Evacuees: operation pied piper

"When, lo! as they reached the mountain-side,  
A wondrous portal opened wide, 
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed; 
And the Piper advanced and the children followed, 
And when all were in to the very last, 
The door in the mountain-side shut fast..."
(Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin: A Child’s Story)


I remember reading Browning's 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin' when I was a little girl (I was terribly bookish and more pretentious than Lily Savage at the Oscars) and being particularly impressed with the rats distinct lack of manners (as children are wont to be):


Rats! They fought the dogs and killed the cats, 

And bit the babies in the cradles,

And ate the cheeses out of the vats,

And licked the soup from the cooks' own ladles,

Split open the kegs of salted sprats,

Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,

And even spoiled the women's chats,

By drowning their speaking

With shrieking and squeaking

In fifty different sharps and flats.


Great stuff, and when illustrated by Arthur Rackham (*swoon*) Fabulous! And all based of course on an intriguing 11th century German legend in which a piper with a slightly unusual dress sense was promised a payment by the Mayor of Hamelin if he would charm a plague of pesky rats out of the town and into the river using his magic flute (NOT a euphemism).  The Piper promptly worked his mojo and minced off with said rats in tow and drowned the lot of them in the river Weser.  Needless to say, it all went a bit tits up when the Mayor reneged on his promise and offered the Piper a mere pittance. Enraged the Piper whipped his flute out again (as it were) and this time charmed not rodents but the children of Hamelin, who followed him out of the town and vanished into thin air, never to be seen again.


And that, as far as references to the Pied Piper went, was that.  Fast forward some eight hundred and odd years however, and again the name of that cunning fellow and the removal of children from a city crops up again. Not from one city this time, but from numerous towns and cities the length and breadth of the British Isles.  The year was 1939, and Britain was at war.


As the war in Europe unfolded and nation after nation was trampled beneath the Nazi jackboot, news filtered back to Britain and began to paint a vivid picture of the horrors the British people could expect to face when the inevitable happened and Hitler turned the full force of his fury on the British Isles.


On the premise that 'forewarned is forearmed', plans were put into place to get the some of the most vulnerable members of society - children - out of the cities and away to safety before the blitzkrieg came and the cities began to burn.  The aim was to make these children effectively disappear from their homes and from their families (this time for the greater good, however) and to be hidden away in the countryside, far from the Luftwaffe's bombers and the spectre of death.  


The scheme was called 'Operation Pied Piper', and this time the Piper was the British government.


In September 1939 the exodus began.  In the main, children would head off to school where buses would be waiting to take them to a railway station and from there special trains would be laid on to carry them away to safety.  Parents wouldn't know where their children were going beforehand, that information would be relayed back to them afterwards, they just had to wave their little ones goodbye, put their trust in the kindness of strangers and hope for the best...




 (Birmingham Daily Post, September 2 1939)

Newspapers across the country issued instructions to parents as to what they should equip their children with for their journey out of the cities

Operation 'Pied Piper' had begun.  All in all, some 827,000 schoolchildren were evacuated during the first three days of September 1939, with more to follow.  Britain might not be able to save her cities, but she was preparing to save her children...

Little Hope Prepares!

Well how many are there, do we know?” Lavinia Fox, a woman of a certain age and uncertain temperament was standing with her hands on her hips in the dead centre of the stage at Little Hope Village Hall with an air of slight exasperation about her as she addressed the assembled members of the local Womens Institute.

“About twenty, they said, roughly, you know…” Penelope Stamp, village postmistress fiddled with her clipboard and looked a tad uncertain, “But it depends largely on if they all got away alright, apparently it’s customary to expect some of them to have lost their nerve at the last minute and gone back home and several will have been physically wrestled from the train by family members, primarily by anxious mothers.” Penelope was a stickler for detail.

“And Aunts,” piped up timid Imogen Sykes, as small and wizened as a poorly preserved Egyptian mummy, “They can be quite attached too, you know.”   Several heads turned to look at her in unison.

“Yes, yes, so essentially we have no idea?” Mrs Fox adjusted her glasses and peered over the top of them, “Other than to say that it’s probably less than twenty but presumably more than say, ten, yes?”

“Yes.”  the mustered women answered as one, although clearly none of them had the foggiest.

“Right. Well, we have twenty-five households registered to take in one or more of these unfortunates, and so it’s fair to assume that some of  you may be disappointed."


There was an awkward silence before Mrs Fox continued “Does anybody here wish to be removed from the list voluntarily?” A general clearing of throats and sideways glances. “Speak up if there is!”

“Um,” a tanned arm, index finger pointed upwards, was raised at the back of the crowd, ”I, that is we,  Bill and me aren’t too fussed, what with having sweets in the shop and all. Not to be nasty but you never know what’s coming here on that train, you know, Londoners. Oliver Twist and all that. Could be anyone, and we do have a business to run and there is a war on. You know, Fagin and Nancy and all.”

“Jolly good,” if Mrs Fox was amused, it didn’t show, “Cross the Muffets off the list, would you Miss Stamp?”


“Excellent, anybody else?”

“We’re allowed to choose what we have, presumably?” Olive Hughes, Welsh and precise,”You know, boy or girl?”

“Obviously the choice will be limited due to numbers, Mrs Hughes,” Mrs Fox wasn’t a huge fan, “But yes, generally the choice will be either a boy or a girl.”

“And do we call them evacuees or refugees?”

“We call them by their names, Mrs Hughes, by their names.”

Penelope Stamp pursed her lips and stifled a smile, Mrs Fox wasn’t one to suffer fools gladly.

“And what time will they be arriving, only Mr Hughes likes his dinner to be on the table by six o’clock at the very latest?”

Mrs Fox gave Mrs Hughes a long, hard stare over the top of her spectacles, “Would you like me to telegraph Reichesmarschall Goering and ask him not to bomb any railway lines between here and London this afternoon, Mrs Hughes? I’m sure that he’ll be happy to oblige?”

“There’s no need to be funny, Mrs Fox.”

“Clearly, they’ll be here sometime this evening, if and when the train gets through. Now,” Mrs Fox paused, “Would you like Miss Stamp to cross you off the list on account of Mr Hughes potentially lukewarm Wooton pie?”

“No, thank you Mrs Fox, you may leave me on, but I shan’t stay here to be insulted. Good day to you!” the clickety-clack of heels on parquet flooring, the bang of a swinging oak door and Olive Hughes was gone.

“A tad harsh?” Penelope mouthed at Mrs Fox, more a suggestion than an accusation. “Bollards.” replied Mrs Fox, which was a code that  Penelope knew to actually mean ‘bollocks’..."

(©J Warrington 2017)


Following the first wave of evacuations, during what was commonly known as 'The Phoney War' it seemed to the ordinary folk of Britain that, well, not a great deal appeared to be happening.  Many parents decided that their children would probably be safe at home after all and started to bring them back but the government, who were pretty clued up on what was coming, exhorted women to leave their children with their new hosts well away from the towns and cities.

Tragically, not everyone listened and many children who did return to the cities found themselves caught up in the horrors of the  blitz...

Evacuees wore labels, so that they wouldn't get lost!

 © 2020 J. Warrington. All Rights reserved.