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2014 marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Pied Piper — children’s evacuation in England — which began in 1939, shortly before war was declared, and ended in 1944.

Members of the Evacuees Reunion Association have been giving interviews about their own experiences to educate a new generation who might not know much about this aspect of the Second World War in England.

My first post looked at the Association’s president’s experience, that of James Roffey. Yesterday’s was about Jack Hilton‘s.

Today’s discusses the war years of television presenter Michael Aspel, patron of the Association.

At the age of seven, he was sent with his sister Pat, nine, and little brother Alan, four, from Battersea in London to Chard, Somerset. They spent four-and-a-half years there.

It’s hard to believe that something like this could happen today, and let’s hope it never does in future. However, Great Britain was a different place then, with statesmen instead of career politicians. As one man who commented on Aspel’s story says (emphases mine):

I to[o] was an evacuee aged eight and even at that age we realised that a lot of people were dying to keep this country free[;] today our politicans are dying to give the country away.

Aspel recalls a happy time. His foster parents left him a lot of leeway, so he was able to wander around exploring Chard and surrounds. He made friends with the GIs who were billeted nearby; they left him a box of medals and buttons before they left for the Normandy landings.

He also enjoyed school, particularly his teacher, Miss Audrey Guppy. They reunited in the 1960s once he began appearing on national television. She wrote him a letter saying that she’d seen one of his shows. Some years later, they discovered that they lived five minutes apart. From then on, Aspel paid his former teacher weekly visits until her death at age 99.

In December 2008, Aspel and other evacuees were part of the documentary Evacuees Reunited (ITV1). Having read their stories this week, I’m sorry I never watched the programme. Perhaps it is online.

Just before the programme aired, Aspel gave an interview to the Daily Mail in which he described his war years away from home in more detail.

He says that, prior to evacuation — a concept the children didn’t understand — he and his fellow pupils practised walking down the street wearing gas masks. He said the drills were ‘fun, exciting’.

Then, one day, he and his siblings were each buttoned up in their coats and given suitcases.

My mother didn’t come. There was no big goodbye, just a lot of children being led to the station, Pied Piper style, and put onto a train. It was stuffy. Mostly I just remember taking Alan to the loo because he had messed his trousers.

At Chard, the children were herded into a community centre. Aspel has memories similar to that of James Roffey in West Sussex:

People came along and just picked what children they wanted. Most wanted boys, to work in the fields. No one actually came for me. I don’t know why.

He says that nearly every evacuee remembers being the last child chosen by a foster family — a natural misconception probably because it was such a fraught time that every boy and girl felt apprehensive and alone. It wasn’t unusual for siblings to be split up.

His brother and sister went to one family’s home and young Michael to another. Rose and Cyril Grabham agreed to take him in, although they were not at home when he arrived. Aspel recalls sitting in their front room for what seemed a very long time. It was not until later that he realised Mrs Grabham — whom he calls Auntie Rose — was out in the back garden.

The Grabhams’ 19-year old son was fighting in the war. Aspel remembers feeling unsettled the first night he stayed with them. Auntie Rose gave him her son’s toy gun, which helped, and kissed him once — on the forehead the next morning. After the war, he visited them several times and had happy reunions.

Auntie Rose was a good cook. She could skin her own rabbits and make delicious stews.

As for relationships with other children, Aspel recalls that the ‘vaccies’ — as they were called by their peers — often had problems. Some were bullied. Aspel, on the other hand, was one to fight back and had his fair share of scrapes.

He summed up the evacuation experience this way:

‘The thing is, it underlined how much I had been one of the lucky ones,’ he says. ‘Some evacuees had the most dreadful experiences – abused, uncared for, treated in ways that seem horrific today.

‘… much of it was quite wonderful – but it was still a huge deal. Any child going through that today would be offered counselling, at the very least

‘Today, of course, it would be considered barbaric; but we just accepted it, as did our parents in sending us away. They thought they were doing the right thing.’

Back at home in Battersea, he and his father had a highly uneasy relationship for many years. Aspel says that they occasionally threw punches at each other. However, Aspel senior was a good grandfather, at which point father and son made a truce.

Aspel believes that his father was traumatised from his service during the Second World War. Nothing was quite the same afterward and his mother also found the ensuing years highly stressful.

Aspel’s career has been a great one, his name a household word. Today, he is best known for having hosted This Is Your Life and Antiques Roadshow. However, his track record in marriage has been less successful, although he told the Mail that he hesitates to blame that on his post-war home life.

Whatever the case, I am glad that I read his and the other stories from members of the Evacuees Reunion Association. May we never forget what children in wartime went through 70 – 75 years ago.

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