There’s a good piece by the historian Tom Devine in today’s Scotsman to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. It covers the role of the wartime Scottish Secretary Tom Johnston, acknowledged – as Devine notes – by many “as Scotland’s greatest-ever Secretary of State”.
The Times on Wednesday also carried a short panel by me on the wartime Minister of Health, Walter Elliot (also a former Scottish Secretary), who initiated the evacuation plans. This isn’t online, so my fuller article is reproduced here:
It was, according to its instigator, a bigger operation than the transportation of the Expeditionary Force to France. The date was September 1, 1939: Evacuation Day, the biggest voluntary movement of people in British history.
The memory of that day is etched in the memories of thousands of women and children who moved from their urban homes to countryside billets two days before Britain declared war on Germany, yet few people remember that the administrative feat was initiated by a Scot.
Walter Elliot, the MP for the Kelvingrove division of Glasgow, was a progressive Conservative polymath with interests ranging from agriculture and science to literature and foreign affairs. Following two years as Scottish Secretary, Neville Chamberlain appointed him Minister of Health in May 1938.
The Munich Crisis was just months away, a political controversy which found Elliot strangely indecisive. Despite coming under immense pressure from colleagues to resign over Chamberlain’s capitulation to Hitler, Elliot remained in the Cabinet, instead pursuing a more subtle line of resistance to foreign policy.
Robert Boothby later reflected that “Munich broke the spring” in Elliot, although he remained an effective minister. In September 1938 he anticipated the task at hand in a letter to a friend. “This big billeting migration will be the first and most pressing duty if anything comes,” he wrote, “and much more difficult, really, than mobilization.”
The responsibility for evacuation became Elliot’s via a circuitous route. If people were to be uprooted from their homes then they had to go where there were houses; housing was in the Ministry of Health’s remit, thus Elliot found himself landed with a daunting administrative task.
It wasn’t until November 1938 that he was able to establish an Evacuation Department, staffed by secondees from the Board of Education and large local authorities. There were to be four classes of evacuees: schoolchildren, mothers with young children, pregnant women and blind people. This totalled nearly 1,500,000 people so the project, as Elliot’s biographer observed, “was not just a minor decanting”.
Seventeen thousand volunteers acted as billeting guides during “Operation Pied Piper”, while schools were evacuated as units along with their teachers. The evacuation exercise began on 1 September 1939 and concluded, fortuitously, on the morning war was declared two days later. Almost everyone reached their new homes on time.
Remarkably, the evacuation scheme was also entirely voluntary: nobody was compelled to leave, although the impending realities of war meant most had little choice, not least children. The UK was divided into three areas: evacuation, reception and neutral. Moving people from “evacuation” to “reception” areas was the major logistical challenge.
On the designated day “special notices” were posted at railway stations across the country while a “Great National Undertaking” was declared. Elliot tried to make reassuring noises. The decision to move people, he said, was “a precautionary measure in view of the prolongation of the period of tension” and that “no one should conclude that this decision means that war is now regarded as inevitable”.
Parents were advised to send their children to school with hand luggage including “a gas mask, a change of underclothing, night clothes, house shoes or plimsolls, spare stockings or socks, a toothbrush, a comb, towel, soap and face cloth, handkerchiefs and, if possible, a warm coat or mackintosh”. Newspapers reported the following day, perhaps a little too loyally, that everything had gone without “a hitch”.
The exercise also brought Elliot’s egalitarian instincts to the fore. He was determined, according to his biographer, “that there should be no favouritism and that poor people who had to go by train should be as well looked after as rich people who could go by road”.
Rich people, of course, had more options than those in the inner cities. Some decamped to hotels for the duration of the war; others moved to the Dominions. For the rest, crowded trains and administrative confusion followed the initial uncertainty of the evacuation. Many “reception” areas were overwhelmed.
Nevertheless, Elliot had made a major contribution to Britain’s readiness for war, yet when Churchill replaced Chamberlain as prime minister in May 1940 he was not among its members. Whatever his administrative gifts, Elliot’s mistake in career terms had been his decision not to resign in the late 1930s, something the new premier could not forgive.