The aim of the British evacuation scheme was to send children and adults to safety until the war was over, But the war took many forms and few places in the UK were completely free from danger. Air raids, unexploded bombs, military vehicles, guns and minefields posed risks to evacuees wherever they were posted. The newspaper cutting below shows how some Portsmouth mothers were concerned for the safety of their evacuated children.
Many evacuees died in the supposedly ‘safe’ areas to which they were sent. Four year old Alfred Parsons died within hours of his arrival in the market town of Driffield in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Alfred and his brother were evacuated to Driffield and then sent to the sick bay at Filey for treatment. The two boys were left unattended for some time and later, a nurse found Alfred with his nightclothes on fire in the corridor. From another child she learned that he had pulled aside the fireguard, placed paper on the fire and his clothing had become ignited. Recording a verdict of death from shock, following extensive burns, the Coroner said, ‘I do not think it can be reasonably suggested that there was any negligence – however it is recommended that in places and institutions where there are children, fixed fireguard should be in place.’
Four-year-old John Stobart died when a pair of semi-detached houses in Newcastle-under-Lyme received a direct hit from a bomb on 26 June 1940. He had only arrived in the district a few days earlier from his home in Romford, Essex. ‘Planes were heard and several bombs fell in a residential suburb within a radius of 50 yards,’ ran a report in the local newspaper. ‘One hit a bungalow and demolished the living rooms, but left the bedrooms, occupied at the time by a family of three, intact.’ John was not so fortunate as the bomb that struck the house of the two semis where he was staying crashed through the bedrooms to the ground floor. John, and most of the people injured, were trapped in the two semi-detached houses, which were completely wrecked.
Child evacuees from London were amongst eleven people killed when high explosives fell on a Devon town in January 1941. ‘The baby sister of two children who died was saved and their mother was admitted to the local hospital suffering from cuts and shock,’ reported the Western Times on 24 January 1941. The bombs, though, did not necessarily have to be German. Florence Webb, originally from Carshalton in Surrey, had been evacuated to Friends Green near Weston. At about 09.00 hours on the morning of 26 August 1944, the skies above the Hertfordshire village were full of USAAF bombers as they headed out from their bases to targets in Europe. Disaster struck as some of the bombers passed over Weston. One B-17 from 568 Squadron, nicknamed Ding Dong Daddy, collided with another from 569 Squadron. Florence Webb was killed by a bomb which crashed through the roof of a bungalow in Hertfordshire but did not explode. Four members of the crew escaped by parachute.
Cathy Hammond, whose family had been evacuated from Guernsey in June 1940 (just days before Germany occupied the island) lost her baby brother during an air raid alert in Bolton, Lancashire. However, as she explains, it was not a bomb that was the cause, ‘One of the air raid wardens came to help my mother by carrying my baby brother, Nicholas, whilst she looked after Pamela and me. Unknown to my mother, the air raid warden accidentally dropped my brother on the way to the shelter! On arrival he handed him back to my mother but did not say what had happened. Nicholas died during the night, leaving my mother shocked and devastated. She later learned that the warden had been too afraid to say anything.’
Fixed anti-invasion defences also posed a very real risk to evacuees, though the intended victim was supposed to be an invading enemy. Sophie Rosenthal and her friend were killed when two land mines exploded in the West of England. A witness said that he spotted Sophie as the smoke from the first explosion cleared away. He shouted at her to ‘Stay still!’ but she could not hear him. Sophie stumbled on, another mine exploded and she was blown up. A police officer said that it was possible to walk from the sands onto the minefield as there was only one warning sign.
Another fatal explosion occurred on Sunday, 30 July 1944, when six boys climbed through barbed-wire fencing into an anti-tank minefield on a beach near Gunwalloe in Cornwall. (The beach is used today during filming of the popular Poldark series) The only witness, an Auxiliary Coastguard, saw the boys climbing through the wire from his lookout post about half-a-mile away. In his statement to the inquest into the death of two of the boys – Harry Dale, a local lad and Ronald Munting, an evacuee, the Auxiliary Coastguard said that when he saw the boys trying to enter the minefield he waved a red flag and blew his warning whistle. One of the gang, eleven-year-old evacuee, Peter Michael Reed said that the two deceased boys and four others, including himself, went towards the minefield. Harry and Ronald entered first, by getting through and over the wire fencing, and shortly afterwards the explosion occurred. When asked by the Coroner if he had not seen the danger warning notices, Peter replied, ‘The only notice I have ever read is the one which stated that there is danger when a red flag is flying and planes are exercising.’ Ronald Munting’s father attended the inquest and stated, ‘The place is not sufficiently protected and the nearest warning notice was not facing in the direction the boys approached the minefield. Also, the evacuees had not been warned about the minefield.’
My latest book, Britain’s Wartime Evacuees’ is the result of 8 years of interviews with evacuees and the examination of wartime documents of their parents and wartime foster parents, together with research into wartime newspapers and archives. It can be found on Amazon as a book and kindle: