Britain's Wartime Evacuees Reel History of Britain


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Britain's Wartime Evacuees

Melvyn Bragg reveals incredible footage telling the history of modern Britain. In Torquay, he looks back to the 1940s and wartime evacuation.


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Just over a century ago, the motion camera was invented

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and changed for ever the way we were called our history.

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For the first time, we could see life through the eyes of ordinary people.

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Across this series, we will bring these rare archive films back to life

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with the help of our vintage mobile cinema.

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We'll be inviting people with a story to tell to step on board

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and relive moments they thought were gone for ever.

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They'll see their relatives on screen for the first time,

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come face to face with their younger selves

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and celebrate our amazing 20th-century past.

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This is the people's story, our story.

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Our vintage mobile cinema was originally commissioned in 1967 to show training films to workers.

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Today, it's been lovingly restored

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and loaded up with remarkable film footage, preserved for us

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by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives.

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In this series, we will be travelling to towns and cities across the country

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and showing films from the 20th century that give us the Reel History of Britain.

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Today, we're pulling up in the 1940s.

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-# Wish me luck...

-To hear stories about a time when millions of children

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were evacuated during World War Two.

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# Here I go on my way

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# Wish me luck As you wave me goodbye

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# With a cheer, not a tear

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# Make it gay. #

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Today, we are in Torquay.

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This place was thought to be a safe haven

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for thousands of the millions of children who were evacuated from the great cities

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at the beginning of the Second World War in an operation known as Pied Piper.

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Coming up, EastEnders star Derek Martin relives the terror of the Blitz.

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Mum threw herself on me. Whoof!

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The whole shelter shook like that. We knew it was very close.

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The epic adventure of a runaway evacuee.

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If my mother and father were going to be killed, I wanted to be killed, too,

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you know.

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And the child who survived a torpedo attack by the Nazis.

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They got me and pushed me to go up these steps.

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They threw us into the lifeboat and that was the last I saw of my brother.

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We have come to Torquay in Devon because, in the 1940s,

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it was considered a safe place for children. Evacuees from all over the country

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and airmen from all over the world poured into this small seaside town.

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As a result, around 5,000 evacuees and over 50,000 airmen

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were packed into the hotels and B&Bs that were once reserved for holidaymakers.

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When the grim clouds of war loomed over Britain, the Government knew

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our major cities faced brutal attacks from the German Luftwaffe.

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AIRCRAFT DRONE

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EXPLOSIONS

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BIG BEN TOLLS

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So an evacuation scheme called Operation Pied Piper began on September 1st, 1939,

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two days before war was declared.

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Britons were told there'd be no greater sacrifice

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than to say goodbye to their loved ones and, within days,

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one and a half million civilians, mostly children,

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were transported to places of safety in the countryside.

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The evacuation was an astonishing event

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and the largest mass movement of people in British history.

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We'll be hearing how this experience changed the lives of all those involved.

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My guests today have memories of wartime evacuation

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and they've come from all over the country to share their personal stories.

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Many of them will be seeing the films we are about to screen for the first time.

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They will show photos of their younger selves

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and revealing how the evacuation change their lives for ever.

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Kitty Capitelli has travelled here today from London.

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She grew up in Camberwell, south of the Thames,

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and was evacuated when she was nine years old with her older sisters Mary and Hetty.

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-Can you give us some idea of what happened to you as a girl when you were evacuated?

-Yes, yes.

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I was one of the masses that went off on 1st September 1939,

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which also happened to be my birthday. I was nine years old on that day.

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We were five children in the family, two brothers and three sisters.

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The two brothers were too young to go, so I was sent off with my other two sisters.

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And, on that particular day, we had no idea.

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We had no idea where were we going.

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I thought it was my birthday and I was getting a day out at the seaside.

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-So you thought you were going to the seaside for your birthday?

-Yes. Yes.

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Until I looked round and saw my mother with the baby in her arms

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and my younger brother holding on, crying.

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I realised, "What is she crying for? Why is she crying?"

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That was the original journey.

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We are about to wind the clock back 70 years for Kitty.

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She is going to watch other wartime evacuees leaving their families behind,

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just as she did all those years ago.

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These films will take Kitty back to that day on 1st September

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when she was put on a train bound for Ipswich.

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It made me quite sad, really. Actually, to tell you the truth,

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watching that film, I felt like waving.

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It was all I could do to stop waving to them,

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or waving goodbye to the family again.

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You were taken, transported back that far, too feel you've got to wave to your mother.

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Like Kitty, most evacuees had little idea where they were going or when they would return,

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and many were separated from their siblings.

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When Kitty and her sisters reached Ipswich, they, too, were parted

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and only Kitty and her elder sister Hetty stayed together.

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Eventually, somebody came and said, "I'll take them too."

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We were driven off in this huge car.

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We got to this lovely, big house. We thought, "Oh, we're all right here."

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It turned out to be the house of a Lord and Lady.

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We got to the house. They said, "That's your room down there."

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It was a basement room.

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There were two mattresses there, a pillow at one end

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and a folded army blanket at the other.

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And we thought, "Oh my God, this is awful. Why are we here?"

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Evacuees were sometimes chosen for a specific purpose.

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Strong boys would help on farms

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and girls were expected to help with the housework.

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Some, like Kitty, were made to work very hard.

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The format was then, at 5 o'clock every morning, we were made to get up

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and they had a long trestle table in the kitchen

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with all this silverware, like cloches and huge trays

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and knives and forks.

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And my sister and I had to polish this up before we went to school.

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We were always late, always late.

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And they didn't really take to evacuees, the school.

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We got the cane practically every morning. Three whacks on each hand.

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And then the bombing in London hadn't occurred up to then,

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so my mother thought... Like most people, a lot of the evacuees went back home.

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By the spring of 1940, no bombs had dropped

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and 80 per cent of evacuees, like Kitty, returned home.

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This became known as the Phoney War.

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As war progressed, Kitty received terrible news about her father.

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-I picked it up. It was in a brown envelope.

-Yeah.

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My mother was in the kitchen and I picked it up

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and I said my mother, "It's a letter, it's got OHMS on it."

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She said, "All right." I said, "What does that mean?" She said, "I don't know, just open it and read it."

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And I actually had to read this to her.

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I didn't realise, you know, the significance of it.

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My mother was making tea. She had her back to me.

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That was the latter. That was the letter we had. SHE SOBS

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That was sad, because that was the end of my...

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You know, I adored my father. It happened to so many people.

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Kitty's father died in Italy.

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She was one of 200,000 children who lost their fathers during World War Two.

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These were traumatic times. But my next guest found the war changed his life for the better.

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Gordon Abbott, from Milton Keynes, went from city boy to farmer's son

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when he was evacuated from Battersea in London at the age of seven.

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-Tell us where you landed up and what it was like.

-Yes.

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I was very fortunate.

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I eventually was billeted with a farmer

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and his wife who had no children of their own.

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They were brought up in Devon

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in a farming community for several generations.

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They were very strict, Victorian upbringing,

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but, for whatever reason, I settled in extremely well,

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solely because I was very much part of the family from the outset.

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Evacuation was a heart-wrenching decision for most families.

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Gordon is about to watch a film that was made to persuade parents like his

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to send their children away.

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SIGNATURE TUNE

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This film, called Westward Ho!, shows happy children being efficiently evacuated

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to the safety of Torquay.

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"These children are setting out on what is to them a great adventure."

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"The train that is carrying them away will not be machine-gunned from the air."

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"It even takes with it the spirit of holiday."

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Like the children in this film, Gordon was also sent to the West Country.

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Watching it will take him back to the days he lived with Mr and Mrs Newton

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-on their farm near Bude in Cornwall.

-I was introduced as a member of the family.

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If I can just say this, this is important, dear Uncle,

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whenever he introduced me to his friends, with his Devon-Cornish accent,

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he would say something to the effect,

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CORNISH ACCENT: "Let me introduce thee, then." "This is Gordon, my little evacuee."

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And he'd say that every time, bless him.

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Mr and Mrs Newton treated Gordon like the son they never had.

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All their love and affection was showered on him.

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But, after five years, it was time to say goodbye.

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I remember clearly the time that I had to return back to London.

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That was the first time ever I saw Uncle cry.

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He was crying, Auntie was crying and I was crying.

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Here I was saying goodbye.

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And Gordon couldn't readjust to city life.

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And fortunately for me, my mother realised, I am sure,

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that I was really unhappy.

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I must have said, "I wish I was back with Auntie and Uncle again."

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And, fortunately, arrangements were made and I returned back to live with Auntie and Uncle

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within about a few months.

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Gordon spent the remainder of his childhood in the country.

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Torquay has changed a lot since the 1940s,

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but one person who remembers it vividly as it was when the evacuees came here

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is local resident Rosemary Firch.

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Rosemary wasn't an evacuee. She's lived in Torquay all her life.

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She was ten when the children from the blitzed cities of Bristol and London arrived in the town.

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She is pictured here, with her father,

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at an evacuee Christmas party at the Town Hall.

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Both of them would soon find out that Torquay wasn't safe at all.

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-That was the irony?

-Yes.

-They'd been sent here to be safe and Torquay was bombed.

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Yes, absolutely.

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Torquay suffered a total of 21 hit-and-run air raids by the German Luftwaffe,

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who targeted the town because of its munitions factories and hotels,

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where 55,000 airmen were stationed.

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One of the worst came on Sunday, May 30th, 1943,

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and it's a day that Rosemary will never forget.

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I was sitting on Oddicombe Beach at the time

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and we saw this line of black dots coming in.

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They looked as if they were just above sea level.

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I thought the plane was going to go into the cliff.

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And then, after that, there was this terrific explosion as we knew the bombs were dropping.

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There was a direct hit on the church hall of St Mary's at nearby Babbacombe,

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where a Sunday school was being held.

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21 children lost their lives.

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My mother, who was in the St John's Ambulance,

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had gone up to the church.

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She was one of the people who helped to bring those children out

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from the rubble and carry them across the road

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to a first-aid station that they set up in the hotel across the road.

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She lived until she was 101 and, do you know,

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she'd lost her memory at the end, but whenever she saw that picture of that church,

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the whole horror of that story came back to her.

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It was a great tragedy.

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On Reel History today, we're in Torquay on the South Coast,

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hearing some remarkable true stories of how wartime evacuation changed children's lives for ever.

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My next guest is 80-year-old Bunty Tait from Cornwall.

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Bunty grow up in Old Coulsdon, Greater London.

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She was a remarkable 11-year old

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who embarked on an incredible journey to be reunited with her parents.

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A lot of us were crying our eyes out. We did not want to go.

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If my mother and father were going to be killed, I wanted to be killed, too,

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you know?

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Bunty is about to step on board and be taken back to remember the time

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she was evacuated to Tyldesley in Lancashire.

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How will she feel about going back

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to the sort of place she ran away from all those years ago?

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I insisted that I had to stay with my sister

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and we were billeted on two spinster ladies.

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And we thought they were about 100. They were probably in their 50s.

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And from that moment on, we were hungry.

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Day after day, we were hungry, because they didn't know how to feed us.

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Watching these films reminds Bunty how desperately homesick she was.

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Everything had to be cleared away at night, locked in cupboards.

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We never played games with them like we'd do with Mum and Dad.

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We only listened to Children's Hour.

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Never went running about the streets like we did at home.

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It was... It was difficult.

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I thought, "I'm not putting up with this, what can I do?"

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So I wrote home.

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-GIRL'S VOICE:

-"Dear Mummy, this is only a short note,

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"just to ask you for some money."

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I used to write weekly, asking for money.

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And then I thought, "If I'm careful with this money,

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"I could save it up and get home."

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That took a long time.

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"We've only just about six shillings left for Monday.

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"I don't know what I'll do after Monday.

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"All my love to Daddy and you, Bunty."

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Hundreds of homesick evacuees ran away and returned home.

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Bunty and her sister were two of them.

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One day, the sisters just walked out of the house,

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leaving most of their belongings and a note for the two ladies.

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I remember the note. I just said, "I'm sorry, we've gone home."

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And I never got back to them to apologise. Isn't that awful?

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Incredibly, these two young girls safely completed

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the 200-mile epic journey from Lancashire to London.

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My sister was dragging her heels a bit by now. She was very tired.

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And we went into the shop, which was open.

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My father was behind the counter,

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in front of all the cigarettes, and he was a very big man, my father.

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And, erm, he went black, he went blue,

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he went red, and then he went white.

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Perhaps I'm making that up, but I was... I thought he was going to kill me, just by the look of him.

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Didn't come near. Just by looking, "He's going to kill me!"

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He didn't, of course. He came over and hugged us. "What the hell...?"

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"What the bloody hell are you doing here?! How did you get here?! Who brought you?!"

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I think that toughened me up for the rest of my life.

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I still cry when I think about evacuation.

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They shouldn't take children away from their mothers and fathers,

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when they're that age.

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Nothing would stop Bunty from being with her parents.

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Her story is quite remarkable.

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Next, I'm meeting someone who was lucky enough to be evacuated with his mother - Derek Martin,

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best known for playing Charlie Slater in EastEnders.

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Derek grow up as an only child of the East End of London.

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His father, a fireman, insisted he should be evacuated with his mum at the age of seven.

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When were you evacuated?

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Early 1940, when the Blitz was starting and really at its height.

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And, er, my mum and me were shipped off.

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My father had to stay in London,

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because he was in the National Fire Service.

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So we were shipped off to Hereford.

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My mum said later on they were a very nice family.

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A man and his wife, a daughter of 13 and a boy at my age, seven.

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But, to be honest, I hated it.

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I hated it, because it was out of my familiarity.

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How can I say without swearing? I was being a little swine!

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Only child, I didn't have any brothers or sisters and I missed my dad.

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And after three or four months, Mum said, "I've had enough.

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"I'd sooner face the Blitz than face this every day."

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So Derek and his mother returned to London for the remainder of the war.

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Although the family were happily reunited,

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they faced 76 consecutive nights of aerial bombardment.

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What sort of London did you go back to?

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I went back to the Blitz again. The bombs.

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6 o'clock, down the shelter, set the candles.

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That's why I can't stand candles.

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If I take a lady out for dinner, I blow the candles out immediately.

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Because the smell brings back the shelters, in the Anderson shelter.

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Then, four months after we got back, a direct hit on the house,

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which was only 50ft from where we were in the Anderson shelter at the end of the garden.

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That bomb, it starts off at a high-pitched whistle.

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HE WHISTLES

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It ends up, whoosh, a rush of air, and Mum threw herself on me.

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You could feel it was going... Whoof! The shelter shook like that.

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We knew it was very close.

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And then we looked over and you could see the spars and it was alight.

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So you knew it had hit the house. But you got used to it.

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Derek and his family had a lucky escape.

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15,000 people were killed in London and, across the country,

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40,000 other civilians were killed during the Blitz.

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So it's no wonder parents often went to remarkable lengths to ensure the safety of their children.

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It might seem incredible that some shipped them away as far away as Australia and Canada.

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The Children's Overseas Reception Board evacuated just over 2,500 children.

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I'm off to meet one of those sea evacuees.

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Whatever they could spare...

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'83-year-old Derek Capel has travelled here today from Yeovil.

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'He was a 12-year-old sea evacuee in 1940 when his parents decided to send him,

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'along with his five-year old brother Alan, to Canada.'

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Why did your parents want to send you to Canada?

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Well, because there was a distant Jewish connection with my family.

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At the time, in 1940, there was talk of a German invasion.

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My mother had this great fear, because she realised what was happening

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to the Jews in the rest of Europe with the Nazis,

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and she decided that the best thing for us,

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the two of us, my brother and myself, was to go abroad, out of it all.

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Derek is about to see film archive of another sea crossing

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that will remind him of Friday, 13th September, 1940.

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On that day, he and his brother Alan said their goodbyes

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along with 90 other sea evacuees at Liverpool

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before boarding his ship, the SS City of Benares.

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It was one of the 19-strong convoy bound for North America.

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It was Derek's responsibility to look after his younger brother.

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I had strict orders to look after him, and so I did.

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And he was my best friend. I taught him at five.

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He could tie up his shoelaces, he could read.

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He would read his comic and I would read my comic.

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For the first 300 miles, the Royal Navy protected the convoy,

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but lurking beneath the surface of the Atlantic were German U-boats,

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criss-crossing the waters, looking for British ships to attack.

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Four nights into the voyage, a torpedo was fired at the SS City of Benares

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while Derek and his brother Alan were in their bunks.

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That night, for the first time, we were told we all had to have baths, so we all had baths.

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We were all in bed lovely and comfortable at 9 o'clock at night.

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And then, we were asleep, my brother was comfortable, I was comfortable.

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About quarter past ten, there was a great big, hollow boom.

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I got my brother out. We were in pitch darkness. There was water leaking.

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We could hear water sprang, everything like that.

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A torpedo had struck the stern and the ship started to sink rapidly.

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Derek and Alan knew the drill and followed the emergency lights to the deck.

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We went to our lifeboat, which was the last lifeboat on the thing. We went up there.

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The first couple went up.

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I was looking after, hanging on to my brother. Because he was only five years old.

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And then they grabbed me out of his hands and pushed me to go up these steps.

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Went up the steps and they threw us into the lifeboat.

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That was the last I saw of my brother.

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Once separated from his brother,

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Derek was put in lifeboat 12, the last to be lowered into the icy waters.

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In the chaos of a Force 10 storm, the lifeboat got separated from the other survivors

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and drifted helplessly for eight days.

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I was constantly thinking about my brother

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because I didn't know what had happened to him.

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Suddenly, somebody said, "A plane." We didn't expect anything like that.

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After being spotted by a British seaplane,

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the survivors were rescued by HMS Anthony and taken to Glasgow.

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Derek was one of the lucky ones - 77 of the 90 evacuees had perished at sea.

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After this tragedy, no more children were sent abroad.

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-NEWSREEL:

-"After being found by an RAF flying boat,

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"more survivors of the torpedoed City of Benares reach port aboard a warship."

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Today, Derek is watching his 12-year-old self in this newsreel for the very first time.

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"The youngsters were marvellously looked after by one of the escorts, Miss Cornish,

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"a London music teacher. That the boys are none the worse for their adventure,

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"seems to be proved by this bedtime picture."

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Derek spent 60 years wondering what actually happened to his five-year-old brother.

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Then, at a memorial service in 2000, he met an ex-sailor from HMS Hurricane,

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who helped rescue survivors in the first 24 hours.

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He came up and said, "I was coxswain on the Hurricane,"

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which was the ship that picked up the children on the first days.

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He said, "We picked your brother up."

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He said, "We picked three boys up, all little ones, but they were all asleep when..."

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"We couldn't wake them up." And so that was it.

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He said, "At their funerals..." He said, "They were buried at sea."

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"At their funerals, 90% of the crew went to the funerals

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"and the 10% who had to be on duty, were on duty,

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"but 100% of the crew were in tears."

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That really touched me, you know.

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Derek's harrowing childhood experience has left an indelible mark on his life.

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I could never cuddle anyone,

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because the last one I gave a cuddle to was my brother.

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You see, I was holding him, around me, like that.

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And so I've felt sorry for everybody I've met since, including my son.

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Because I've always had that fear, it's always been there,

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that if you hang on to them too tight, you lose them.

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You know, it's a horrible feeling.

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Britain's evacuation scheme officially came to an end in March 1946,

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although many had returned home sooner.

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The Second World War is one of the most extraordinary periods in our history,

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and perhaps in world history, and we did send away 3.5 million children to protect the future.

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Hopefully, these stories we have heard today will serve as some sort of tribute

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to all those evacuees and their parents

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who made such a tremendous sacrifice for this country.

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Next time on Reel History...

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..we're in London's Soho in the 1950s,

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remembering the teenager and the Teddy Boy.

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-I never really got a Teddy Boy, did you?

-Yeah, I went...

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I had a date with one once, but I never went again.

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LAUGHTER

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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E-mail [email protected]

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Melvyn Bragg, accompanied by a vintage mobile cinema, travels across the country to show incredible footage preserved by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives, to tell the history of modern Britain.

In Torquay, Melvyn looks back to the 1940s and the largest mass movement of people in British history - wartime evacuation. Bunty Tait shares her epic adventure as a runaway evacuee. EastEnders star Derek Martin tells stories of his time as an evacuee, and relives the terror of the Blitz. And Derek Capel recounts his harrowing experience of surviving a torpedo attack by the Nazis when he was evacuated overseas.