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This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Although the traditional Remembrance Day services on Sunday 8th November will be closed to the public this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, people all over the world will be privately remembering those who lost their lives in the conflict.
An estimated 70 to 85 million people perished during the war between 1939 and 1945. It was the deadliest military conflict in history, wiping out around 3% of the world’s total population.
The loss of life was so great that it was impossible for historians to put an exact figure on the number of casualties. An estimated 56 million military and civilian casualties were caused directly by the war, including loss of life in the fighting and civilians being bombed.
Further fatalities occurred as a result of war-related diseases and famine, and there were around five million deaths in prisoners of war camps. Reports suggest there were 383,600 British military deaths and 67,100 civilian deaths.
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had declared war on Nazi Germany on 3rd September 1939, after the German forces, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, began their unprovoked attack on Poland on 1st September 1939. The war was fought in the air, on the ground and at sea.
British cities under threat
The German Air Force, known as the Luftwaffe, launched strategic air raids on many cities across the UK including the capital, London; the port cities of Portsmouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Plymouth, Swansea, Liverpool, Southampton, Belfast and Glasgow; and the industrial centres of Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Coventry.
Air raids mainly happened at night, causing terror for the civilians, who piled into the air raid shelters every time the bombing began. London, Birmingham, Coventry and Southampton were among the worst-hit regions. The Luftwaffe targeted areas where bombing would cause the most damage and disruption, including factories where weapons were made and ports where ships carrying supplies would dock.
Bombings became so severe between 7th September 1940 and 11th May 1941 that the period became known as The Blitz – named after the German word blitzkrieg, meaning “lightning war”.
Air raid sirens warning of the next imminent attack became an almost daily part of life for Londoners at this time. The blackout was imposed, meaning the whole city had to remain in total darkness after nightfall, so the fighter pilots would not be able to see their targets as easily. The London Underground became a series of makeshift air raid shelters, where people would sleep, night after night.
Why were evacuations necessary?
An estimated 43,000 people died during The Blitz and a further 87,000 were injured. The vast majority were civilians. Up to two million houses were destroyed and 60% of these were in London.
The first air raid, on 7th September, saw 350 bombers fly across the Channel from French airfields to drop 300 tonnes of bombs on London’s East End. Three different types of bomb included high-explosive bombs, incendiary devices to cause fires and the devastating oil bombs.
Continued air attacks led to children being evacuated from cities to rural parts of the country for their own safety. Known as evacuees, the youngsters were sent to live with host families during the height of the bombing – there were continual mass evacuations from Euston Station.
Around 1.5 million British children, pregnant women and vulnerable people, including those with disabilities, were evacuated to safer locations in the countryside. The government paid families who agreed to host the evacuees around 7s 6d each.
During “Operation Pied Piper”, 827,000 school-age children, more than half a million mothers with children under-five, around 103,000 teachers and helpers, 70,000 disabled people and 13,000 pregnant women departed from railway stations, leaving their families behind.
Government propaganda urged families to take part in Operation Pied Piper for their own safety. They recreated the World War I Ministry of Information during World War II to influence the population to support the war effort.
Traditional forms of propaganda such as newspapers and posters were supported by new media, including films at the cinema, newsreels and the radio. Imagine if they had been able to use the media channels we have today!
The public depended mainly on printed publicity material, as many couldn’t afford the luxury of going to the cinema and it was long before the days of everyone having a TV in their home.
The propaganda covered everything, including provoking hostility towards Nazi Germany, supporting the Allies, encouraging evacuation, conserving metal for the Munitions factories and growing vegetables with the famous “Dig for Victory” campaign.
Posters sprang up all over London, urging children to be sent from the city to safe places. Pamphlets were also handed out, advising that the children should not be brought back until it was safe. The government did everything in its power not only to persuade parents to send their children away, but also to make sure they remained away for as long as necessary.
How many evacuees came to Cornwall?
Cornwall played a major role in the evacuation, being a predominantly rural area. The inner-city children sent to this beautiful region marvelled at the splendour of the countryside, as most of them had never seen anything like it before. A decision was made to despatch 28,200 evacuees from London to Cornwall at a conference at County Hall, Truro, on 29th February 1940.
A report appeared in The Cornishman describing the massive reception that awaited the children when they arrived in Penzance. Reporter H Hartley Thomas wrote that crowds gathered earlier in the day to await the trains, with “every available vantage point” being filled with spectators.
Local youngsters lined the cliff overlooking the arrival platform. He described the “eager, happy faces” of the Londoners as they arrived in Penzance and saw the rapturous welcome that awaited them.
As well as some remaining in Penzance, the evacuees were taken on buses to places such as Mousehole, St Austell, Sennen, Newbridge, Sencreed, Newquay, Looe, Truro and other local destinations. They found themselves living by the sea or in the country, enjoying their surroundings and many new experiences.
What was their new life like?
Former evacuee Charles Pascoe was interviewed for the BBC World War II archive. A pupil of Park Junior School in West Ham at the outbreak of the war, he and his five-year-old sister travelled by steam train from London, eventually arriving at the village of St Just in Roseland, six miles south of Truro.
He described this as “good fortune”, as he loved his time in Cornwall. They lived in a cottage overlooking the farmyard. All their water was pumped from a communal village well and the toilet was at the bottom of the garden. There was no electricity, so food was prepared on a wood-fired stove and the cottage was lit by oil lamps.
Charles and his sister went to St Just Village School. He threw himself enthusiastically into farm life, helping with the harvest, when the crops were gathered using horse-drawn machinery.
During the Blitz, a lot of families would visit their children when possible, travelling by train from London to Cornwall.
What happened after the war?
After the war, and in some cases after the Blitz, the evacuees began returning home.
Charles and his sister returned to West Ham at the end of the war in 1945. Their house was still standing, despite the air raids. They kept in touch with their wartime host family for the rest of their lives and had many fond memories.
A number of evacuees on the train to Penzance had attended the Jews’ Free School in London. Around 100 pupils and five teachers were sent to Moushole, where a local school was temporarily renamed JFS (Jews’ Free School) Mousehole, with its own teachers.
School leaving age was 14, but many of the children remained in Mousehole up until the end of the war, as they loved the rural lifestyle.
On 13th June 2010, a reunion was held in Mousehole for the evacuees. The survivors reminisced about the evacuation, which has become a part of local folklore.
The Cornwall SEO Co will be observing the 2-minute silence to remember all those brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in times of conflict to make the world a better place for future generations. Lest we forget.