Oceans Apart: Stories of Overseas Evacuees in World War Two

Oceans Apart: Stories of Overseas Evacuees in World War Two

by Penny Starns


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From May 1940 the Children’s Overseas Reception Board began to move children to safety abroad to Australia, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand. The scheme was extremely popular, and over 200,000 applications were made within just four months. In addition, thousands of children were privately evacuated overseas. The ‘sea-vacs’, as they became known, had a variety of experiences.After weeks at sea they began a new life thousands of miles away. Letters home took up to twelve weeks to reach their destinations and many of these children were totally cut off from their families in the UK. Most found their new way of life to be a positive one in which they were well cared for; for others it was a miserable, difficult or frightening time as they encountered homesickness, prejudice and even abuse.This book reveals in heartbreaking detail the unique experiences of sea-vacs, and their surprising influence on international wartime policy, used as they were as an attempt to elicit international sympathy and financial support for the British war effort.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752490113
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 05/01/2014
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Penny Starns has a PhD from the University of Bristol and has lectured in history at Cambridge, London, and Bristol universities. Her new research into overseas evacuees was the subject of a successful BBC Radio 4 program series. She is the author of Blitz Families: The Children who Stayed Behind, Odette: World War Two’s Darling Spy, and Surviving Tenko: The Story of Margot Turner.

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Oceans Apart

Stories of Overseas Evacuees in World War 2

By Penny Starns

The History Press

Copyright © 2014 Penny Starns
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5472-3


The Ties that Bind

Offers to provide an overseas refuge for British children for the duration of the Second World War were received by the British government in the spring of 1939. These offers were extended primarily by the Dominions, such as Canada and Australia, but the United States of America also offered to take children. Even Latin American countries were keen to offer help in this respect. However, most British politicians at this stage viewed overseas evacuation as unnecessary, potentially expensive and probably unwieldy in terms of administration. Furthermore, for some people the very notion of sending children overseas smacked of defeatism, and ministers argued that it was tantamount to waving a white flag before the war had even started. These early offers of help, therefore, were virtually dismissed out of hand. At this point government ministers were reasonably confident that their home front civil defence policies, which included a framework of air raid-precautions shelters and wardens, Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses and blackout procedures, would provide adequate protection from aerial bombardment. The cornerstone of civil defence measures however, relied on the systematic movement of city children and other vulnerable civilians to areas of relative safety in the countryside. This planned mass evacuation was referred to officially as the government's dispersal policy, and ministers were in the process of persuading the general public that domestic civilian evacuation was the best possible course of action should war break out.

Nevertheless, the issue of overseas evacuation was discussed at length in the House of Commons, and it is clear from early debates on the subject that politicians had a number of concerns and prejudices with regard to sending children abroad. Some of these were sensible and pertinent, while others were highly amusing. For instance, there was a general consensus within the corridors of power that British children should not be sent to Latin American countries because English was not the first language. Yet this consideration did not appear to have influenced domestic internal evacuation, whereby hundreds of Liverpool children were sent to Welsh-speaking North Wales. However, the decision to refuse offers of help from Latin American countries was viewed as a sensible one, not simply because of language difficulties but also because these countries did not have strong political or economic ties with Britain. Prevailing political opinion regarded governments in these countries as unstable and potentially volatile. A large number of politicians were also wary about sending children to Australia. During the nineteenth century, Australia had been first and foremost a penal colony. British prisons during this period were overcrowded and overflowing, and thousands of criminals were condemned to penal servitude in Australia as an alternative to incarceration in Britain. Given this association, a few officials vehemently argued that sending children to live in Australia with a bunch of convict descendants was not an appropriate course of action.

In stark contrast, Canada and South Africa were considered to be ideal destinations for good British stock should the need for overseas evacuation arise. The populations of these countries were regarded as decent, hard-working and of thoroughly good stock. Strangely perhaps, in view of Britain's long standing special relationship with the USA, politicians in Whitehall shied away from the idea of sending children to America. Their reluctance appeared to be based on the prevailing view that American children were spoilt, rude, arrogant, ill-disciplined and loud. Members of parliament also expressed a dim view of the average American mother. According to the parliamentary records of 1939 and 1940, American mothers were described as lazy, materialistic and vain. Amusing stereotypes labelled them as gossipy women who were ignorant, superficial and totally lacking in child-rearing skills. They were further considered to be loud, aggressive, ignorant, overindulgent, and petulant, whereas the demure middle- and upper-class English rose mothers were praised for being quiet and reserved in their thinking and diligent in their mothering. Even English working-class mothers were venerated when compared to their counterparts in the United States. Rear Admiral Beamish, for example, was very critical of the American lifestyle, and most vociferous on this point. During a debate of the Dominions Office Supply Committee he strongly ridiculed American mothers, claiming, 'There is a very good apple grown in this country known as the American mother. The reason it is called an American mother is that it only has one pip.'

The rear admiral then went on to express that, in his view, American children were usually in charge of their mothers rather than the other way around. His view prompted murmurs of agreement and a good deal of support, but it was not shared by all. Indeed, during the same debate Major Braithwaite poured scorn on such stereotypical attitudes and declared them to be most unhelpful. He stated:

I do not think that this is the sort of thing that ought to be said to the Committee at this time. America has shown herself our friend and is willing to give us all the armaments she can, and to cast any aspersion in that direction is something I bitterly resent.

Nevertheless, these stereotypes, however unfair or inaccurate they proved to be, did serve to block any official government moves to send British children directly to the USA during the war. In fact the majority of British government officials decided that should it become necessary to send children overseas then the Dominions would be the preferred destination, since this measure would serve to strengthen pre-existing ties between Britain and her Empire.

The initial reluctance to send children overseas by means of any organised and officially endorsed scheme did not deter well-to-do families from sending their offspring overseas by private means. Between 20,000 and 30,000 children were evacuated overseas for the duration of the war. Many of them left Britain before the war broke out and did so in sporadic droves. An estimated 5,000 people left Britain's shores over the two-day period immediately prior to the declaration of war on 3 September 1939. This upper-class exodus included a large number of parents, nannies and grandparents. The Thames Valley in the September of 1939 was filled with men and women of all ages, in various stages of hunger, exhaustion and fear, offering absurd sums for accommodation in already overcrowded houses and even for food. This horde of satin-clad pinstriped refugees poured through for two or three days, eating everything that was for sale, downing all the spirits in the pubs, and then vanished.

Large companies such as Warner Brothers, Kodak, Ford and Hoover also provided a means of escape by paying for the overseas evacuation of children belonging to their British employees. American universities did their part too, offering refuge to the children of leading academics working within British universities. Not surprisingly this elitist escapism became an emotive issue, and the brutal unfairness of the situation was hammered home by the increasing number of newspaper articles that focused on the wonderful lives that children were enjoying on the other side of the Atlantic.

J.B. Priestley, the famous writer and broadcaster, recalled his thoughts on the subject on his first day of duty with the Home Guard: I remember wishing that we could send all our children out of this island, every boy and girl of them, across the sea to the wide Dominions, and turn Britain into the greatest fortress the world has known; so that then, with an easy mind, we could fight and fight these Nazis until we broke their black hearts.

Another contemporary observer described the problem succinctly:

Why should the son of a rich man sleep in security in New York's gay lighted towers, the roar of traffic bound on peaceful errands in his ears, while the son of the poor man dozed in crowded shelters below our dangerous cities, menaced by the bomber's drone? It was unfair; and something needed to be done about it.

Although the inequitable nature of private overseas evacuation schemes was obvious to all, public opinion was divided over the issue of sea-vacs. The fact that adults were fleeing Britain was particularly frowned upon. Undoubtedly a few sections of the population were resentful and felt deprived because they were not afforded the same opportunity to leave the country, but the majority viewed adult sea-vacs as lily-livered cowards. According to the national press, they were abandoning Britain in her hour of need, and if they were prepared to run away from danger then the country was well rid of such despicable people, while politicians maintained that since all adults were desperately needed for the war effort, any large-scale departure from Britain's shores should be avoided.

Whilst the population as a whole took a dim view of adult emigration at this time, opinion was more cohesive with regard to the subject of child sea-vacs. Over 80 per cent of the population suggested that it was appropriate for the British government to send children overseas out of harm's way. This overwhelming support for a government overseas evacuation programme was rather surprising, since domestic evacuation turned out to be a dismal failure. Less than 50 per cent of parents took advantage of the government's dispersal policy, which was implemented on the last day of August and the first two days of September in 1939, and 90 per cent of these evacuees were back in the cities by Christmas the same year. Therefore, it seemed rather incongruous that parents were prepared to send their children to the far-flung corners of the Empire while simultaneously refusing to send their children to areas of relative safety in rural Britain. Government ministers, who were naturally disappointed with the failure of their dispersal policy, resolved to go back to the drawing board and initiate further domestic evacuation schemes on an ad hoc basis in the coming months.

By the spring of 1940, however, the war had taken an unexpected turn. On 12 May Germany invaded France, and Britain's main ally succumbed rapidly to enemy attack. Winston Churchill took over from Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister, and on 26 May the Dunkirk retreat began. Subsequently, nearly 900 ships, many of them privately owned, brought 338,226 troops safely back to Britain. The combination of the fall of France and the dire plight of the British Expeditionary Force in Dunkirk prompted fears of an imminent invasion. Suddenly, overseas evacuation seemed not only an attractive proposition but a wholly desirable one in terms of saving the British race. Thus when the Dominions and the United States of America renewed their offers of hospitality, overseas evacuation became, for the first time, a serious option.

The Under Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs Geoffrey Shakespeare was given the task of constructing an inter-departmental committee to 'consider offers made from overseas to house and care for children, whether accompanied or unaccompanied, from the European war zone, residing in Great Britain, including those orphaned by war, and to make recommendations thereon'.

Members of Parliament duly resurrected the debates of 1939 and raised new arguments for Geoffrey Shakespeare to consider. Indeed, from the outset he was forced to tread a careful path. Recalling his dilemma he noted:

I was warned through a high Treasury authority that the policy was unpopular and that I should be well advised to tread delicately. Here was a dilemma. If we failed to evacuate children at a rate that the public thought necessary we should be charged with muddle and inefficiency. If we succeeded in accelerating the pace, those in high places would become restive and perhaps put an end to evacuation altogether. Those of us who were charged with the responsibility of the scheme were therefore in a somewhat invidious position, but we were so inspired with the rightness of our task and the need for urgency that we went ahead with all speed.

In justice to the War Cabinet, I can frankly state that I understood why they should take a more sober view of this experiment. In the early stages the response to the announcement that a scheme had been worked out for the evacuation of children was so instantaneous and overwhelming that it revealed a deep current of public apprehension. Questions of national morale were involved.

From an analysis of House of Commons debates in 1940, the prospect of sending children overseas was wholly justified on the grounds that they were either 'useless mouths', 'potential saviours' or 'ambassadors for Britain'. It was not surprising that, at a time of strict food rationing and substantial material shortages, transporting children overseas was seen as a sensible option, since they could not contribute in any way to the overall war effort. Military personnel also endorsed the notion, albeit with a few reservations. Army chiefs welcomed the idea on the grounds that it would lift military morale if soldiers knew that their children were safely accommodated thousands of miles away from the European conflict. They also stated categorically that if Britain was invaded, children who were left in cities could potentially get in the way of fighting, or perhaps even be taken as prisoners and used as hostages by the enemy. From a military standpoint, therefore, it seemed that an official overseas evacuation plan had received the thumbs up. Only the Admiralty voiced concerns, claiming that they were unable to guarantee safe passage for children once they embarked on their ocean voyages. Admiralty chiefs stated that they were only able to provide Royal Naval ships as escorts for part of the journey, and pointed out that all ocean-bound journeys were fraught with danger. This claim was not pure rhetoric, because at this stage in the war Britain was losing sixty-six ships a month on average.

Whilst the notion of getting rid of useless mouths dominated some official thinking, with the threat of invasion uppermost in politicians' minds racial preservation also became a key concern. Eugenicist MPs argued that sending children overseas was a way of making sure that the British race survived. They maintained that if Britain actually succumbed to a German invasion these children would be potential saviours, since on reaching adulthood they would join the Dominion armed forces and continue the battle with the enemy and reclaim Britain as their own. Other MPs, including Lady Astor, viewed child sea-vacs in the role of the nation's ambassadors, who would display exemplary behaviour overseas and tug at the heartstrings of their host countries. In this way such children would rally ongoing support for the British war effort.

Churchill, however, despised the prospect of sending children overseas. He declared that the idea smacked of 'scuttling under the threat of invasion'. Furthermore, he considered it to be defeatist and beset with grave difficulties.

Evidence suggests that a number of children agreed with the Prime Minister and made their feelings clear. The 10-year-old David Wedgewood Benn, for instance, wrote a letter to Churchill, which was published in The Times. In the letter the young David begs to be allowed to stay in England despite the forthcoming danger, against his family's plans to send him to Canada. He forcefully claimed that he would rather remain in Britain amongst the bombs than to be shipped away and desert his country. Churchill enthusiastically pronounced that he was heartily cheered by the letter and responded by writing a missive to the boy's father praising his exemplary stance and virtues of national pride, courage and determination. He then sent the young David a copy of his memoirs.

Churchill firmly believed that any mass migration of children would damage the nation's morale, but his views were in the minority. The cross-party political climate had shifted and now favoured some form of official overseas evacuation scheme. Furthermore, the Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, Geoffrey Shakespeare, had prepared a detailed report that advocated the rapid implementation of overseas evacuation for children. Interestingly, however, Shakespeare chose not to sell his report to the House of Commons on the grounds of the useless mouths argument, nor on eugenically based standpoints or ambassadorial roles. Instead he encouraged politicians to view child sea-vacs in economic terms and as a method of strengthening ties between Britain and her colonies. In many respects he argued that his proposed policy was a mere economic and political trade-off – a golden opportunity that would have borne fruit even if it were not dictated by the circumstances of war. Speaking at Whitehall, Shakespeare stated somewhat lyrically:

There is one other justification for the scheme which is in no way associated with the war. It may perhaps be one of the blessings which will flow from the war. It is still true in our national economy that exports should balance imports. We are importing into this country the fighting men of the Dominions, and we are exporting back to the Dominions the best of our children, and for this double blessing the Mother country will be forever in the debt of the daughter Dominions. This plan for evacuating children overseas is really an invisible export, because who can tell what will be the far-reaching consequences of it and what the value of it will be? It may well be that it contains within its breast the germ of a wise emigration policy for the better distribution of the population within the territories of the British Empire. That is what so many of us have been urging for so long and have prayed for. The dream is in sight of realisation. These children will form friendships, contacts and associations in the Dominions and the silken cord which binds the Empire together will be strengthened beyond all power to sever.


Excerpted from Oceans Apart by Penny Starns. Copyright © 2014 Penny Starns. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 6

'There'll Always Be an England' 7

Introduction 9

1 The Ties that Bind 13

2 The Children's Overseas Reception Board 21

3 Good British Stock 33

4 The SS City of Benares 46

5 American Resolve 58

6 Voyages 68

7 Communications 79

8 Maintaining National Identity 88

9 Sea-Vacs in Canada 98

10 Australian Sea-Vacs 108

11 Kiwi Brits 118

12 South Africa 126

13 Homecomings 134

14 Success or Failure 146

Bibliography 156

Index 157

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