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Scots evacuees remember dramatic World War II operation


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Scots evacuees remember dramatic World War II operation
Aug 29 2009 Lesley Roberts

THEY called it Operation Pied Piper, an unprecendented mass evacuation plan to move three million British children away from the threat of Nazi air raids.
Parents were so terrified of the imminent war with Germany that they agreed to pack their children off to countryside "safe houses" to live with strangers.
And in the space of just three days - starting on September 1, 1939 - hundreds of thousands of kids were herded on to trains and taken miles from home, away from the bombers and away from their families.
On Tuesday, 70 years to the day since it all began, more than 2000 former evacuees from all over Britain will gather at St Paul's Cathedral, in London, to mark the anniversary.
Their numbers are rapidly dwindling as old age claims the ones Hitler failed to get. But those Scottish evacuees who remain - such as former teacher Helen McLullich, 93, or wartime schoolgirl Betty McCormick, 75 - believe the experience changed their lives forever.
Their memories will never fade.
Helen - who led a school of kids from Glasgow's Gallowgate, one of the poorest parts of the city, to be billeted in rural Perthshire - said: "I always say it was the best of times and the worst of times.
"The children in my class came from single ends in Glasgow and they ended up in big houses in Aberfeldy.
"They were terrified when we first arrived.We got off the train and the place was swarming with bees and insects, as the countryside is.
"But you didn't get many bees in the Gallowgate. There weren't even any gardens. The children were so scared.
"They settled down, though. They were poor but they were good children. I loved them."
It's unimagineable to today's parents, who can't let their kids out of their sight, that nearly 170,000 Scottish schoolchildren were evacuated from their homes in towns and cities considered likely German targets.
They went from the crowded city centres of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, the naval port of Rosyth and Clydebank, where the crucial shipyards and munitions factories were high on the Nazi hit list.
By the time Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain officially declared war on Nazi Germany on September 3, hundreds of thousands of kids who'd barely been further than the end of their own street were already starting a new life in the country.
Helen, then Helen McCall, was23 and a newly qualified teacher working in the povertystricken east end of Glasgow.
Every morning, she'd catch trams to her school, Camlachie Primary, in an area of grim tenement closes where large families were cramped into one room flats.
She said: "The children at Camlachie slept in recess beds in the kitchen, along with their parents.
"They had only cold running water and outside toilets. It was a very poor area but most areas were poor then.
"A lot of the children had fathers who were off fighting in the war, so their mothers would take work to get a bit of extra money. Some of them would light the gas lamps in the streets every night for a few bob.
"They must have been a bit of a surprise to the people of Aberfeldy. Some of them were taken in by very wealthy people, who treated them as their own.
"I remember a couple of girls being taken out shopping for party dresses because they were being invited to so many parties. They were so excited. They'd never had a party dress before."
Helen was enjoying a summer holiday with her fiance's family in Tarbert, Argyll, when a radio broadcast demanded teachers return immediately to evacuating schools across Scotland.
She was to take part in the evacuation of the kids from her school and would be relocated with them to an as yet undisclosed destination.
She added: "It was sad watching them get on the train. Only the parents who were travelling with us were allowed on the platform at Parkhead railway station.
"A few mums with pre-school age children, and one who was expecting, were allowed to come with us but most had to stay behind. It was very hard."
Government instructions of the time were that each evacuated child should take one small bag of belongings and their regulation gas mask.
Parents were to pack for them - a change of socks and underwear (if possible), nightwear and a toothbrush (if possible), a tin cup and enough food to last a day.
They were told to hold the hands of siblings so they didn't get separated.
Railway station signs had been blacked out - a precautionarymeasure in case of German invasion - so there were few clues along the route of the ultimate destination.
For youngsters like Betty, then Betty Sawers, aged five and clinging to her big sister Jean, it was probably just as well they didn't know.
She said: "We were leaving from DundasVale Primary, in Cowcaddens, and we ended up in Perth. But when we got there, the people who were supposed to be looking after us weren't ready.
"So Jean and I and a group of other kids were sent to live on a farm for a while and we had to sleep on straw in the barn.
"Both me and Jean caught scabies while we were living there and ended up in hospital for treatment.
"I remember being given an iodine bath and it really stung."
In Aberfeldy, Helen was trying to help her pupils settle into their new surroundings, although the regime of well-heeled country folk wasn't going down well with some Camlachie kids.
She said: "On the first night there, the town provost came to the place where I was billeted and asked me to see to the boy he was looking after.
"He had climbed out a window and was up on the roof, refusing to come down.
"He was shouting, 'Help, help. They're trying to droonme'. He was in a terrible panic, close to tears.
"It turned out the provost had run a bath for him and he'd never had a proper bath before.
"At home, they had a communal tin tub that they shared with all the other families in the close.
"The fields and the country animals were all new to our children too. They used to shout to the farmer, 'Mister, they coos are eating all your grass'."
When lessons were due to begin in the town hall, one Camlachie pupil failed to turn up for class.
Helen said: "I asked if anyone knew where he was and his friend said, 'He's walking hame,Miss'.
"We had to get the police out to find him and he was miles down a country road trying to make his way back to the Gallowgate."
Betty and her sister were eventually billeted in a large sandstone house in Perth with 16 other evacuee children from all over Scotland.
They were to stay there for the duration of the war.
She said: "It looked like a mansion to me at the time.
"I remember it had a huge attic with lots of passage-ways and we would all play in them together.
"We'd lived with our gran in a roomand-kitchen in Cowcaddens, so it couldn't have been more different.
"Mymum died young and my dad was away to war.My younger brother, George and another sister May, were still at home in Glasgow with gran.
"George was only two and too young to be evacuated andMay was too old. I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if Jean and I had stayed too. It split up our family.
"By the time we came back, we didn't have much in common with our brother. My dad had returned from war but he'd started a new life without us too. Evacuation changed things a lot for us. I still wonder if things would have been different if we hadn't gone."
As the months wore on, may Scottish kids drifted back to their homes, preferring to face the threat of bombs with their families.
Of the 170,000 evacuated in September 1939, 130,000 had returned to their real homes by January 1940.
When the Clydebank Blitz began in March 1941, only 20.000 Scottish children were still evacuated.
Tragically, many who had originally been moved out of Clydebank were back living with their families in the very houses that were destroyed by the German Luftwaffe.
But the bombing prompted a new evacuation and another 58,000 kids were moved out of danger zones, at least until the immediate threat had passed.
Helen stayed in Aberfeldy with the Camlachie children for 18 months, before shepherding them back to Glasgow. She is now living in a nursing home in Perthshire.
She's too frail to make the journey to London for the memorial service but she's written a book about her wartime experiences, Images Through the Mists of Time, as her way of keeping the memories alive for future generations.
She said: "By the time we left Aberfeldy, it was difficult to tell the Camlachie children from the locals."
Betty, who now lives in Pollokshields, Glasgow, became so intrigued by her evacuation years that she started her own research into what went on.
She has since joined the Evacuees Reunion Association, a UK-wide group, and she's travelling down to London for the St Paul's event, determined to fly the flag for Scottish evacuees.
She said: "When people talk about the war evacuation, they don't mention Scotland. Everyone thinks of the London evacuees .
"My sister and I didn't really talk about it with each other and when she died a few years ago, I realised I didn't know asmuch as I should.
"She would have remembered more than me because she was a couple of years older. But you don't think of these things until it's too late.
"That's why I'm going with my daughter Elizabeth to the anniversary service. I've told my children and my grandchildren what happened to me.
"I think it's really important people know what went on."

There were also "Seaevacuees", many of whom came to Canada:
The late cartoonist Ben Wicks wrote a book titled, "No Time to Wave Good-bye: True Stories Of Britain's 3,500,000 Evacuees."