Page last updated at 08:13 GMT, Tuesday, 1 September 2009 09:13 UK

Child evacuees relive their WWII

Labelled evacuees waiting for their train out of London circa 1942

By Caroline McClatchey
BBC News

As the world remembers the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, three former child evacuees relive their experiences of strange lands and even stranger times.

Imagine being six years old and it is a normal day at school - until, that is, you are put on a train with your classmates and teachers, destination unknown.

Jim Wright
Jim Wright wears his evacuation label with pride

When you arrive in this place you never knew existed, you are handed over to strangers. You have no idea when you will see your family again.

It sounds unbelievable but during World War II, some 3.5 million people, mostly children, were evacuated from towns and cities to areas deemed safe from bombs by the authorities.

When war broke out on 1 September 1939, 1.5m children, mothers, pensioners and hospital patients were relocated in just four days. It was known as Operation Pied Piper, the biggest mass movement of people in Britain's history.

About 750,000 of those were unaccompanied children, and the same happened to 600,000 a year later.

Jim Wright and his elder brother Jack were taken from Upton Park in east London to Llanhilleth in the Welsh valleys in the summer of 1940.

Sixty children and a few teachers got off at the mining village and the seven-year-old Jim, who thought he was on a school trip, can remember seeing a "big green thing" ahead of him.

Jim Wright with the Carters in the 1990s
The evacuation taught me about the value of money, family and love

"I had never seen a mountain before," he said. He also thought coal came from a scuttle by the fire, not a "big hole in the ground".

The Carter family, who had children of their own, only wanted one boy but they relented and took both.

Despite a lack of home comforts - the Carters had no gas, electricity or indoor plumbing - the 76-year-old knows just how fortunate he was.

There are terrible tales of children kept in chicken coops and foster families stealing their rations, and "luck played a huge part in the game".

Everyone thought it (the bombing) was going to be a lot worse than it actually was
Military historian Taff Gillingham

"Jack and I cried ourselves to sleep the first night but, with the family's love and kindness, our tears soon dried up."

When Jim's father went off to war - he was an RAF bomber and was shot down over Switzerland in 1943 - his mother and youngest brother Peter joined them in Wales. The Carters took them in as well and the family never returned to London.

"The evacuation made me who I am today. It taught me about the value of money, family and love," said the father-of-six. "I am an evacuee and proud of it."

Jim, who now lives in Corby, Northamptonshire, served in the RAF for more than 20 years but he counts his evacuation name tag as the "first medal he ever got".

Doomsday predictions

Military historian Taff Gillingham said Germany was busy concentrating on Poland at the start of the war, so more than a million evacuees had returned home by the middle of 1940.

The second big evacuation came after Dunkirk and before the Battle of Britain, when the bombing focused on big industrial cities.

Young boys swinging from a lamp post in the midst of rubble left by a city bombing raid. Circa 1943
London, Hull, and Cardiff were among the cities bombed

"Everyone thought it was going to be a lot worse than it actually was. Everyone thought the aerial bombardment would kill 10,000 a day, but in practice the Luftwaffe didn't have enough planes to destroy a whole town, never mind a city."

Mr Gillingham says some historians believe the mass evacuation was a waste of money but he believes it was the "right thing to do".

"Seventy thousand civilians were killed in Britain during World War II and it would probably have been higher without the evacuations," he said.

"It also helped keep people's spirits up, knowing their children were safe."

The evacuation was also an exercise in "nation-building".

"No-one travelled about and so it brought people from all walks of life together. It brought the reality of poverty to a lot of people, while the poor saw another way of life."

'Prodigal son'

Gordon Abbott was transformed from a "town boy to a country boy" at the age of seven. His story is a real boys' adventure of climbing trees, catching rats and collecting honey.

An only child, he left Battersea in south London with his gas mask, some clothes and enough food to last a day.

His whole school was marched to the station and eight hours later, he was in Bude, Cornwall.

Although he was not distressed, he can remember children crying on the train, while others wet themselves because there were no toilets on board.

Many evacuees, including Mr Abbott, will never forget the phrase "I'll take that one".

Evacuated Ilford schoolgirls collecting together their potato crop harvest in Buckinghamshire (14 October 1943)
Entire schools were relocated to the countryside

Some reception areas were less organised than others, and when Mr Abbott arrived in Bude, he was lined up in a Methodist Hall and chosen by a farmer and his wife. Like many evacuees, he came to refer to them as "auntie and uncle".

"They were very established in the farming world. They were very strict but very kind and understanding."

He became so immersed in his new life, he could not cope with London when he returned after the war.

"I was very upset when I left. Auntie and Uncle were crying. The devastation was still visible in London and I was not used to the smoke and filth. My parents had separated and their way of life was alien to me."

He returned to his foster family and persevered with a career in farming until he joined the police in 1959.

The 76-year-old now lives in Milton Keynes with his second wife but he visits his extended family in Cornwall once a year, where he is greeted like the "prodigal son returning home".

'Accepted it'

June Knight wanted to be evacuated to America on one of the "big boats", but she ended up in Warborough, Oxfordshire.

In some ways I was resentful. I was going to have violin lessons but all that fell by the way
June Knight

Ms Knight, 80, originally from Limehouse in east London, was billeted to a "very nice but very elderly couple" who earned a small amount for taking her in.

Initially, the evacuees shared the village school with the locals but then they moved into the cricket pavilion.

"I just accepted it. You were told to behave yourself and get on with it. In some ways I was resentful. I was going to have violin lessons but all that fell by the way."

She neither loved nor hated her stay, which is ongoing to this day.

Although she still lives in Warborough - her parents moved to the village when a bomb dropped outside their shop but failed to detonate - the former secretary still considers herself "a Londoner".

"I never came here through choice," she said.

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