Operation Pied Piper: Lessons from History on Childhood Trauma and Resilience | Josie Holford | 13 Min Read

September 7, 2023

The disruption to schooling in the early months of the pandemic led me to 1939, Operation Pied Piper, and the work of pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Under Operation Pied Piper, close to a million children living in cities were separated from their parents and evacuated to safer areas. An evacuation on such a large scale was unprecedented. Britain was preparing for the worst.

On Thursday, August 31st—three days before Britain declared war—evacuation was ordered for the next day. Families prepared their children and—to the best of their ability—supplied them with the required items of clothing and food for the journey.  On Friday, September 1st, children began assembling in their schools, and parents said goodbye. Operation Pied Piper was launched. 

It was a huge logistical enterprise. In London alone, there were 1589 assembly points. Trains steamed out of the city’s main terminal stations every nine minutes for nine hours. It involved teachers, rail workers, officials from the local authorities, and 17,000 members of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) who did the practical work of looking after the children and providing refreshments. In the first three days, 1.5 million people were evacuated including 673,000 unaccompanied children from England alone. 

My mother—then a young Froebel-trained elementary teacher—was among them. She accompanied her class of five-year-olds from Pimlico—a very deprived area of London, just down the road from Buckingham Palace—to an unknown destination. It was an experience she never forgot. The school record indicates that it was a responsibility she shouldered without complaint.

Parents deposited their children at the assembly points and handed them over to the care of teachers and volunteers. The images are familiar—tearful parents at railway stations waving goodbye to children pinned with labels, boarding trains, carrying a bag and gas mask. The news coverage of the time portrayed the evacuation as a success.   

Operation Pied Piper was one of the most radical social engineering projects ever conceived. It was controversial from the start. Yes, the children were successfully evacuated, but the price was a psychic dislocation of unparalleled proportions. What would come of such a large-scale emotional trauma and disruption?

Enter the Psychoanalysts

One significant outcome was a heightened awareness of childhood mental health. Many in the field were alarmed at the separation of children from their homes and families. The psychoanalyst Anna Freud worked with children made homeless, and her Hampstead War Nurseries enabled…

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Josie Holford

Josie Holford is an educator from a family of educators who has taught in London, New York City, and New York State. She has taught every level from 4th grade to freshman college and has served as middle and high school division director, head of school, and trustee. She maintains a blog, Rattlebag and Rhurbarb, where she writes on a wide range of topics related to culture, society, and learning.