This book tells the saga of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board, or CORB. Established by the British government in mid-1940, soon after Dunkirk, the overseas evacuation scheme was a response to the dire threats facing Britain. Yet the scheme was fundamentally flawed. And, despite some benefits and happiness, it led to much personal and family sadness.
In the summer of 1940, Britain stood alone against the might of Nazi Germany. British morale was low, the fear of invasion strong. Responding to heartfelt offers of assistance from the Dominions, the Children’s Overseas Reception Board was hastily set up. Its core aim was to evacuate children to presumed safety in the Dominions: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada.
Innocents Abroad tells the moving story of the children who sailed to Australia: their homesickness, their fears, U-boat threats, the children’s courage and adventures. Based on extensive interviews with 48 adult evacuees made by Edward Stokes, with people then living in Australia and Britain, the book tells of new lives in strange cities – and, for some evacuees, of life in ‘the bush’. For many children there were wonderful loving homes. For some, however, there were bitter years of neglect and exploitation.
As Mum and Dad faded away into the distance I remember thinking, young as I was: “I wonder whether I will ever see them again”.
At the war’s end, most of the evacuees returned to Britain. But some of the older ones stayed on in Australia, and some married there afterwards. Gwenneth Woodger was one such, seen here on her wedding day – with John, her wartime Royal Australian Naval officer.
As the war dragged on, family bonds were stretched – and sometimes broken. When conflict finally ended, many of the children felt more Australian than British. The book explores the psychological troubles this caused. For some evacuees, there were happy homecomings in postwar Britain. For others, their affections and opportunities had shifted to Australia – and many returned there.
“To be torn up from the roots of home life, to be sent away from the family, mostly for the first time in a child’s life, was a surgical rent only to be contemplated as a last resort.”
R.M. Titmuss, History of the Second World War
Edward Stokes’ Innocents Abroad oral history recordings are held by the Australian War Memorial. The interviews can be heard via the AWM website.