BOOK REVIEW / Escape to New York: 'A Bundle From Britain' - Alistair Horne: Macmillan, 17.99

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SEVENTEEN thousand children were shipped out of Britain during the Second World War. Some travelled under government auspices, most thanks to private schemes and family arrangements. Five thousand of them sailed to the US. Although Churchill deplored what he called the stampede to leave the country, Lord Lothian, the British envoy in Washington, hoped the young ambassadors would sway the Americans to back the British cause. Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's aide, had the cooler idea that, if Britain fell, the presence of its children in America would cause the Royal Navy to take refuge there. But few British parents thought in those terms.

The main flood westward across the Atlantic was in the summer of 1940. After Dunkirk, the likely German invasion seemed a compelling reason for parting with sons and daughters. The overseas evacuations continued until the autumn. But the sinking of the City of Benares, torpedoed in September with the loss of nearly 300 of those on board, 77 of them children, abruptly demonstrated that the dangers of going outweighed those of staying. The 'stampede' ended.

Drowning was not the only danger. A few children were housed by people who couldn't cope with the challenge, and much unhappiness ensued. Some children never returned because they became essential to their new families, and, liking America, wanted to stay there. Many came back and didn't recognise the parents who had sent them in love and dread. (One 14-year-old survivor of the Benares, Anthony Quinton, rescued by a destroyer and quickly brought home, was greeted by his grandmother, weeding the garden, with the words: 'Good heavens, are you back already?') Most who went for three or four years came back changed irrevocably by the experience: never quite at home again, with unsettling ambitions and awkward ideas of perfection.

The historian Alistair Horne has now added his story to the small shelf of memoirs and works of fiction on this subject. His apparently silver-spoon youth in a Mayfair house and Hampshire manor had unpleasant aspects. He was the only child of parents who soon separated. When he was five, his melancholic mother, 18 years younger than his father, died when her chauffeur drove the Bentley into the water rather than on to a ferry. His elderly father, knighted for organising munitions in India in the First World War, was seen by his son only one day in ten.

Young Ally, lonely and sickly, was sent off to prep school, one of what he calls those model prisons for upper-class children, where there were maggots in the luncheon ham and clean collars around young necks drew attention from filth below. A blissful interlude at the Swiss school Le Rosey was followed by Stowe, from whose 'bullying and buggery' Horne was saved by war and America.

He was 14 when in July 1940 the Britannic landed him in neutral New York with the first real family he'd ever had. The Cutlers were not unprivileged: houses on Manhattan's Upper East Side, in Garrison by the Hudson River, and on Martha's Vineyard. But they were numerous and warm and, mostly, Anglophile. There were initial problems with squash and pumpkin pie, but also the attractions of huge half-timbered station wagons, lumberjack shirts and ice-cream sundaes. 'The ungrateful, ungracious and pompous little English boy I was' gradually became less appalling through American kindness and commonsense. The Cutlers, too, sent him away to school, but it was to Millbrook, in upstate New York, where self-reliance and good works were high on the curriculum. There one of his talented classmates was William F Buckley Jr - even then a pushy figure and for Horne a friend for life.

Although Horne occasionally succumbs to a historian's urge to recount the war blow by blow, he nicely evokes the fluctuating moods of wartime, and the curious transition by which young Brits went from being strange guests to doubtful allies and finally members of the team. He had adolescent dark moments, 'Black Dog' depressions that on one occasion led him to set up an ostentatious suicide attempt. Resilience, however, was a more constant characteristic.

He got back in 1943 to find that his manifest fondness for America now came between him and various chauvinistic relatives. He also returned in time to serve, not as a Spitfire pilot as he'd hoped, but as an RAF squaddie and then, a few strings pulled, as a Coldstream Guard, eventually a captain at 22. But the Establishment was even more clearly found wanting; America had made him realise the importance of enthusiasm as well as of phlegm, and he was thereafter aware of the ubiquitous 'upraised Nanny hand of British bureaucracy,' indicating 'No you can't' rather than 'Yes we can.' Like many of us who went, he acquired a permanent second family and second country. He had a larger sense of the possible. His book is excellent testimony and tribute.