Why did the British government decide to evacuate children from Britain’s major cities in the early years of the Second World War? Essay

The first thing that encouraged the British government to consider the evacuation of children was the death toll from zeppelin air raids in World War One. This was a general concern and did not make the government immediately consider planning evacuation. The attacks however killed over 1400 civilians and caused great fear among ordinary people and officials.

In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was created. After World War One, there was fear that a second world war may possibly occur and cause even more devastation than before. This was part of the reason the treaty of Versailles was created. However, some of the restrictions seamed unfair to Germany and many characters held a grudge towards certain laws. For example Germany was not allowed to develop aircraft for military purposes; however, they were allowed to create as many civil aircraft as they wished. This was all very well, and was within the treaty, but it was easy to adapt them for military purposes. The British government foresaw this and there was therefore an increase in concern over air raids.

Germans wanted to bomb cities to lower morale in Britain and possibly turn the British people against the war and therefore make them apply pressure to the authorities to encourage a quick end to the war either by surrender or withdrawal. The death of civilians particularly children would help this and the government noticed this and realised it would be important to evacuate children to save lives. Also, cities were a main part of the war effort, with ports for trade and hubs and railway stations to transport soldiers and weaponry throughout the country.

During the 1920’s, after the relative success of Zeppelins, German engineers (some of the best in the world), invented the German bomber, Gotha IV. This caused a lot of fear within the British community and led people to consider evacuation in extreme circumstances. By this time it was not certain to happen and planning hadn’t really begun; the government was simply considering the idea.

The government expected that London was to be an immediate target for bombing and particularly gas attacks on a huge scale and that there would be high casualty levels and a level of mass panic which would require the use of troops to keep under control. The evacuation was considered a top priority. In May 1924 a sub-committee of imperial defence began a study of air raid precautions. Although the treat of gas attacks never materialised, the precautions taken against them initially convinced people that they were inevitable.

In 1931, although Hitler was not yet around and there was not absolute cause for concern, various committees were set up in the United Kingdom to discuss plans for civilian evacuation from key areas should it ever be necessary.

In 1933, Hitler had come to power and by 1935 was making his views, particularly on the Treaty of Versailles, known in Europe. He began using threatening language and was intent on an aggressive foreign policy. Hermann Goering commander-in-chief announced the establishment of the German Luftwaffe in March of that year. He then ordered the production of a large number of fighter planes. (By 1938, Germany was producing 1,100 airplanes a year!) This obviously caused concern among European leaders which was furthermore increased by the publication of a book by a general in the German Luftwaffe. It was called “Total War” and it argued that targeting civilians in a war was ‘fair game’.

These ideas were backed up in Italy where General Guilio Douhet produced a pamphlet which stated that “an army’s advance might be suitably assisted by targeting the civilians whose panic would severely hamper the ability of the enemy’s army to mobilize itself. Such panic could be delivered by ‘air-delivered terror’.” This obviously caused concern to British officials and civilians and in response Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister, published a circular entitled ‘Air Raid Precautions’. Some towns began creating public air raid shelters. However others ignored the idea of a threat and in April 1937, the government decided to create an ‘air-raid wardens service’ and by the next year had recruited around 200,000 volunteers.

In April 1937, the Luftwaffe decided to test its power and to assist the leader General Franco in his battle against the Spanish communists. It attacked a Spanish town called Guernica. (The devastation is well represented in a painting by Picasso of the scene after the bombings.)

The destruction of Guernica sent a clear message the British government about the power of the Luftwaffe and the lengths Hitler would go to avenge the previous war.

In august 1938, Hitler began making speeches that suggested he was going to invade Czechoslovakia. This was the final trigger that made the government certain that a war with Germany was likely. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain ordered that air raid volunteers were mobilized, and the British air-force modernized. Cellars and basements were converted to air raid shelters and trenches were dug in the parks of large towns and barrage balloons were flown over London.

In the same year, during the Munich crisis in September, small scale evacuations of women and children were carried out. Although it was not until 1939, on the day war was declared, that official evacuation took place.

Would-be evacuees were to begin being registered so some idea of numbers could be established and billets began to be sought. At this time war seamed very likely because of the various invasions in Europe. By August of the same year, on the day Hitler’s armies invaded Poland the evacuation process began. In three days Britain was at war and the country braced themselves for mass casualties as widespread constant bombing was expected. In the first three days, 1,500,000 people had been evacuated to safety. Many of these went to places like East Kent which themselves later became dangerous front-line towns.

There was not a specific point as to why evacuation took place in the early days of the 2nd world war. There were a number of reasons which began with general concern from as early as 1914. These concerns became more specific during the years between the wars and finally became very specific in the years leading up to the out break of the Second World War.