Endangered species (audio)

EVACUEE: Derek Gostelow was an evacuee from London during World War  2.
EVACUEE: Derek Gostelow was an evacuee from London during World War 2.

As a child Derek Gostelow was part of the single biggest population movement in history, based on a decision by the Government the day the Blitz hit Britain. Ultimately 3,500,000 children were taken away from their homes to avoid the air raids. JARED MORGAN talks to Mr Gostelow about life as an evacuee.

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For 57 consecutive nights, Britain cowered under sustained bombing by the Nazi Luftwaffe.

Known as the Blitz, it was the sustained bombing of towns and cities by Germany between September 7, 1940 and May 10, 1941.

The Blitz hit many towns and cities throughout Britain, but nowhere was the shelling more constant than in London.

Derek Gostelow, then aged 7, survived three air raids before the decision was made to get him out of the capital.

Born in the South London borough of Lambeth in 1933, the Otatara man's parents could boast links to royalty, he says.

Albeit tarnished royalty.

Before the war, his mother Lily was a maid to the Duke of Windsor, the title handed to King Edward VIII in 1937 following his abdication in December the previous year. In a decision that sent shockwaves through Britain and the Empire, Edward stood down to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

Young Derek's father, Gus, also had a royal connection. A commando, he had been part of the palace guard until he went to war. An only child, Derek Gostelow lived with his mother relatively untouched as the war raged in Europe.

Then came the raids.

"They were incendiary bombs one actually hit our house."

Parts of Lambeth were levelled, he says.

Moving to an air raid shelter, they were bombed again before he and his mother, like thousands of Londoners, went underground into the Tube tunnel system.

"It was better down there you could actually lie down."

Ironically, the attitude in the stations was party-like.

"They were just roaring their heads off singing the Germans tried to demoralise everybody but these half-wits singing defeated that."

However, when the tube station they went to was bombed, it was decided he had become "an endangered species", Mr Gostelow says.

He can't recall there being any tears from the departing children more bewilderment.

Sent to Exmouth in East Devon until the "worst was over", he remembers little until he was sent to Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex.

He was briefly reunited there with his mother, who had been seconded to work in a munitions factory, before being fostered to a family with three sons and one daughter in what was a "very good family".

"I'm still (now) regarded as family they still regard me as a brother."

His mother, who visited once a month, and his father eventually settled in the town after the war, he said.

Mr Gostelow went on to serve in the merchant navy before meeting his Southland-born wife and settling here.

By the end of May 1941, more than 43,000 civilians, half of them in London, had been killed by bombing.

More than 1 million houses were destroyed or damaged in London alone.

While, Mr Gostelow's experience was a good one, for many, the experience was traumatic.

Some children were evacuated to other British Dominions (countries that were part of the British Empire) such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.

People's memories of being evacuated vary greatly for some it was a happy time, full of adventure in the countryside and time spent with people who came to love them. For others it was a time of great sadness not all host homes were the perfect host, and some remember ill-treatment and sometimes even cruelty.

At the end of the war, children were returned home, those that were lucky enough to have homes and families to return home to some were not so lucky they had no parents or homes to return to.

A few never made it home at all.

The Southland Times