In August 1938 Adolf Hitler began making speeches that suggested he was going to send the German Army into Czechoslovakia. The British government now began to fear a war with Nazi Germany and Neville Chamberlain ordered that Air Raid Precautions (ARP) volunteers to be mobilized. Cellars and basements were requisitioned for air raid shelters, deep trenches were dug in the parks of large towns and the government also ordered the flying of barrage balloons over London.
The government also made plans for the evacuation of all children from Britain's large cities. Sir John Anderson, who was placed in charge of the scheme, decided to divide the country into three areas: evacuation (people living in urban districts where heavy bombing raids could be expected); neutral (areas that would neither send nor take evacuees) and reception (rural areas where evacuees would be sent).
Just before the outbreak of the Second World War the government decided to begin moving people from Britain's cities to the designated reception areas. Some people were reluctant to move and only 47 per cent of the schoolchildren, and about one third of the mothers went to the designated areas. This included 827,000 schoolchildren, 524,000 mothers and children under school age, 13,000 expectant mothers, 103,000 teachers and 7,000 handicapped people.
The billetor received received 10s. 6d. from the government for taking a child. Another 8s. 6d. per head was paid if the billetor took more than one. For mothers and infants, the billetor provided lodging only at a cost of 5s. Per adult and 3s. per child.
The people who took the children into their homes complained about the state of their health. Research suggests that around half of the evacuated children had fleas or headlice. Others suffered from impetigo and scabies. Billetors were sometimes appalled by the behaviour of the evacuees. It is estimated that about 5 per cent of the evacuees lacked proper toilet training. One billetor reported about how when one six year old boy went to the toilet in the front room his mother shouted: "You dirty thing, messing up the lady's carpet. Go and do it in the corner."
Oliver Lyttelton, who allowed ten children from London to live in his large country house, later complained: "I got a shock. I had little dreamt that English children could be so completely ignorant of the simplest rules of hygiene, and that they would regard the floors and carpets as suitable places upon which to relieve themselves."
When the expected bombing of cities did not take place in 1939, parents began to doubt whether they had made the right decision in evacuating their children to safe areas. By January 1940, an estimated one million evacuees had returned home. A survey carried out in Cambridge suggested that the lack of bombing was the reason why four out of five decided to leave. Other reasons given were homesickness among the children, dissatisfaction with the foster home and the loneliness of the parents.
When France was invaded in May, 1940, children who had been sent to areas within ten miles of the coast in East Anglia, Kent and Sussex were transferred to South Wales. By the end of July nearly half of the population of East Anglian's coastal towns and two-fifths of the inhabitants of Kentish towns on the coast had left for safer regions of the country.
The government also set up a Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) which arranged for children to be sent to USA, Canada and Australia. In the first few months over 210,000 were registered with the scheme. However, after the City of Bernares was sunk by a German torpedo on 17th September, 1940, killing 73 children, the overseas evacuation programme was brought to a halt.
On the 7th September, 1940 the German airforce changed its strategy and began to bomb London and other British cities such as Liverpool, Birmingham, Plymouth and Coventry. Parents now were desperate to get their children out of target areas and between September, 1940 and December, 1941, over 1,250,000 were helped by the government to leave the cities.