VE Day in London, May 8 1945. Two small girls wave flags in the rubble of Battersea, snapped by an anonymous American photographer. All images © IWM
Celebrities, authors and people with experience of the home front during the Second World War gathered at the Imperial War Museum in London on March 16 for the launch of a major new exhibition.
The Children’s War looks at World War Two through the eyes of British children and is the first major exploration of themes such as evacuation, threat of gas attacks, air raid precautions, rationing, school and work, pastimes and entertainment.
“Because it’s the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War we wanted to focus on the home front in Britain,” explained Curator Angela Godwin. “But the one thing we haven’t looked at, and I don’t think anybody has really looked at, is the experience of children.”
“Pretty well everybody over the age of 65 in Britain will have experiences directly relating to the impact of war but we also hope this exhibition will interest their children; their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren,” she added.
Children are safer in the country...leave them there. A public information poster extolling the virtues of evacuation.
At the launch, former evacuees, Bevin boys and others whose lives were touched by events sixty years ago rubbed shoulders with some familiar faces; including Dad’s Army actor Bill Pertwee, novelist Leslie Thomas and ‘forces sweetheart’ Dame Vera Lynn.
“So little has really been said about the children’s experience of the war,” said Dame Vera, “so to get an exhibition that looks at their stories is wonderful. It’s part of our history.”
“I also think that children should be taught what it would be like to be bundled out of their home, evacuated, sometimes to another country and I think this exhibition will help to do that,” she added.
A female warden carrying a little girl after she had been rescued by a fireman from a house on which a V1 flying bomb had landed in southern England.
Covering two floors, the exhibition boasts a recreation of an Anderson shelter, toys and clothing from the period and numerous interactive screens that encourage visitors of all ages to explore the children’s experience of the conflict.
Numerous Ministry of Information films add to the wartime picture. The exhibition’s centrepiece is a walk-through recreation of an ordinary family house as it would have been during wartime.
Mickey Mouse gas mask issued to younger children. Manufactured in bright colours this type of mask was intended to be less sinister and more attractive than adult versions.
For 87-year-old Linda Barden, who experienced the London Blitz whilst pregnant with her first child, the house brought back some poignant memories.
Standing on the lower ground floor next to the Morrison shelter she said: “It’s absolutely spot on, it’s just as if people were actually living here. I got married in 1937 and this just the kind of fireplace we had.”
“We also had a shelter exactly like this and neighbours of ours survived a bomb-blast because of it. I remember them being pulled out alive. I can’t begin to describe the feelings and memories I am having.”
Further on the exhibition also boasts part of an original prefabricated house – shipped in and reconstructed from Peckham in South London. There is also a recreated schoolroom with desks that children can sit at.
After being evacuated to Ware in Hertfordshire, 11-year-old Jimmy West returned to 'put London right' by joining other east end boys in transforming blitzed areas into allotments.
The exhibition is free and opens to the public on March 18 2005. It will remain at the IWM in London for three years and staff there hope it will provide visitors from all generations with a new way of looking at the Second World War - through the eyes of British children.
“I hope the Children’s War is for everyone because it’s looking at a period of British history that so many people are familiar with but from a different perspective.” added Curator Angela Godwin.
All images © Imperial War Museum.