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War Brides - Women in Love

As St Valentine’s Day approaches, we would like to remind everyone that the RAF Museum London is currently hosting a very topical exhibition - War Brides. This exhibition portrays courageous young women who fell in love with airmen from different countries during the Second World War. Each of these women decided to leave their homelands and everything they had known and to make a leap of faith for the love of an airman.

Just some of the war brides on display in this exhibition

The Second World War brought together a lot of people who would not have met under normal circumstances. Thousands of young local girls fell in love and married airmen from Australia or New Zealand stationed on RAF bases in the UK or English ‘flyboys’ stationed in Canada. Couples met on the dance floor, on air bases, blind dates, in queues, hospitals, air raid shelters, pretty much everywhere.

Bev Tosh, Canadian artist, who has created War Brides exhibition

Canadian artist Bev Tosh is the daughter of a New Zealand pilot and his war bride. Her mother never spoke about other war brides. When a New Zealand newspaper published Bev’s painting of her mother, much to her surprise, Bev was contacted by an incredible number of other women who had married foreign nationals stationed abroad and followed them back to their homelands. Their stories, tragic and heart-warming, were shared with her over cups of tea and open photo albums. They struck her so much that she has painted a series of portraits picturing these fearless women.

The portrait of Eileen Little in our War Brides exhibition at the RAF Museum London

Some of these stories are truly romantic, as for example, the story of Eileen Little, who was a member of the RAF. In December 1944, when she attended a dance party organised in a huge aeroplane hangar, she danced with a handsome young Canadian named Jimmie from the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).  

Eileen Clarke and Jimmie (Ernie) Little

As Eileen remembers: ‘He invited me for refreshments. I gladly accepted, as our pay and rations were limited, and this was a real treat for me.  He bought two glasses of beer and said: “Nature calls”, which I neither heard nor understood. He promptly vanished. Feeling very uncomfortable sitting at a table with two inviting glasses in front of me with many friendly airmen glancing my way, I immediately left the table and returned to the comfort of the girls who were sitting around chatting.’

Eileen and Jimmie (Ernie) Little on their wedding day

Jimmie soon found Eileen again, walked her back to the Women’s hut at the station and invited her to a picture show the following night. He departed four days later, but they kept writing to each other until February 1945, when he arrived back in the UK. On the upper deck of a bus in Birmingham he took out of his pocket a small blue Birks box. ‘Do you want this now or do you want to wait until we have your parents’ permission to marry?’, he asked. Eileen chose to see it right then and there, so he put the ring on her finger right there, on a double-decker bus, in the middle of a very cold winter and she didn't put her glove back on for the rest of the journey to Northern England. 

Eileen and Jimmie (Ernie) Little in Lantzville BC with the Mounties on Remembrance Day in 2001

Eileen’s parents gave their permission, so Eileen and Jimmie were fully engaged on St Valentine’s Day, 14 February 1945, and got married in Wakefield, Yorkshire on 27 June 1945.

The portrait of Betty (Speedy) Rees in War Brides Exhibition at the RAF Museum London

Betty (Speedy) Rees, who was lucky to be evacuated from Jersey by cattle boat the day before the Nazi occupation, met her destiny at an RAF dance too, right on St Valentine’s Day. She was a WAAF and he was a Newfoundland airman. They were married wearing their uniform (Betty was wearing Signals) and he put on her finger a ring that he had made for her from a scrap of airplane metal. 

Hazel West with her portrait in the War Brides exhibition at the RAF Museum London

Just last month, in January 2019, another war bride, Hazel (Walker) West, lost her beloved RCAF pilot, Russell, aged 97. They met on a blind date in war-torn London. As she described him: ‘He stands before me in a uniform immaculately pressed, the buttons shining, the hat placed jauntily over one eye’. 

Hazel and Russell West on their wedding day

This Valentine’s Day there will be on the mantel-piece one remaining St Valentine’s card left from their long years of happy marriage. It is a pink card that features Snoopy (the Schultz dog), paw to mouth and the words: "Do you have just a Teeny-Weeny moment”, when his two large arms covered in hearts are opened out, he is transformed into a smiling, dancing, happy Snoopy saying: “For a great BIG Valentine hug?". As Hazel says now: ‘I do not have a story connected to this card only that I miss him very much. I am going to keep it out for this Valentine's Day and put it where I and others can see it.’

Bev Tosh with war brides' portraits

Bev Tosh’s exhibition unveils more fascinating stories about the war brides that contacted her. Each is as unique as the amazing women they talk about, but each is a story of love and courage.

Today, so close to St Valentine’s Day, we would like to invite romantics everywhere to view this amazing exhibition and to explore the stories of the men and women who were able to find love and hope for the future even in the crucible of the world’s deadliest conflict.

Tatiana Timoshina: Communications Executive: Digital Media
About the Author

Tatiana Timoshina: Communications Executive: Digital Media

I am responsible for all of the Museum's Social Media and Digital communications. As a recent joiner to the Museum I look forward to discovering amazing stories and sharing them with you.

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