When Kate Sheridan arrived in London on the morning of 3 September 1939, the evacuation of children out of the city and into the countryside was well under way. The evacuation during World War Two was designed to save civilians in Britain, mostly children, from the risks associated with aerial bombing of cities by moving them to areas thought to be less at risk. Some of the children Kate saw at Euston Station were sent to stay with relatives, but others were sent to live with complete strangers.
At the station, children had labels attached to them and they didn’t know where they were going to or if they would be split from their brothers and sisters. The government recommended that in addition to their gas mask and identity card, the child evacuees had the following items with them:
2 pairs of pants
Pair of trousers
2 pairs of socks
Pullover or jersey
Pair of knickers
2 pairs of stockings
Other items packed in their suitcases included:
Overcoat or mackintosh
1 pair of Wellington boots
Towel and facecloth
Boots or shoes
Packet of nuts and raisins
The children arrived in the countryside, tired, hungry and uncertain of whether they would ever see their families again. They were taken to the village hall, where they were met by the billeting officer and the host families haggled over the most presentable children while the sicklier and more scruffy children were left until last.
There were no big bombing raids on Britain in the first months of the war (known as The Phoney War) and as a result by early 1940 many children had returned home. They were evacuated again when heavy bombing raids began in the autumn of 1940 (known as The Blitz) and then again in 1944, when Germany attacked Britain with V1 Flying Bombs and V2 rockets.
Over the course of World War Two, Operation Pied Piper relocated more than 3.5 million people including 827,000 schoolchildren, 524,000 mothers with children under the age of five, 12,000 pregnant women and some disabled people.
London on 3 September 1939 is in upheaval. War is inevitable. Into this turmoil steps Kate Sheridan, newly arrived from Ireland to live with her aunt and uncle, and look for work. When she meets Flight Lieutenant Charlie Butler sparks fly, but he is a notorious womaniser. Should she ignore all the warnings and get involved with a ladies man whose life will be in daily danger?
Charlie Butler has no intention of getting involved with a woman. But when he meets Kate his resolve is shattered. Should he allow his heart to rule his head and fall for a nineteen-year-old Irish girl while there is a war to fight?
Private conflicts and personal doubts are soon overshadowed. Will the horrors of war bring Kate and Charlie together or tear them apart?
Kate Sheridan opened the train door and, with butterflies fluttering in her stomach, stepped down onto the platform. London at last. Her journey from Ireland had taken three days. Where could she hear the latest news? The ultimatum to the Germans to withdraw from Poland was due to run out this morning. War was all but inevitable.
Glancing up and down the platform for her aunt and uncle, all she could see were hundreds of sobbing children, clinging for dear life to their equally upset parents. She knew it was rude, but she couldn’t help but stare.
“Come on, my love,” a voice from behind her shouted and she jumped. “You’re in the way.”
Picking up her suitcase, Kate moved aside as a man in an army uniform jumped down from the train with a sack-like bag slung over his shoulder.
“Why are all the children here?” she asked.
“The evacuation began the other day,” he explained, lowering the sack to the ground, and taking off his side cap. “They’re all being sent to the country for safety. You’re not a Londoner, are you, Miss? What part of Wales are you from?”
“I’m from Ballycarn,” she replied, wincing as a little boy—he couldn’t have been more than six—was pulled screaming away from his mother. “It’s not in Wales, it’s in the west of Ireland.”
The soldier laughed. “Sorry, I thought you were a Taffy, but you’re a Paddy instead. Still, you’d like to hear what old Neville has to say, wouldn’t you?”
“Neville Chamberlain? The…our Prime Minister. Let’s find a wireless so we can hear him, though I know what he’s going to say.”
Replacing his side cap and hauling the sack onto his shoulder, he grasped Kate’s arm without asking permission, and she had to grab her suitcase. They hurried along the platform, weaving in and out of distraught families and porters, until they came to a railway guard who took their tickets.
“Is there a wireless nearby we can listen to?” the soldier asked.
“Yes, there’s one in the ticket office,” the guard replied. “Wait outside.”
“Good. Come on, let’s find a seat.”
They sat down outside the ticket office, Kate glancing anxiously around for her aunt and uncle. Had they given up after she hadn’t been on yesterday’s train? If only she hadn’t listened to that woman and followed her ridiculous advice. Still, if they were here, it wasn’t surprising they couldn’t find her in all this chaos.
“Shh.” The soldier nudged her arm even though she had been quiet. Don’t talk to any strange men, unless you absolutely have to, her mother had warned, and now look at her. Not five minutes off the train and she was sharing a bench with a soldier, listening to the wireless, expecting Chamberlain to tell them Britain was at war.
Her father had wanted her to go to America to find work and live with his cousin and family. America was the land of opportunity for so many Irish people, far away from Europe and the threat of war. Her maternal aunt and uncle then offered to take her and help her find work in London. So, despite her father’s grumblings, close family in London were chosen over a cousin she had never met in Philadelphia.
“…and against them, I am certain that the right will prevail.” Chamberlain’s speech ended and a long silence followed.
“You picked a great day to arrive.” The soldier turned to her with a wry smile. “There’s another train going out in a few minutes, you can get on it if you’re quick?”
“No,” she replied. “I’m staying.”
Hearing the opening bars of God Save The King, the butterflies in her stomach began to riot. Should she stand or not? She was Irish but Mummy was English, so she stood respectfully as the small group around the wireless sang the anthem as if the Germans were watching them at that very minute.
When the wireless was switched off, the soldier smiled at her. “What are you Paddies doing in Ireland now, eh? Do you have a National Anthem?”
“Yes, we have an anthem,” she told him. “It’s called The Soldier’s Song.”
He roared with laughter. “That’s priceless. We could do with an anthem like that now. Do you want to swap?”
“Please yourself.” He saluted her and Kate wasn’t quite sure if he was poking fun at her or not. “I’d better be off. Good luck.”
“Thank you. You too.”
Feeling very alone, she watched him go. No-one had come to meet her so she would have to continue on to her aunt and uncle’s home herself. Wondering if she should take the underground train or the bus, she heard a loud wailing sound, and people began hurrying past her.
“Oi, Irish?” It was the soldier beckoning to her. “Quick.”
Fighting the urge to cry with relief, she grabbed her suitcase again, and ran to him on shaky legs. “What, what is it?” she stammered.
“Air-raid siren,” he said, pulling her out onto the street. “Come on, down here.”
Taking the suitcase from her, he pushed her in front of him, and down some steep steps. “This is an air-raid shelter; you’ll become familiar with them now you’re staying.”
They sat down on one of two benches parallel to each other and she took the suitcase back.
“Thanks for coming back for me.”
“Don’t worry about it. I knew you wouldn’t know what to do.”
The shelter quickly filled with people. By their white faces, they felt as frightened as she did.
“How long do these air-raids last?” she asked.
“Don’t know,” he replied, lighting a cigarette. “But take my advice, Irish, go to wherever you’re going—and fast. Who knows what’s going to happen now.”