In September 1940, with German bombers pummelling London, the parents of nine-year-old Beryl Myatt decided to send her to live with relatives in Winnipeg, where they hoped she’d be safer. They mailed letters ahead to welcome and comfort their daughter when she arrived. “This is our second letter to you since you set out on your big adventure, dear, and we suppose you were surprised when you arrived at Auntie Emmy’s to find a letter and your Dandy and Sunny stories waiting there for you,” one read. “We will send them every week.”
Beryl was one of more than 16,000 British children who were evacuated to Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa during the Blitz. Another million left British cities for the relative safety of the countryside. Their stories are told in The Children’s War, an exhibition now showing at the Imperial War Museum in London.
The exhibition explores the Second World War’s impact on British children. More than 7,000 died due to enemy action, such as air and rocket attacks. And an astonishing 3,600 British boys under the age of 18 died in active service. For those who survived, there was the trauma of air raids and the drudgery of food shortages. But with so many fathers away and mothers working, the war also stripped away many of the constraints restricting children’s behaviour, affording them a degree of responsibility and freedom they normally wouldn’t enjoy. Children over the age of 10 assisted Air Raid Precaution wardens. More than 70 per cent of girls and 80 per cent of boys between the ages of 11 and 17 worked. The exhibition includes children’s drawings of the aerial dogfights they watched overhead and watercolours of boys and girls skipping in the midst of rubble.
For city kids sent to the countryside for the first time, the open spaces and nature could be bewildering and intoxicating. “They call this spring, Mum, and they have one down here every year,” one child wrote in a letter to his parents from his new countryside home.
Parents, of course, missed their children. And the exhibition records the anguished decisions many were forced to make about whether to keep those they loved most safe or close. A propaganda poster from the Ministry of Health shows a mother visiting her children in the country while a ghostly Adolf Hitler points to a city in the distance and whispers in her ear: “Take them back.” “Don’t do it, mother,” the poster implores. “Leave the children where they are.”
Eventually the war ended, and hundreds of thousands of exiled British children did return home. Some learned their parents had died. Others barely recognized them.
“It’s a soldier, Mum, with a kitbag,” one boy told his mother upon seeing his father for the first time in years. “I think it’s your husband.”
Barbara Helical spent six years overseas, the entire length of the war, before returning to Britain to be reunited with her parents. “I stood on Leeds station. There was a heavy mist swirling around,” she later recalled. “I’d passed this couple about three times. They didn’t know it was their daughter, and I didn’t know it was my parents. I felt so lonely.”
Throughout the length of his evacuation, Jim Bartley told himself one day he’d go home and things would be as they were. “I made my way back to where I used to live,” he recalled later. “The whole area had been obliterated during the Blitz. I was quite unable to find the spot where our house once stood. That happened more than 50 years ago, but somehow I’m still waiting to go back.”
As for Beryl Myatt, she never received the letter and care package her parents sent to her in Winnipeg. She, along with 89 other children, boarded the City of Benares, a steam passenger ship built in Port Glasgow, Scotland. It was spotted by a German submarine 500 miles off the coast of Ireland. Her parents received an official letter soon after: “The ship carrying your child to Canada was torpedoed on Tuesday night, 17 September. I am afraid that your child is not among those reported as rescued, and I am informed that there is no chance of there being any further survivors.”