How do you research overseas evacuees in the Second World War?

By Guest, 12 September 2018 - 11:06am

Ahead of the anniversary of the City of Benares disaster which killed 77 children, Janet Sacks explains how you can research the stories of overseas evacuees in the Second World War

British evacuee children on boat to Canada in Second World War
British evacuee children leaving for Canada (Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

On 7 September 1940 German bombs rained down on London, and continued to do so for the next 56 days and nights. But the horror of invasion had been uppermost in the minds of the populace for years, and plans had been made for the mass evacuation of cities to rural areas as early as 1938.

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As soon as Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, even before war had been declared, the exodus began. Incredibly, within the first three days more than 1.5 million civilians were moved out of the cities to the relative safety of the countryside. The scheme was called Operation Pied Piper, because most of the evacuees were children.

Among the plans for taking children to safety was one of evacuating them overseas, despite the dangers of maritime voyages during wartime. Parents who could afford it had already made arrangements to send children out of Britain to relatives and friends: by the end of 1941, 6,000 children had been sent without government help to Canada and 5,000 to the USA. Some businesses, such as Hoover and Kodak, even had private schemes to evacuate the children of their British employees to the USA. In addition the British Dominions wanted to show their support to a country under threat, and offers of hospitality through an evacuation programme were made by the governments of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as the USA.

On 17 June 1940, a government organisation was set up to take advantage of these offers. The Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) was chaired by Geoffrey Shakespeare, parliamentary under-secretary of state to the Dominions Office. Its official terms of reference, held in The National Archives (TNA), were “to consider offers from overseas to house and care for children, whether accompanied or unaccompanied, from the European war zone, residing in Great Britain, including children orphaned by the war”.

The organisation took offices in the Mayfair headquarters of the travel agency Thomas Cook. The board was immediately overwhelmed by more than 200,000 applications, 
and had to suspend further applications in early July. CORB was funded through weekly contributions from parents. This money went towards payment for the doctors, nurses and escorts, and hostel accommodation at ports. However, the Government paid the cost of all transport, and contributed to the children’s maintenance.

The children, known as ‘seavacuees’, were given a CORB number to put on their luggage and on an identity disc. Within three months CORB had evacuated 2,664 children: 1,532 to Canada, 577 to Australia, 353 to South Africa, and 202 to New Zealand.

Child overseas evacuees who sailed on MS Batory, Sidney, Second World War
English evacuees in Sidney after arriving on the MS Batory, 16 October 1940 (Credit: Gordon Short/Sidney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

The City of Benares

The success of the voyage overseas depended largely on the adult escorts, who were carefully chosen by CORB. Those who applied had to be reasonably young, fit and immune to seasickness. Aboard ship they adopted certain responsibilities, ranging from sport and music to religion and lessons, not to mention talks to prepare the children for their new countries. Food was good and plentiful, and in accordance with dietary requirements drawn up by the Ministry of Health.

However, German U-boats patrolled the seas, making the journeys risky. Crew and passengers alike had to stay on their toes. The Wartime Memories Project quotes Brigid Wells, who travelled on the Scythia on the last convoy across the Atlantic: “We were not allowed to take our clothes off at any time, so we slept in all-in-one ski-suits, then quite fashionable as ‘siren suits’. There was boat drill every day, and we carried Mae West life jackets around at all times.”

The SS Volendam was on its way to Canada when it was torpedoed by a U-boat in late August 1940. Fortunately all 321 children were rescued from the ship, and were safely brought to port on the Clyde. Both the SS Port Wellington and SS Port Brisbane were torpedoed in November 1940, when escorts were captured. But it was the sinking of the City of Benares that put an end to evacuating children overseas.

The ship sailed from Liverpool to Canada on 13 September 1940 carrying 197 passengers, including 90 children. It was torpedoed 600 miles from Ireland at 10pm on 17 September 1940. The torpedo struck the port side below the cabins where the children slept, and many must have been killed instantly. The escorts mustered the children and 12 lifeboats were launched, although the darkness, heavy swell and strong wind made this a difficult task. The escorts said that they repeatedly searched for children before the lifeboats drew away. Eventually 159 people survived, out of them 13 children and four escorts from CORB.

It is harrowing to read the reports of the survivors held at The National Archives. One, by Dr Martin Bum, records the difficulty he and a young escort, a theology student named Michael Rennie, had in keeping the children in the boat: “When we had just managed to get a child to his seat… the next wave carried him away again. The children began to become weak. Many of them became quiet and in the darkness, I suddenly discovered that the heads of some of them were already under water.”

Rennie dived repeatedly to rescue those swept overboard, until he collapsed in a waterlogged boat and drowned. This tragic loss was shared by many parents.

The majority of CORB’s evacuees were away for four to five years, growing up in a different country. The board was responsible for arranging the journey home, and often adult passengers were asked to supervise the children. They were met by officials who gave them onward travel tickets; the very young were escorted back to their families. CORB was disbanded in 1944 when the German threat had diminished. By January 1946 most of its charges were home.

Overseas evacuees board the SS Stratheden at Pyrmont, Sidney at the end of the Second World War
Child evacuees board the SS Stratheden at Pyrmont, Sidney, on 26 October 1945 to return to Britain (Credit: Gilbert/The Sidney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Top websites for tracing overseas evacuees

1. Findmypast

The site has passenger lists of 30 million people who sailed from ports in the UK to destinations outside Europe up to 1960.

2. British Evacuees Organisation

The BEO publishes a newsletter that helps reunite former evacuees.

3. City of Benares: the Children's Ship

This excellent resource includes audio interviews with survivors of the tragedy.

4. The Wartime Memories Project

Evacuees, including children sent abroad, share their memories.

5. WW2 People's War

This BBC site collecting memories of the war has a ‘Childhood and Evacuation’ category with more than 14,000 entries.

6. Alan and Graham in the War

A former seavacuee to Massachusetts shares his memories.

7. SS Nerissa

 A former child seavacuee recalls the voyage to Canada.

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