Italian refugees from German and Austrian Labour Camps awaiting transport home © IWM (IA 72234)

The challenge of getting home after WW2

The reuniting of communities, families and friends would be a long process and for many the end of the war did not mean the end of their service.

Although societies across the globe are slowly emerging from lockdown with families and friends beginning to reunite, many still face a long wait to be reunited. The end of WW2 did not lead to the immediate reunification of families and friends and for millions of service personnel from Britain and the Commonwealth it would take months and years to be reunited with loved ones.

For many demobilisation would take years, with some service personnel returning to families and homes they hadn’t seen for more than five years.

For others there was the release from POW camps in Europe or the Far East and their long journey to recovery.

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Around 4.2 million British servicemen and women were demobilied between June 1945 and December 1946. But many would also see further service in new conflicts in Palestine, Indonesia and elsewhere.
Indian soldiers mingle with troops of the 81st West African Division

There was a long process of demobilisation for Commonwealth forces too.

Empire forces from Africa weren’t fully repatriated from service in India and Burma until November 1946. And pre-partition Indian forces, which at their height had reached 2.5 million, took until 1 July 1947 to demobsilise close to 1.8 million men and women. © IWM (IND 2864)

Thousands returned home with injuries, both physical and psychological.

For many these would take years to recover from as they tried to find their place back into old communities, or in the case of some Commonwealth forces into entire new nations. 


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It is estimated 300,000 British veterans were described as having a physical or psychological disability on their return - 17,000 of which were women.
Young evacuees preparing to board a train in London © IWM (LN 6194)

Over the course of the war approximately 3 million, mainly children, had been evacuated from British cities to the safety of towns, villages or Commonwealth states like Australia.

By September 1945 there remained nearly 20,000 evacuees in the UK still to return to their homes and families.
Rebuilding after WW2
French, Belgian and Dutch camp inmates prepare to leave Bergen-Belsen concentration camp © IWM (BU 4695)

There were approximately 40 million refugees in Europe at the end of the war and an estimated 60 million worldwide.

For many their lives and homes had been completely taken by war and they would have to build completely new lives from scratch.

This included hundreds of thousands of Prisoners of War, millions of displaced persons, and thousands of survivors of Holocaust extermination camps - all trying to reconnect with families, communities, homes and nations. 

Geoffrey Hather was a navigator in the RAF when he was captured in Germany in 1944, and spent nine months in POW camps. 

Describing his first few week back home, he said: 

I don’t think you ever got back to real normality or what was known as real normality.

“If you can imagine having been restricted to a compound surrounded by barbed wire for some months and then suddenly you arrived home and now you can open any door and go through it without having somebody with a rifle say you can’t.

“I remember the first morning I got back. I opened the front door and I went to the garden gate but nothing would have made me go through it and I walked back in.” 

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