Operation precious cargo
Wartime Essex had been host to thousands of overseas servicemen. Some merely touched down in transit; others were stationed here for months and others stayed for several years during and after the war. It was hardly surprising - with the majority of Britain's eligible bachelors away fighting - that romance blossomed between these smart young men and girls living in the towns and villages around the military camps. The American GIs were once described as 'overpaid, over-sexed and over here".
When the war ended in May 1945, the repatriation of allied troops meant that the brides (and children) they had left behind in England, were anxious to join their husbands. After many frustrating months with little progress and protests on the streets of London demanding that the dependants of overseas servicemen should be allowed to leave without further delay, clearance was finally granted and the movement of tens of thousands of women and children from Britain, began.
The SS Argentina was the first official 'war bride' ship taking women, babies and youngsters to America on 26th January1946. They had been cooped up at Tidworth Transit Camp on Salisbury Plain and had endured harsh conditions over previous weeks. The 3,000 mile sea voyage was far from pleasant. The SS Argentina ran into an enormous storm, camp sickness had travelled with the passengers and the ship had not yet been properly refitted for civilian passengers. The accommodation was very basic. The food on board though was a very welcome break from years of rationing for those that still had the stomach to eat it! Subsequently, over many months, more than 70,000 women, some with babies and toddlers, boarded twenty converted ships trasnporting them to America, including the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Aquitania.
With romance in the air, the English girls had taken a chance on uncertain futures in America and Canada. The majority of them went on to make successful, happy lives in their new homes. For some though the reality of life with husbands in peacetime was not what they expected. Many had never even seen their husbands in civilian clothes. For others, their partners were still in Europe so they travelled to meet and live with their families - often strangers with a different culture. Although there are no figures available on the amount of brides who returned to Britain, for many, the price of leaving everything familiar behind was too high. Some 200 reporters and newsreel cameras greeted the first "petticoat pilgrims," as the British media had dubbed them. A special act of Congress had waived immigration quotas for the war brides, and they claimed a unique place in the country's social fabric - a mass influx of foreigners drawn here - not by need - but by love. Across America the women scattered to every state, slipping quietly into their new lives.
Many Essex women settled happily in America and formed several organisations which still flourish over sixty years on.