Everyone knows the pictures: ranks of small children, smiling ones pushed to the front, the boys with Just William socks and the girls with brutally chopped hair, and each one with a luggage label on the collar and a gas-mask over the shoulder. Few people can have missed all the recent media stories about the evacuation of more than a million city children as soon as war was declared in 1939. Immediate bombing was expected, on the pattern of the Spanish Civil War, and probably gas attacks. Distribution to foster homes in the country was haphazard (‘I’ll take a girl, please – curly hair and no lice’), and mixed in outcome, for both children and hosts. But the bombing didn’t start for another year, after the ‘Phoney War’ had ended. At that point, in 1940, there was further evacuation, overseas to the Dominions.

Most of us who were evacuated are still alive, unlike those old enough, at 18, to go into the Forces. My Jewish friend Monty, billeted with a rural family, was shocked by their manners and by their mealtimes. Not for long, though: when his father was killed by a direct hit he had to go home, to spend the Blitz washing up in his mother’s boarding-house. My friend Jean knew that she’d been sent away for bad behaviour, because her parents never visited. The man sitting next to me at the Abbey service held to commemorate the evacuation loved his Welsh foster home, and felt it was a bonus to have grown up with two nationalities, Welsh and Whitechapel.

The service was dignified, the Dean’s sermon well said, the lesson read by a former evacuee, Michael Aspel. ‘A voice was heard in Rama, sobbing in bitter grief; it was Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted.’ The music was magnificent, spoiled only by a soprano warbling something about ‘Sleepy little eyes in a sleepy little head’ – a song warning the sleepy one, head on pillow, not to be ‘a kid or a weeping willow’. Not likely! I saw no furtive tears; were we not told (oh, so often) how lucky we were, and reminded that we were British? Not crying – not openly, at any rate – was in some mysterious way our ‘war work’.

Westminster Abbey was packed: two thousand people inside, another two thousand watching on a screen in Central Hall. Outside, American tourists were loving the band and the red clerical robes, though perhaps not quite clear what it was all about. A visitor from Kansas asked if I could sneak him in as my son. Cruelly, I had to tell him that at 30 he wasn’t old enough for that.

It was difficult to tell how many among the congregation had been evacuated overseas rather than within Britain. The idea was that people should attend wearing replicas of the luggage labels pinned to them for identification in 1939. Most were wearing these, but there must have been others who, like me, were sent overseas in 1940; obviously, travelling that way, we had no need for labels. The two waves of evacuation were very different. The 1939 one, well prepared in advance, was put into instant action. Overseas evacuation mostly took place about a year later: by the time the Low Countries and France had capitulated, it seemed certain that Britain would be invaded next. It now seems extraordinary, however, that it was considered wiser to send children off on extremely dangerous sea crossings than to keep them at home, invasion or not. Little of this was ever talked about, either before or afterwards, so in our sixties and seventies some of us puzzle over what our parents thought they were doing. My friend Anna’s father had fought in the First World War (as, I suppose, had most of our fathers) and had seen lost children running wild in battle conditions – think of Africa today, or the Balkans. Some mothers feared their daughters would be raped. At the time, it seemed the right thing to do. I suppose.

Around this time a group of former Rhodes Scholars at Yale privately offered to give homes to children from Oxford and Cambridge University families. Oxford accepted; Cambridge asked for time to consider (I would like to know more about that). Our own voyage was arranged, under my father’s direction – he was at the time warden of Rhodes House – and with enormous speed, to leave Oxford on 8 July and sail from Liverpool the next day.

Rich, privileged children? Possibly. By now an official Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) had been set up for the general population. (Its history has been written by Michael Fethney, a former evacuee, in The Absurd and the Brave, and for much of what follows I am indebted to his book.) The question being asked was: why should children from well-to-do families be sent privately to safety, and not those of poorer families? Churchill was against the CORB scheme: ‘I am perturbed at these recent developments ... Encourages a defeatist spirit ... Should be sternly discouraged.’ He pointed out the absurdity of the argument that the removal of these children would leave more food for the rest of the population. Press and public responded well to the idea, however. The scheme somehow slipped through and, in conditions of secrecy, ships packed with CORB children and escorting adults began to leave Britain in August. There were more applications than available berths, and the method of selection would not pass a PC test today. One might have expected Jewish children to get priority, but the proportion of these was not to exceed 10 per cent; 25 per cent were to be Catholics and two-fifths of the total were to come from Wales and Scotland (where conditions in the event of bombing or invasion were likely to be least bad). The huge number of refugee children from Europe, many of them Jewish or whose parents’ whereabouts were unknown, were turned down, after some discussion. Nineteen batches of children went out: eleven to Canada, three to Australia, three to New Zealand and two to South Africa.

Sixteen arrived safely at their destinations. With French bases at their disposal, the German submarines were increasingly effective and Allied naval resources more and more stretched. It seems that only four of the ships that sailed were given adequate protection at sea, and these because they were large and well equipped, and could ill be spared. One CORB ship saw four of its accompanying vessels blown up. Another, headed for Australia, had to change course drastically to avoid an attack. A third passed the scene of a sinking where the children could clearly see crew in the water still clinging to wreckage.

The first ship to be hit was the Volendam, carrying 321 children and their adult escorts. It was struck by two torpedoes simultaneously; the order was given to abandon ship. With the help of two of the accompanying ships and of good discipline (crew had to rope the numbed children up from the lifeboats, in huge seas), all the children survived. The propaganda churned out when news of the sinking was released now seems rather sickening: it was another Dunkirk, it was ‘worthy of the finest traditions of our race’, the survivors would immediately be sent out on other ships. Three weeks later, when the City of Benares was sunk, this bravado had to be dropped.

This ship sailed for Canada on 13 September, among its passengers 90 child evacuees and their carers. The convoy was without Royal Navy protection. In rough seas, six hundred miles out into the Atlantic, the City of Benares was hit by a torpedo. Thirty passengers, among them two of the children, were killed at once. The first lifeboat to attempt launching tipped all its passengers straight into the sea, where they died quickly in the icy water. Others died trying to slide down ropes or launch rafts. In the lifeboats that did get afloat, water came in up to the gunwales. One by one, the smallest first, children died of exposure and shock, or slipped overboard. Rescue boats were not able to reach the few survivors until some fifteen hours after the sinking. As well as floating bodies, rescuers found lifeboats that were afloat but with no passengers left alive in them. Through great difficulties, those still living were brought on board, some unconscious. Three children who did not regain consciousness were ‘committed to the deep’, to join the others. One lifeboat somehow stayed afloat for a week before rescue; from this, six children survived.

By the time 77 child evacuees died in the torpedoing of the City of Benares, I must have been in Toronto, still skinny and sick from two weeks of constant vomiting on our ship, the Antonio. Did I know about the sinking? Did my parents, and my new foster parents? Or the other children transplanted from Oxford? I knew of course that we had narrowly escaped being sunk ourselves; but did that seem real, or just part of the storybook adventure that I expected?

The story of the City of Benares is well enough known, but there seems to be some reluctance to discuss the facts. The Abbey service was intended, according to one newspaper, partly in remembrance of the children who died in the sinking: a wreath was to be laid, outside the west doorway, at the Memorial to all Innocent Victims of Oppression, Violence and War, and then dropped at sea at the site of the sinking. I may have missed something, but the wreath-laying seemed to take place almost unnoticed behind a press of tourists, without announcement or microphones. Neither the sinking nor the commemorative wreath was mentioned during the service. The stress was on forgiveness (rather than on the gratitude for charity with which I grew familiar – ‘Haven’t you been lucky! Such a wonderful opportunity! And while we were struggling on over in England’). Who should be forgiven in the case of the City of Benares: the Admiralty, who may not have made clear the escalation in the number of submarine attacks? The organisers of the CORB scheme, who were determined to push it through against all opposition? The parents, who were so ready to hand their children over without question?

No time was lost in feeding the tragedy into the propaganda machine: ‘dastardly outrage’, ‘loathsome murder’ and so on. The message from the German side (the German commander could hardly have known he was drowning children) was that the children had been sent out in deliberate provocation, in order to blacken the name of the German Navy. In Britain, questions were asked about the launching of the lifeboats, the delay in rescue attempts, the absence of an armed escort. The findings were not reassuring – and not publicised. But from then on, no more official evacuee groups were sent overseas.

There seems to have been no restriction on private arrangements to send out children, however. Was this because most of these evacuees were destined for the United States, and because Britain desperately needed the US to come into the war? And because a trickle of brave tots with funny accents and white ankle-socks might melt American hearts? The actress Claire Bloom, who went to the States at the age of ten, describes in her autobiography how she was sent out to raise money for war relief by singing a nauseating little ditty:

I’m a little English girl
Knocking at your door.
Driven from my home
By the Gods of War.

As she tells it, her family, like all other English Jews, knew quite well what their fate would be if the invasion happened. On the voyage to Canada, one of my schoolmates, 12 years old, was put in charge of three-year-old Rebecca. She remembers the child clinging to a seaman throughout the trip – perhaps he reminded her of her father? Father and mother travelled out some weeks later to take charge of Rebecca: on the City of Benares.

We Canada-bound and ‘privileged’ Oxford children narrowly escaped the fate of the passengers on that ship. The armed escort, it seems, left us some eight hundred miles out, and a torpedo was known to have passed only yards astern. I remember the incident; but was I just too seasick to care? Or too stupid to understand that war can really kill? Does memory blot out fear? If so, I wish it would also blot out homesickness, friendlessness, a lifelong sense of – weirdness? numbness? I wish it blotted out the tea-parties assembled by my foster mother to display me to her friends. ‘This is my little English war guest! She was only 90 lbs when she arrived and now she’s 120!’

Such a mixture of good intentions, regret, fear, secrecy. Still, the other day (I was perhaps passing a lorry or a garage) I got a sudden whiff of hot, strong engine oil, and I was back on board ship somewhere, and the feeling was not of misery or loneliness, but of adventure. Out at sea again. I am always on the way there: along the Turkish coast, up the shores of Maine, into the East Anglian creeks, out to the Hebrides, into Senegal, round the Dodecanese, Cyclades, Ionians; Crete, Venice, Split, Dubrovnik; a Nepalese dugout, in the sight of the Fishtail mountain. Around the Caribbean. Even the dreadful Grand Union Canal. Once a precocious traveller, you’re hooked.

England never was invaded, Oxford was never even bombed (the word was that Hitler was saving it for the day he got his honorary degree). But under London pavements and gravestones are the bones of some eight thousand children killed there by enemy bombs. That’s an awful lot of dead babies. The evacuation policy seemed the right one, the obvious one. A friend who was not part of it was surprised, listening to the recent radio programmes, by the former evacuees’ answer to the question: would you do the same with your children? From all except a reluctant Charles Wheeler, the answer was a firm ‘no’.

Those of my generation who were unhappy with it – and not all were – can remind themselves that there were beneficial side-effects as well. Postwar improvements in housing and feeding and schooling children owed a lot to what was learned when a million and a half of them were uprooted. A Ministry of Health report even came to the conclusion that

One point which all experience in the evacuation scheme has emphasised is the importance of the family in a child’s development and the impossibility of providing children with any completely adequate substitute for the care of their own parents. This has led to an increased awareness in some quarters of the importance of improving home conditions in order to keep families together instead of removing children from unsatisfactory homes.

Amazing insight! (Read it in the voice of Mr Cholmondeley-Featherstonehaugh.) And the realisation of what separation means, put forward by John Bowlby and others, ended the disastrous practice of keeping parents away from child patients in hospitals.

In North London, more was being learned about children separated from their families. At Anna Freud’s Hampstead Nurseries, first set up as a refuge for orphaned or homeless children from the blitzed areas, and supported by American donations, the children of East End factory workers, drivers and servicemen were being looked after by other refugees – educated Jewish women in flight from Europe. The reports prepared for the American benefactors are poignant. ‘He comes every night and sits on my bed and talks to me,’ insists a boy whose father was killed in a raid. Another tells one story over and over again: ‘He said he would cook the breakfast the next day, but he never did – we waited, mummy opened the front door, it was all red outside.’ As Anna Freud points out in her book on the Nurseries, the child who is orphaned gets sympathy, while ‘the child who is merely billeted in the country while his parents continue to live in London is considered only to “fret” and expected to get over it “in no time”.’

Bowlby’s rather dry discussion of these matters in Child Cart and the Growth of Love is illuminated by his remark that the child in substitute care is ‘living in two worlds – the foster-home (or institution) and his own home’. This brings to mind an oddity from my own memories. During some adolescent argument with my sorely tried foster parents they had asked, ‘How did you know it was four o’clock?’ – or six or eight, whatever it was. ‘By the bells, of course,’ I said. Bells? In Toronto? Or the bells of Tom Tower, Merton, Keble, St Mary the Virgin?

Turn from there to a crucial scene in Anita Brookner’s Latecomers, one that perhaps lies behind the sadness in all her books. Ageing refugees: Hartmann and Fibich. Unlike his friend, Fibich cannot remember Berlin. ‘Whatever brief moments of satisfaction he had felt in his life were always lessened by the idea of going home ... as if home were somewhere else.’ After a visit to the city in search of memories (going through the airport, he had seen a woman faint), he is in a restaurant with Hartmann. ‘What’s wrong?’ asks Hartmann over the grilled sole.

‘The last sight of my mother,’ said Fibich finally. ‘She fainted when she said goodbye to me. I seemed to see her again. And since thinking about that moment, I find that I cannot endure ...’

     He dropped his head, made a helpless gesture with his hand, and knocked over a glass of water.

     ‘Fibich!’ said Hartmann warningly, summoning a waiter.

     ‘I should have gone back,’ whispered Fibich. ‘I should not have left. I should have got off the train.’

     ‘Is everything all right, gentlemen?’ asked the head waiter, removing the wet table cloth.

Oxford railway station, 1940. Embarrassment, tremendous embarrassment. Overcome by that great English emotion on seeing, for the first time, my mother cry. Face turned away, of course. I think it was embarrassment.

Three years and some months later, 15 years old and in love with several Portuguese airmen, I was in a suburb of Lisbon waiting for an RAF flying-boat to take me home. That is another story, as my favourite books used to say.

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