In the summer of 1938, war loomed on the world’s horizon. Though fighting had not yet touched Britain, the government began preemptive plans to evacuate the cities. The Anderson Committee divided the country into “evacuation,” “neutral” and “reception” zones, and established priority evacuees: school children and teachers, mothers and young children, pregnant women, and incapacitated adults.
At the time, London was as yet out of reach of the German Luftwaffe; however, evacuation plans progressed, rehearsals were held, and additional rural camps were set up for evacuees. By 1939, it became increasingly clear that war was on Britain’s doorstep, and local evacuation suddenly seemed an insufficient measure.
In June of 1940, France crumbled under relentless German attack. The Germans then set their sights on Britain, starting with air assaults and progressing to Blitz and bombing of British cities by September of the same year. The British government began to fear for the country’s survival in the case of an all-out invasion; thus, suggestions began to surface for a large-scale overseas evacuation.
While the suggestion was initially rejected, the government soon began to look to Commonwealth nations such as Australia, South Africa, and Canada and also the United States as safer havens – a way of survival for some, even if Britain was invaded. Thus plans were developed with the goal of evacuating 1 million children to British Dominions overseas.
The first “guest children” sent abroad were those of the upper class families. Personal efforts were made to send children to family or friends in Canada or America. In some cases, parents from an entire school combined efforts in private arrangements to send the whole group of children abroad. Eventually, however, the public began to demand government assistance for those less fortunate.
The possibility of an eminent Nazi invasion had parents clamouring to send their children to safer shores, while private groups in America and the other Dominions were inspired to offer a haven to Britain’s children. In order to facilitate this emigration, the government established the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) in May of 1940. The CORB was responsible for organizing this overseas evacuation, and applications began pouring in from all over the country.
Rather than processing the applications on a first-come-first-served basis, CORB placed greater priority on some children than others. It’s unclear exactly how selections were made; however, the press was soon accusing CORB of giving preferential treatment to children of the wealthy. Many more applications were received than the government was able to move, and ultimately, many of the children who were sent abroad were indeed children of wealth with contacts overseas.
The CORB process was a slow one, and in fact, far more children were sent abroad through private arrangements. An estimated 13,000 children were sent abroad by parents with the means to do so. While CORB received 210,000 applications by the time the scheme was ended, it’s estimated that a mere 3,300 were actually sent to the Dominions by the organisation.
Evacuees were primarily sent to the United States and Canada, since the trans-Atlantic passage was relatively short. Most, however, were sent to Canada, as immigration between England and Canada was more easily accomplished. Of course, some children had families in the other Dominions, so a number did end up in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the Caribbean as well.
In 1944, the tide of the war had shifted, and Britain decided to bring its children home. Troopships brought American and Canadian soldiers to their home shores and returned with British children. Families were reunited, and Britain set out on the path to rebuilding the nation.