Nearly 80 years later, Pam Hobbs can still recall the day her older sister came home from school with a note that would alter their lives. All children in Leigh-on-Sea, the seaside village in southeastern England where Hobbs lived with her parents and six sisters, were to be evacuated that very weekend. Their schools were shut down immediately.
“The letter came on a Friday,” Hobbs, now 88, remembered in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “We had to report to the school on a Sunday and bring some clothes with us.”
It was June 1940 — about a year into World War II — and the German army had advanced to Dunkirk, France, just across the Strait of Dover. “An enemy invasion appeared imminent,” Hobbs would write in her memoir decades later.
Hobbs, then 10, was told to stuff her belongings into burlap sandbags. She and her sister Iris, then 11 years old, were placed on a train and spirited away to the English countryside.
Young Pam and Iris Hobbs were just two of the millions of children in England who were evacuated from cities and towns during World War II, in what was dubbed “Operation Pied Piper.” The mass evacuations were intended to keep British children safe — or safer, theoretically — from German air raids, while their parents stayed behind to work and help out with war efforts.
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Operation Pied Piper started in earnest in the summer of 1939, with more than 3 million children removed from London and other cities in the first four days of evacuations alone. Photos from the evacuations show children lined up without their parents, clutching knapsacks or small backpacks, identified only by name tags hung around their necks.
Children whisked to the countryside were supposed to be able to escape not only bombs but the psychological scars of war. However, former child evacuees and experts learned later that Operation Pied Piper had an unexpected side effect: The separations seemed to impart long-term trauma that was in many cases as severe as if they had stayed behind and faced the bombs.
Decades later, Pam Hobbs’s voice still carries a hint of sadness when she speaks of being separated from her parents. Her mother didn’t accompany the girls to the school that Sunday because she knew it would be too painful, Hobbs said. Her father, a bricklayer, was tasked with dropping them off instead. He didn’t say much, but wiped at his eyes.
“When he left, he said [to Iris], make sure you take your sister. She has to go where you go,” Hobbs said. “I was very timid. I cried a lot. I blinked a lot.”
She and Iris were ultimately deposited in Derbyshire in central England, some 180 miles away from home, where they were shepherded into a one-room schoolhouse with about a dozen other children from the train. There, they lined up while prospective foster parents inspected them and picked who they wanted.
Not all of the host families seemed thrilled about taking in a child, Hobbs remembered — and the children who were better looking or who could help out with farm work were chosen first.
“If you had a bed, you took a child,” Hobbs said. “They would point to a child, come out [and say], ‘We want that one.’ My sister and I and a little boy were the last ones left.”
The sting of being passed over in that way was one of many unsettling memories from Operation Pied Piper that would linger with Hobbs. In total, Hobbs lived with four different host families and wouldn’t see her parents again for two years, she recounted in her memoir, “Don’t Forget to Write: The true story of an evacuee and her family.”
“Some of my ‘pretend parents’ loved me as if I was their own. One couple showed me what it was like to feel unwanted, to live with hostility and complete indifference to my welfare, and to be hungry,” Hobbs wrote. “For me, the really sad aspect of this billet was that 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.”
Hobbs’s experience was not unique. Later that year, the psychoanalyst Anna Freud began studying children at the Hampstead War Nurseries in London who had been evacuated to the countryside as well as children who had stayed behind in cities and towns with their parents and witnessed bombings. After 12 months, she concluded: “London children … were on the whole much less upset by bombing than by evacuation to the country as a protection against it.”
There were a few caveats to Freud’s study, said Lee Jaffe, president-elect of the American Psychoanalytic Association. It was conducted in the 1940s, with a limited sample size, and relied largely on quotations and observations. But it was clear that the child evacuees had not avoided the traumas of war as expected.
“What they observed over and over again was that the internal trauma of being sent to the calm countryside was resulting in significantly greater mental health issues and problems for these children, of various ages, than war,” Jaffe said.
For children under 2, the immediate reactions to separating were “particularly violent,” Freud and Dorothy Burlingham wrote in their 1943 book, “War and Children.” One 17-month-old child reportedly repeated “Mum, mum, mum, mum, mum …” in a deep voice for at least three days after being taken from her mother:
The child feels suddenly deserted by all the known persons in its world to whom it has learned to attach importance…. For several hours, or even for a day or two this psychological craving of the child, the “hunger” for its mother, may over-ride all bodily sensations. There are some children of this age who will refuse to eat or sleep. Very many of them will refuse to be handled or comforted by strangers. The children cling to some object or to some form of expression which means to them, at that moment, memory of the material presence of the mother.
“That kind of research that was done by Anna Freud and their collaborators really confirmed what we sort of know in a sort of common-sense way,” said Mark D. Smaller, a Michigan psychoanalyst. “I really think it’s one of probably the first bits of research in terms of the long-term impact of this type of trauma on a child’s life.”
Some of those impacts are higher risk of depression, anxiety, the inability to learn and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress, Smaller said — especially if there isn’t an early intervention after this kind of separation. And it wasn’t just the younger children who were affected.
“I will tell you certainly the younger the child, the more significant the potential traumatic event can be,” Smaller said. “But I want to underscore that even a child who’s a preteen or adolescent is going to be traumatized by that kind of separation.”
The child evacuees from Operation Pied Piper suffered negative effects from these separations, even though they were done with their parents’ permission and the best of intentions, both Jaffe and Smaller noted. That’s what makes recent accounts of migrant families being forcibly separated at the U.S.-Mexico border even more “cruel, inhumane and harmful,” their group said. Their concerns are echoed by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers and nearly 10,000 mental health professionals who have condemned the family separations.
“You don’t forget these things,” said Hobbs. Though she now lives in Canada and it has been decades since her evacuation, news reports of migrant children being taken from their parents and placed in detention centers have dredged up painful memories for her, she said.
“I can readily imagine the terror of these youngsters, most of whom don’t speak English, and probably have little idea of what’s happening,” Hobbs said. “Hamburgers and electronic games won’t cut it. Every one of them will be asking, ‘What did I do wrong?’ and the emotional scars will be everlasting.”