and settled in new countries, such as Israel and America.
Written by Nicky Hughes