Children’s Lives in Second World War Britain

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. 

A young boy wears a ‘Mickey Mouse’ gas mask
A young boy wears a ‘Mickey Mouse’ gas mask produced for children aged between two and five. The facepiece was red and the breathing section blue and green in an attempt to make them more friendly © IWM D5894

In 1939, in England and Wales, the majority were very young – nearly 6 million were under 10 years old.

Seven children from the O’Rourke family sleeping with their mother in an air raid shelter
Seven children from the O’Rourke family sleeping with their mother in an air raid shelter under the railway arches in Bermondsey, London, November 1940 © IWM D1614

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

Children walk along the street carrying suitcases and gas mask boxes
Children from Myrdle School in Hackney, London, walk along the street 1 September 1939 carrying suitcases and gas mask boxes on their way to be evacuated to places of safety © IWM D1939A

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.

Child evacuees and their carers en route to New Zealand
Child evacuees and their carers en route to New Zealand, 1940 © The National Archives

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.

Young evacuees at a London station
Young evacuees at a London station. Every child wore a label written with their name, school and evacuation authority. They carried a small bag containing a number of Ministry of Health specified belongings, along with their gas mask in its box. Children were given a stamped postcard to let their parents know where they were billeted © IWM LN6194

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.

A British poster issued by Ministry of Health showing a ghostly figure of Adolph Hitler trying to persuade a young mother to take her evacuated children away from rural safety and back to the city
A British poster issued by Ministry of Health showing a ghostly figure of Adolph Hitler trying to persuade a young mother to take her evacuated children away from rural safety and back to the city © IWM ART PST 3095

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

A panoramic view of the devastation caused by the the Blitz on Liverpool
A panoramic view of the devastation caused by the the Blitz on Liverpool, the most bombed area outside London. The city was hit in 1940 on 28/29 November, 20-23 December, then on the first eight days of May 1941 © IWM D5984

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

A mother in a gas mask holds her new born child whose feet are poking out of a baby gas helmet.
A mother in a gas mask holds her new born child whose feet are poking out of a baby gas helmet. She is pumping the bellows which supply her baby with air © IWM D3918

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.

A 1941 drawing by Alex Macpherson of a class of children wearing gas masks
A 1941 drawing by Alex Macpherson of a class of children wearing gas masks © IWM ART LD1217

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.

Gas mask boxes and cases hanging in a nursery
Gas mask boxes and cases hanging in a nursery © IWM D6129

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

Two children sleep on improvised benches in an air raid shelter
Two children sleep on improvised benches in an air raid shelter that had earlier been flooded by heavy rain. Their mother had tied ropes from the wall to the benches to prevent the children falling on the wet ground © IWM D1550

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.

An air raid shelter in the John Keble Church
An air raid shelter in the John Keble Church, Mill Hill, London, where children who were orphaned or made homeless by the Blitz were given food and drink © IWM D1442

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. 

A woman plays a gramophone, and others can be seen knitting and reading in an air raid shelter
A woman plays a gramophone, and others can be seen knitting and reading in an air raid shelter, London 1940 © IWM D1631

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

Children searching for books among the ruins of their school in Coventry after a Luftwaffe bombing raid
Children searching for books among the ruins of their school in Coventry after a Luftwaffe bombing raid during the Blitz on the night of 10 April 1941 © IWM PL4511A

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.

A teacher gives a lesson to infants in a makeshift classroom in the basement of Greek Road School, London
A teacher gives a lesson to infants in a makeshift classroom in the basement of Greek Road School, London © IWM D3161

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.

An open air sewing lesson in Pembrokeshire
An open air sewing lesson in Pembrokeshire, Wales for evacuated girls from St George’s Church School, Battersea, London © IWM D989

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

The Buckner children play a game of ‘Wardens’
The Buckner children play a game of ‘Wardens’ © IWM 17277

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.

A bus lies in a bomb crater following an air raid, Balham
A bus lies in a bomb crater following an air raid, Balham, London © IWM HU36188

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 collecting shrapnel in a London street
Children collecting shrapnel in a London street following an air raid © IWM

Children, natural collectors of everything, usually began avidly hunting for shrapnel scattered in the streets the morning after air raids.  

A girl holding what appears to be a bomb fragment in the playground
A girl holding what appears to be a bomb fragment in the playground of Calvert School in south-east London. © IWM 3160

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.

Children sitting on an air raid shelter watch aircraft pass over their garden
Children sitting on an air raid shelter watch aircraft pass over their garden in 1944 © IWM D20623

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

15 year old Rose Brown from Walworth, south-east London, on her rounds with her milk barrow
15 year old Rose Brown from Walworth, south-east London, on her rounds with her milk barrow. Rose volunteered to take the place of the regular milkman who had been called up © IWM PL4059B

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.

Boy Scouts, Cubs and Sea Scouts load waste paper on to a cart
Boy Scouts, Cubs and Sea Scouts load waste paper on to a cart, Balderton, Nottinghamshire, 1944 © IWM TR2135

Younger children engaged in the war effort by salvaging scrap metal, paper, glass and waste food for recycling.

Young boys start to create an allotment on a bomb site
Young boys start to create an allotment on a bomb site © IWM D8957

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.

Boys from Knighton-on-Teme School, Worcestershire, pick vegetables
Boys from Knighton-on-Teme School, Worcestershire, pick vegetables that they have grown in the school garden and which will provide their lunch © IWM D17504

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

Polish Jewish child refugees disembark from their ship
Polish Jewish child refugees disembark from their ship at the Port of London, February 1939. © German Federal Archives

‘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.

Kindertransport memorial: The Arrival
Kindertransport memorial: The Arrival, sculpted in bronze by Frank Meisler, Liverpool Street station, London © Peter Trimming

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

Further Reading

11 responses to Children’s Lives in Second World War Britain

  1. maypulham says:

    Very interesting but heart breaking to think the children pulled apart from family’s & frends

    • DAVID STREETER says:

      My wife was 8 years old when the war ended but vividly remembers the air raid shelters, gas masks and the sound of the German airplanes. She also grew up in a small Suffolk/Essex Village.

  2. Maria Holm says:

    Thank you for your intriguing article about the resilience of British children during the war.

  3. David Edwardson says:

    Deffinately an area that should discussed, debated and highlighted a grestdeal more than it is. A ver engaging feature.

  4. David Brown says:

    I was five and a half at the end of the war. I remember collecting shrapnel, hiding in a bomb shelter and hearing the whistle of the bombs as they came down. I also could recognize the sound of the Luftwaffe bomber engines when they flew overhead. Some of the war years was spent in Luton, and they bombed the Skefco ball bearing factory as well as the railways. We could see the flames from the fires in London as a glow on the horizon. What a time, and it should have served to end war everywhere.

  5. Debra Daugherty says:

    Amazing story, An author friend of mine recently wrote a book about this. It’s called Stay Calm and Carry On, Children by Sharon Mayhew.

  6. Mum and Dad lived in Walworth at the beginning of the war. Dad signed up to be a London fireman, based at Whitefriars, and was one of the firefighters who helped save St Pauls. Mum went to live with Nan at St Albans, where I was born in 1941, then we all moved to New Addington, south of Croydon, in 1942. Dad was a bookbinder before the war, but remained in the fire service until he retired It wan’t until much later when I read a book about it that I realised just how close to death he must have been. They had to go out during the raids, so they were literally fighting fires while the bombs were falling..

    An excellent article – many thanks!

  7. Doreen Steinberg says:

    https://youtu.be/sfLU5S64t3s https://youtu.be/c61ZsN_Pfs0 Love Affiar with London parts 1 and 2
    I was born in London in Jan 1940 and the above films show London during and after the War, Churchill’s funeral, the Queen Mother’s funeral and London’s parks and museums I was evacuated for a while but at 4 demanded to go home to London, bombs or no bombs

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