Operation Pied Piper: The Mass Evacuation of Children in London During WWII

Operation Pied Piper: The Mass Evacuation of Children in London During WWII

By Shannon Quinn
Operation Pied Piper: The Mass Evacuation of Children in London During WWII

When they lived in London, all school children were fitted with gas masks and required to run raid drills in anticipation of being bombed. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1939, just a year before bombs were being dropped during the London Blitz, the British government knew that their city would eventually become a target during air raids, and they may possibly even become occupation by enemy forces during World War II. Civilian casualties are tragic,  but the death of innocent children is unacceptable. As the most loved and cherished members of the nation, the military set out on a mission to save as many children as they could from the terrors of war.

The military began a mission they called “Operation Pied Piper”. Over 100,000 teachers were tasked at gathering millions of children out of London and transporting them to live in the English countryside. Every child had a name tag hanging around their neck, like luggage being packed on the train cars. In the media, there was a prediction that 4 million people would die in London during the war, and the government was amassing a stockpile of coffins, just in case. The result of this fear was a mass evacuation. Since many parents had to continue to work in London, they could only afford to send their children away. While this was being done for their own good, the children were often never told why they were being sent away. An entire generation of children who grew up feeling angry, scared, and unwanted.

Parents lined up to say goodbye to their children who were packed on the trains in Paddington Station. Credit: The Daily Mail.

Evacuation Day

There were far too many evacuees to leave in the same day, but nearly everyone had a similar experience that was burned into their memories on the day they left London. Parents sobbing, hugging their children tightly. They were instructed not to tell the young children the truth, to avoid panic. All of the kids thought that they were just going on a school trip, and they would be back soon. Music teachers thought it would lighten the mood if they taught the children to sing cheerful songs about going on a journey, like “The Lambeth Walk” from a musical called My Girl that came out that year, and “Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye” by Gracie Fields.

Hundreds of children left Paddington Station with their tags around their necks, which had the names and addresses of their parents. A simple piece of paper was the only way they could ever return home some day. The children of rich and middle-class families had already made arrangements to send their children to live in their summer cottages, or with friends and family members. Some even paid to send their children to boarding schools. Unfortunately, for an operation as massive as Pied Piper, not everything went off without a hitch. Since families with money were the first ones to send their children away, poor families could not afford to be picky with their child’s housing assignment. Parents were sending their kids away with the assumption that the government had already arranged a home for them, but they really had no idea where they would be living, which is why the parents would urge the children to write them a letter as soon as they arrived.

Photo of children arriving at their destination, carrying all of their belongings in suit cases. Credit: Defense Media Network.

The Foster Family Experience

Once they arrived in their respective towns, the children were taken to churches and community centers. Children were instructed to stand up against a wall while mothers from the town would walk around, judging the children solely based on their looks. One by one, they were chosen to come stay with a foster parents, as those adults would say, “I’ll take that one”.

The war did not end until 1945, so many of these children spent 6 years of their young lives living away from home with complete strangers. Since there was no system to match families with the children that they would actually be compatible with, it was like playing the lottery whether they ended up with a good match or not.

Children were given a meal in community centers and churches until they were matched with foster parents. Credit: The History Vault

According to the testimony of John Allpress, he had to watch hundreds of children leaving with strangers, and he was one of the only two children left behind in the hall who did not have a place to stay. One of the last mothers to show up to pick her foster child was unenthusiastic, and yet since she was one of the only parents left, she was urged to take a second child. She relented, but only because it was the duty to her country. During the time John Allpress lived in this home, he was given food to eat and a place to sleep, but he was constantly reminded that he was not actually part of the family. Even though these children eventually learned that their parents had sent them away for their own safety, they now had to live with the fear that the family left behind in London might die, which was incredibly traumatic.

To make matters worse, a psychologist named Steve Davis explained that he specialized in treating children who left their homes during Operation Pied Piper. A frightening amount of kids were fostered by pedophiles, who were more than willing to bring in as many children in their homes as they possibly could. Other families would beat and abuse the kids and steal their ration cards so they could eat as much as they wanted, while the foster children survived on potatoes and stale bread.

Not all of the stories were tragic, of course. Many children got lucky. Some of them, like a young girl named Norma Reeve grew up in an impoverished background in the East End of London, and she was fostered by a wealthy lady who never had children of her own. She was spoiled with expensive presents, and waited on by butlers and servants. Another girl named Rita Glenister was brought in by a working-class family. They may not have had a lot of money, but they were incredibly warm and loving, and it became a second home. She maintained those friendships even long after the war was over.

Children returning home to their mother after the war was over. Credit: BBC

Returning Home

In October of 1944, the government began making arrangements for the children of Operation Pied Piper to return home to their parents and guardians. While the war was not yet over, they felt that it was time to plan bringing the children back to London. However, some of the parents actually protested. They did not want their children to come home, because they did not believe the danger had passed.

It took months to create the “Operate London Return Plan”. The Ministry of Health was in charge of gathering the children to have free transportation in cars and trains back to the city. They were given health checkups, and new ration cards for food. Some of the children had grown into teenagers and young adults, and they needed to be set up with jobs when they returned home. There was so much planning and paperwork that had to be done, they did not actually start coming back until 1945. By that time, World War II truly was over.

Children running towards their parents as they returned home to London. Credit: Getty Images

In the cases where children were only 2 or 3 years old when they left their real parents, they had grown up feeling as if their foster family in the countryside was their real home, and they did not want to leave, so there was no joy in returning to their biological parents. For these children, the government put an emphasis on programs like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to help them become re-adjusted back to life in London.

There was a huge difference in the kids who stayed in the city throughout the war, and those “who got out”. The ones who grew up in the city matured very quickly, because they had seen death, and were not allowed to have a true childhood. Many of them were also illiterate or received a very poor quality of education, because everyone was too concern with staying alive to worry about teaching kids history, literature, and math. It was incredibly difficult for a kid who got to enjoy a youth playing in nature and going to school away from the horrors of warfare to try to integrate themselves in a classroom full of kids who had the thousand-yard stare.

Sadly, for the 15% of children who were abused by their foster families, there was no plan to get them professional help. When they tried to tell their parents about the abuse they endure, the majority of parents brushed it off as exaggerated stories made up in the child’s imagination. It was not until the grew up and started going to therapy that people realized just how traumatic the experience had been for so many kids.

Out of the millions of children who were sent away, it was inevitable that not all of them were able to make it back home. When the war was over, there were 13,250 children where the government could not get in contact with their parents or a family member in London, most likely because they died during the war.

Even though the plan had its flaws, there is no denying that Operation Pied Piper should be considered a success. This plan saved thousands of children’s lives. For the children who went away, they were able to receive a much better education and quality of life compare to if they lived in London during the war. For a while, progress in British civilization nearly slipped backwards, because if the war had gone on much longer, they were considering allowing child labor to return to the country. While the children who escaped had to endure their own version of trauma, they were able to carry on the progress of their country, at the very least.

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Evacuees in World War Two – The True Story. David Prest. BBC. 2011.

Operation Pied Piper: The Wartime Evacuation of Schoolchildren from London and Berlin. Niko Gartner. IAP. 2012.

A Family in Wartime: Evacuation. John Allpress. The Imperial War Museum.