Today, Friday 8th May 2020, marks 75 years since VE Day, the day on which the Allied Forces formally announced the surrender of Germany bringing the Second World War to an end in Europe. As the nation commemorates this occasion, it is important to reflect upon the impact of the war on children and young people.
There can be no doubt that children and young people were enormously affected by the Second World War; their lives impacted in immeasurable ways.
The threat of bombings saw almost two million children evacuated from their homes in towns and cities to places of safety in rural areas. Stories of evacuation reveal mixed feelings about the experience with some children viewing it as an exciting adventure whilst others longed for home. Evacuation was voluntary and many children stayed in cities and towns to support and care for their families. The risk of staying put in some areas was very real, with children accounting for one in ten deaths during the Blitz of London from 1940 to 1941.
Schooling too was a locus of change during the Second World War and education undoubtedly suffered. One in five school buildings was damaged by bombings whilst some 2,000 school buildings were requisitioned for use by the government, resulting in lessons being held in unusual locations from chapels to pubs and even outdoors during the summer months. It was not only suitable locations for lessons that were often hard to come by, there was also a shortage of teachers, school books, stationary, and other equipment.
Children and young people were also expected to play their part in the war effort. Many older children joined the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides carrying out supporting roles such as messengers or firewatchers for Air Raid Precautions, whilst many boys over 17 joined the Home Guard to help defend towns against expected invasion. Younger children also had a role to play; helping salvage war materials, knitting comforts for troops, and helping ‘Dig for Victory’ growing produce in allotments and gardens.
Many young people between the ages of 14-17 were in fact in full-time employment during the war, often working in industries crucial to the war effort such as aircraft production, shipbuilding, engineering, and vehicle manufacture. From 1941, all young people between the ages of 16 and 18 had to register for national service, with boys being called up to join the Armed Forces at 18 and girls conscripted to join one of the women’s auxiliary services or undertake other work essential to the war effort.
The end of the war brought major changes for children and young people too. For some it was a joyous occasion, the reunion with families bringing to an end a significant period of fear and uncertainty. For others it was a time of turmoil, returning from remote rural locations to busy cities and families that they sometimes scarcely remembered following years of separation. The return of fathers from war was for some children, who had never known them, like that of a stranger. For those children and young people who had lost loved ones or their homes during the war, life was changed irrevocably. The disruption to family life inflicted by the war was indeed felt long after victory was declared.
In reflecting upon some of the challenges faced by children during the Second World War, it’s important to remember that some of these continue to face children and young people in Armed Forces families today. The children and young people engaging in our Youth Participation Project have told us that being part of an Armed Forces family can be a hugely rewarding experience. However, they have told us that it can also be tough and that they can face a range of challenges including coping with parental absence during deployment, high levels of mobility, disruption to education, and in some cases the injury or death of a parent. As Scotland’s Armed Forces Children’s Charity, here at RCET we work tirelessly to support, empower, and advocate for children and young people in Armed Forces families with the aim of enabling each and every Armed Forces child and young person to overcome these challenges, reach their full potential, and truly thrive.