Canadian War Brides

Introduction

<em>Mauretania</em> being pulled by tug out of Liverpool berth, February 5, 1946. <em>(Library and Archives Canada PA-175804)</em>

Mauretania being pulled by tug out of Liverpool berth, February 5, 1946. (Library and Archives Canada PA-175804)

The term "war bride" refers to the estimated 48,000 young women who met and married Canadian servicemen during the Second World War. These war brides were mostly from Britain, but a few thousand were also from other areas of Europe: the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy and Germany.

War brides also came to Canada after the First World War. The official Government of Canada history of the First World War reports that an estimated 54,000 relatives accompanied the returning troops following demobilization.

We salute this remarkable group of Canadian citizens who, for love, followed their husbands. Where their returning Veterans went, these young women followed and made their new homes in their young and growing land. These women were welcomed to their new communities and new families. The contributions of these new Canadians would soon extend far beyond the walls of their homes as they entered into the life of their communities and enriched it with their many abilities and hard work. The years following the Second World War were ones of unprecedented change for Canada and our country’s war brides have played an important part in the growth and development of the free and peaceful Canada that we enjoy today.

Many Canadian families and communities count themselves the richer for the contributions of the thousands of war brides, both of the First and the Second World War, who have made Canada their home.

Canadian Servicemen in Wartime Britain

Billy Hitchon and his mother on board the <em>Mauretania</em>, February 5, 1946.<br /> <em>(Karen L. Hermiston, <abbr title='Canadian Women's Army Corps'>CWAC</abbr> Photographer)</em>

Billy Hitchon and his mother on board the Mauretania, February 5, 1946.
(Karen L. Hermiston, CWAC Photographer)

From 1939 to 1945, hundreds of thousands of Canadian servicemen were stationed in Britain, some for as long as four years. They worked and trained while the Allied Command prepared for the final assault on occupied Europe.

As in the First World War, those who were injured during the fighting in Europe and those who had earned occasional periods of leave also spent time in Britain. As a result, Canadian servicemen and women were living in areas throughout the United Kingdom. Chance encounters, local social events and dances ensured that Canadian servicemen met the young women in nearby cities, towns and villages all over the United Kingdom. Inevitably, many fell in love. Although some war brides describe whirlwind romances, others had known their Canadian servicemen fiancés for one, two, even three years before deciding to marry.

Those Canadian servicemen wanting to marry overseas faced difficulties. Permission from the commanding officer was required and parents were sometimes opposed: they foresaw that a marriage to a Canadian serviceman would probably result in loss and separation from their daughters as most war brides would emigrate to Canada. In the 1940s, before transatlantic commercial air travel, this was a journey that few families could afford.

Despite it all, love found a way. Young people, used to the hardships of war, saw few good reasons to wait. Many young women in Britain had already faced nightly bombing raids, the deaths of family members or friends, blackouts and rationing. For the young Canadian servicemen, the order to ship out to battle on a moment's notice was expected daily. Life was for living, and the future, uncertain.

Despite an official army policy discouraging these marriages, the army and other branches of the Canadian military, faced with the inevitable, made arrangements to assist the newlyweds and their young families.

Family and friends helped the couples with precious gifts of ration books. These were needed to buy wedding clothes. Even acquiring enough food for a simple wedding reception was a challenge because just about everything was in short supply. Nevertheless, wedding photos from the period show joyful faces, uniformed young men, flowers, and simple wedding gowns. It was a tradition among brides at that time to carry silver horseshoes, made from paper, for luck.

The Canadian Wives' Bureau in London

As the number of war brides grew, the Canadian Government established the Canadian Wives’ Bureau, whose job it was to assist the wives of Canadian servicemen and their children, and to make arrangements for those who wished to eventually join their husbands in Canada. The first Canadian Wives’ Bureau offices were on Regent Street in the heart of central London and it was here the war brides applied to emigrate to Canada. The Wives’ Bureau also tried to help with the transition from one country to the other. It encouraged the formation of Canadian Wives’ Clubs, published information on living in Canada and even a Canadian cookbook.

Saying 'Goodbye'

War brides en route to Canada aboard <abbr title='Steam Ship'>S.S.</abbr> <em>Letitia</em> waving goodbye to families and friends. April 2, 1946. Liverpool, England. <em>(Library and Archives Canada PA-175794)</em>

War brides en route to Canada aboard S.S. Letitia waving goodbye to families and friends. April 2, 1946. Liverpool, England. (Library and Archives Canada PA-175794)

Since some Canadian servicemen had lived in Britain from 1939 to 1943 or 1944, their young families had all but forgotten that, in time, they would be leaving. Many war brides describe receiving just a few days notice before it was time to sail for Canada. There were often heart-wrenching scenes as young women said goodbye to their families.

Some war brides describe their voyage to Canada as a great and wonderful adventure. They made friends, feasted on the plentiful supply of food onboard ship, and did what they could to help out those with small children.

Others described themselves as homesick, heartsick and seasick. Some of the crossings to Canada took place during the winter. Travelling with crying children, enduring seasickness, and dealing with the shock of leaving home often did not make the trip an easy one—even on a converted luxury liner.

Crossing the Atlantic

Personnel of the Canadian Red Cross looking after babies of Canadian war brides en route to Canada. December 4, 1944. London, England. <em>(Library and Archives Canada PA-136664)</em>

Personnel of the Canadian Red Cross looking after babies of Canadian war brides en route to Canada. December 4, 1944. London, England. (Library and Archives Canada PA-136664)

Between 1942 and 1947, most of the 48,000 young women who had married Canadian servicemen, and their 22,000 children, were brought to Canada. A few Canadian servicewomen married British husbands. These men were also eligible to travel to Canada, and had to put up with a bit of good-humoured teasing about being "male war brides".

In 1942 and 1943, some war brides travelled on board ships that were in real danger from enemy U-boats in the North Atlantic. The majority, however, came to Canada in 1946, after the war had ended and the troops had been returned home. As life returned to peacetime pursuits, the Canadian Government turned its attention to welcoming this unique group of new Canadians. War brides were transported on huge troop ships especially outfitted for their use, and converted luxury liners.

The most notable of these was the Queen Mary. War brides remember hanging their diapers in the pool area, and sharing the ship with nearly 1,000 other war brides and their children. Red Cross Escorts did their best to ensure that everyone was taken care of and earned unreserved praise from grateful war brides. Despite everyone’s best efforts, many were exhausted and worried about sick children by the time they landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Pier 21, Halifax, NS

Like immigrants before and after them, almost all war brides vividly remember docking in Halifax, and passing through Pier 21. They were met there by Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers, who offered the new Canadians a warm welcome and gifts of food and clothes for the children.

From 1928 until 1971, Pier 21 was Canada's front door to over a million immigrants, wartime evacuees, refugees, troops, war brides and their children. Pier 21, a National Historic Site, currently houses an exhibition chronicling the pier's role in sending off the military overseas, and welcoming them, their war brides, and other new Canadians, home. From the Veterans’ Deck at the pier, visitors can look out across the mouth of the Harbour and see where the large cables making up nets were strung every evening during the Second World War to prevent enemy submarines from entering.

The War Bride Trains

Mrs. Elizabeth Rae and daughter Ann aboard the train taking them to Liverpool where they are to embark on the <abbr title='Steam Ship'>S.S.</abbr> <em>Mauretania</em> as part of the first large group of British war brides to sail to Canada. <em>(Library and Archives Canada PA-175803)</em>

Mrs. Elizabeth Rae and daughter Ann aboard the train taking them to Liverpool where they are to embark on the S.S. Mauretania as part of the first large group of British war brides to sail to Canada. (Library and Archives Canada PA-175803)

Brides and their children were assisted to special war bride trains bound for various points across Canada. Husbands and families were notified of arrival times. Many brides marvelled at the vastness of their new land. For some, the journey to the Prairies and to the West Coast took several days, and seemed almost never ending.

A New Life in a New Land

For the most part, war brides were met by eager husbands and warm receptions from
in-laws. There were wedding and baby showers from welcoming communities.

For a not-so-fortunate few, there were disappointments. The government had only undertaken to pay travel fares one way—so an unwelcomed or unhappy war bride with no means of returning to her family faced a precarious situation. Eventually, they found help, from the Red Cross, sympathetic neighbours or communities, and managed to return to their families in Britain.

For many war brides, coming as they did from British or European cities, rural life in Canada was not what they had expected. In the 1940s, many Canadians lived in rural areas where most homes had no electricity, and even fewer had indoor plumbing. There are amusing stories told about terrified war brides trying to face down their first milk cow. Others settled in French-speaking communities. Learning a new language and settling into a new culture became part of their new lives.

Most war brides now speak nostalgically of the country of their birth, but for them Canada is home. Many years have passed since they bravely chose Canada as their new home. Their husbands, their children, and their grandchildren are here.

Sharing Their Stories

War brides everywhere have been kind enough to share their stories. Here are a few taken from our website.

Online Resources

CBC Archives
Authentic CBC Radio reports from the 1940's, and interviews with newly arrived war brides.

Pier 21 - Gateway to Canada
Reminiscences and photos from the Pier 21 Collection, Halifax, NS

Canadian War Brides
An extensive website on the history of the Canadian War Brides of World War II. War bride historian Melynda Jarratt.

References

Information from the following resources was used in preparing this document.

  • Granfield, Linda (2002). Brass Buttons and Silver Horseshoes: Stories from Canada's British War Brides. McClelland and Stewart Ltd.
  • Hibbert, Joyce (Ed) with an introduction by Mavis Gallant (1978). The War Brides. Peter Martin Associates, Ltd. Toronto, Canada.
  • Ladouceur, Barbara, Spence, Phyllis, (Eds), (1995). Blackouts to Bright Lights: Canadian War Bride Stories. Ronsdale Press, Vancouver, 1995.
  • McKenna, M. Olga, (1990). Micmac by Choice, Elsie Sark – An Island Legend. Fromac Publishing Company Limited, Halifax, NS.
  • Nicholson, G. W. L. (1964). Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War. Queen's Printer, Ottawa.
  • O'Hara, Peggy. From Romance to Reality: Stories of Canadian War Brides. Highway Book Shop, Cobalt, Ontario.
  • Wicks, Ben. with a foreword by Pierre Berton (1992). Promise You'll Take Care of My Daughter. Stoddart Publishing, Toronto, Ontario.

Important Notice

The Canada Remembers Program of Veterans Affairs Canada encourages all Canadians to learn about the sacrifices and achievements made by Canada's Veterans during times of war, military conflict and peace and to become involved in remembrance activities that will help to preserve their legacy for future generations of Canadians.

Historical information provided on this site is intended for this general purpose. For more complete information about these events, you are encouraged to access authoritative and academic sources of Canadian military history at the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces.

Date modified: