Among the most heart-rending images of World War II are the photos taken of children in railway stations, forlornly clutching teddy bears and child-sized gas masks, waiting patiently for the train to come and take them to safety.
Nearly two million British children were evacuated from their homes during the war. Those who didn’t leave were in imminent danger, because out of every ten deaths during the ferocious, year-long German bombing raid known as the Blitz, one was a child.
Children were particularly affected during World War II because they were caught up in a nightmare of destruction, loss, deprivation and dislocation that was impossible for them to comprehend. In hindsight, the war years were a time of inspired patriotism and noble gallantry, but in reality the war years were filled with death, despair, starvation and want.
In Europe, the situation was particularly dire for children in Nazi-occupied countries. While Jewish children were sent to die in concentration camps, the rest of the young population was subjected to the new Nazi indoctrination methods that were implemented in the schools. Even for those fortunate enough to be spared from the notorious death camps, there was deprivation on a wide-spread scale, as nearly every type of food was severely rationed, and new clothing was virtually unavailable. Every product, from farming produce to industrial material, was being requisitioned for Hitler’s army, and the population was left to do without and, in some cases, starve.
As England resisted a Nazi occupation, the British also began to tighten their collective belts against hunger. With everything going toward the Allied war effort, the British government tried to make compassionate concessions for children by allowing them an allotment, whenever available, of impossible-to-find items such as oranges and fresh fruit, as well as necessities such as milk.
The British government also tried to make things as normal as possible for children under the circumstances. Schools continued to be open, but after the Blitz began the schools in the danger zones of metropolitan London were closed, leaving thousands of ‘latchkey kids’ to fend for themselves during the day while their fathers were at war and their mothers were at work in munitions factories. Although most entertainment venues were closed, a few cinemas remained open in spite of the Blitz.
After the Blitz ended at the end of 1941, the British homefront became safer for civilians. This relief was short-lived, however, because in 1944 Hitler launched his final bombing attacks on Britain, releasing his infamous V-1 and V-2 bombs on the population. Once again, children at danger were evacuated into areas of safety.
Throughout the duration of the war, few manufacturers continued to produce toys, although they were made on a very limited scale and manufactured only from readily-available materials that weren’t needed for the war effort. Teddy bears once made of luxurious mohair were now made of more common materials, and traditional cloth and rag dolls began to replace their celluloid and composition counterparts. Manufacturers even made children’s gas masks with removable teddy bears on the side, in an effort to mitigate some of the horror and fear produced by the sight of these sinister-looking objects.
In America, children for the most part didn’t live under the imminent threat of invasion, although families growing up in coastal areas lived in a state of heightened security, knowing that their region was more vulnerable to invasion than the rest of the country. In order to supply the troops with much-needed food and war materials, America imposed strict rationing throughout the war year, although it wasn’t nearly as strict as the rationing in Europe.
Many historians have noted that children were, indeed, the forgotten victims of the Second World War. These were the children who, in their most vulnerable, impressionable years, lost their innocence and were robbed of their childhood by the brutality of slaughter and warfare.
CC image (put up on the London Underground during the war) source from Wiki