Elsie Mills is a war bride who boarded the HV Britannic in Liverpool in 1945 on route to Halifax.
HV Britannic, Elsie Mills, John Paul LeBlanc, Carrie-Ann Smith, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21
MRV: The Buzz, Your Outdoor Lifestyle Insider, Written By: Renee Wright
Welcome To Canada: Pier 21
Elsie Mills Boarded The HV Britannic In Liverpool In 1945 Married To A Canadian Soldier & One Of The Millions Of Immigrants Who Would Step Ashore This Historic Site
When Elsie Mills boarded the HV Britannic in Liverpool in 1945 she set off on a journey that would change her life in more ways than she could imagine. Married at 21 to a Canadian soldier she met while nursing at a convalescent hospital, Elsie already had a 9-month old boy, Ian, when she boarded the ship.
The England she left was a place of sirens going off all night warning of incoming Nazi bombers. “My family lived in Bristol, which was very heavily bombed,” she tells The Buzz. “Ed and I married in 1943. My father was furious that I married a Canadian; I think my mother was just numb. I don’t think I woke up myself until I got to Canada.”
The voyage across the Atlantic took two weeks, with a stop off the Azores to avoid U-boats. “We were supposed to be in a first class cabin,” Elsie recalls, “but it had been taken over as a troopship and there were four bunks in each room. I shared with three other brides and three children, who slept in cots hung on the sides of the bunks by hooks.”
Elsie recalls that during the rough voyage she was homesick, seasick and, like many of the brides, pregnant. Her second child, her daughter Betty, was born 8 months after her arrival in Halifax.
She was also, she says, “grubby. We only had salt water to bathe in on the ship. There was no way to get the salt off my skin. It was especially bad for the baby.” Ian had a particularly bad crossing, Elsie says. “He was seasick on the ship, then when we got off, he was landsick. He couldn’t sleep unless you rocked him all the time.”
When the Britannic docked in Halifax on May 25, 1945, Elsie and Ian stepped ashore at Pier 21, then just an open shed where the brides could collect their trunks. They landed knowing that the war in Europe was over. “I was on the high seas when peace was declared,” she says.
Elsie and Ian Mills were among more than 43,000 war brides and nearly 21,000 children brought to Canada between April 1942 and March 1948. The effort involved more than 60 ships crossing the Atlantic, with most docking at Pier 21. The majority of the war brides, some 93%, were from Great Britain, with a few from Holland, Belgium and other places around the world.
From 1928 to 1971, Pier 21 welcomed more than one million immigrants to Canada from around the world. It was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1997, as the last surviving immigration seaport in the country. In 1999, the Pier 21 Society opened an exhibit in the pier building honoring the many immigrants who began their lives in Canada there. The exhibit expanded into the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in 2011.
Key to this process was John Paul LeBlanc, himself a Canadian flying officer during the war, who married an English girl named Trudy. She arrived at Pier 21 aboard the RMS Aquitania in 1948. “My mother always remembered the moment she saw my father waiting for her on the dock,” Jan Napier, the couple’s daughter, says. “He threw his hat in the air.”
JP LeBlanc had a long and distinguished career in Canadian immigration in the post-war years and in 1988 wrote a book, “Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada.” He founded the Pier 21 Society and served as its first president.
Jan says that her Dad took his inspiration from Ellis Island in New York harbor. “The museum at Pier 21 is the legacy that my Dad left behind,” she says. “It was his vision that played such a critical role in this important site being restored and developed as a national museum.”
Another of Trudy LeBlanc’s favorite memories was the visit of Prince Charles and Camilla. “The royals invited all the war brides to tea,” Jan says. “They came around to each table to meet them individually.”
Many of the war brides were members of a national organization, with regular regional meetings providing mutual support. Carrie-Ann Smith, Chief of Audience Engagement at Pier 21, has in recent years organized regular reunions of the brides who survive, and has collected many oral histories, artifacts and pictures documenting their journeys, now part of the the Pier 21 collection.
Carrie-Ann met Elsie Mills in 1999 when she encountered Elsie and her daughter Betty reading the Historic Properties plaque outside the not-yet open museum. Elsie recalls that she was crying, reflecting on the course her life had taken from this place. The war brides boarded trains on Pier 21 and fanned out across Canada, most to meet their husbands’ families for the first time.
“The sky looked so huge,” Elsie recalls about that day in 1945. “We got on the train and traveled for two days. I thought Canada would all be like Nova Scotia, all green with lakes. I ended up in Ontario, the coldest place in Canada.”
Living with her in-laws brought on a case of culture shock, she says. “My sister-in-law offered me a cup of tea that first day. She had saved it for me from breakfast on the wood burning stove. It was so thick and black that you could stand a spoon up in it. It was several days before I admitted I didn’t drink that kind of tea.”
Carrie-Ann was able to provide Elsie with a picture of the Britannic from the museum’s extensive collection of photos and records, and she and Elsie became fast friends. Elsie became the first war bride to donate her story to the museum archives. Her memories, along with many other war bride stories, are collected in Linda Granfield’s book “Brass Buttons and Silver Horseshoes: The Story of Canada's British War Brides.” Horseshoes, Elsie explains, were often included in English bridal bouquets for luck.
Elsie, now 95, admits she sometimes still gets homesick. “I still get emotional,” she says. “I wanted to go home, but I didn't. The girls the Canadian soldiers brought home as brides were tough.”
A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping.
Make Sure To Check Out:
Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 and experience what it was like to immigrate to Canada through Pier 21. This was the entry point for one in five Canadians between 1928 and 1971. Browse a compelling oral collection of immigrant stories and histories.