Friday, April 06, 2007

The Churchill Series – Apr. 6, 2007

(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

The preceding two series posts concerned Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert’s account of his evacuation as a child in 1940 from England to Canada; and then his return to England in the summer of 1944.

Gilbert doesn’t mention it, but at the time of his return German V-1 and V-2 rockets were falling on London and surrounding areas. Yet the ship on which he sailed from New York, the Mauretania, carried hundreds of children who, like Gilbert, had been evacuated for their safety from England during the first years of W.W. II, in some cases even before German bombing had begun.

Why then, were the children being brought back to an England still under air attack?

The simplest answer is that their parents or others responsible for them now wanted them back in England, and the British government, with Churchill’s strong endorsement, was willing to do all it could to bring them back.

And that answer points us to something at once interesting, complex and very understandable: The British government initially supported a policy of child evacuation from areas most threatened by German bombing, but it soon adopted what we might call a “parental choice/ whatever works model.”

In 1939/40 the government encouraged families in rural areas in the north of England and Scotland to “take in” children. Parents in the most threatened places, such as London, were urged to send their children to those areas or to North America. Gilbert himself was evacuated as part of a government sponsored program.

Many parents in the threatened areas initially rushed to get their children signed up for evacuation transportation and into the safer areas.

But government directed child evacuation policies, with their necessarily attendant and restrictive rules and regulations, soon proved unworkable. The Cockney parents who just a month ago were so relieved to see their children safely off at King’s Cross station for Scotland now wanted the government to bring them home. And they insisted the government pay for the return trip.

Meanwhile, the “lovely, middle-aged, childless couple in Ayrshire” who so eagerly received the children last month were now even more eager to return them to London, especially as two of the kids were bed-wetters and another kept playing with matches in the barn. Whatever were the town councilors thinking of when they supported the evacuation scheme?

Churchill’s government never gave in to the Nazis, but it did to Britain’s parents. It adopted, as I’ve mentioned, a “parental choice/whatever works model.” In some instances evacuation “worked” with children sent to relatives or strangers who became as family to them. But for the most part, the British people in the most dangerous areas chose to face those dangers with their children beside them.

I drew on many books for this post. One that was especially helpful is Philip Ziegler’s London at War: 1939- 1945, published in Great Britain by Mandarin Paperbacks.

I hope you all have a wonderful Easter weekend.