WWII's Operation Pied Piper: Saving Britain's Children from Nazi AttackWWII's Operation Pied Piper: Saving Britain's Children from Nazi Attack

WWII's Operation Pied Piper: Saving Britain's Children from Nazi Attack


As the train rolled out of the Liverpool station, six-year-old Jim Clarke crammed his torso between the opening of a window to wave goodbye to his mother. Her calls of ‘I love you’ and ‘see you soon’ were inaudible in the sea of other mothers shouting the same. As she and the others on the platform faded into the horizon, everything turned quiet. 


Well, as quiet as a train full of evacuee children could be. 



Jim Clarke, my grandfather, was a part of the mass exodus of school-aged children, infants, and recent mothers that took place in anticipation of the outbreak of World War II across the U.K. Dubbed Operation Pied Piper, the voluntary evacuations began the day Hitler invaded Poland, and two days before Britain officially declared war. Between September 1 and 4, 1939, 1.25 million people were evacuated in the largest internal migration in British history.


What began with the best intentions for the British public turned into an operation that strained the government’s budget and encouraged a generation of children to ride out the horrors of war in the relative comfort and safety of strangers’ arms. The emotional and financial burdens the operation caused piled onto the social unrest plaguing Great Britain during its darkest hours. Operation Pied Piper drastically modified the demographics of Great Britain’s largest cities, but its timing backfired when many children returned to the cities prematurely only to fall victim to the Blitz of 1940-41.   


To learn more about the terrifying danger that British children faced during WWII, watch The Blitz: Britain on Fire.


Warning Bells of War

As it became more and more clear that another war was on the horizon, the British government carved up the U.K. into three zones: evacuation, neutral, and reception. Air raids on British soil during WWI had killed over 500 civilians and wounded hundreds more. What had lured so many to big cities now enticed the enemy, as everyday people served as sitting ducks for the Luftwaffe. Plans were put in place to evacuate children, women, and disabled people from urban hubs to safer places in the countryside.


Evacuee children carrying their gas mask boxes in Reading in 1940. (Source: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, via Wikimedia Commons)


Operation Pied Piper was far from perfect, but many saw it as the best option for protecting their children. And the prospect of traveling to the countryside with their classmates seemed like an exciting adventure to many kids. Spearheaded by the London County Council, urban schools coordinated evacuation plans for their students, so children could continue to be educated and have a familiar network even when away from their families. Teachers would teach outdoors and expose students to local crafts and trades to take advantage of their temporary ‘study abroad.’


Although some evacuees’ experiences resembled an extended holiday in the countryside, many children experienced abuse at the hands of their host families and complete lapses in their education. Some adopted a stoic attitude toward the hardships they endured. For them, evacuation was a small injustice in the grand scheme of a world war. For others, the trauma of being away from family made the experience one they would rather forget.  


Patriotic Parenting

No one was forced to send their child away, but the threat of bombings and the suspension of social services convinced many that life during the war would be far safer out in the country. Nearly half of all children living in ‘evacuation’ areas took part in Operation Pied Piper in 1939, and over the course of the war, more than 3 million people were evacuated across the UK. 


Propaganda poster encouraging continued support of Operation Pied Piper. (Source: Imperial War Museum, via Wikimedia Commons)


Many British people were swayed by war propaganda to send children to sparsely populated regions. Posters across the country painted patriotic scenes of children waving goodbye to their families for the sake of the war. A drawing of Hitler taunting mothers to keep their children in London used reverse psychology to encourage people to take advantage of the government’s Operation Pied Piper. 


The code of conduct that dictates women and children should be saved first is known as the Birkenhead Drill. Named for the valiant behavior of the soldiers aboard a doomed naval vessel that sank off the Cape of Good Hope, the Birkenhead Drill of 1852 established the order of evacuations in a crisis.


The War Imposes Duties on Both the Willing and the Not-So-Willing

The demand for volunteers to facilitate the migration of hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied children was high. Moving the children was the easy part. With trains departing from cities like London and Birmingham every nine minutes, the flow of human beings exhausted traditional protocol for securing living spaces. Wales, East Anglia, and Kent saw new faces flooding their streets, and the burden of caring for these children fell on local civilians. While all the evacuees were sent by parents and guardians who willfully opted into the program, not all who housed the children were quite so eager.


Hosting evacuees was compulsory for anyone with a room to spare. The government compensated hosts with ten shillings and sixpence for the first child hosted and eight shillings and sixpence for any additional ones. Wartime strains the budgets of private citizens to begin with, and now families were being tasked with caring for strangers’ children. Tensions ran high for hosts and evacuees alike as their lives were upended in the course of just a few days. 


Propaganda poster encouraging people to “do their part” for the war effort. (Source: Imperial War Museum, via Wikimedia Commons)


Evacuations Save and Victimize

Evacuation seemed to be the best alternative to subjecting young people to the horrors of war. The mayor of London, Herbert Morrision, wanted to begin evacuations in August 1939; but wary of the panic such a move might cause, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain held off until the war was on Britain’s doorstep. The Germans invaded Poland on September 1, and millions of Britons relocated during the first week of that month. But, by doing so in such a rapid and unorganized manner, Britain had exposed its youngest generation to situations of potential abuse and neglect. 


Doomed before it Began

The name Operation Pied Piper seemed to ominously anticipate the outcome of the evacuation effort. The name draws an unfortunate parallel between the necessity of a wartime evacuation and a story by Robert Browning about taking advantage of the innocence of children. Some parents and guardians felt they had no choice but to entrust the care of their children to strangers. In the instance of Operation Pied Piper, the “piper” manifested in the form of a government-run social welfare program. Unlike the explicit deception of the fairy tale, though, the British government made clear what the operation entailed – but parents felt the heavy weight of the price they had to pay. And, you might note, there is an irony in the fact that the story of the Pied Piper is based on a German legend. 


An Uncharted Road to Safety

Evacuee children were unaware of their final destinations when their journeys began. Once they disembarked, officials and volunteers instructed them to line up against station walls so that foster families could take their pick – and the children shuffled off in the arms of strangers.


The majority of evacuees came from low-income backgrounds, and those who hosted them often shared that status. Many of the reception sites were in communities that relied on farming to sustain their economies. Unsurprisingly, a good number of farmers tended to seek out the strongest-looking children, the ones who might be able to help with daily tasks and give as much as they would take from their host families’ resources. 


Evacuees from London digging potatoes in Pembrokeshire, Wales. (Source: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, via Wikimedia Commons)


In the case of my grandfather, he had no idea where he was going, nor did his mother when she packed his bag with a change of clothes, a toothbrush, and some stationery. He carried on him the unofficial signs of a Pied Piper evacuee: a single suitcase, a gas mask box, and a label with his name, address, and school. It was only when he sent his mother a letter postmarked from Wales did she find out where he had been taken. 


The ‘Phony’ War Leads to Unexpected Consequences

In the first months after Great Britain declared war against Germany, its people braced for an onslaught of air raids and direct military action. By the time December rolled around, the war had stayed away from British soil. Many journalists began to refer to the conflict as the Phony War given the absence of any land operations following Germany’s initial invasion of Poland. 


Operation Pied Piper attempted to spare British children from hardship, but its timing so early in the war meant that many were evacuated from areas that remained perfectly safe – at least for the time being. Although not under immediate attack, Britain had declared war on Germany in support of the allies in 1939. Millions of British men were drafted to serve in the arms forces, and women were later called upon to serve as engineers, mechanics, nurses, and drivers.


Society bore the impact of war socially, economically, and emotionally. Some families in urban centers regretted their decisions and recalled their children, as there seemed to be no immediate threat. When January 1940 arrived, nearly 900,000 of the original evacuees had returned home


Because the first wave of evacuations had taken place when there was little real danger, many of the families who welcomed their children back were determined not to send them away again. This complicated matters with the end of the Phony War (generally pegged to the German invasion of Norway in April 1940). When the Germans turned their sights on Britain later that year, many of the children who had returned to target cities experienced the terrifying aerial bombardment of the Blitz.

Homeless and orphaned children settle down to sleep in the air raid shelter at John Keble Church, Mill Hill, London during the Blitz in 1940. (Source: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, via Wikimedia Commons)


As the war progressed, some young people were sent overseas to the Americas, and even Australia, to stay out of the war’s way. The slow trickle of evacuations between 1939 and 1945 marked a period of extreme unrest for the British populace. The psychological and emotional side effects of moving young people in and out of danger zones, whether those were targets of air raids or unsafe foster homes, stayed with children who lived through Operation Pied Piper. 

Children sit outside the wreckage of their home during the Blitz in September 1940. (Source: New Times Paris Bureau Collection, via Wikimedia Commons)


Children in the Background of War

Wherever there is war, there are those who fight on the front lines and many others who suffer on the homefront. Those who experience childhood during a war are forced into an early adulthood, where sacrifice and duty become a part of their everyday life. The stories of my grandfather’s generation may have been consigned to the archives, but they remain as relevant as ever.


Time can make history feel obsolete, but history makes the present bearable for those enduring similar circumstances. Today, children in Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Myanmar are growing up amid the destruction of war. UNICEF estimates that 36.5 million children were displaced by the end of 2021 due to violence and conflict. In Ukraine, over two-thirds of the nation’s children have been displaced and hundreds of others have died as Russian forces attack with explosive weapons. 


Remembering the extraordinary effort that was made to protect British children during WWII reminds us that the stories of children being displaced by war are a sad staple of history and a tragic reality of the present. We must not forget.




Daisy Dow is a contributing writer for MagellanTV. She also writes for Local Life magazine. Originally from Georgia, she went to Kenyon College in Ohio to study and philosophy and art. She has since relocated to Chicago where she works at a media production company.


Title Image:  A group of children arrive at Brent station near Kingsbridge, Devon, after being evacuated from Bristol in 1940. (Credit: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


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