Child's War: Growing Up on the Home Front

Child's War: Growing Up on the Home Front

by Mike Brown

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When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, it came as no surprise to the children of Germany: the Nazis had been preparing them for a war ever since they had come to power in 1933. To British children it was an altogether different matter. Children all over Britain were deeply affected by the war: many were separated from their parents by evacuation or


When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, it came as no surprise to the children of Germany: the Nazis had been preparing them for a war ever since they had come to power in 1933. To British children it was an altogether different matter. Children all over Britain were deeply affected by the war: many were separated from their parents by evacuation or bereavement; all had to 'make do and mend' with clothes and toys; and some even died while contributing to the war effort at home. In this moving and often amusing account, Mike Brown describes what life was like on the Home Front during the war from a child's point of view. His fully illustrated narrative includes details of evacuation, rationing, coping with gas masks and air raids, entertainment and the important - and often dangerous - roles of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. This photographic history pays tribute to the generation of girls and boys who grew up under the shadow of the Second World War.

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"Very well-illustrated, and often amusing, this work will prove valuable for anyone with an interest in the war, and essential for those with an interest in the effects of war on society." — The NYMAS Review

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A Child's War

Growing Up On The Home Front

By Mike Brown

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Mike Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7590-5


The Day the War Broke Out

I was 13 when the war started. The week before it broke out my family – me, Mum and Dad, and my little sister Eileen – went to Weymouth on holiday. We went to the cinema to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and on the newsreel they were saying that war was coming. We came home on Friday instead of Saturday – the train was packed – there were sixteen in our compartment instead of eight.

Iris Smith, Bristol

On the morning of Sunday 3 September 1939 it was announced that the Prime Minister would make a radio broadcast to the nation at 11.15 am. Everyone held their breath; would Neville Chamberlain once again manage to turn certain war into peace at the last moment, as he had done at Munich the year before?

At the announced time the Prime Minister spoke:

This morning, the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by eleven o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland a state of war would exist between us.

I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.

The Second World War had begun. Roy Coles, also from Bristol, recalls listening to the broadcast: 'I was eleven when the war started. That Sunday morning I listened to the radio with my Dad, we listened in silence as war was declared. We had to go and see my Grandmother and my Great Aunt, we walked in silence down to my Gran's – there was virtually nobody about. My Gran didn't have a radio so we told them.'

The news rapidly filtered through to those who, like Roy's gran, did not hear the broadcast; Vivien Hatton from Bermondsey remembers: 'We were in church when the vicar told us that we were at war.' Almost immediately after Chamberlain's broadcast, an air-raid warning (a false alarm as it turned out) was sounded in London and large parts of south-east England. Sylvie Stevenson from Chingford was 4 at the time: 'The first I knew was when the air-raid sirens went, we were at the top of Hall Lane – everyone just stopped. I remember dad coming home that evening, saying he was going to join up – Mum went berserk.' Charles Harris, also from Chingford, was aged 7; he too remembers that first air-raid warning: 'When the sirens went I went down into the public shelter, it was dark inside – there were no lights. Down in the mud on the floor I found 6d, when I came out I bought three tubs of ice cream with it – they were 2d each – my brother and sister and me all had ice cream that afternoon.'

Although some of the changes that the war brought to the lives of children did not come about immediately (rationing, for example, only came in later, as the war dragged on), others had already been introduced before the outbreak of war, such as gas masks, or followed almost immediately, as with ID cards and the spread of Anderson shelters.



As the threat of war had increased during in the late 1930s, the government had begun laying plans for evacuation. These directly affected children, especially those living in London, the industrial cities and the great ports.

There had been air raids on Britain in the First World War and people were very concerned about the danger they posed. In the summer of 1938, it was decided that, should war come, those least able to fend for themselves – children, the elderly and the disabled – should be evacuated from those places most under threat. In September, at the time of the Munich crisis, plans were drawn up splitting the country into three types of area: Evacuation; Neutral; and Reception. Evacuation areas were mainly those places where people were thought to be in the most danger of air attack, although some places were cleared of civilians to provide training areas for the forces. The first Evacuation areas included Greater London, the Medway towns, Merseyside, Portsmouth, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Reception areas were safer parts to which evacuees – those being evacuated – would be taken; they were mainly rural areas such as Kent, East Anglia and Wales.

Schools were to be evacuated en masse, the children and their teachers moving all together to the same area, where they would usually share the neighbourhood school with the local children. Children from the same family would go together, with the younger ones going with the eldest's school. Pre-school children were to be evacuated with their mothers.

On Monday 28 August 1939, before the summer holidays had actually ended, London schoolchildren went back to school to take part in an evacuation rehearsal. Many of the children had assembled by 6 am, carrying their kit. A government leaflet outlined what this should comprise: 'a handbag or case containing the child's gas mask, a change of under-clothing, night clothes, house shoes or plimsolls, spare stockings or socks, a toothbrush, a comb, towel, soap and face cloth, handkerchiefs; and, if possible, a warm coat or macintosh. Each child should bring a packet of food for the day.' Every school had been given a number and had been told when to go to which railway station or where to board the coaches. The cost of the journey was paid for by the government.

On the morning of 31 August 1939, three days before war broke out, the order was given for the evacuation plans to be put into operation, and during the next four days nearly 1.9 million people were evacuated, including almost 1.5 million children, over half of whom were in school parties. Parents of schoolchildren were told when their children's school would be leaving, although they did not learn the destination until after the children had got there; mothers of younger children were told where and when to assemble. From the London area alone 376,652 children and their teachers, 275,895 pre-school children and their mothers, 3,577 expectant mothers and 3,403 blind adults were transported out of the capital. Any operation involving these vast numbers could easily have lapsed into complete confusion but overall this phase of the operation was surprisingly successful.

Vivien Hatton was evacuated from Bermondsey

I was 9 years old when the war broke out, A few days beforehand I had been evacuated along with my older sister Audrey with her school, Aylwyn High School, to Worthing. I was terribly frightened. My mother made us sandwiches for the journey. We carried our gas masks round our necks and had a badge pinned to us to say who we were. We were billeted with a family I didn't like, they were quite dirty – we arrived there about nine o'clock but were given no food, so we lay in bed and finished our sandwiches. I cried but my sister told me not to be such a baby.

We had some friends who were billeted with a Salvation Army couple, Mr and Mrs Crump, and they said they could arrange for us to transfer to them. The Billeting Officer said we were very ungrateful children.

On the children's arrival at their destinations, the first real problems began to appear. It had not always been possible to transport schools to places where suitable, or even sufficient, school accommodation was available. The teachers set about putting things in order. Soon village halls and large buildings of all sorts had been put to use as temporary schoolrooms, and by Christmas almost all the evacuated children were receiving full-time education. At the beginning of the war Alan Miles, who was 9 at the time, was evacuated from New Cross to Brighton. His mother kept the letters he sent home, and they make a fascinating record. This is his first letter (spelling mistakes and all):

Dear Mum,

I am having a nice time. I went to school on Monday and in the prak [park] in the Afternoon. Do you know that I have tow [two] shillings and nine pence and I buot [bought] two commics one is Larks and the other is tip Top. I hop Tinker [his cat] is all right and reads this letter out which I am just going to write miow miow miow for the cat. Is dady making some more guns and I hop dady's foot is better. Is mumy still finding the cat on my bed. Mrs bodmin went to the pictures and Enid and I went to fech Mrs bodmin and Mr bodmin.

Love from Alan

Another letter dated 2 July 1941 shows how contact with home was ensured – 'I am at school writing this letter as every Wensday morning Londers [Londoners] have to write letters home.'

One particular problem sprang up in North Wales, where some children were placed with Welsh-speaking families, but with the ready adaptability of youth, many soon picked up enough Welsh to get by, and their schools arranged for Welsh to be included in their lessons.

The months that followed soon came to be known as the 'phoney war'. Hitler had not expected Britain and France to go to war at this time and was not ready for a full-scale attack on them. Throughout the winter of 1939/40 the German U-boat assault on merchant shipping was pressed ahead, but on land and in the air almost nothing happened. The expected air raids failed to materialise and in Britain more civilians died in black-out traffic accidents than soldiers were killed by enemy action. Many evacuees were homesick, some had been hurriedly placed in the most unsuitable billets, dirty and insanitary, or with people unwilling or unable to look after them properly. Barbara Courtney from Nunhead remembers: 'We were evacuated to Salisbury, you always tried to be nice, tried to please. The woman where my brother and I were billeted, she said she'd burnt the rice pudding. I said I didn't mind, then I saw it – it was black. She cut all the bits off and put them on my plate. Her husband said, "You can't make her eat that!", but she said I'd said I liked it, so she made me.'

Many parents missed their children dreadfully, and as the precautions seemed to prove unnecessary, more and more evacuees came home – after only a few weeks the Minister of Health was advising mothers of young evacuees not to bring them back to the cities, but by Christmas nearly half of all evacuees had returned.

Alan Miles wrote home on 26 January 1940: 'Mrs Gatehouse said to me that I am being moved but I do not want to move I want to come home. If you want to know why it is because I am getting a bit tired of being down here by my self and another thing is because I want to see my dear little Tinker. I think my teacher Mrs Howard has gone back and all my friends have gone back like Lawrence has gone back so that it is not very nice not to have friends.'

Sylvie Stevenson from Chingford, aged 4 when the war began, remembers:

I was evacuated for about two weeks, somewhere near Bedford. I'd never had cream before, and the lady said; 'Would you like some cream?' I said 'Yes', so she gave me kippers with cream! I hated being away from home and Mum and Dad came down and got me. Dad was in a reserved occupation, making ammunition boxes for the army.

We had a boy called Bernard Muggeridge at school, he didn't turn up for a long time – someone said he'd been killed in an air raid, someone else said he'd drunk the school ink and died. Later he came back – he'd been evacuated.

Then came the German invasion of western Europe, the 'Blitzkrieg'. With the fall of France in June 1940, Britain became the next target. Invasion was expected on the south coast of England, which was hastily changed from a Reception area to an Evacuation area. Hurriedly over 200,000 children in the area were evacuated, or, in some cases, re-evacuated to Wales or the Midlands. Some were sent to America, but this was stopped when in September the City of Benares, a ship carrying evacuees there, was torpedoed and sunk. Apart from this, evacuees were relatively safe; in the first two years of bombing, the heaviest part of the Blitz, only twenty-seven evacuees were killed by enemy action.

On the whole, most of the evacuees who were part of the official government scheme came from the poorer and more crowded parts of the big cities. The children of the urban middle and upper classes often went to live with relatives or schoolfriends in the country. Vivien Hatton recalls: 'The school asked the girls who lived in the North of England if they would take one of us to stay for the summer holidays; I went up to Birmingham with one girl – I hated it. I wrote to my mother saying "Please, please, can I come home?" She wrote back saying that there was only the kitchen and shelter left to come back to – we'd been blasted!'

The countryside to which the official evacuees had been moved seemed a different world from that of the inner-city tenements and slums many of them had come from, but on the whole they soon adjusted. The streets were exchanged for the fields, city dogs and cats for cows and sheep, packaged food for farm goods. With the open air and fresh food many flourished. Alan Miles (July 1940): 'Every night when I come home from school I get the eggs for Mrs Colwill. Mr Colwill is letting me milk the cow tonight. There is another thing I do at night that is getting the cows and driving them home half a mile.'

Parents were expected to pay towards the keep of their evacuated children; in London this was set at 6s (30p) a week each, although poorer parents were charged less. People taking in evacuees were paid more, from 8s 6d (43p) up to 16s 6d(83p), depending on the age of the children, the difference being made up by the state.

Evacuation was not just a one-way process. In June 1940, 29,000 civilians were evacuated to mainland Britain from the Channel Islands, and in September 1940 about 2,000 children from Gibraltar were evacuated from there to London. Few spoke any English, but they soon settled in, with several Scout groups being set up for them. They eventually returned to Gibraltar in the summer of 1944. And they were by no means unique; refugees from all over Europe had come to Britain seeking safety, starting with German Jews in the early 1930s, among them many children.

At about the same time as the Allies landed in Normandy in June 1944, a new air assault began, first from the V1s, the 'doodlebugs', then from the V2 rockets. A new wave of evacuation took place between July and September, although before it could even begin more than 200 under-16s had been killed. In the first two weeks 170,000 official evacuees left, along with half a million who made their own way out of the target areas, but again many soon returned as the threat proved less serious than expected.


Children in the Front Line

Children who had stayed in the cities, or whose parents had taken them home again after they had been evacuated, were to find themselves with ringside seats when the air raids began. But in the first winter of the war, 1939–40, enemy aircraft activity was confined to attacks on shipping in the English Channel, or mine-laying around the coast. The first civilian air-raid death in Britain was during an attack on the Orkneys's naval base on 16 March 1940, and the first in England was not until the end of April; even then it was caused by a German mine-laying bomber crashing at Clacton-on-Sea, killing its crew as well as two civilians. In the two years before the outbreak of war a series of measures had been introduced to counter, or at least minimise, the threat posed by bombing. These soon became part of everyday life.

Air-raid Warnings

In May 1938 the government had set out a system of air-raid warnings which would be sounded to warn of an imminent air attack, giving the public time to take cover. The warning would consist of a two-minute signal from a siren, rising and falling in pitch; the 'All-clear' signal would be given in the same way, but at a constant pitch. The up-and-down noise of the warning siren led to its becoming known as 'Wailing Willy' or 'Moaning Minnie'. The 'Alert' sound itself became hated – some people found it more frightening than the noise of the actual raids. But most felt like Christine Pilgrim of Peckham: 'When you heard the siren, it wasn't so much that it frightened you – you knew what you had to do – it was, "Oh no, not again!"'


Excerpted from A Child's War by Mike Brown. Copyright © 2011 Mike Brown. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Mike Brown is a popular author who has written numerous books on the Second World War, including Evacuees, Ration Book Diet, and The Wartime House.

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