'This Has Happened Before:' Senior Researches World War II Evacuation

Honors student Sarah Muncy studied the British evacuation during World War II, examining the propaganda surrounding it and how it informs the refugee crisis today.

Sarah Muncy

Sarah Muncy

Sarah Muncy has 22 pen pals, all in their 70s and 80s and all living across the pond. They send letters and emails with the salutation “Hello, lass” and grainy black and white photos from their youth.

The Texas Tech University student has spent her senior year corresponding with these Brits, all of whom were part of a government program to evacuate children from London and other cities during World War II. She asked personal questions and learned private details about their lives. She cried as she read their stories. She wondered how she would have reacted if she’d been a mother being told to send her child away or a child being ripped from her parents.

Through it all Muncy, a dual political science and history major from Carrollton and a member of the Honors College, has grown to love these former evacuees and feel great sympathy for what they endured. Her senior thesis has become a labor of love, an opportunity to tell their stories and make sure their sacrifices are remembered.

When she got online and learned just how these men and women were remembered, she was, she said, severely disappointed.

“On Amazon you can buy costumes and dress up as a World War II evacuee,” Muncy said. “You can even get a fake gas mask holder and a luggage tag.”

It got worse. Muncy searched “#evacuees” on Instagram. Pages of results came up: young children in costumes, some smiling, others with posed sad faces. The pictures were captioned with #adorable, #war and #worldwar2.

“There are plenty of differences between this and the current refugee crisis, but how are we supposed to really react with sympathy and clarify if we trivialize a case that happened 70 years ago?”

Hoping to change that, Muncy researched and wrote about Operation Pied Piper, which relocated millions of children from the streets of British cities during World War II to the much safer countryside, separating them from their parents for years. Her goal wasn’t to pass judgment on the evacuation, but to look at the stories, examine the propaganda, both at the time and what’s been published since, and see how the evacuees are affected, even decades later.

Forming the Question

Muncy, who was intrigued by the way war interacts with society, read about Operation Pied Piper in a historical novel. After her Italian Mafia class one day, she stayed behind to discuss it with history and Honors College professor Aliza Wong. Wong, herself a World War II scholar, encouraged Muncy to investigate further and later became her mentor as she started the research.

Doreen Simson in Borth Wales

Muncy, as she dug into the available information, quickly decided one thing: her thesis would not examine whether evacuation was right or wrong. Looking back on it 70 years later does nothing to account for the fear of living as bombs were dropping and the worry of sending a young child away for years and not knowing who that child would be upon return.

“The fact is that it’s much more complicated than anyone was willing to foresee or admit after the fact,” Muncy said. “It’s hugely complex in how we understand childhood, how we understand displaced people, how we understand war and hardship, and from that how to be more empathetic to understanding of displaced people, because it happens a lot.”

She started by reading books written by former evacuees. While helpful, relying on published works skewed toward those who had notable experiences and who had the resources and wherewithal to publish a book. Muncy found the British Evacuee Association, which published a newsletter. She emailed the editor asking for help; the editor printed the entirety of Muncy’s email with the headline, “A Student in Texas.” More than 20 former evacuees emailed her with stories, photos, poems and memories.

For Wong, who has guided Muncy through the process, it was a long overdue project. In light of how much has been written about World War II, there was almost nothing on this topic, she said.

“Sarah has tackled a part of the history of the Second World War that has often been neglected in the larger narrative of fascism, Nazism and the horrors of warfare,” Wong said. “Yet the testimonies of these British evacuees tell the story of the breadth of total war, its impact at all levels and the ways in which even the youngest child was called to sacrifice during this time.” 

Operation Pied Piper

For those unfamiliar with the legend of the Pied Piper, a strangely dressed man comes to a small town and promises to rid the town of rats. Using his musical pipe, he lures the rodents away but, angry when the townspeople refuse to pay him, he performs the same magic on the children of the town, piping until each of them followed him away, lost forever to their families.

“It’s a terrible name,” Muncy said. “Whoever came up with it does not know the end of the story.”

Whatever they called it, in 1939 the British government asked families in London, Liverpool and other large cities to send their children to host families in the countryside, where they would be sheltered from the war that came into the streets. Between 1939 and 1945, roughly 3.5 million children were evacuated through Operation Pied Piper. Many went to homes in the country, with some going overseas to the United States and Canada.

Don't Do It Mother

The actual number of evacuated children is higher than that, Muncy said; families with more money or connections often opted out of the government program but sent their children to family members or friends elsewhere. The 3.5 million didn't account for all private arrangement or children who were evacuated more than once. Most records are held by local governments, if at all, making estimation difficult.

The government employed propaganda to encourage participation from parents, many of whom initially were reluctant. They didn’t entirely trust the government, which may have been worsened by the propaganda. One such example was a poster that appeared in late 1939 after the first wave of evacuations, when children left in September but were back by Christmas.

“The poster said, ‘if you’re a good mother you’ll keep your kids evacuated,’” Muncy said. “If you don’t you’re playing right into the hands of Hitler.”

However, many of these parents also remembered the horrors of World War I and knew there was little they could do to protect their children once bombs started falling. When the London Blitz began in 1940, parents sent their children away. The evacuation was officially for children ages 5 to 15 years old, but 3- and 4-year-olds made it on trains to the country as well. Occasionally mothers went too.

“It was the largest family and social upheaval at the time in British history,” she said.

Life as an evacuee

What Muncy found as she talked to evacuees and read accounts in books, letters and newspapers was that every experience had its difficulties and trauma, regardless of whether their evacuation was perceived as “good” or “bad.” A great majority of children’s experiences fell somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Their host families weren’t wonderful or awful; they fed the children, gave them clothes to wear and kept them safe, but didn’t show much affection.

A big part of this experience was the “clash of cultures and clash of class understanding” that Britain was forced to confront in the war years and after. A good number of the children being evacuated were working class, and the host families were primarily middle class and in some cases forced by the government to take in evacuees. They did their duty, but nothing else, and often didn’t do so pleasantly. Families complained to the government that the evacuees were dirty, brash, unsophisticated and they didn’t like them.

While some of the criticism may have been true, Muncy said, the children were that way because they’d never experienced anything different.

“Some of them don’t know how to use a fork and a knife,” she said. “Well, if all you’re eating is porridge because you can’t afford roast beef, why on earth would you know how to use a fork and a knife?

“Or in some cases children would tell their host family, ‘I brought all my clothes except for my Sunday best.’ The host family would say, ‘Why wouldn’t you do that? Why are you expecting us to provide that clothing?’ Well, they didn’t have Sunday best, but they didn’t want to admit that.

She's in the ranks too!

One of the worst examples of this clash of cultures was the experience of a group of girls who came from Liverpool. The host family had the idea that because Liverpool was a big city it was dirty and its residents had lice or scabies. So when these girls showed up from Liverpool, they shaved their heads and burned their clothes to get rid of any bugs. There was no blending in for those girls.

Another experience relayed to Muncy was from a woman whose mother had died; she was living with her older sister when the bombing started. She evacuated to a family who locked her in a closet when they left the house and didn’t want her around while they were there unless she was quietly doing homework.

But, Muncy is quick to add, it is difficult to really know how many evacuees had positive or negative experiences – so many children were involved in the evacuation and every story is unique to the individual child. Many children who were evacuated did as well as could be expected and returned to their homes after the war, not scarred by their host families but not with beautiful memories either. And a few did make long-lasting relationships and had many opportunities. Clare Barton, who was evacuated to the U.S., took a cross-country road trip with her host family, even making a stop in Texas. Another man who came from an unhappy home ended up in the country home of Auntie Kay and Auntie Edith, two matronly aunts.

“They knew nothing about child care,” she said. “They were both older, they were past the age of having children, but they took in this little boy. He loved his experience, loved them and didn’t want to go home.”

He maintained contact with the two women, not only inviting them to his wedding but also bringing his wife-to-be to meet them and gain their approval. Another woman told Muncy that over Easter weekend this year, several family members came to town for her son’s wedding. Her birth sister was staying with her former host sister, who 70 years later has remained family.

Homecoming

As difficult as evacuation was for both parents and children, in many ways returning home was equally difficult.

Some children came back to find their homes destroyed by bombs or parents killed. Some returned to the homes they had just left and were adopted by their host families; the less fortunate ones went to orphanages. Those whose families were now homeless found themselves in an ancestral crisis of sorts.

Gary Godfrey & Langham Evacuees

“For some it created a guilt; they felt they like they were abandoning their roots,” Muncy said. “Which did they prefer: the evacuated home in the country – that’s not who they are, but it’s what they loved – or this obliterated block? Which one’s home?”

That crisis never ended for a few of the former evacuees.

“A lot said they can’t find home. They never found home again,” she said. “One man in an interview said, ‘I have a family, I have kids, I have a house, but I haven’t found home again.’”

However, many thousands of evacuated children returned to mostly intact families and homes. That still didn’t make the homecoming easy. Parents said goodbye to these children years before; most were 10 years old or younger. A few were just 3 or 4 years old when they left. They’d been gone for years, removed from the war and frequently with a family that had a higher standard of living. They returned to bombed-out London streets, rations and parents who had feared for their lives every day.

Even little details, like the sound of a child’s voice, was a stark reminder of the generation gap the war and evacuation had widened.

“In England it’s very telling of where you live from your accent,” Muncy said. “Kids’ voices adapt so easily, so if they leave with a brash Cockney accent and come back with a posh Downton Abbey kind of accent, the reaction was not good.”

Breaking down the propaganda

Literature and pop culture have since romanticized World War II, and evacuation was no different. Dozens of British children’s books since the 1940s have had evacuation as a plot point, but “Paddington Bear” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” are the most well-known. Both paint pleasant pictures; Paddington, found with a suitcase and name tag in a London train station, is adopted by a British family and has a series of adventures, while the four Pevensie children are evacuated together to a home in the countryside, where the war is barely mentioned in light of their wonderful adventures through the wardrobe in the spare room.

In addition to the children’s books that came after the war, including “Lord of the Flies” (there is some debate on whether that is about evacuation or nuclear war), Muncy analyzed posters and radio chats children had with their parents.

Muncy

With the exception of “Lord of the Flies,” she found evacuation was generally portrayed in a positive light. In the radio chats, the most negative thing any child said was a little boy who’d been hoping to get a brother in his host family. The conversations veered toward excitement about learning French, the fun things they were doing and gratitude for being sent away – not an accurate picture of the program as a whole, Muncy said.

“They create this idea of what evacuation will be, what it was, and that’s not reality,” she said. “Even in the best experiences, it was still a very complicated and complex issue, and that wasn’t addressed in propaganda at all.”

One thing she noticed was to whom the posters were targeted. Most played on mothers’ emotions, a few addressed fathers. She saw only one directed to the children who were leaving. With so little discussed with these children either before or after the war, she found many still had questions. Even though as adults they intellectually understood, they struggled to make sense of this chapter in their lives.

Many wrote autobiographies trying to put this chapter where it belonged, self-publishing through small companies with little interest in fame or riches but just wanting to be heard. Others took the historical fiction route; one book, “Carrie’s War,” was a fictional story based on the author’s experiences as an evacuee. A book reviewer wrote the author, Nina Bawden, writes like she’s still in her childhood. It was not a compliment, but Muncy understood why.

“Some of those things were written in that manner because they never really got to have a childhood,” she said. “It’s a fragile time, and if anything, evacuation shows it at least needs to be acknowledged, and children need to be acknowledged.”

The project has drawn her in, and Muncy is hopeful it won’t end with this thesis. After she graduates in May she’s going to graduate school at the University of Cincinnati and wants to continue studying Operation Pied Piper, get grant money to go to England and meet with many of the evacuees she’s come to know. 

Next steps

One point Muncy heard again and again from the former evacuees was the desire for recognition.

“When they returned they weren’t actually seen as being part of the war effort,” she said.

For instance, after the war the government sent out Certifications of Recognition, signed by the queen, as official thank-yous to those people who benefitted the country during the six-year war. Shop girls and factory workers got certificates thanking them for keeping industry and businesses running, and volunteers who were unable to be in the military received the recognition for providing defense at home. Even schoolchildren received the certificates for continuing their education during the war. But the evacuees didn’t. For many, that stung for decades after the war.

“It was a question of why weren’t they seen as members of this war effort?” Muncy asked. “They were the ones who were having to leave their homes. They were the ones who were having to adjust to get new families. It’s important for the evacuees that they be recognized. Especially for those who had hard times, they want some credit for what they went through.”

In fact, the children who were uprooted twice, lived with strangers and may have gone years without a hug or any kind of affection weren’t even given therapy after the war. Most returned home, and families got into the new normal that came about after the war. They didn’t talk about the war the families had lived through in a variety of ways – men at the front fighting, women in London working, always at risk of bombs, children gone.

Muncy is hesitant to paint too pleasant a picture of evacuation, but she doesn’t want it to be too dark, either. In the 1990s the British Evacuee Association formed and lobbied the British government for recognition. Belatedly these certificates were given out to former evacuees, and their sacrifice was recognized.

She realized telling their stories to her was healing to the former evacuees as well. Simply talking about it helped to validate them. One woman who evacuated to Boston told Muncy she appreciated talking with her, since she can’t talk to her husband or children anymore.

“When I tell this to him or the kids their eyes glaze over,” she told Muncy. “They’ve heard it all before.”

One of the few positive changes resulted from the culture clash: the middle and upper classes realized just how difficult life was for working-class Britons. The welfare state and National Health Service were introduced after World War II.

“They were forced to acknowledge each other and realize these kids are living in some pretty awful conditions,” Muncy said. “It’s a big disparity, which makes you question, what is the justification of privilege? It was one of the questions they had to grapple with in this very trying time. Is it just where you’re born or where you move from, because how do you justify one child having this great childhood and another not?”

Of all the conclusions she has drawn from her research, Muncy keeps coming back to one in particular, and she hopes people who read her thesis will walk away with this lesson as well.

“We have this point in history, and we can’t do anything about it,” she said. “But these were children who were separated from their families due to the threat and actual existence of war. This happens all over the world. It’s in the news right now, but it happens all the time and all over the world.

“Keep that in mind when you read stories about refugees, that this has happened before. If anything, just be a little more sympathetic to that.

“Don’t buy a costume.”


Voices of the refugees

Louise & Clare

Clare Barton with Auntie Louise

Clare Barton was evacuated to Boston; her host family took a cross-country trip through the U.S. while she was with them, so she got to experience much of the country.

“I was very close to my foster mother, Aunt Louise, and was disappointed when she decided it was best for me not to keep in touch. We have visited many of the places I remember and met Aunt Louise’s sister, Florence, when she was still alive.”

Jim Wright was evacuated in 1939 to the south of England, returned to London and was evacuated again in 1940, this time to Llanhilleth Monmouthsire, a mining town in South Wales. Wright, who never returned to London after the war, spent many years as a researcher for The British Evacuees Association.

“I want people to understand the true story of the evacuation of 1939-1945, to hopefully lay to rest many of the stories that were and still are being told of us. We were kids and we were not all bad; you cannot lob us all into one lump.”


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