Their Finest Hour: Surrey and the Battle of Britain

During September 2010 Surrey History Centre hosted an exhibition remembering the county’s contribution to the Battle of Britain.

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In 1939, Britain was plunged into war; a war which for the first two years threatened her very existence and inflicted on her people the horrors of aerial bombardment. Faced with conscription, rationing and the demands of civil defence, community spirit within the county was exposed to its severest test.

In September 1938 Hitler stood poised to invade Czechoslovakia and Chamberlain flew to Munich to negotiate with him. At home, people threw themselves wholeheartedly into defence arrangements. The ARP supervised the digging of trenches in public parks and requisitioned cellars and basements to serve as air raid shelters. Over 38 million gas masks were issued to adults and children, although none, at this time, for babies.

Although Chamberlain returned from Munich on 30 September declaring Peace for our time, the countrys defences did not stand down. Plans to evacuate the vulnerable populations of London and the naval seaports continued and Britain’s aircraft production now exceeded that of Germany. Such was the public demand for sandbags that it took up the whole of the Scottish jute industry by the end of 1938.

In September 1938, the first plans were made to evacuate children, nursing mothers and the disabled from vulnerable areas such as London, Liverpool and Birmingham. The country was divided into evacuation, neutral and reception areas. Rural areas like Dorking, Woking and Guildford were designated reception areas and groups such as the Women’s Institute and the WVS, began to survey likely billets for the expected hordes of frightened and tired evacuees.

The government anticipated that nearly 5 million school children would be evacuated. In the event, less than half of London’s children left under the government scheme in September 1939. Some families made private arrangements while others simply stayed at home, rejoicing in the fact that there was no school.

As Christmas approached and no bombs fell, many evacuees returned to the cities. This retreat was caused in many cases by homesickness and poverty – parents missed their children but could not afford to visit, send clothes, or even, after the rates went up, post letters.

Evacuation didn’t just affect children. By September 1939, some 3,500,000 to 3,750,000 people had moved from vulnerable to safe areas including staff of government offices and city businesses. An outpost of the Ministry of Supply’s Department of Home Grown Timber was based in Chobham Road, Woking, and Cornhill Insurance moved its head office to Shalford.

For evacuees and their teachers, maintaining a school routine in a strange place was very hard. In Woking, pupils evacuated from three London schools met for classes in St John’s Church Hall, the scout hut and even a private home.

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