Reflecting on “Operation Pied Piper”
Thoughts for October – from Kay Holt
As part of my work I was recently reading an article on the impact of a parents love on the development of a child’s brain. From a very early age children need love for the brain to grow and develop. Research shows that the early growth of at least one part of the brain, the hippocampus, is directly linked to the amount of love and affection children are given. The research also shows that the brain’s neural circuits may be altered when a child is deprived of love. The report goes on to say. “All babies, infants and children fundamentally need love. A lack of love, emotional warmth and physical contact, basically slows down the growth mechanisms in the brain and in the body, for instance, human growth hormone is produced in smaller amounts when there is not enough love given to a child”.
The same day that I read this article I was watching the news and hearing some very personal accounts of the traumas that children went through at the beginning of World War II, some 80 years ago, which is referred to as “Operation Pied Piper”. I was so moved by some of these harrowing accounts I did some research to find out more.
It is reported that “Operation Pied Piper” was the most emotionally wrenching decision made by the British government. It occurred at the start of World War II, to relocate its children out of urban areas and cities to more rural locations. It was deemed that the risk of bombing attacks was low or non-existent in these rural areas. Millions of people, most of them children, were shipped to rural areas in Britain as well as overseas to Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
It is recorded that almost 3 million people were evacuated during the first four days of the operation which took place in September 1939, making it the biggest and most concentrated population movement in British history. Most were school children, who had been labelled like pieces of luggage, separated from their parents and put on trains and buses to unknown locations.
Finding homes was often traumatic for the children. As a rule, billeting officials would line the newly arrived children up against a wall or on a stage in the village hall. They would then invite potential hosts to take their pick. It is reported that the children who were most pleasing in appearance and those who looked physically fit for working on the farms were chosen first. On this basis, the phrase “I’ll take that one” became a statement indelibly etched in countless children’s memories. It is reported that whilst the majority of children enjoyed, or at least tolerated, their time away, a significant proportion, some report over 12 per cent, were mistreated or suffered abuse of some kind. The terrible reality was that for children and parents alike the only way to keep a child safe in this scenario was to entrust them into the care of a “total stranger”. There are many very dark accounts from some of these children, some said they were beaten, mistreated and abused by families who did not want them.
Homesickness is a common theme throughout the reports, as well as confusion, feeling unloved, bewilderment and often anger. Another report read “For me, the really sad aspect of this billet was for the first time in my life I knew what it was like to be unwanted. It founded fears of being unloved and created a lack of self-confidence that stayed with me for years”. Others reported being horsewhipped for speaking out and another locked in a birdcage and left with a chunk of bread and a bowl of water.
One person asked “How would we feel today as parents or grandparents if we were told: We are going to evacuate your children; we can’t tell you where they are going, who they will be with, and we don’t know when they will be coming home again, how many people would say yes to that?”
I understand completely that the rationale behind this operation was to protect the children from the dangers of enemy bombers to places of safety, but what a truly painful time it must have been for all, that separation and sense of loss and when it would potentially end, it is truly heart wrenching.
Thank goodness we now live in peaceful times and child protection is at the forefront for anyone now involved in the care of children.
So, going back to the research, it is a genuine concern as to how these children’s experiences during this time may have affected them in their adult lives. We talk about a “child’s formative years” and the impact these early years of development can have on a child as they develop into adulthood. Children need love to develop and love is the foundation that shapes children’s future health, happiness, growth, development and learning achievement. Children develop quickly in the early years and a child’s experiences between birth and age five have a major impact on their future life chances. A secure, safe and happy childhood is important in its own right.
Having read many accounts of how devastating these times were during “Operation Pied Piper” I take comfort that we have come a long way in the last 80 years and I hope and pray that the welfare and safeguarding of our children will always be at the top of all our priorities and at the very top of any political agenda moving forwards. Kay Holt
“Start children off on the way they should go,
and even when they are old they will not turn from it”