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On The Move

Randolph Belsey, aged 9, of Gordon Road Margate Kent saying farewell
to his parents as he set off for Salmestone School that June morning

AS, Rightly, the commemorations of the evacuation of the Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk dominate the news, her in Thanet there is a second date forever etched upon the memories of many of the older generation of Thanet people - Sunday, June 2 1940.

The German armies had entered the Low Countries and France with a seemingly unstoppable force on May 10, 1940, the day that the Whitsun holidays began for Thanet schoolchildren.

Events moved very rapidly and very frighteningly. By May 26 it was clear that all French resistance had collapsed; at 6.57pm the Admiralty gave the signal for Operation Dynamo to commence.

At 2.40am on May 27 the Thanet part of the operation stared and vessels of every kind assembled off Ramsgate. By the next day the ships, with their precious cargoes of exhausted troops, began to arrive.

On Monday, May 27, 1940, the same day that Operation Dynamo began, letters were sent out to all parents of children in state schools in Thanet Kent, informing them that evacuation would take place on June 2 or within a day or two of that date. In that letter parents were told starkly that if they did not register their children by 10am on May 29 1940, it might be too late.

Instructions were given regarding the preparations and arrangements. Today, to us, they seem impossibly harsh for parents of children who might be as young as five, but this was wartime and feelings could not always be accommodated.

Instructions of what should be packed, ideally in a rucksack, and what the children were to wear were given.

Photographs show them dressed in warm clothing, wearing a coat or mackintosh, strong boots or shoes and long socks. Bear in mind that this was June.

Each child was to carry its gas mask and identity card and food for the day and each would have an identity tag tied to its person - these were simple brown luggage labels. Parents could take the child to their school, but not proceed beyond the playground.

Children would be bussed from their school to Ramsgate, Broadstairs or Margate stations and under no circumstances would parents be allowed on the railway station. They would not be told where their children were going, but each child would be issued with a stamped postcard to send as soon as he or she was settled.

Children of 12,11 or even 10 were put in charge of younger siblings by their mothers, with strict instructions that they must stay together, which often proved impossible, when they arrived at their destinations, for few people would be willing to take more than two evacuees.

Children traveled with their own schools, so siblings attending different schools were split up even before the journey began. Some siblings would be many miles from each other and not be able to meet or communicate except by letter for many months even years.

Staffordshire was the destination of the evacuation trains that Sunday morning. There had for many years before the war been a through service between Birckenhead and Thanet via the Midlands, which made it unnecessary to go through London.

The journey was long, because on arrival at the major stations in Stafford, it was often necessary to have another bus journey to the village or small town where a particular school was to be billeted. Then came the trauma of waiting to be chosen. Some tired, bewildered little children waited for what seemed eternity before a host would come forward to take them into their home.

Thanet children came from a part of the country which was on the edge of their world, close to the sea. Most then found themselves in a totally differ4ent environment in the heart of England, either being billeted with a mining family or in a small, remote village with no "mod-cons", but a lot of cows, chickens and pigs.