With The Woman in Black: Angel of Death only weeks away from release, we delve into the dark, true history of evacuee Britain!
In Hammer’s “Woman in Black: Angel of Death”, Phoebe Fox’s Eve Parkins leads a group of schoolchildren to what they believe is the safety of the countryside, away from the bombs which Hitler’s Luftwaffe was raining down on many of the major British cities. They are taken to the abandoned Eel Marsh House which turns out to be anything but safe, haunted as it is by a dark force from the past.
It is unlikely that anything quite so gruesome befell the real child evacuees of the Second World War but the true story is still remarkable and unprecedented. 3.5 million people were moved as part of Operation Pied Piper and it remains ingrained in the British memory even generations on, with Angel of Death the latest of many examples of British fiction taking inspiration from these fascinating times.
The scheme was devised while war was still just a possibility, a whole year before Hitler’s invasion of Poland finally lit the fuse. The country was divided into three zones – “evacuation”, “reception” and “neutral” – and as storm clouds began to gather over Europe, the Reception areas began the task of looking for available housing. In some Evacuation zones, such as Manchester and Liverpool, more than half of the population’s children were eventually moved, and around a third of the entire population was involved with it in one way or another.
It is often thought that only children were moved but in fact as Angel of Death would attest, many adults were also part of the plan, particularly mothers of very young children and pregnant women. Disabled people and teachers also made up a large quantity of those displaced. Art was also moved from the main urban centres, with the entire National Gallery collection moved to a quarry in Wales, while the Bank of England and BBC were also relocated. There were plans in place to move the government and Royal Family if London were either destroyed or invaded – a truly chilling thought.
When France fell to the Nazis in the summer of 1940, leaving the enemy within spitting distance of the British Isles, there was a second wave of evacuations, particularly from the towns along the south and east coasts. Others arrived from Europe having escaped the Nazis, although somewhat controversially many of German origin were interned in military camps, despite having been enemies of Hitler’s regime.
24,000 children were also sent overseas to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa but this was abandoned when a ship carrying children – the SS City of Benares – was torpedoed, killing 260 people, 77 of them child evacuees. Those in charge of the German U-Boat U-48 continued to protest even after the war that they had no idea so many young lives were on board when they fired at the ship, but the incident was enough to convince the British government to abandon foreign evacuations.
By this point there had still been no loss of civilian life within the UK but once the Blitz began in September 1940, killing tens of thousands and obliterating countless homes, the scheme was again stepped up. Many of course now made private arrangements and bypassed the official plans, the government waiving travel costs for the most vulnerable or those who had lost their homes. London was emptied of a quarter of its population.
It’s hard to imagine now just what effect Operation Pied Piper must have had on the lives completely shaken up by it, particularly on the children separated from their parents. Most certainly had a less traumatic time than the children sent to our fictional Crythin Gifford, many city kids managing to thoroughly enjoy their “holiday in the countryside”, gaining a new sense of freedom having never been out of the city before. Others had a more difficult time of it, particularly as resources were so inevitably stretched in these newly-bloated households, some having to fit up to 4 children per bed while struggling to feed so many hungry mouths. Many kids were shunted around a few different homes during their time away, finding it difficult to settle, though some indeed found a whole new family during their enforced time away, forging lasting bonds.
It would be 1944 before the scheme was officially disbanded, with most evacuees then returning home if they hadn’t already. London was the only exception from this, its own scheme staying in force until nearly the end of the war.
Woman In Black: Angel of Death is certainly not the first time fiction has delved into those strange and difficult years, with the infamous CS Lewis novel “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” (1950) one of the obvious early examples. Like our children in Angel of Death, the Pevensies are moved from London to a big country house, discovering that famous door to another world, though their house is certainly far more benign than Eel Marsh House. The children in the seminal “Lord of the Flies” (1954) are being flown away from a bomb-ravaged Britain when their plane crashes on a desert island. The fondly-remembered Disney film “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971) starring Angela Lansbury also deals with evacuated children finding a new home in the country, this time with a trainee witch. “Goodnight Mister Tom” is a 1981 novel by Michelle Magorian, later made into a successful TV movie starring John Thaw (1998), following a child evacuee and his unlikely friendship with his reluctant elderly “foster father”.
For the children in “Woman In Black: Angel of Death” what is meant to be a safe haven turns out to be anything but, and Hitler’s bombs might be considered pretty small beans compared to what the malevolent force at Eel Marsh House has in store for them…
THE WOMAN IN BLACK: ANGEL OF DEATH is released on 1 Jan 2015 in the UK, and 2 Jan 2015 in the US.
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