A war bride and child arrive at Bonaventure Station in Montreal, Quebec, on 4 March 1946. The mother and child had travelled across the ocean on board the SS Aquitania.
In July 1940, English teenager June Watkins met the young Canadian soldier who would become her husband. Jack King of the West Nova Scotia Regiment had arrived in Britain the previous year. “We met while he was playing drums in the army band at a dance in London. We had one dance and that was the beginning of a beautiful story that has no end,” she later recalled. By 1943, the two were married and in March 1945, Mrs. June (Watkins) King arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to start a new life in Canada.
A War Bride Remembers
“The boat was full of war brides and some returning soldiers,” June (Watkins) King recalled of her journey across the Atlantic. “I was 21, scared and lonely, already missing my family and friends… To this day I still miss my large close-knit family.”
Jack King was one of nearly 48,000 Canadian servicemen who married overseas during the Second World War. Between 1942 and 1947, the government brought 47,783 "war brides” and their 21,950 children to Canada. Relatively few came before the war's end. They began arriving in earnest when the RMSMauretania, carrying 943 women and children, docked at Pier 21 in Halifax on 10 February 1946.
War brides and their children en route to Canada. Photo taken in England, 17 April 1944.
June King, like her war bride sisters, came to Canada for love. The heightened emotions of war, fostered by anxiety and nurtured by fear, made romance especially poignant. Young soldiers, airmen and sailors, many away from home for the first time, were lonely and homesick. The exuberance of youth was not completely dampened by the exigencies of war. It was only natural that the men would find companionship with the war-weary young women who were deprived of basic necessities, whose boyfriends were far away and who hadn't had much fun in a very long time.
Most couples met at dance halls and pubs — it was difficult for any woman to conduct her daily business without encountering foreign servicemen. Like June and Jack, many of them met at dances organized to bolster morale. Mutual attraction grew quickly into love. Knowing their time together would be brief, many of the young couples married on short acquaintance. The first marriage of a Canadian serviceman to a British woman occurred on 28 January 1940, less than 40 days after the first Canadian troops arrived in Britain.
The war brides travelled to Canada without their husbands, who had already been repatriated or were still on overseas duty. Most of the war brides — 44,886 of them — were from Great Britain. The rest came from the Netherlands and other European countries, as well as Africa, Russia, India, Australia, and the Caribbean. Transporting the dependents was initially the responsibility of the Immigration Branch of the Canadian Department of Mines and Resources. In August 1944, the Department of National Defence took over, establishing the Canadian Wives Bureau. The Red Cross also helped women and children on their journey to Canada.
Assistant Matron Kathleen Hurley helping war bride Mrs. H.F. Whitmore and her son Mervin, who are en route to Canada. Photo taken at the Maple Leaf Club in London, England, on 4 December 1944.
The war brides were taken care of from beginning to end of their voyage. The Canadian Wives Bureau arranged the women's passage, delivered them to their ships and distributed information. Red Cross volunteers tended to their needs in the hostels where they stayed awaiting departure. Once aboard ship, the women and children were under the care of the Army Conducting Staffs. This included doctors, nurses and orderlies from the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. Volunteers from the Red Cross Corps provided crucial assistance on board as well, making the crossing many times with the women.
Escorting officers Helen Drope and Patricia Keene of the Canadian Red Cross serving supper to the children of war brides en route to Canada aboard SS Letitia.(Photo taken on 2 April 1946 in Liverpool, England.)
For some war brides, the Red Cross escorts and the relative abundance of food (many items were rationed in Britain) made the two-week crossing a luxury cruise. For others, the nausea of seasickness or pregnancy made the journey torturous. The crying of seasick children grated on the nerves. The first trip made it obvious that troop ships were unsatisfactory transport for seasick women and children. Bathroom facilities were inadequate, and the ship reeked of vomit and dirty diapers. By 1946, however, conditions had improved. War brides and their children travelled to Canada on refitted luxury liners like the Aquitania and Queen Mary.
Mrs. J.W. Perry, a war bride, and her daughter Sheila aboard S.S. Letitia en route to Canada, where Mrs. Perry will join her husband.(Photo taken on 2 April 1946 in Liverpool, England.)
Upon arrival in Canada, women travelling beyond Nova Scotia continued by train, still escorted by the Red Cross. It was nerve-wracking, coming to a new country to join husbands whom they barely knew and whose families they had never met. Many feared their arrival would not be well-received.
Canada was a culture shock for many, especially big-city girls who suddenly found themselves in rustic farmhouses without running water or indoor plumbing. For some, the dashing soldiers they had met in Europe were broken by war, strangers to their families and new wives. The post-war housing shortage left many brides living with their husbands' families, outsiders in an unfamiliar environment.
Like June, many war brides found a warm welcome among the families of the men for whom they had left home and kin. As June and Jack made a home for their family, she, like most war brides, adjusted and persevered, growing to love her adopted homeland.