- A.N. Other
- History - general, Ship histories and stories, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2016 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Liz Colthorpe
In the autumn of 1946 the British aircraft carrier HMS Victorious undertook possibly her most unusual task, in transporting approximately 700 Australian war brides to their new British husbands in the United Kingdom. These young women from diverse backgrounds were making the choice to leave behind their families and their country to go to a new and very different life on the other side of the world. They faced homesickness, fear and the challenges of adjusting to life in a new country so different to their own, as well as coping with the routines of a naval warship in an era where women on naval vessels was definitely not the norm.
To achieve this mission, HMS Victorious transformed from a major warship to the equivalent of a passenger liner and Captain John Campbell Annesley, his officers and crew had to cope with the constant challenges associated with handling the needs of 700 women on a long sea voyage. Fifty year old Captain ‘Jumbo’ Annesley, DSO, RN must have wondered what he had done to deserve this challenge. He was man of daring who had won his DSO as a Lieutenant in the Zeebrugge raid and had made steady progress being promoted Captain in 1938.
Almost immediately after commissioning in May 1941 the carrier had been in fleet operations in the Arctic, Atlantic and the Far East. She conducted strikes against the German battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz as well as covering Russian convoys in the North Atlantic. With mounting carrier losses in the Pacific the USN called upon the RN for assistance and Victorious was loaned to the USN from early 1943. In late 1944 the British Pacific Fleet formed with the Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm beginning operations from Australia in February 1945. As part of the British Pacific Fleet’s Task Force 57, Victorious supported the United States bombardment of Okinawa and Sakishima Gunto islands, launching Corsair aircraft against the Japanese. They also experienced a kamikaze attack, resulting in buckling to the armoured flight deck and a hole left by an exploding bomb. Several airmen and three of the crew were killed. Immediately post-war HMS Victorious remained based in Australia mainly involved in repatriation duties.
Making way for her new role, some extensive modifications were carried out at Garden Island Dockyard. The aircraft hangar was converted into dormitories with rows of bunks and overhead fans. Extra bathrooms, toilets and laundries were built along with recreational and dining areas. Facilities included irons, ironing boards, an ice-cream machine, soda fountain, water fountains, a kiosk and a canvas shelter on the flight deck. Sheets and towels were donated by the Red Cross and the Royal Australian Navy donated toilet seats. In order to use the hangar as accommodation for the brides, some redundant aircraft were rolled overboard when the ship was in deep water clear of Sydney Heads. A similar fate awaited more aircraft when the ship departed from Trincomalee in what was known as Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. These aircraft had been given to the Royal Navy by the Americans under lend-lease and as the engineers, fitters and armourers had all left the ship, there was no-one to service them any more. It was simply decided that they were of no use and no longer required!
Captain Annesley’s log and his reports give details of the weather they encountered, the recreational facilities and amenities, medical arrangements, the cabins, dormitories and ablutions areas, difficulties with shore leave in the various ports, money changing and the problems of fraternizing between the women and the ship’s crew.
To make things logistically easier, the Captain decided there would be only one class of war bride, everyone would eat the same food, they would be allowed the same amount of luggage and they would receive their mail at ports of call in the same way as naval personnel. This was to put a stop to issues of ‘class’ arising although those who had married above sub-lieutenant rank had cabins while everyone else had dormitory accommodation.
The menu was altered to ‘suit women’, with heavy puddings and soups removed but Captain Annesley reported that ‘appetites were enormous’. Over a period of time, the food was rationed as the Captain was attempting to introduce his passengers to what they could expect in post war England. Needless to say, there were many complaints!
Seasickness was a major problem to be handled, with many of the brides being very ill and unable to cope with the rough weather, particularly when the ship was crossing the Great Australian Bight. This had been anticipated and 7,000 paper bags had been obtained which proved to be invaluable. It was at this stage that many of them began to question why they had chosen to go on this trip!
Homesickness became a problem for many of the women so entertainments were organised. These included dances, tombola, beauty contests, leg and ankle competitions, fancy dress parades, crossing the line ceremony, play readings, cabaret shows, broadcast programs, tours of the ship and handicraft classes. Amenities included a cinema, library, writing room, pool, lounge, canteen, ice-cream and soft drinks bar, deck chairs, hairdressing salon and arrangements were made for physical training and deck hockey.
A small cabin with two beds was selected as a sick bay for the women and there was an overflow emergency dormitory with six beds in it. For 700 women, this very quickly proved to be totally inadequate and the overflow space lacked ventilation. No baths or toilets were in easy reach of this cabin. As many of the women were pregnant, one can only imagine how the medical arrangements were intended to work effectively!
A later report by Captain Annesley recommended that in future, if possible, pregnant women should have special dormitories on a deck where the mess, recreation space and toilets and showers were all on the same level. To improve the medical facilities, a dormitory of 14-20 beds should have ablution facilities nearby and an outpatients department should be closer to the women’s sick bay so that equipment and facilities could be more easily shared. His next recommendation was that an adequate supply of sheets, towels and pillowcases was essential! With regard to social arrangements, he recommended that wives and husbands should not travel in the same ship, wives of officers and ratings should not be in the same ship unless the numbers were small or the ship was designed for carrying different classes of female passengers and no male passengers should be carried other than those borne for duty. While this was not unusual for the social structure of the world post World War II, times were changing and in today’s world such recommendations would not be considered appropriate!
When the ship started into warmer waters and the women were often seen lounging on the decks in bikinis, it became more and more obvious that liaisons were taking place between the young women and the crew. The Captain decided to commence night patrols and the women were requested to be in their bunks by 2300. A duty women’s officer checked to see that no women were missing and the men’s mess decks were out of bounds to the women. This was the best that could be done to solve this problem but young people seemed to break the rules regularly. It was reported that they would meet up on the deck at night and hide anywhere they couldn’t be easily seen, for their rendezvous. Captain Annesley announced to the women, ‘I never thought I’d see the day when sex reared its ugly head on my ship! This is how it’s going to be – anybody misbehaving will be put ashore regardless of where it is, and will have to find their own way home.’ Two women were put off the ship at Fremantle as they were found to be charging the sailors for ‘services rendered’ on the poop deck!
When shore leave was granted the women handed in berthing cards at the gangway when going ashore and collected them on their return. In some ports it was considered necessary to have escorts as some of the women were inexperienced in the ways of the world. Two women had sneaked ashore without an escort in Colombo and become lost so they were not allowed off the ship again for the rest of the trip. The navy felt responsible for the women’s safety and the women were expected to be responsible in return.
Many of the women were also inexperienced, particularly about money and foreign ports so all money had been changed into sterling with small amounts of money being changed into local currency on the day before arrival at foreign ports. However, some of the women found out the hard way. A group had gone up into the mountains into Kandy where the local children were bathing elephants. Rides were requested and a price agreed upon, only to be raised when the women wanted to get off!
The Suez Canal brought the first signs of the war for many of the women. There were sunken ships lying on their sides as well as German prisoners of war wandering around. Gibraltar proved to be more enjoyable for them as, being a British base, the women were free to walk and roam around seeing the sights and eating sweet navel and blood oranges which had been brought over from Spain.
It was discovered that several women never bothered to meet their husbands when the ship arrived in Plymouth. These women made their way off the ship secretly, going off with new partners from the ship. However, most of the women were very glad to see that their husbands were there waiting for them on the dock. It was well known that the ship had received telegrams for some of the wives saying ‘Not wanted, don’t come’. One can only imagine how heartbroken they would have been upon hearing this news. The navy then had the responsibility of sending them back to Australia.
For many of the war brides, their decision whether to stay in Britain or return to Australia was often decided by their husband. Australia with its sunshine, open spaces and loving families was more enticing than Britain with its cold weather and rationing. The women that chose to return home to Australia returned on ships that took them back the way they had come but this time they often had children and memories of experiences unlike those back home.
Early in the voyage the Captain made a speech to the women which probably reflected his frustration at the behaviour of some of his passengers. He said, ‘I have never had women on my ship before and I hope never to have them again’. The good captain and all his young female passengers did survive their ordeal and later celebrated what was to most an adventure of a lifetime.