Evacuation stories

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Evacuation stories


Newspaper photograph of evacuees arriving in London in May 1940

These recollections of refugees who fled to England before the German Occupation are taken from WW2 People's War – An archive of World War Two memories, written by the public, and gathered by the BBC for publication in 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the war

The War Illustrated report on the evacuation

Berry Family

Contributed on: 16 April 2005

"There were six of us children, the youngest being three weeks old, the eldest 16. Our father was at Dunkirk and mother did not have any information or know where he was, so decided to bring the family to England because she was English. The Salvation Army were very good to us. They took us to Manchester in the workhouse, my mother wrote to her mother, who arranged for us to go to Bournmouth, my mother had a sister who was in service, the lady she worked for managed to find us some furniture and we rented a house. Our father came home on a 48-hour pass and after that he went to Egypt, so we really did very well and were lucky that we came to England.

Barbara Tomlinson

Contributed on: 14 April 2005

"I remember little things. Refugees came to our school and stayed with people about three doors away from where I lived. There was a girl called Angela Cornett and a boy, John Cornett, both from Jersey. I was an infant school so would have been about six or seven years of age. I played with them at playtime. Angela had red hair. We just accepted them, the only time we realised they were different was when the teacher told the class they were going home to Jersey. I cried. My daughter now lives on Alderney.
"During the war they turned that island into a prisoner of war camp. Before the war it was village life on Alderney, mainly fishermen. Then they were given one hour to go and pack a small suitcase and get to the rowing boats in the harbour and people took them to England. They had to leave everything in their homes, food, clothes etc. My daughter’s ‘in laws’ were part of this. They went back at the end of the war. The island had to have a declaration of Peace before anyone was allowed to go back. It was signed by the English and Germans, and there is a photograph in the Library in Alderney. When they went back everything had gone. It had either been destroyed or moved around so no one could find their furniture, linens, ornaments etc. The Germans had moved into the homes that had been left.
"Food had to be brought in by boat as nothing much could be grown on the island. The Germans got the lion’s share of it; the prisoners were near starvation. There are PoW memorials to Polish and Russians as well as English.
"My mother was in service during the war to a rich family with a son and a daughter at boarding school. When their trunks came home their clothes were given to my mum in exchange for our clothing coupons because my mum couldn’t afford to buy us clothes.
"At Christmas we had their leftovers. We were one of the few families with mince pies.
"In the village where we lived, conscientious objectors had a bakery and a freezer. Lots of people wouldn’t buy from him because of this but he made ice-lollies and he always gave me one.
"My mum went to jumble sales for old clothes for pieces to make peggy rugs. We would sit in the park with our sandwiches as she cut up the material. Because everyone was without we didn’t feel any different. We all had same sort of food, clothes and playthings.

Jack and Ada Willmott

Contributed in: 2004

Jack and Ada Willmott were not strictly evacuees. They were on holiday in Jersey helping a farmer friend with the potato harvest when it became apparent that the Germans were soon likely to invade, and they were forced to return to England on an old coal boat.

"The barrage balloons were all up round the docks when we boarded the ship at Southampton. We got underway at 12 midnight, it was very dark. They told us to try our lifejackets on. We had our five-year-old son with us. There was nothing for children, but they said if the worst came to the worst they would do the best they could.
"Part way over the Channel everything went quiet, the engines had stopped, they told us not to make a sound, as enemy planes were passing overhead to go to the mainland. After a while we started up again, reaching Jersey at 8 am, glad to be off the sea.

Helping with crops

"We had been coming to Jersey for three seasons to help our farmer friend to get his potato and tomato crops up. He was there to meet us. As the days went by things began to get tense on the island. When we were working up on the Cootsy (cotils), that’s the strips of land up the side of the hills, we could hear the guns rumbling and feared they were getting closer.
"One evening we heard a big explosion in the sea below us. It was something trying to hit the mailboat. It swung to the side and after that they varied the time of the boat going out.
"Things were getting very unsettled in the town. No potatoes were getting out, so there was no money coming in. They cleared the banks and special things out of the Island, as they knew the invasion was coming.
"On the Wednesday night news came that Jersey was declared an open town. Thy told the British people and anyone wanting to get out to go and register at the Town Hall in St Helier, four miles away from us. It was seven o’clock in the evening. We got our young son up and got a lift into town. When we got there they had just called a curfew, and everyone had to leave the town.
"We walked back to some friends who put us up, and we slept in chairs. We were back on the road at four o’clock in the morning. A milk float gave us a lift. A big queue was there so we joined it. My husband heard some sailors talking, saying there were people getting away in small boats. We went and were lucky to get on one. They were calling out 'Women and children only'. My husband had our son in his arms, they told him to bring him down to me, and come straight back up, which he didn’t, but went on down to the galley.

Coal boat

"It was an old coal boat, the ss Suffolk Coast, very dirty, but we didn’t mind that because we were getting away.
"It was frightening coming across that sea, with things drifting by. My son and I sat behind a post, my husband was bringing us tea on top of the deck to keep us warm.
"We arrived at Weymouth in the early hours of the morning, and had to wait until daybreak for them to move the barriers and let us in. They were very good to us, gave us food and drink, examined us, put a ticket on each of us, and we were refugees. The Salvation Army paid for us to get home to Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, as we had no money. We arrived home late on Friday evening. Our families were so pleased we had got away safely, as no news had been coming through from us.
"The Germans occupied the Channel Islands a week after we got out, so we were very lucky, we thank God for that.
"After 40 years we went back to Jersey to find our friend’s children, which we did, and had so much to talk about. The eldest son was the head f the Parish of St John. He took us all round the island and told us about the Occupation. My husband served in the Army for five and a half years, and died three years ago, so I am left with my memories."

Anne Curtis, Sheila Curtis, Percy Curtis, Alice Curtis

Contributed on: 1 November 2004

"When my parents first said that we were "going home" I couldn't understand what they meant. "Home" to me was the house we lived in, the house in Ashton Drive, Long Ashton, Bristol, where I had been born in 1942. Where we had all crammed under the dining room table or in the cupboard under the stairs during the air raids. Living so close to Bristol Aircraft Corporation's factory, where my father, Percy, worked, the raids were frequent. According to my parents, my first word was not "Mummy" but "bombs". But now I couldn't understand why, when a plane went overhead, nobody hid any more. I used to ask "Is it one of ours?" and everybody would laugh.
"VE Day celebrations had been and gone. They had covered me in a paste made of cocoa powder, dressed me in a grass skirt as a "Hoola Girl", and we had gone to a party at the local hall. Bored, I had gone out onto the steps and sat down by myself. A dog wandered up and started licking at my cocoa-covered leg, so I joined in, starting on my left arm. The grownups came out and hauled me back inside.
"I remember being in a taxi (a new experience!) and all the neighbours coming out to wave goodbye. At Weymouth we boarded the "Antonia" and began the long, very rough crossing to Jersey. As one of the few passengers who wasn't actually seasick, I was told I was a "good sailor". Finally, we reached Jersey, "home".
"My parents, Alice and Percy Curtis, together with my sister, Sheila, and my grandparents, had fled the Island two days before the German Invasion, escaping on a coal boat. They were only allowed one suitcase each, and had had to abandon their home and all their possessions. My father, who was English, had fought in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War as an aircraft fitter with the British Expeditionary Force in France. Now we were returning "home".
"We stayed with friends at Greve d'Azette, Aunty Grace and Uncle Wilfred Ahier, whilst my parents scrubbed and cleaned the house, my grandfather's house, Number 24 le Geyt Street, St. Helier. It was a Georgian house, three stories tall, furnished in the late Victorian period, and all the furnishings were pretty much intact, despite the fact that the German troops had been living there. It had electricity on the ground floor only, and no bathroom, just a toilet in the understairs area. At night I went up 4 flights of high stairs with just a night-light which threw terrifying moving shadows, and the mice scratched and scuttled in the wainscotting. The only heating was a gas fire in the dining room, and once a week I had a bath in a tin tub in front of it. On winter mornings we woke to find that the frost had made beautiful leafy patterns on the inside of the windows. I got dressed under warmth of the bedcovers because the air in the room was freezing.
"Whenever we went out to the market for our food supplies, my mother would meet friends she hadn't seen since before the War, and chat endlessly, and my little legs grew so tired with waiting. All this conversation was going on above my head, and I used to look up and tug at her coat to beg her to move on. She used to tell her friends that I was her "war effort" and they'd all laugh. Most of all from those autumn and winter days I remember the smell of the dark, damp streets, as smoke from the coal fires mixed with the smell of wet leaves, and the joy of coming "home" to the little gas fire.

Polly Burford

Contributed on: 13 November 2003

"I was four years old when the hustle and bustle of the evacuation from the Channel Islands was taking place and we were wrenched from our home in just a few hours. "Pack all you can into one suitcase each" were the instructions. Laden with a heavy suitcase crammed with as many personal treasures as could be saved, and me with a bulging bag around my shoulders, my mother and I sailed on an English Warship with other mothers and children under school age.
"School children were to go with their classes onto other vessels - fishing boats, cargo ships, anything that could sail and carry them safely over to England. Fathers had to remain behind at that point, mine included.
"My sister Sylvia and brother Brian were separated, each going onto a different boat. Neither knew which the other was on and neither did my mother. Father saw us off, then went back to work at the Guernsey Prison.
"Sylvia, seven years older than myself and five years older than Brian had been rather ill after a tonsilectomy. She was really too ill to travel and it should never have been allowed, but sail she did and with her school; my mother not being allowed to be with her. She kept calling for her parents and wondering why they didn't come. She was prone to stomach upsets and the boats had no stabilisers on them like they do today. During her sea sickness and of course the aftermath of the operation, she haemorrhaged and became dangerously ill. She died in hospital in Weymouth two days after landing. She was the only casualty of the evacuation and had died from natural causes.
"My mother had no sooner arrived at her parents home after a train journey to Rugby Warwickshire, when the police called with the sad news of Sylvia. Leaving me with a grandmother who wasn't at all welcoming, she hurried back to Weymouth with my grandfather for identification and burial. My father was given special permission to go to Weymouth for the funeral but then was not allowed to return to Guernsey. As he was English born, he would no doubt have ended up in a German prison camp. Sadly my parents' ways parted after that, due largely to the problems of accommodation in the Rugby home and to seek work in wartime. I only saw him twice more and missed him terribly.
"On my journey across the English Channel our Naval crew were ever on the alert for enemy submarines and halfway across, without any warning, we experienced a tremendous explosion just a few yards from our ship, or so it seemed. Another followed. The seas boiled and the ship rolled and we were all no doubt very scared but no one panicked. Our boys had spotted that they were being targeted. Just in time they acted. It was the U boat or us. It was the U boat. Heaven only knows how many young men were inside that submarine but they didn't live to tell their own folks any tales about the Evacuation of the Channel Isles.
"Fortunately my brother hadn't experienced any of this but for some reason (and how it happened we will never really know) he disappeared. It was due to the diligent work of the Rev J Moore, a Methodist minister who was helping the evacuation, that Brian was eventually found in Scotland living with a lovely Glaswegian couple. They had fallen in love with him and wanted to adopt him, but at last he was reunited with his mother and one little sister. We didn't ever go back to live in Guernsey, but of course have returned there many many times to find out more of the little family who appeared so happy until the outbreak of the war.

Malcolm Woodland

Contributed on: 03 May 2005

"We were sent home for early holidays with a letter regarding the evacuation. We were informed that children would be evacuated. I believe this was on about the 19th June. My mum had had a letter about what we had to take, so a small case was packed, and we had to go to school in the morning. We were going to go on a boat to England, and we would be billeted, which I didn’t know anything about, with people, and my parents would join us later.
"So we went off to school that day and well, it wasn’t a normal day’s lessons because we were all there in coats and things, and carrying sandwiches for the journey!
"Unfortunately, we were supposed to leave about 10 o’clock in the morning, I think, but nothing happened, so come around midday we were getting a bit restive and we wanted our lunch, so we started to eat our lunch. We were told that we should not eat it all as we might need some for the journey. Any rate, about 3 o’clock all the lunches had been eaten! I think they tried gas mask drill, we had assemblies in the playground, and about 4 o’clock we were told the boats weren’t in fact coming until much later and we were to go home. So I went home, went to bed, and the next morning when I woke up, it was sunshine, a lovely day, “right, we’re off back to school again, where’s this boat?”
"“Well,” Mum said, “sorry, you’re not going”.
"I was furious, I’d got my case packed, I’d got labels, tomato packing labels, I was all labelled ready to go with my friends! And she said, “No, they phoned at 4 o’clock in the morning and I went to look for you and you were sound asleep and I didn’t have the heart to disturb you.”
"Well, I was a bit furious about that, she said I didn’t talk to her for the whole morning.
"The adults would gather in groups to talk about who was leaving and who was staying, and they would say, so and so is leaving, they’re yellow. And I remember seeing Mr so and so a few days later, and I looked at him and he wasn’t yellow, he was a perfectly normal colour.

Jill Harris

Contributed on: 31 March 2005

”I was three years old in the May that my family evacuated in the June of 1940. Armed with our boarding passes and one small case each, Aunt Ethel came to fetch us all in her car and we duly arrived on the quay. Unfortunately so had hundreds more with no means of getting away. During a long, hot day my Aunt and my mother's imagination got somewhat overheated. "You should come with us Ethel," my mother urged her sister. Ethel thought perhaps she ought to, which would have come as a severe shock to Uncle Tom, at home and patiently waiting for his wife to get his lunch! "You will never get on the boat without a child in your arms!" my mother announced dramatically some time later. Ethel was inclined to agree and I was duly handed over.
”At that precise moment the "Stork" which until very recently had been used for transporting cattle, manoeuvred cautiously to the quayside, the gang planks were let down and the rush was on. Swept away in the tide of struggling humanity, Aunt Ethel fetched up against the customs office wall still clutching me. When she had recovered her dignity and her hat she was startled to hear a boat's siren and, looking round, noticed to her horror that the "Stork" was already in the harbour mouth and heading for England.
”I therefore have the unique distinction of belonging to a family who all evacuated safely, except for their youngest member who was left behind in shortly to be occupied Jersey.
”Nothing is wholly bad or disastrous, however. For five wonderful years I was an only child and the proud possessor of a Mummy and Daddy who put me at the very centre of their life. My war started when my real family came back in 1946. A family I did not know.”
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