Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, unleashing World War II. In retaliation, the British government declared war on Germany—then promptly launched Operation Pied Piper, the largest organized mass movement of people in history at the time. Its goal: to relocate 3.5 million Britons, nearly half of them children, from the nation’s largest cities to the relative safety of the countryside.
Among the evacuees from the West Yorkshire city of Bradford was three-year-old Doreen Drewry Lehr. In A Girl’s War: A Childhood Lost in Britain’s WWII Evacuation, she captures her exodus experience in harrowing detail.
Doreen was one of countless English children separated from their parents and dispersed among 32 "camp schools" — crude, rustic summer camps built before the war for recreation (but also as likely evacuation sites). She was moved twice before age five, ending up at Yorkshire’s Linton Residential Camp School for evacuee children with her older brother, Keith, who arrived six months earlier. (Their father had tuberculosis, which would keep him hospitalized until his death in December 1942; his illness forced their mother to find work as a nurse.)
At Linton, homesickness crashed over young Doreen “in waves” as she wondered why her mother would not rescue her. Doreen also began silently asking a question that would bedevil much of her adulthood: "Why did they send me away?"
She would not find a satisfactory answer until she was old enough to understand that the trauma of war afflicts battlefront and home front in nearly equal measure. Saddled with long hours and low wages at the hospital where she worked, her mother could not afford to keep two children at home. Nightly punishment by the Luftwaffe, meanwhile, dictated that anyone not directly involved in national defense should decamp for the provinces.
Even had Doreen voiced her plaint out loud — "Why did they send me away?" — England’s iron stoicism might have prevented a candid response, she suggests. Like many parents of the time, her mother, Jessie Elizabeth Drewry, believed it best to shield children from life’s unpleasantness; she therefore never alerted Doreen why or when she would have to leave Bradford. (Jessie would not even divulge where her son and daughter were headed.) What Doreen wanted and needed most, she writes, was the warmth and closeness of family, even in the face of those nighttime bombings.
Life was spartan at the evacuee camps. Food was rationed, and the necessities of daily life — blankets, soap, toys, clothing — were in scant supply. Fearful of visiting the camp’s unlit bathroom at night, Doreen frequently wet her bed. One day her uncle visited on his way to the front, bringing a "china-faced doll with a soft, cuddly body." It was the nicest thing she had ever owned. Doreen carried the doll everywhere, but some older boys at the camp snatched it and tossed it around. When it fell, broken beyond repair, Doreen steeled herself not to dissolve in front of them; crying, she knew, would elicit only more teasing.
The officials running this near-Dickensian establishment lacked the resources to provide anything beyond simple survival and schooling. Besides, adds Lehr, they "did not believe in coddling children and would not, or could not, bend the rules for a young female child. We all had cold baths each morning. I still shiver at the thought of the cold water into which I was plunged daily by one of the female matrons."
A Girl’s War is a straightforward but searing memoir of these childhood traumas and more. After surviving the war, marriage to an abusive husband, prolonged family separations, an emotional breakdown, and other privations and travails, Lehr managed to stabilize her life: She remarried, topped off her education with a Ph.D., and had two children. She then set out to reclaim her “lost childhood," which she has vividly achieved in this memoir, and to raise awareness about the impact of family separation on young children. Lehr decries the British propaganda that portrayed the evacuations as a wartime lark in the countryside, spotlighting psychotherapist John Bowlby’s 1939 caveat that the mass evacuation of unaccompanied children would have grave repercussions for their adult health.
His warnings went unheeded. A Girl’s War reveals the tragic results.
Bill Lenderking is a current freelance journalist and former Foreign Service officer. He previously reviewed Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation for AARP The Magazine Online.