Wartime Childhood

The 1940s were a very different and difficult time for children. It was a childhood without the distraction of social media or 24/7 television. So many-a-day was spent trying to entertain themselves, but all this changed when World War 2 broke out and transformed their lives forever.

Even before war was officially declared on 3 September 1939, children were aware of the world changing around them. They had begun air raid practices at school and knew to carry their gas mask with them at all times. Many of these masks had Mickey Mouse or a cartoon character on them to make them a little less scary.

By the end of August 1939, the British government issued orders for children to be evacuated from the dangers of the cities and into the relative safety of the countryside. Operation Pied Piper became the mass movement of almost two million children. Most went to the countryside, though many were sent to the Commonwealth such as Canada, South Africa Australia and New Zealand.

They arrived at the nominated departure points wearing their name and details on a tag about their necks, and also pinned on. Most had no idea whether they would stay together with their siblings or where any of them would end up. For their journey and new home, they were allowed to take their gas masks, a change of underclothes, night clothes, plimsolls and slippers, socks, a comb, soap, toothbrush, basic clothes and a warm coat.

Away from the noise and bustle of the city and the only home and way of life many had known; homesickness was common and often lonely with only an occasional letter from home. It was all new to them. Many came from the poorer inner city areas; with a father away on service and a mother now conscripted to work. Urban poverty often resulted in bad nutrition and hygiene from poor amenities, sharing a bed with siblings or the whole family, and even old world diseases such as rickets.

Life in the country away from the urban sprawl they were used to could be a big adventure, for some it was not. Farms were things they had heard of but never seen. They were often isolated and without amenities, and the children often had to work for their keep, but at least they were away from the dangers of the bombing. During the Blitz, 7739 children were killed.

By January 1940, about 60 percent of the children had returned to their homes in the cities due to the ‘Phoney War’. The start of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz saw evacuation begin again. When the V1 and V2 weapons began to target the home counties, another 100,000 children, women and elderly moved out of the range.

School became disrupted because of air raids, and the loss of teachers and staff. Classes could be held outside, but soon there was a decline in attendance. School buildings became requisitioned for military use and supplies became scarce.

Most children left school aged 14, and until the age of 17 boys could join the Home Guard. They also worked in agriculture, manufacturing and farming. From 1941, boys aged between 16 to 18 could do National Service before being ‘officially’ called up for military service. It was not uncommon for boys to lie about their age so that could serve King and Country. They understood it was their duty and did it with pride.

Six months after the end of the war over 5,000 children were still living in the countryside. Despite all the dangers and rationing, especially the sweet rationing, the fear and separation from family in this country and those serving overseas for six years, children survived. Six years that must have felt like a lifetime to those so young. They have carried those memories and stories through the generations that have followed. Their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have stories of a time they can only imagine.

Stories that have been written and filmed.

Books:  When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Films:    Hope And Glory

Goodnight Mr Tom

The Book Thief

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