Page 236

Blank page

Page 237

Part III: The Battles

Page 238

Blank page

Page 239

Chapter 13: The Encircling Front

This chapter, and the two following ones, are again concerned with problems of local government. But the contrast is very different. The main investigation now is the effects of air warfare on city life. In this setting, the test for local government led back to the primary needs of life, shelter, food and warmth. What happened, to many of those who were bombed and homeless or hurt depended, in large measure, upon how the agencies of government understood their tasks and how they fulfilled them.

The period of air attack, which began in June 1940 as an intended preliminary to the invasion of Britain and ended a year later when Germany turned to the East, represented for local authorities the most severe trial of the whole war. One London authority had its civil defence powers taken away by the Government, others were threatened with equally drastic treatment, while many, organised for the leisurely ways of peacetime, were temporarily paralysed when violence scattered routine, disordered and accounting checks, and made nonsense of the doctrines of settlement and chargeability. Neither the bombs nor the homeless people paid any attention to the whereabouts of administrative boundaries.

In proportion to its population, Britain suffered, during the war, a larger number of civilian air raid casualties than any other member of the United Nations. In all, about 60,000 people were killed. Some 40,000 died before the United States and the USSR entered the war, and about one-half of these were registered in London.1 The total death roll proved to be, however, only a fraction of the hypothetical estimates worked out before the war. But while the figures of killed and injured were much less than had been feared, the amount of social disturbance, and particularly the number of homeless people, were found to have been greatly underestimated before September 1940.

The central problems of this period were not, as things turned out, in the field of casualty work; of treating the injured and burying the dead. They were largely concerned with reducing social distress and finding remedies for the general disorder of life under air bombardment. The effects of dropping explosive and incendiary bombs on the

Page 240

highly organised business of a great city, where the orderly functioning of one tiny part of the whole organisation depended upon automatic union at just the right point in time with many other interdependent parts, disturbed the lives of individual citizens in countless ways, and created for the Government a host of urgent social problems.

The apparatus of communication upon which modern society depends was interfered with . Railways and motor transport were slowed down, roads blocked, bridges destroyed, telephones broken, postal services delayed. No one therefore could know how long it would take to trans mit a decision of the Civil Defence Committee of the War Cabinet to those who would have to do the work; for it first had to pass through the responsible central department (often dispersed in different buildings) down to the chief officers of dozens of local bodies, and thence through further departments to the operative staffs—often cut off from town halls and working from temporary action stations. It was not, in the circumstances, surprising that local government was shaken by the first impact of total war.

Communication was only one of several problems. The provision of clean water for drinking, of dirty water for fighting enemy-action fires, of power to run transport and industry, of heating to cook meals and warm houses, of unbroken pipes to carry away sewage and avoid the risks of disease; all these were among the tasks which could not wait upon leisurely processes. How all these problems were solved cannot be told here. They formed, though a part of the environment in which the social emergencies that are here examined had to be faced. In the following pages it will be necessary to keep this disordered battleground in the centre of the picture if the difficulties and the achievements of the times are to be understood.

Among all the problems of welfare during the raids of 1940–1, ranging from the provision of latrines to the distribution of millions of articles of clothing, there were three main groups which were of primary importance. In broad terms they were: (1) rest centres and other emergency services for homeless people, (2) arrangements for evacuation, and (3) the number and condition of public air-raid shelters. The first two form the subject matter of this and succeeding chapters, while the third, which is bound up in the history of air raid precautions in general, is the concern of the civil defence volume .

The war situation in which these problems arose must first be briefly summarised. The scale and distribution of air attack was the dominant feature. The Battle of Britain, which has been dated from about 10th July to the end of October 1940,2 included a series of

Page 241

heavy daylight assaults on many areas of the country. These were preceded and accompanied by day and night exploratory and reconnaissance raids, designed to test defences and prepare the way for invasion. On 7th September the third phase began with the first great attack on London. Night raids on the city continued until, on 14th November 1940, the attack temporarily switched to Coventry. Thereafter, full-scale night raids were made on many centres of population—including London—in an attempt to immobilise the ports, paralyse industry and essential services, and lower civilian morale. In June 1941 the scale of activity began to descend, and by December 1941 the monthly number of sorties had fallen to 101 in contrast to a monthly average of 1,870 during the period September 1940 to May 1941.

Thus ended the first and most destructive series of raids on Britain during the war. But the men and women who were responsible for welfare policies and for the organisation of all the humdrum and domestic services for homeless people, evacuees, orphans and other victims, did not, at the time, know how or when the battle would end. In this period, Britain and the Commonwealth stood alone. For all the layman knew, and sometimes the War Cabinet as well, air attack might continue interminably; what had been experienced might be only a foretaste of violence to come.

Behind these uncertainties lurked the fear of gas, of new ‘secret weapons’ and the threat of invasion. It was essential to have in readiness a comprehensive organisation to fight gas attack if it came. This meant the immobilisation of vast quantities of equipment, the provision of decontamination, cleansing and laundry facilities, and diversion of manpower to unproductive jobs. It meant, too, that when decisions were taken on evacuation policy and the country’s reserves of house-room in the safer areas an extra margin of insurance always had to be provided.

The threat of invasion, timed originally by Hitler to begin on 21st September 1940,3 also absorbed immense resources. More than once, it imposed numerous and costly changes upon the wartime arrangements for hospital care, evacuation, nursery provision, education and other services. During the summer of 1940, and again in the campaigning months of 1941, many precautionary measures had to be enforced, and schemes for the removal of some 500,000 persons from areas on the coast had to be worked out down to the last child and the last train-load.

These dominating strategical necessities of the home front formed the background to the social policies of 1940–1. It was in this setting

Page 242

that decisions had to be made. Few of them could be made in isolation from the rest, when in every direction so much was happening, or might happen. The need for one measure, such as the evacuation of certain groups of adults from London in September 1940, had to be balanced against other contingencies, such as the possibility of refugees from the East coast flooding into the areas earmarked for London evacuees.

As the social service departments and the local authorities were completely at the mercy of the war situation and any commands which the military authorities thought it necessary to give, it is difficult for the historian to say that there were, during this period, X number of specific problems which were or were not resolved. To consider first the evacuation policies of 19409–1; did they achieve their object? If their purpose is defined as the removal of all children from London, then they failed. But this judgement will not do; for evacuation was not the only safety-valve for maintaining morale and preserving life. What was important, of course, was the reality of an evacuation scheme. If the scheme was soundly conceived and organised, of the arrangements for transport, billeting and welfare were adequate, then its value lay in providing an outlet for mothers and children to leave London—if they wanted to. The fact that many of them did not leave, and preferred to fight out the winter by getting their rest in tubes and shelters, does not necessarily mean that the policy of evacuation failed. No scheme of a voluntary character can be condemned out of hand because a proportion of the people do not support it.

‘Plan 4’—the new scheme for a second evacuation from London and other cities in England and Scotland—has been described in Chapter X. As a result of the experiences of the first evacuation in 1939 it was restricted to schoolchildren, and it was decided that the movement should not begin until heavy air raids had started. Meanwhile, detailed plans were worked out for 670,000 children. A vigorous attempt to popularise the scheme among parents in the cities and householders in the reception areas met, however, with a very poor response. Even when the Germans were fastening their grip on Norway in April 1940 there seemed to be no interest in the Government’s new scheme.

In May, the enemy’s advance into Belgium and Holland immediately made completely useless a large part of the carefully drawn plans and timetables. Within a week, the danger map of Britain had changed, and a million or so people, including large numbers of evacuated children from London and many schools and school camps, residential nurseries and hospitals, found themselves in frontline zones on the south and east coasts. The London evacuation plan had to be recast because only the Great Western and Western divisions of

Page 243

the Southern Railway could be used for the removal of children. Other lines were needed for military operations. Once again, as in September 1939, transport considerations largely defeated attempts to maintain the identity of schools.

The Government’s reaction to the threat, rapidly closing in on the English coast, was, first, to order the removal from likely battle grounds of all London children still evacuated. During 19th–23rd May 1940, some 5,500 children were transferred from the south and south-east coasts of England to South Wales; on 2nd June, 6,650 were sent away, and in the following weeks other moves were made as more and more towns and villages were swallowed in the danger belt. In all, about 25,000 children were removed from areas within a ten-mile zone extending round the coasts of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent and Sussex.

The second stage in clearing the south and east costs for action was the removal of local children. To encourage evacuation, all state schools were closed. Those children who stayed behind received no education.4 On 2nd June, eighteen towns and urban districts were declared ‘evacuable’. Still working on a voluntary bases, the Government moved over 37,000 unaccompanied children to South Wales and the Midlands. During the next seven weeks thirteen more towns in the coastal belt were placed in the same category of risk (making thirty-one in all), and children were also sent away from the Medway towns.

With the news, early in June, that the French front was disintegrating, it was decided to operate a hurriedly recast plan 4 for London and the Thames-side areas. A revised scheme was quickly put into effect, thus reversing the Government’s previous decision that a second London exodus should not take place until after heavy raids had begun. Between 13th and 18th June, nearly 100,000 schoolchildren were evacuated—61,000 from the county area. From then on the area of evacuation spread to other parts of the country, for on 27th June a start was made with clearing children from Portsmouth, Southampton and Gosport, and on 7th July a similar exodus began from Newcastle, Middlesborough, Hull, Grimsby, Gateshead, South Shields, Tynemouth and other towns on the north-east coast. Meanwhile, during July and August, plan 5 for London (known as the ‘trickle’ scheme) was continuously in operation as parties of schoolchildren were sent away each week.

All these moves concerned only children of school age not accompanied by their mothers. Between May and 1st August 1940,

Page 244

roughly 213,000 such children were evacuated by the Ministry of Health and billeted in safer areas. The intense activity of this period by central and local authorities is reflected in the departmental records that remain. They are distinguished by the absence of precise statistics; they are as abrupt and disconnected as the day-to-day flurry of a great newspaper office. At the best, therefore, the figures used in this and the following chapter are only intelligent estimates. It is not possible to give figures which would show what proportion of the children who were eligible to go, actually went. The proportion probably varied from place to place and from week to week, according to the war situation, the proximity of air raids, the influence of Mr. Churchill’s speeches, and many of the factors already discussed in earlier chapters.

In spite of the succession of military disasters during the summer of 1940, the Government was reluctant to undertake again any scheme for the evacuation and billeting of mothers with their children. The memory of September 1939 was still fresh; the smell of it all in the departmental files had not yet evaporated.

Partly to stimulate a voluntary exodus of mothers and young children from the areas on the coast, and partly to meet a demand for some facilities for mothers, the Ministry of Health announced a new scheme at the end of June 1940.5 This became known as ‘assisted private evacuation’. Mothers with children under five years old who could make their own arrangements for accommodation in a reception area were to be given free travel vouchers. The Government was prepared also to pay billeting allowances to the householder—whether stranger, friend or relative. These allowances—for lodging only—were 5s. a week for the mother and 3s. for the child.6 Older children could also be taken provided they were still at school. (The scheme excluded mothers whose children were all aged over five.) Before railway vouchers and billeting certificates were issued the evacuating authority had to be satisfied that arrangements for accommodation with a householder in a reception area had, in fact, been made.

Until the bombing of London in September 1940, the use of this scheme seems to have been mainly confined to those leaving the areas on the coast. While the Government was drawing up, on military advice, plans for the compulsory removal of about 456,000 ‘non-essential’ persons living in the thirty-one towns (about sixty percent of the population), those who could make their own arrangements for billeting were urged, as a patriotic duty’, to leave at once. The first

Page 245

instructions under the ‘special scheme’ (to use its innocuous label) were issued four days after the fall of France.7 Persons in need—mothers, children, the aged and infirm—were assisted with travel vouchers, and allowances at the 5s. and 3s. rates paid if these refugees could make their own arrangements for accommodation in reception areas.

By the autumn of 1940 about 49,500 unaccompanied children and 56,000 accompanied children and adults from areas on the coast were officially billeted in reception areas. Within eight months a further 328,000 people voluntarily left the coastal belt which eventually extended from Great Yarmouth in the east to Littlehampton in the south. In addition, certain moves of a more or less involuntary character, such as the transfer of some 2,300 patients from hospitals and institutions on the coast, were carried out.8 The compulsory scheme as a whole, however, complete with refugee emergency services and organised in great detail even to arrangements for the collection of luggage and perambulators, was never put into operation.9 It absorbed a lot of time and labour; it was brought, in the words of a directive from the Prime Minister, to the ‘very highest state of efficiency by 1st September 1940’, and was timed to begin on the 4th; it was again read to go into action in March 1941, and it was continually revised and brought to a state of readiness during the next four years of war. After taking in further areas on the coast, it eventually affected a pre-war population of some 1,300,000 persons of whom about 900,000 were, if occasion arose, to be compulsorily evacuated. This scheme was only one of the elaborate measures touching the welfare of the civilian population which the Government had to prepare against the threat of invasion. By good fortunate, these measures never had to be tested.

At the same time as these plans were being worked out for large sections of the British population, arrangements had to be made for central and local authorities to receive and help the foreigners who sought refuge in Britain. Schemes were drawn up to house, feed and clothe upwards of half-a-million persons from Europe. But those who contrived to get to safety were fewer than the number expected and

Page 246

for whom the provision was made. By the end of 1940, just over 30,000 civilians from Belgium, France, Poland, Holland and other countries had been received, in addition to 29,000 people from the Channel Islands and about 10,500 Gibraltarians. Some forty countries were represented among the refugees who arrived in the United Kingdom during this period. Different and comprehensive social provision had to be organised by the Ministry of Health, the local authorities, and other bodies to receive and settle these heterogeneous groups for the period of the war.

With the onrush of the German armies over Europe in the summer of 1940 there were many who turned their eyes in the direction of Britain. In Britain itself there were some, perhaps downcast and troubled by doubt, perhaps only thoughtful for the fate of children in a land besieged and under fire, who looked towards the Dominions and the United States. It was proposed that a proportion of the country’s child population should be sent overseas.

On 31st May 1940 the first spontaneous offers of hospitality from private homes in Canada were received through the Canadian Government. Within a few days similar offers came from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. On 7th June the British Government set up an inter-departmental committee to consider these offers. The committee reported quickly,10 and on the day France fell the War Cabinet endorsed the view that those offers should be accepted at once, and that a Children’s Overseas Reception Board should be established.11

Three days later, when the Board started work, it was overwhelmed with a rush of applications. For fourteen days it struggled night and day to sort out the incoming letters and telegrams. By 4th July, when the public had to be told that no further request could be handled, some 211,000 applications for children aged five and sixteen to be sent overseas had been received.

Simultaneous with the invitations from the Dominions, a large number of offers of hospitality for children (with and without their mothers) were received from the United States and other countries. Many parents wanted to send their children to America. Within five minutes of the announcement of the Children’s Overseas Scheme, 32,000 applications were sent to the Board for the children to be placed in the United States, and in 10,000 cases particular homes—presumably known to the parents—were nominated.

No attempt was made by the Board to persuade parents to part with their children. No guarantee of safety was offered, and no undertaking

Page 247

was given to bring the children back at any specified time. Somewhat alarmed by the flow of applications, the War Cabinet tried to damp down enthusiasm for the scheme. However, the shipping stringency soon brought it to an end.

Even in the beginning, the Board found it difficult to secure enough accommodation. the defection of the French fleet; the loss of the Arandora Star, a fast unescorted liner, which led the Government to decide that children in the official scheme should not be carried by any ship unless in convoy, and the withdrawal of all United States shipping from belligerent seas and ports, threw an even greater strain upon available British passenger-carrying ships.

On 10th July the War Cabinet decided that it was impossible to take warships off anti-invasion duties to provide escorts. The official scheme for sending children overseas was therefore held in abeyance. Exit permits for children sent privately were still granted so long as parents chose to accept the risks involved. On 17th September 1940 the City of Benares was sunk with the loss of seventy-three children and six adults who were in charge of them. This put an end of the official scheme.12 By then,2,664 children had been sent overseas by the Board, 1,532 to Canada, 576 to Australia, 353 to South Africa and 203 to New Zealand.

Apart from the official scheme, parents who wished to make their own arrangements were allowed to do so subject to the approval of the Board. Some 4,200 children (accompanied by 1,100 adults) went to individual sponsors in the United States by private arrangement. An ad hoc American committee in London for the evacuation of children also sent 838 children who parents could meet the cost of the journey and had sponsors to receive them. In addition, over 6,000 children were privately evacuated to Canada, some in company with adults. The total movement of children overseas, therefore, was 2,664 under the Government’s scheme, and some 11,000 by private arrangement.13

Precise statistics showing the number, sex and age of British subjects who left the United Kingdom in 1939 and 1940 are not available. So far as non-European countries are concerned, the balance of movement of British population had been towards the United Kingdom for each of the year 1931–7, the total being 150,000. In 1938 the tide

Page 248

turned. During 1938–40 the outward balance amounted to 47,500, a figure which, however, hid a very substantial inward and outward flow. During the two years 1939–40, for instance, civilian passenger movements show that 202,120 British subjects left for non-European countries.14 No data are known to the writer which might answer the questions: was this an evacuation movement connected with the war? Who were these people? why did they go? how long did they stay away?15

The readiness of some 225,000 British parents to be separated from their children by sending them overseas was not reflected in the response to the domestic scheme. There may have been a difference in attitudes towards evacuation as a precaution against in invasion and evacuation as a precaution against air attack. Mothers and fathers who were willing that the family as a whole should stand together and accept the risks of bombing may have felt quite differently about the prospects of having their children with them under conditions of invasion. Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that, during July and August 1940, when the Battle of Britain was being fought and daylight raids were made on many towns, there was no significant demand for the evacuation of children to safer areas of the country. In cities like Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and Nottingham, the Ministry of Health was advised that local opinion was against any movement. Even in London the June evacuation of about 100,000 children had fallen short by about sixty percent of the number for whom plans had been prepared. During August the ‘trickle’ scheme for unaccompanied schoolchildren sent only 610. And there was evidence, too, of a steady drift back to the target areas.

On 1st August 1940 another evacuation count was taken. The results showed that 519,000 persons were officially billeted in England and Wales, a figure a little below that for January 1940.16 In Scotland,

Page 249

where no evacuation movements had been carried out in 1940, the number billeted fell from 49,800 in January to 27,000 in June 1940. The total for England and Wales was composed of:

Number billeted
8th January 1940 1st August 1940
(1) Unaccompanied schoolchildren 420,000 421,000
(2) Mothers and unaccompanied children 56,000


(3, 4) Expectant mothers and other classes 3,380 14,000
(5) Teachers and helpers 43,400 27,000
522,780 519,000

It is impossible to tell how many of the mothers and children originally evacuated in September 1939 were still in the reception areas of England and Wales in august 1940. It was, however, estimated that there were about 254,000 unaccompanied children away on 31st May 1940, that is, before the new movements were carried out. In June and July some 213,000 children were evacuated, and if they had all stayed in their billets the total on 1st August should have been 467,000. Instead, it was 421,000. About 46,000 children—approximately ten percent—therefore returned to their homes during June and July 1940. It was known that some of these had been among the groups sent out in June. During July and August many more children returned to London than were evacuated during these months, and about one-half of those returning had been sent away in June. When heavy bombing began in September there were over 520,000 children of school age in the London evacuation area.

The attitude of parents to evacuation within Britain was, therefore, different from that shown towards the overseas evacuation scheme. Perhaps the lukewarmness for the one scheme and the enthusiasm for the other came from two distinctive social groups. The author of London Pride suggested, in her sketch of Mrs. Barton the chairwoman, that this was so.18 ‘You’ve no idea’, the Lady went on persuasively, ‘what a comfort it is to know that you children are safe! I do know how hard it is to part with them because you see I’ve parted with my own. I’ve sent them to Canada. I shan’t see them till the war is over, but I know that they are safe. Yours would be nearly as safe in this country—without having to cross the sea either—if you’d let them be evacuated’. But Mrs. Barton, thinking of what she would have to pay, doubted whether any Treasury official knew as much about domestic finance as chairwoman.

Page 250

The Government’s evacuation scheme for unaccompanied children applied almost wholly to those attending elementary and secondary schools. Parents were assessed to pay for the cost of billeting according to their means.19 If children were sent away by private arrangement, to stay, for instance, with friends in the country, the Government paid a billeting allowance only if the parents could not afford the sum of 6s. a week.20 Help of this kind was, therefore, restricted to poor parents.

Between those who could afford to send their children to Canada or the United States and those who could not afford 6s. a week for an evacuated child there stood the middle ranks—the vast majority of parents. Some of them no doubt registered their children with the Overseas Board, some joined the domestic evacuation scheme, while others, disliking the hit-or-miss chance of their child being placed in a good ‘official’ billet, preferred either to make their own arrangements or to keep the family together at home. The restriction of certain branches of the Government’s wartime scheme to the poorer sections of the community—on the principle that those who could afford to do so should make their own arrangements—may have been right in equity, but was often unfortunate in the way it emphasised, rather than diminished, differences in social circumstances. In no other sphere was this more clearly evident than in the services provided for those who were bombed and homeless. The fundamental error was the assumption that the victims of air raids and the people of the poor law were drawn from one and the same social group.