Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye...

FAREWELL DRINK – of water before the train steams out.Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

FAREWELL DRINK – of water before the train steams out.Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

THEY were the most harrowing of times for the residents of the Great Yarmouth area, events moving at breakneck speed and changes forced upon them daily. I am referring to 1940, a few months after war was declared against Nazi Germany and we were in the front line as air-raid and invasion targets.

Despite stiff upper lips and traditional British optimism, Yarmouthians and their rural neighbours were well aware of the enormity of it all and that sacrifices inevitably would be made.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking was the evacuation of thousands of local schoolchildren to live and learn in parts of the country deemed potentially safer. For most it was their first time away alone from home and family. Their new environment was unfamiliar, far away. The wrench was deeply felt.

Recently, writing about my visit to Retford in Nottinghamshire and discovering two old picture postcards of Yarmouth and Wroxham, I reminded readers that the area was a prime destination for most of our local evacuees. In a mass exodus, more than 3000 local youngsters boarded four of the 97 special trains that conveyed 47,000 youngsters from 18 east coast towns in June 1940.

The official letter to Yarmouth parents urging them to let their children be evacuated was delivered on a Tuesday. Replies had to be returned the next morning – and the departure was four days later, on the Sunday. It was a potential logistical nightmare that turned into an organisational masterpiece.

A Yarmouth Mercury reporter described the momentous occasion under the headline: “Yarmouth Says Au Revoir to its Children”. The following are his words.

Hiding their sadness behind a barrage of smiles, Yarmouth’s 3700 evacuee children wrote a never-to-be-forgotten page in the borough’s history on Sunday. With no more tears or fuss than on a Sunday School treat, they bade farewell to their homes and their schools “for the duration,” and were whisked away to Nottinghamshire in four special trains.

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The echo of cheery farewells still ringing in his ears, Harry Greenacre, the education committee chairman, declared: “Yarmouth can be very proud of its children. Their spirit has been wonderful.”

Now the committee is left with the problem of some 3000 children who were not registered for evacuation. Many are being educated privately, but for the rest there are no schools and no teachers.

Yarmouth still slept as the first trickles of the great stream of children passed through the streets on the way to Vauxhall Station. Wartime songs rang out from the fleets of corporation buses, and early passers-by stood moved at the shrill strains of “Wish us luck as you wave us goodbye.”

At the station, the wheels of a masterly organising machine controlled by the evacuation officer, Mr G J Wroughton, and his collaborators had already begun to move. The first batch of children had to be away by 7.30am After that further batches arrived at intervals until midday when the last child was seen aboard.

No sooner was one lot cleared than a fresh contingent arrived. The children trooped into the station in orderly columns. There was no fuss, no hysterics – just clockwork efficiency. As if my magic 3700 children, 3700 gas masks, 3700 identity cards, 3700 ration books and 3700 of everything else the youngsters took with them were deposited in the trains and whirled off. Only about 50 of the registered children failed to turn up.

The hall of the station became like a giant chessboard where little groups of children were moved systematically to facilitate the smooth and swift filling of the long line of waiting carriages. Railwaymen at the barriers checked and battled with huge lists of names, marking “OK” or “Absent” as the latest flashes came in. Each train had its particular quota and, as the number of absentees became known, totals were quickly revised. Telegrams were sent ahead to each destination.

And with all this activity around them, the children just smiled or chattered or drank in the scene with their eyes – but never became upset or irritable. It was a remarkable tribute to East Anglian level-headedness. They were going to homes they had never seen and among people they had never met, but somehow the greatness of the moment had touched them. They knew why they were going and they were all out to stick it.

One little girl told me: “Of course I don’t want to go – nobody does – but I am going to keep smiling.” She spoke for everyone. In all the 3700 there were not enough tears to wet a good handkerchief!

The full story of the teachers’ magnificent work in this greatest of all local expeditions will probably never be told. You cannot compress into a newspaper account hours and days of worry, telephone calls, meetings, interviews, messages from parents, talks to children, shopping, preparing and checking lists.

With the children keeping stiff upper lips, it was left to the parents to supply the pathos. Most wisely said their goodbyes at home before the children left and nobody will ever know how many hearts ached. Mothers who came to the station were not allowed on to the platforms but managed to find vantage points from which to wave farewell.

Although they put on a brave front before the children went, there was many a moist eye as the end of the train slid round the bend in the line. “They’re like little angels,” said one woman, with a catch in her voice.

Just before each train left, hundreds of cups of cool water were distributed to all who wanted them, another example of the detail of the organisation. As far as possible, schools and families were kept together and it was hoped to make similar arrangements when the time for billeting came.

One of the evacuees’ “foster mothers” who, to travel with her own six-year-old youngster, had agreed to mother 15 children, said: “I only wish more mothers had let their children come away. It is a big wrench but is better than the horrors of war if they should ever come to the East Coast.

“Surely it is worth while letting the children go away to save them possibly from the terrible fate of Belgian children?”

Letters soon reached the Mercury that the children had settled remarkably well into their new homes, schools and surroundings, reassuring anxious parents hereabouts.