Opinion and Editorial

Revisiting World War II

Phillip Knightley
Filed on October 26, 2009

Britain has been marking the seventieth anniversary of the start of the Second World War with memorial services, books, TV documentaries and exhibitions. I cannot imagine what the present generation makes of it all. Those who were alive at the time find it hard enough to sort the myth from the reality. Those whose knowledge comes from books and films must find it doubly difficult.

For a start there was none of that upsurge of jingoism that had characterized the early part of the First World War. The Depression of the early 1930s has not really ended. Years of high unemployment meant there were still a million without work in January 1940. Besides, there was a lack of a clear understanding of what the war was about, and the fact that many politicians in high places admired Hitler. Britain was still a country riddled with class divisions and the obvious determination of the wealthy class to do their best to escape any unpleasantness, meant that morale was a worry to the government.

Yet even in these early months there were indications that Britain was prepared to go further in waging total war than ever before. The first peacetime conscription was introduced in April 1939 and was later extended to include women, for the first time in the history of any civilized nation.

The government did its best to reassure the public that everything would turn out all right. The newspapers were full of optimistic but inaccurate reporting. Cheery posters issued instructions to “Keep calm and carry on.” But entrepreneurial businessmen rushed to cash in on the war. The government had declared a blackout so a lively industry sprang up making blackout blinds and clips for holding them in place.

Terrible forecasts of the devastation and death toll which bombing would cause, made the authorities decide to evacuate children from the vulnerable cities to the countryside. Eventually 3.5 million people, mostly children, were sent from the cities to new homes in the country.

It is hard to credit that this took place. If somebody said to any parent today, “We’re going to take your children away; we can’t tell you where they are going; we can’t tell you who they’ll be living with, and we don’t know when they’ll be coming home again,” how many parents would say yes to that?”

For many of the children, according to first-hand accounts published recently, the evacuations meant, loneliness misery and despair. This was often because the British were not always filled with warm feelings of national solidarity and goodwill towards each other that were supposed to have followed Dunkirk. Selfishness, snobbery and class- consciousness often came to the surface.Many country people looked down on those who came from the city, considering them dirty, lice-ridden and badly behaved. The government may have ordered country residents to take the city children in, feed them and look after them, but that did not mean being nice to them.

I knew one evacuee who remembered that a treat for him was to receive the top slice of an egg when the master of the country house in which he was accommodated had a boiled egg for breakfast on Sunday mornings.

Another recalled: “We were kept locked in our bedrooms when we were not at school. We never got any cooked meals. When we complained about being hungry we were told to consider ourselves lucky — there was a war on!

Although letters from the evacuees were censored, one boy managed to smuggle out one to his mother, appealing to her to rescue him. A few days later she turned up and took him away. On the other side, at the end of the war, some city mothers did not want to have their children back.

As columnist Alexander Chancellor says, “Seventy years on, it’s time to explode the myth that all the children evacuated from the blitz were well treated. There was a lot more callousness around than one would like to acknowledge.” Indeed.

Phillip Knightley is a veteran London-based journalist and commentator

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