Volume 18 Number 1
See You After the Duration

01 February 2005

Thousands of American families—and Canadian families too—offered to take in British children for the duration of the war.
There is one group of Brits, admittedly dwindling in number, who find widespread anti-Americanism particularly sad. Dwindling not because of a reduced love for the United States but because they are now mostly in their seventies. Some of them may disagree strongly with recent American policies but against them they can set the generosity of the American people, to which they were introduced early in life. My brother and I were two of this group.

In 1940, when it looked as if Britain was going to be invaded and might be taken over by Nazism, thousands of American families—and Canadian families too—offered to take in British children for the duration of the war. I have been in touch with nearly a hundred of those ‘children’ in the last couple of years while writing a book about their experiences. Most of my friends and correspondents enjoyed their enforced years of exile but even those whose experience was less fortunate, who may even feel scarred for life by the family separations, speak highly of the generosity of their host countries.

My brother Gerald and I spent five years with a family in Boston. Our hosts would not have envisaged that their offer would involve so many years of care any more than our parents would have thought that they were saying goodbye to us for so long.

For most of us it was adventure more than trauma. After all, what an excitement for an eight-year-old to travel in an ocean liner in a convoy escorted by a battleship and destroyers and to return in an aircraft carrier. For it was a time when separation from parents, whether through boarding school or parents working overseas, was much more common. We also at a tender age thought we were ambassadors.

Indeed it was the return to Britain, often greeting parents we didn’t recognize, that created the greater trauma. My brother and I would tell our parents, ‘We don’t do it that way in America. We don’t do this, we don’t do that...’— so often that America became known in our family as ‘We-land’.
Our presence in the United States may have helped Americans to appreciate the reality of the war in Europe. It certainly gave us insights into possibilities undreamed of. The Liberal politician Shirley Williams (now Baroness) says she experienced ‘freedoms I had never enjoyed in England’ and felt her years in the US gave her a sense of promise of a ‘new world where everything is possible’. She was horrified on her return at the extent to which Britain was ‘mired in class’. It was one of the things, she says, that drove her into politics.

Likewise Eric Hammond, who became General Secretary of the EEPTU, the electricians’ union, was delighted to find during his stay in Canada that you didn’t have to accept Britain’s supposedly insurmountable class barriers.

More than 200,000 children were signed up for overseas evacuation—not just to North America but also to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand—but only 13,700 actually sailed. The venture ended abruptly after 77 children died when The City of Benares was sunk by a torpedo.

Friendships formed during the ‘duration’ have stood the test of time. As I write these words the granddaughter of the family we lived with has just been staying with my wife and me. She is in turn a grandmother. So through five generations of an American family, with whom we had no touch prior to 1940, those transatlantic links have been maintained. A report by the committee that brought many of the children to the United States described the experience as ‘an applied lesson in international understanding’.

Michael Henderson is a British journalist and author. His latest book, ‘See You After the Duration — the story of British evacuees in North America during World War II’ is published by PublishBritannica, ISBN 1-4137-3868-0.

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