More than any previous wars, World War II was a war of machines: tanks, battleships, submarines, but especially planes. Since World War I the plane had developed; it was no longer flimsy and only capable of flying for up to 10 minutes at a time. Planes in World War II could carry more fuel, which meant they could fly further, and they could even carry bombs. The bomber had become a weapon of war and Germany was one of the first countries to recognise its potential.
Even in 1932, Stanley Baldwin had said in a House of Commons debate “The bomber will always get through” and this belief that a bombing campaign would be truly terrible informed British strategy in 1939. It is interesting that Baldwin’s words are echoed in the evacuation leaflet produced by the lord Privy Seal’s Office in July 1939 when the evacuation of children is justified on the basis that some bombers would undoubtedly get through. Fears of what a squadron of bombers could do to an island country’s major cities were a chief reason why it was decided to evacuate children from them in 1939.
This fear was sharpened by the fact that Hitler’s ruthlessness in using the Spanish Civil War as an opportunity to test the German air force. In 1937, German bombers attacked Guernica, killing between 200 and 400 civilians. This was first time that a city had been attacked by bombers and it shocked the world. Events at Guernica caused the British Government to realise that the same tactics could be used against them. Children in major cities were evacuated to protect them from the dangers of heavy bombing.
The hope was that it would be safer for the children to live in the countryside because bombing was less effective in areas where the population was scattered. Thus, if children lived in the countryside, it would be far harder for Hitler to kill them. Children were seen as particularly important because they were Britain’s future generations and if the war lasted many years they would be needed to join the armed services. Also, evacuating children kept up the morale of both the men fighting in the war and the people in the cities.
If people knew that their children were safe and they didn’t have to worry about them, they could do more for the war effort. Moreover, it was thought that it would be devastating to see children injured and it might induce panic in the cities if large scale child casualties occurred. It made parents feel more secure to know that their children were safe in the countryside rather than sitting in an air-raid shelter frightened for their lives. There were also beneficial side-effects of evacuating children.
Firstly, it freed up young mothers to do war work, although this was scarcely the most important reason in September 1939 as the Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin was loathe to treat women in the same way as men. But some mothers’ skills were valuable and 30,000 women enrolled in the Land Army in 1939. Also, no child care had to be provided for evacuated children. Secondly, the organisation of evacuation gave the impression that Chamberlain’s government was in charge and it showed that the government was doing something to protect the people.
This comforted the people, because they felt that the government was taking actions to protect them from harm. However, children were not the only people to be evacuated from areas at risk of bombing. The 1,147,000 included 524,000 mothers with children under the age of five, and 103,000 teachers. From this is can be seen that evacuation was a huge task, and planning for it had begun in the late 1920’s. Some children, though, remained in the cities because either they or their parents did not like the idea of evacuation, which was not compulsory.
Some other children returned home during “The Phoney War” and very many parents were not sure precisely where their children had been sent. I think evacuation was a success because although the danger turned out not to be so severe in 1939 it prepared the civilian population for evacuation when the Blitz began in 1940. Also, the 1939 evacuation calmed soldiers and civilians at a time when widespread panic would have greatly harmed the war effort. Perceived fears can be as potent as the real thing.