The darkness of war had descended on England in September 1940. The German Luftwaffe attacks on Liverpool, this incalculably important port city, were leaving significant collateral damage already.
This is the reality that the Jim and Elsie Wilde family faced. Jim was recently transferred to Grantham from North London and was well aware that more perilous times were ahead. An aunt in Canada had offered to take their sons, Douglas, 9, and Peter, 7, so the family completed the Children Overseas Reception Board application. Their sister, Pauline, was too old to qualify.
The British Parliament first discussed evacuation of children from high risk areas in early May 1940. Following the Dunkirk withdrawal of troops, CORB came into operation and from June to September, a total of 2,664 children were evacuated. Private agencies and companies sent another 14,000 away from danger but it was not without risks.
Standing on a wind-swept railway station at Grantham Lincolnshire waiting for the train to Liverpool, the brothers were dressed in their school uniform of a white shirt, grey jumper and short trousers and navy overcoat.
They carried gas masks with the obligatory name label attached. They were Douglas Wilde CORB No. 5339 and Peter Wilde CORB No. 5340 and each had a suitcase with the yellow CORB label affixed.
“We were going cross-country to Liverpool. I can’t remember the goodbyes or much of the journey except for two things. We had a long stop in a tunnel not far from our destination, and reaching Liverpool we had to go into an air raid shelter due to a raid. We eventually arrived at our destination near the dock and were housed in a reception centre to await the CORB ship,” wrote Douglas in The Evacuee memoir in 2003.
It makes no mention of how difficult it must have been for the rest of the family. Jim and Elsie must have felt great distress hearing of the sinking of the City of Benares as part of the convoy O B 213 that left on Sept. 13.
“The actual details of date of sailing and port of embarkation were not released due to wartime security. Our parents were in the dark as to whether we were on it or not. Remember, we left Grantham in early September and the report of the sinking was reported in the press on the 23rd September. Had it not been for our delay in the tunnel and the air raid in Liverpool, we would have been on the City of Benares,” wrote Douglas.
Instead, they sailed on the Nova Scotia.
“Our names were found to have been added at the end on a supplementary list. When the facts of this discovery began to sink in, it was a weird and very emotional experience. To think that fate had decided we were literally to have missed the boat and made our journey some eight days later,” he wrote.
Life on board the ship, with just a few escorts, could have been like a strange vacation or an adventure. Without a lot of supervision and the company of other children, the days could have flown by if you weren’t seasick or homesick.
The danger likely didn’t seem real and the reality of the trip was only beginning to sink in for the brothers.
“We had been out some four days by this time, we had a call to boat stations. … What we took for granted as another boat drill was in fact the real thing. A U boat 43 piloted by Capt. Ambrosius had torpedoed a ship called the Sularia. This was at 12.30 BST while she was sailing astern of us and some way behind. At our boat station and facing out to sea, we were looking at the hospital ship.
“In a matter of moments, it surged forward disappearing in the distance. Some time passed but what we saw next gave us a fright as, facing our boat station beyond and to the rear of where the hospital ship had been sailing, I can vividly remember seeing a ship sinking in the distance. This was probably the Eurymedon. It was hit by U29 with Capt. Schuart at 13.05 BST. We being a faster ship than many freighters in the convoy, we steamed off on our own.”
On Oct. 31, British children ranging in age from five to 15 stepped ashore in Canada. Most were bound for Nova Scotia homes, with the two boys joining relatives in Winnipeg. They travelled by train on the Canadian National Railway line.
“We travelled in open carriages and went to the dining car for meals. We had individual sleepers (bunks) but used the general washroom. The curtained bunks were set length ways in the carriages and were made up each night by Negro porters. This was quite a novelty as we had never seen a Negro before.”
They arrived at Winnipeg on Oct. 7 expecting to stay with their father’s aunt, Hilda Barton Smyth, and her husband at Eriksdale, Man. She was elderly and had been taken ill so they stayed in a hostel awaiting another placement.
Les and Blanche Kerr had read an ad in a newspaper that implored Canadians to take in evacuee children. Since they had no family of their own, they applied for one child. At the time, they were living in Morden, Man., where Les was the manager of the Morden Experimental Station. The site was one mile from town and gave the boys a taste of rural life as well as small town living in a tiny bungalow.
“On the domestic front, we had chores to do. In the winter when wood was delivered, it was dumped on the drive and we had to take it around the back to make a wood pile. Each morning, the ashes had to be removed from the stove.
“One winter morning it was my turn. I took the ashes, still hot from the night before from the stove taking them to the usual place behind the garage and dumped them in the snow. Apparently I put them too close to the garage, which was made of wood and some time later it caught fire.
“The Fire Brigade came and put out the fire, it was then discovered that our pet rabbits were not so lucky. They were in a cage just inside the door and had perished.”
In the spring, the boys learned why windows were covered in muslin to prevent insects from coming into the house. The brothers were playing with matches and accidentally made a hole in the screen. Punishment followed and that led to the brothers being split up.
“I am led to believe we were not rude but mischievous and quite a handful to say the least.”
Douglas stayed with Rev. and Mrs. Henstock in Carman until the arrival of a newborn forced another move. He landed in the Knowles Boys School in Winnipeg for a few months where he was able to visit with his father’s cousins and their sons.
The next stop was with the Rowe family in Manitou.
The brothers were not allowed to see one another because it was considered disruptive.
By the spring of 1942, Les accepted a job at the Sutherland Forest Nursery Station in Saskatchewan so the Kerrs had to obtain special permission to move their evacuee.
Peter spent time hunting with Les, riding ponies and going to school in Sutherland. The bond between Blanche, Les and Peter grew strong during this time.
By January, 1945, the war was winding down and the evacuees were starting to return home.
“The journey took three days and two nights on a Pullman to New York via Montreal where we changed trains.… The ship we were to sail in was the New Zealand Shipping Line M.S. Rangitata, 16,000 tons. We set sail on Feb.2 and disembarked at Liverpool on Feb.14 1945.… On the approach to the dock at Liverpool, coming up the River Mersey one thing that is a very clear memory was that the water was a murky yellow. This was in complete contrast to the crystal clear waters in the rivers in Canada.”
In England, Douglas waited for his father, who arrived in uniform to take him home.
Douglas returned home earlier than Peter but they both faced challenges with a return to the English school system. Peter arrived home as the school year started and never had a chance to reconnect with his siblings.
“This then started me back on the process of readjustment to a still wartime Britain and the way of life that I had left behind four and a half years before.… My parents arranged an appointment at the Kings School — the local grammar school. The place was quite foreboding, going into a cobbled quadrangle, which was enclosed by stone buildings with leaded windows. Inside the corridors were long and dark. I was taken to a room in which I sat alone and carried out some tests.
The upshot of which was that my Canadian education was not compatible with that in England. For example, up to the point of leaving Canada, I had not taken any English history, only Canadian.”
In 1981, Peter returned to Canada for an emotional reunion with Blanche and Les. Six years later, as a widow, she travelled to England to see him, his wife, Pam, and son, Mark, and met his mother. During the visit, Blanche revealed that she had wanted to keep the brothers together but Les was a hard man and his will prevailed.
Peter became a navigator and spent 24 years in the Royal Air Force. He then become a pilot and logged 8,700 hours in more than 40 aircraft. He rarely talked about his experiences to his son, Mark, but after his death Mark found many mementos.
Douglas also returned to visit Canada, visiting his relatives in Manitoba as well as the other families he stayed with during his time as an evacuee. He joined a local engineering firm, worked as a fitter and served in the RAF.
Peter and Doug Wilde returned to England but Canada, its people and spaces, had a corner in their hearts and minds. The ripple effects of war are still felt within their family circles today.