NOSTALGIA: Eastbourne girls who found wartime romance

Canadian soldiers training in Eastbourne in 1942
Canadian soldiers training in Eastbourne in 1942

Thousands of Canadian soldiers passed through Eastbourne, many billeted in former private schools and houses in Meads.

In the 1950s everyone had a tale to tell. A grand lady in Milnthorpe Road recalled with English understatement, “One girl was married to a British officer who was a POW, but she still bigamously married a Canadian. And do you know, when he came home he was really quite upset about it.”

With pianos everywhere, the pubs rocked on Fridays when the men had been paid. In The Pilot, the piano that was removed a few years ago was surely the one from which Bombardier Stan Wakins poured out the Glenn Miller hits. He would later lead a professional band in Toronto.

The dance floor at the Winter Garden seethed with soldiers and relationships were formed with local women and girls – married and single. A rise in venereal disease prompted an official warning: “Several cases of gonorrhoea have been contracted in Eastbourne. The Canadian Treatment Centre is open 24 hours a day. VD is a serious matter entailing loss of men to the army and the possibility of long and painful treatment”.

In November 1942, the American film Sex Hygiene was screened. If this is the film shown to British national servicemen in the 1950s, it would have been a truly horrific experience.

An address in Bourne Street was out of bounds and warnings were to be displayed on the buses. However, the Motor Omnibus Committee vetoed the move by five votes to two.

On the other hand, many relationships resulted in marriage, with brides and children sailing to Halifax.

More British girls married Canadians than GIs and nationwide, marriages were running at 1,000 per month. In January 1946, the mayor announced that 150 local girls had married Canadians.

Thousands of miles away, without Skype and budget airlines, many were homesick.

Life was especially hard for those married to French-Canadians and living with in-laws.

However, Kay Fennell (née Griffin), an Eastbourne war bride, said she just wanted to be a Canadian and, in any case, with her husband and eight children, she was far too busy to feel homesick.

A mix of young men, testosterone and beer brings out the worst and the Canadian Army was no different from any other. Eastbourne was also the base of 10 Inter-Allied Commando.

One veteran recalled, “We were cautioned to maintain friendly relations with these commandos who consisted of many nationalities and whose fighting abilities were not to be underestimated.”

French marine commandos were embittered by the attack on their fleet by the Royal Navy in July 1940, but for some reason a feud developed with the Canadians. A brawl in Cavendish Place involved groups of men fighting with broken bottles.

One Eastbourne girl remembered looking on in horror as a burly Canadian farm boy took a vicious beating from a French commando, the others forming a ring to prevent anyone coming to his aid.

There are few vestiges of the Canadian presence but in the 1950s what looked like large cotton reels could be seen nailed to trees with strands of wire still attached – remnants of field-telephone networks linking the billets and administrative buildings. Walls and pavements still bore scars from the Sexton self-propelled guns.

In those pre-internet days, it took weeks to get a reply but through associations and official war diaries a story gradually emerged. There would be calls from Canadians on nostalgic trips suggesting a drink in the Pilot or the Ship.

But now any who remain are too old to make the trip back to what they called their “home from home”.

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