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Australian War brides

2006 marked the sixtieth anniversary of a little-known piece of Plymouth history, the arrival here of 655 Australian war brides.

During the Second World War, many British sailors serving in the Pacific and Asian theatres married Australian women, who they met when taking shore leave.

After the war, the sailors came home to Britain on board their ships, leaving their brides on the other side of the world.

In July 1946, the British authorities and Royal Navy took the unprecedented step of reuniting husbands and wives. The Australian brides were given passage to Britain on board the specially converted aircraft carrier HMS Victorious, arriving in Plymouth in early August.

See below for a short account of the war brides' journey.

Plymouth Library Service is particularly grateful to Gwen and Bill West, from Manly in Australia, and to Beryl Roberts from Peverell in Plymouth, for providing information about the voyage: both Gwen and Beryl were war bride passengers on board the aircraft carrier.

Read the Passenger List of war brides who departed from Sydney.

Find out more about the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious.

Australian war brides arrive at Plymouth: 7 August 1946

War brides

At 7am on Wednesday 7 August 1946, after spending 36 days at sea, 655 Australian women began to disembark from the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious, which lay at anchor in Plymouth Sound having steamed in the previous evening.

The women walked down the gangplank onto the deck of the Liner Tender Sir Richard Grenville, which in turn carried the women the short distance to Millbay Pier. The women were war brides, and they stepped ashore to be reunited with their husbands, British Royal Naval personnel who had served with the Pacific Fleet.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, many thousands of war brides were transported from continent to continent, the vast majority of them from Europe to North America. The 655 Australians, however, were the only brides to have been transported on a military vessel, and this only after intense lobbying of Australian and British authorities.

In Australia

Following the end of hostilities, Victorious had been converted and used to transport troops and other personnel to and from the UK and the East and Australia. During May 1946, further alterations were made to the hangars and lift shafts to accommodate the war brides, 603 of who joined the ship at Woolloomooloo wharf, Sydney. In the log for 2 July, ship's Captain Annesley entered "Commenced embarkation of wives of naval personnel for passage to UK."

Passenger number 374 on the ship's manifest was entered as Roberts, Beryl, and passenger number 492 was entered as West, Gweneth. Beryl was 19 years old, Gwen was 24, and both were listed as being British housewives, formerly residents of Australia and future residents of the United Kingdom. Beryl's husband was Chief Petty Officer Harry Roberts, whose family lived at Peverell in Plymouth. Gwen was coming to Plymouth to be reunited with husband Bill.

Bill West, born in 1925 in Stockport, joined the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm just before his eighteenth birthday. Bill was injured flying sorties from HMS Indefatigable, and was sent to the British Centre in Sydney to recover. It was there, in mid-1945, that Bill met Gwen Jamieson, a volunteer at the Centre. Bill and Gwen were married at Ashfield Baptist Church on Friday, 2 November 1945. Two months later, Bill returned to the UK.

The Passengers

The youngest war bride on Victorious was just 15 years old, whilst about a third of the women were teenagers. The two oldest were 41. On Wednesday afternoon, 3 July, they and their fellow passengers were given an emotional send off by a crowd of over 6,000. Gwen West described the scene in her memoirs The Carrier Brideship Sails: "The mighty Victorious drew away from Woolloomooloo wharf; with the brides at many vantage points, and bright streamers trailing from the ship’s side. Our families and friends, apprehensive and tearful, waving goodbye from the wharf, and the Harbour Bridge gradually receding into the distance."

Each of the women was given a pamphlet: HMS Victorious: A Guide to Civilian Passengers. As well as listing dos and don’ts, the pamphlet contained information about facilities the women could use, including laundry, church, hairdressers, cinema, shop and library, which was "situated in the Upper level adjacent to the chapel and the Torpedo Body Room". Leather craft and felt toy making were also laid on.

The Voyage

After a brief stop at Fremantle, Western Australia, where a further 52 war brides went aboard (12 of who were married to servicemen in the Royal Netherlands Navy), and where the war brides were serenaded from the shore with Waltzing Matilda, Victorious visited Trincomalee and Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Aden at the entrance to the Red Sea.

To get to Port Said in Egypt and on to Gibraltar in the Mediterranean, the ship passed through the recently re-opened Suez Canal. Beryl Roberts recalls an incident when the women were waving from the flight deck to soldiers dressed in khaki shorts on the shore at Port Said, only to be warned by Captain Annesley that the soldiers were German prisoners of war. Gwen West wrote: "The memory of this giant aircraft carrier steaming through the Suez Canal will remain with me forever”.

Throughout the voyage, some of the women worked as typists and clerks. Entertainment that the women devised for themselves included a 'crossing the line' ceremony with King Neptune, brides' painting party, fancy dress ball, prettiest leg and ankle competition and a sports day featuring a 'rescue the maiden' race. Officers of the watch conducted 'Chastity Rounds', described by Captain Annesley: "Rounds of all weather decks, galleries and gun positions were carried out frequently and at irregular periods after dark. All women had to be in their bunks by 11pm".

In Plymouth

At Plymouth the women were met by the Lord Mayor Isaac Foot and presented with a card stating: "As you step ashore I bid you welcome to Britain and to this historic City. Our ties with you and your folk have always been very close, and during the war those ties have been strengthened. For five years squadrons of the RAAF were honoured guests of this City. Many of our girls have found happy homes in your country. May you have great happiness here in the Motherland, and may God’s blessing rest upon you".

The war brides' arrival was widely covered in local papers. The Western Independent reported that Beryl, who moved in with her in-laws, "likes the shops in Plymouth but thinks shoes are terribly expensive" (11 August). At the time of Beryl's arrival, her husband, Harry was serving on board HMS Black Prince in New Zealand, and it was a further three months before the couple were reunited.

The Western Morning News (WMN) reported that the women had lectures on board Victorious preparing them for rationing and other hardships in Britain (7 August). Both the WMN and the Western Evening Herald carried stories of the women passing through customs and being greeted by their husbands and new relatives (7 August). Both papers also mentioned two brides who stayed on board Victorious, hoping for passage back to Australia!

Gwen West too returned to Australia. She and Bill emigrated in 1947 and settled in Sydney, where they celebrated their Diamond Wedding anniversary in November 2005.

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