Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Remarkable War Brides of WWII

My mother was a true hero.  She was part of a contingent of 48,00 women who chose to come to Canada fifty five years ago, braving the hardships and the radical adjustment to cold prairie winters in small towns and farms across the country.  Many were faced with discrimination and anger, and the romance and adventure quickly gave way to the reality of their new lives, far away from their families.

When WWII broke out,  Margaret "Peggy" Nelson was nineteen years old.  She lived through days of rations and air raid sirens, and witnessed the horror of  fighter planes having 'dogfights' overhead while bystanders placed bets on who would win. With the war came an influx of many foreign troops into England.  It was during this time that Peggy had a relationship with a Canadian soldier which ended when she became pregnant.  She had believed him to be an honourable gentleman, but it turned out that he had a wife back home in Canada.  During this difficult time, she decided to move to Tunbridge Wells in Kent to live with her sister Tina, where her beautiful daughter Jacqueline was born in October 1943.

Wedding Day - June 1945
While living in Tunbridge Wells,  Peggy worked, first at the local Woolworth store, and then later as a conductress on the buses in London.   She recalled witnessing many scenes of horror and destruction in London as a result of the bombing blitz.  She often commented on the knot she would get in her stomach whenever an air raid siren would go off and the horror of the "buzz bombs".  They were particularly frightening because one never knew where they were going to land.

Shortly after the birth of Jacqueline, Peggy decided to go back to Durham in northern England to live with her parents.  It was here that she met her future husband, Howard, an RCAF aero-engine mechanic, from Gull Lake, Saskatchewan. They met at the local Durham ice rink, where Howard played hockey with the RCAF "Rossmen".  Howard soon taught Peggy how to skate, their relationship blossomed, and they were married in June of 1944 in Durham.

Queen Mary
When the war ended, Howard returned to Canada to establish a home for Peggy and Jacqueline.  It was a year later when they were finally allowed passage to Canada.  They sailed on the Queen Mary which departed from Southampton and landed in Halifax in 1946.  This was followed by a long train ride to Saskatchewan.  Not knowing what to expect, Peggy was surprised to find that "the farm over there" was really the prairie town of Vanguard, Saskatchewan, her new home.
Ships' Register - Queen Mary - courtesy

The hardships faced by  "war brides" has been well documented, and many of these hardships became part of Peggy's life. The fairy tale dream of coming to a new country with her handsome soldier, quickly became the reality of cold, harsh prairie winters, living in a small town on a small income, adjusting to new Canadian customs and culture, and trying to become accepted by her new in-laws who were not particularly overjoyed at her arrival.

Arrival in Vanguard, Saskatchewan, 1946
Howard, Peggy, Jacqueline, Ethel (Howard's sister)

Peggy missed her family in England immensely, and found some consolation in the many friendships she made while living in Vanguard.  Sadly, in 1949, Jacqueline died during a routine tonsillectomy, either from an allergic reaction or overdose of ether.  Peggy had already given birth to a second daughter, and shortly after Jacqueline's death, a son.  In 1955, Peggy's homesickness became so intense that she traveled by boat back to England with her two small children in tow and stayed for three month, almost deciding not to come back.  After some coaxing, she eventually she did return to her anxious husband back in Canada.  In speaking of the heroism of war brides,  journalist Catherine Ford wrote,  "In the great scheme of grand deeds, the individual acts of courage of a wave of women and children don't seem much until one factors in the personal courage each had to show in the face of the unknown."  For this, her posterity can ever be thankful.

For more information on war brides, visit the Canadian War Brides website.


  1. What a wonderful story. It makes me want to look further into the story about my own ancestors. Little, by little, I will.

  2. Thank you for sharing your mother's story. So much has been done in Canada to document their lives and tell the story. Congratulations.

  3. Great story Judi! Your my first Canadian geneology blog. What a great one to start with! :)

  4. What a beautiful couple. Thank you for sharing the brave and sometimes sad reality.
    - Brenda

  5. A wonderful story - thank you.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)