25 April 2013
In 1939, just days after war had been declared, thousands of children were evacuated from Glasgow in a hurried operation to protect them from the threat of German bombers. It was the largest migration of people the country has ever seen, and it’s no surprise that it is remembered well by those who were there ...
As the reality of war was still sinking in, the aptly named Operation Pied Piper saw a staggering 3 million people across the UK relocated in a matter of days.
Flora Harris recalls that first chaotic day when she and her brothers were whisked off to Ayr by train.
‘Our school was closed when war broke out, but we all had to congregate there to find out about being evacuated. Our headmistress told us we would be going on a journey and that we should go home and collect the belongings we wanted to take with us.
Our headmistress told us we would be going on a journey and that we should go home and collect the belongings we wanted to take with us.
'I don’t remember taking too many things really, besides some spare clothes, and we certainly didn’t have a suitcase with us. We treated it all like an adventure to begin with, but I remember being shocked at the green countryside when we finally reached Ayr.
'Thankfully, my brothers and I were allowed to stay together and we all shared a bedroom in the house of an elderly couple. Just a few months later we returned home, as it was decided we would be safe which, thankfully, we were. But the short time away gave me and my brothers a wonderful sense of the bigger world, even if we had only travelled to another part of the country.’
Ellen Holland of Edinburgh also remembers the shock of seeing the countryside for the first time.
‘My brother and I were boarded on a bus that took us to a small village in Perthshire called Trinity Gask. I was truly in awe of the whole experience. There were green fields for miles, as far as the eye could see… I love it I think I could have made my life there. I guess I’m just a country girl at heart.’
I was truly in awe of the whole experience. There were green fields for miles, as far as the eye could see…
The daunting prospect of living with complete strangers was avoided by those children who had relatives away from the city and fourteen-year-old Gwen Palmer, who lived in Southampton in 1939, travelled by train to Scotland, to live with her grandmother.
The skinny little sassenach from the sinful south was going to be moulded into a true, demure Scottish lass.
‘A staunch Presbyterian character, she left me in no doubt that she was going to take her new responsibility very seriously indeed,’ Gwen recalls. ‘The skinny little sassenach from the sinful south was going to be moulded into a true, demure Scottish lass.’
The experience for many children may have been difficult and disruptive, but the alternative was unthinkable, as Gwen discovered when she returned to the south coast of England. ‘When homesickness finally drove me back to Southampton, it was to find a crater rather a house, and to learn that many of my friends had been lost in the bombing. How very lucky I had been.’
Originally published April 2013. Reviewed August 2022.