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Following Pied Piper

With her packed suitcase and gas mask in tow, 12-year-old Ruby Swales was ready to leave her parents behind in London, England.
Ruby Swales flips through journals she’s written about her experiences during the Second World War.

With her packed suitcase and gas mask in tow, 12-year-old Ruby Swales was ready to leave her parents behind in London, England.

It was Friday, Sept. 1, 1939, and Nazi Germany had invaded Poland.

Swales and her brother, aged four, and 10-year-old sister never imagined how much the world would change that day 70 years ago. They only knew they might not be living with their parents for a while as they headed off to school.

The news was bad. Britain was preparing for war and the city of London was told to expect bombing attacks from the enemy. The first wave of evacuations of children began that Friday, and Swales and her two younger siblings were among them.

Swales wasn’t particularly scared but she didn’t know what to expect.

“We said goodbye to our parents and we were bused to King’s Cross railway station,” said Swales, now 82 and living in Red Deer. “We had all been given large labels to hang around our necks with our names and addresses on.”

The station was crammed with children, some from very poor parts of London.

“As we boarded the train, we discussed the possibility of being sent to the seaside,” Swales said. “We had no idea where we were going as, for some reason, our destination was top secret.”

The British government’s Operation Pied Piper planned to move 3.5 million children from six cities deemed vulnerable to German bombing. Within three days, 1.9 million children assembled at rail stations not knowing where they were going, nor if they would be split from their siblings.

The train with Swales and her siblings stopped at a smoky industrial town in the midlands called Northampton, very far from the sea. After a hasty meal, the youngsters were herded into the middle of the street. Adults came by, selecting children who would come to live with them. The government agreed to pay 10 shillings per week for each child.

The three youngsters waited into the night until finally, the owner of The Green Man pub offered them a place to stay upstairs.

“We had a postcard that was pre-stamped so we could tell our parents where we were,” Swales said.

Two days later, on Sept. 3, the woman took the children to church with her.

“I can still picture the scene that followed. Shortly after the service started, a man approached the altar and whispered to the minister, who at once dropped to his knees and started to sob loudly.”

He told the congregation that England had declared war on Germany.

Like hundreds of thousands of children, they eventually returned home. When the bombings escalated in London, Swales and her siblings were evacuated again.

After staying at another residence with a woman they didn’t care for, they eventually ended up at home with their parents, who by then had moved out of London.

At 16, Swales enlisted with the Auxiliary Territorial Service of the British Army, where she learned how to drive an ambulance.

Princess Elizabeth, later the Queen, was taking the course at the same time. The women didn’t get the chance to converse with the Royal Family member, but they were aware of her presence.

“She had a special driving instructor concentrating on her, so consequently we didn’t really mix with her,” Swales said.

In the mid 1940s, Swales ended up in Bad Harzburg, Germany, a spa town. By then, all the Germans had cleared out of the town, except those who had worked as servants. She worked in a government office where she met her husband-to-be, a British soldier.

She and her husband Ray eventually moved to Calgary and would later move to Red Deer to run Red Deer Auctions. They sold the business years later.

Ray died in 1975.

As the world remembers the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War, Swales recalls a life that was so happy before the war and the challenges that followed in her homeland.

“After the war, it was really hard to find a place to live and there wasn’t much in the shops,” she said. “I guess we had so much excitement for so many years. It was kind of boring in a way.”

She has written down many of her experiences, with hopes of one day passing the pages onto her children.