Today (September 1) in London History – Operation Pied Piper

Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939. Here in Britain, Operation Pied Piper – the evacuation of children from ‘target areass’ – got underway in earnest. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

September 1st. September 1st, 1939.

Germany invades Poland. So it’s kicked off. Swiss or Swedish neutrality, not going to happen here. So it’s really just a question of waiting.

The definition of a portent is a sign or warning that a momentous or calamitous event is likely to happen.

Things have gone beyond “likely to happen.” Likely to happen isn’t strong enough. They’re going to happen.

So I don’t know what the word is for these two events. There was still no shooting – war hadn’t been declared – but they didn’t belong to before. They belonged to “it’s here, it’s started, it’s come.”

The two events I have in mind have shed their portent skin. They’re not proclaiming likely to happen. They’re proclaiming it’s started.

One of the events has come to be known as Operation Pied Piper. The name’s self-explanatory. The evacuation of children. It had actually started on August 30th. 48 hours later – today, September 1st – it was in full swing. A million and a half people, over half of them children, evacuated from urban ‘target’ areas.

We’ll hear from one of those youngsters in a minute.

The second event is probably less well known. But no less telling.

The BBC’s regular television service was shut down at the end of a Mickey Mouse cartoon. It was said that the strong signal from the transmitter at Alexandra Palace would provide a navigational aid for enemy bombers.

What a thought – enemy bombers, death, mutilation, destruction coming in, like a load suspended from a pulley, coming down on a cable – being beamed in by Mickey Mouse. 

For the record, for many years it was believed that the service was shut down in the middle of the cartoon and then when service was resumed in 1946 they started at the point where the cartoon had been cut off. You know, “we’re picking up where we were when we were so rudely interrupted.” Well, it’s a nice story – very fitting but also depressing. Seven lost years and all that. But apparently it’s an old urban legend. Recent research has shown that Mickey’s Gala Premiere was not cut but ran through to the end. 

And it wasn’t just worries about the Luftwaffe using the Ally Pally signal as a navigational aid. Only 20,000 households had television sets in 1939. Television programmes were expensive to produce. It was felt that the resources – the manpower – could be put to better uses in wartime. In fact, 50 BBC engineers were redeployed to work on radar projects.

But let’s get back to Operation Pied Piper. And instead of refracting the experience through a historian – his or her sifting of the evidence and writing it up – let’s hear directly from somebody who lived it. 

This account was written by an anonymous London schoolgirl. She was a pupil at the North London Collegiate School. She’s very impressive. So articulate. This is someone who was there. She’s telling it like it was. This is what it was like.

[Here I read the schoolgirl’s account from John Lewis’ book London: The Autobiography]

And a Today in London recommendation: well, either our Thursday afternoon The Blitz Walk – it goes at 2.15 pm from St. Paul’s Underground station, exit 2. 

Or our Sunday afternoon Westminster at War Tour. It goes at 1.45 pm from Embankment Underground Station, the river exit. And of course there’s no need to ration yourself. You could go on both of them. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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