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July 2005 Meeting Report

At the meeting of the Sawston Village History Society on Thursday October 13th, a talk given by Michael Bentinck, dealt with the evacuation of children from British cities during the Second World War.

Mike explained the background for evacuation. Children were believed to be at particular risk from raids by enemy bombers on what were believed to be vulnerable British cities. Consequently, in the months before the impending conflict, the British government had made careful plans for evacuating children away from the cities to safer locations further afield, until the danger had passed.

The evacuation was codenamed 'Operation Pied Piper' and took place during the second week of August 1939. Consequently, during that week and on the appointed day, the children were taken by their parents to the assembly point, each child grasping the vital gasmask, identity card, food and any other essential items.

They were medically examined, labelled and then herded off to nearby railway stations where the last goodbyes were said to parents. This would have been a wrench to both child and parents but the authorities tried to make the departure as swift as possible to reduce any heartache or tears. For the children it seemed quite an adventure, and a train journey into unknown territory gave them views of open countryside, a sight which many of them were seeing for the very first time.

On arrival at their destination, often in the West Country or Wales, they were fed and then allocated to, or sometimes selected by, their new 'family'. Some settled in quickly to their new homes, but others did not always do so well. Mike related a number of anecdotes of evacuee's experiences, some amusing and some quite poignant.

One boy was sent to Folkestone, and after only a few days, he went for a walk along the cliff top, but on spotting a seagull's nest a few feet down the cliff, he climbed down and got stuck. His pal realising the danger, went to alert the coastguard, but on their return the lad had fallen to his death on the beach below. This was probably his first experience of the British seaside.

However, many evacuees had very happy times with their new families, who they generally called Auntie and Uncle. Often, many long and rewarding friendships were formed and some inherited wealth from legacies bestowed upon them by their former Aunties and Uncles.

Mike has written a number of books on evacuees and other wartime topics, and has interviewed a number of ex-evacuees who went on to become celebrities. Initially 1.5 million children were evacuated but by the end of the war this figure had risen to 3.6 million. It was a very interesting and entertaining evening and provided an illuminating insight into an important aspect of wartime history in Britain.

There were also a number of people present who had themselves been evacuees during the war and Mike was keen to hear their stories.

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