– By Sarah Johnston (Client Services Co-ordinator – Radio, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision)
Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision’s Radio Collection contains hundreds of recordings made during World War II. The best known are the many discs recorded by the staff of the National Broadcasting Service Mobile Unit, who travelled with New Zealand forces. From North Africa, Italy and through the Pacific… the mobile unit was there, recording interviews, messages home and special programmes, such as the much-loved concerts by members of the Māori Battalion.
Back home in New Zealand, the National Broadcasting Service was monitoring the shortwave radio broadcasts from overseas. A 24-hour “listening watch” was maintained in the control room of station 2YA in Wellington, staffed by a broadcasting technician and equipped with disc recorders (tape recording technology would only arrive in the 1950s.)
Anything of interest could be immediately recorded on disc for local re-broadcast. Many of these recordings survive in our collection. Often they are news bulletins, telling the world of historic events such as the fall of Singapore or the Battle of Arnhem. But these recordings also captured poignant personal communications and stories of the war-time experience, such as these two excerpts of a bittersweet little programme called “Hello Children”:
[Archival audio from the Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision collection. Any re-use of this audio is a breach of Copyright. To request a copy of the recording, contact firstname.lastname@example.org]
“Hello Children” was aimed at the 3,000-odd British children who had been evacuated overseas at the start of the war. The two episodes we’ve shared above were transmitted in the BBC’s Pacific Service to New Zealand on the 22nd of February and 6th of May 1942.
When France fell to the Nazis in May 1940 and the Allies were evacuated from Dunkirk, fears of a German invasion became very real to Britons. Wealthier families were able to pay to send their children to live with overseas friends and family members. American companies such as Kodak and Ford set up schemes to evacuate the children of their British employees to the United States. The public soon demanded that overseas evacuation to be made available to families from all walks of life. In response, the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) scheme was established by the British government in June 1940.
Within ten days over 200,000 frightened parents had applied, swamping the CORB offices with requests for their children to be considered for overseas evacuation. Boatloads of children were assembled and allocated an adult escort, usually a young woman or clergyman. Ships departed for Canada, the United States, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, where the children were taken in by local people for the duration of the war. Occasionally, they were sent to live with members of their extended family, as seems to be the case with the children in the February broadcast. But often, children were received by complete strangers, who had been vetted as suitable foster-parents.
Despite the threat of invasion, the decision to send a child off on a long, wartime, sea-voyage into the unknown was not easily made. German U-boats were a very real danger. Tragically, two boatloads of child evacuees were torpedoed and sunk. In September 1940, the ship The City of Benares was hit en route to Canada with the loss of 81 of the 100 children on board.
This tragedy caused worldwide outrage and brought the CORB scheme to an abrupt end, only a few months after it began.
By then, just over 200 children had already been sent to New Zealand, including the six Scottish evacuees whose names are heard in the May 1942 recording. The parents of the six had travelled to a BBC studio and recorded the messages for their sons and daughters, now living on the other side of the world with foster parents.
Despite the crackle and hiss of shortwave radio, you can hear the spirit of wartime Britain coming through, with the parents sounding uniformly upbeat and enthusiastic. They ask about studies, piano lessons and “life on a farm” and give brief messages about family back home. The “Hello Children” shortwave broadcasts were probably recorded by the Broadcasting Service in New Zealand, this allowing rebroadcast on local radio stations, so that the young evacuees had plenty of opportunity to hear their parents’ messages.
There is also some evidence that letters were sent to the foster families to alert children to the fact that a broadcast from their parents was due. In some countries, the child evacuees could record their own messages to send back to Britain, though we don’t know if this was the case in New Zealand.
By the time they heard this programme in 1942, the children would have been in New Zealand for nearly two years – a long time when you are only 10 or 12. Edinburgh brothers Donald and Terence Fell, whose parents are heard in the May recording, had been sent to live with two different families in Wairarapa.
Terence’s son Craig Fell recently discovered this recording in our collection and kindly shared some information about his late father and uncle:
Terence Fell was my father. After the war he went back to the UK when he was about 15 years old and worked for British Rail. He was then conscripted into the Air Force. After finishing his service he returned to NZ and lived with Mrs Campin again at Waihakeke, Carterton where he worked in the local cheese factory.
He married in 1952 to Norma and had three boys. He worked at Waingawa Freezing Works for a while before buying his own dairy in Carterton. My grandparents came out from the UK and stayed with us for a couple of years. During that time we moved to Masterton and bought another dairy at Kuripuni.
When they finally sold the dairy, Dad worked at Moore Wilsons, Masterton until he died in 1984 from a brain tumour, aged 56 years.
Donald Fell went back to the UK two years before Dad and worked for British Rail as well. He lived in Carlisle and became the Mayor from 1982 to 1983. He died in 2011. Attached is a link to his obituary that mentions his history and visit to NZ.
After five years away from their homes and families, it was not surprising that some of the CORB evacuees had trouble settling down when they eventually returned to post-war Britain. Some of the older evacuees even chose to remain in their new homes and not return at all. Others, like Terence Fell, applied to return to New Zealand as adult migrants, or encouraged their entire families to emigrate.
The experience of the many thousands of British children who were evacuated domestically from cities to rural areas of Britain during the war is quite well-known, through books such as the Narnia series.
That of the overseas evacuees is less familiar but many of them, as adults, have recalled their experiences on oral history websites and in books*, for anyone wanting to learn more about this scheme.
*The Absurd and the Brave: CORB – the True Account of the British Government’s World War II Evacuation of Children Overseas. Michael Fethney (Lewes: The Book Guild, 2000)
Oceans Apart: Stories of Overseas Evacuees in World War Two. Penny Starnes (The History Press, 2014)