Love in Wartime: War Weddings
Whirlwind romances were not uncommon during the Second World War. We often hear stories of Dear John letters, of the American servicemen who wooed many New Zealand women. Of evenings spent dancing, gifts of flowers, chocolates or even a pair of new nylons - a rare commodity with war-time rationing. Between June 1942 and mid-1944, nearly 1500 New Zealand women married American servicemen, New Zealand servicemen returning from Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific brought over 3000 wives and 700 fiancées to New Zealand.1 Before and after both World Wars, the annual rate of marriage climbed, reaching a peak of 12.4 marriages for every 1000 people in New Zealand. These stories of war brides and wartime weddings are compelling. Historian Gabrielle Fortune and I have put together the stories of three New Zealanders who met and fell in love during the Second World War.
DILYS EDWARDS AND WILLIAM BARNETT
Dilys Edwards was one of the 3000 war brides, who married a New Zealander and began a new life here.
Dilys Edwards of Edgbaston, Birmingham was a WAAF Section Officer when she met New Zealander William (Bill) Barnett, who was serving with RAF 627 Squadron in England. Dilys’ story is of a romantic relationship with William, an engagement in September 1944 and a wedding a few weeks later. Dilys continued her war service as Section Officer at RAF Little Rissington in Gloucestershire after her marriage. Bill continued as a pilot with RAF 627 Squadron where he flew Mosquitos.2
Five months after they married, during the night of the 27/28 March 1945, Barnett was the Captain of a mosquito aircraft, on an operation laying mines in the channel of the Elbe River, near Hamburg. The crew were hit by anti-aircraft flak, and while they were able to extinguish the fire, they had to force-land in the North Sea and were reported ‘missing, presumed dead’.3 The authorities were so sure that the men and their aircraft had been lost that Bill’s wife, Dilys, received a widow’s pension from the Defence Department. Bill’s parents, who lived at 68 Old Mill Road, Grey Lynn, Auckland, were no doubt also informed.
As his family coped with this news, Bill was a Prisoner of War in Stalag 10A at Schleswig in the far north of Germany, about 130 km north of Hamburg.4 Dilys did not know this at the time and her worst fears must have been confirmed when his ‘missing in action presumed killed’ designation was reinforced by the fact that she was being paid a widow’s pension. The young bride was facing the stark reality of never seeing her husband again.
Bill survived the crash-landing in the North Sea, and spent four days in the aircraft rescue dinghy that eventually grounded on the island of Hallig Hooge in the Friesian Islands – a German possession. He clambered to the closest house on the shores of the island and banged on the door. The woman who answered, screamed when she saw a strange greenish blood-stained man on the doorstep. Blood from Bill’s head injuries and the dye from his life jacket had discoloured his skin resulting in a macabre sight. Residents tended to his injuries and his need for water until he was taken to the mainland, and committed to the nearest prisoner of war camp hospital. Bill was a POW at Schleswig for several weeks.5
Not long after he recovered from his injuries, he was discharged to the camp only to have the prison guards surrender their arms to him as the senior officer in the camp, saying they were leaving, and the gates were open. What followed were efforts to get food for the inmates and for Bill to get transport to reach Hamburg. His capture as a prisoner of war was not passed on to appropriate authorities, as had been the practice during most of the war. The protocol of informing the opposing side of the names of captured soldiers was the norm. But by April 1945, with the war virtually over, no information about Bill’s whereabouts reached Britain. Eventually he made his way back to England, where he was hospitalised but able to let his wife know his whereabouts. On release from hospital, he made his way to RAF Little Rissington for an emotional reunion with Dilys.
Dilys came to New Zealand as a War Bride. Her romance and marriage were typical wartime occurrences. Having married a New Zealander, Dilys joined the ranks of those who undertook long journeys to settle in new countries as part of the War Bride migration that happened around the world at the end of World War II. Tens of thousands of women who had married servicemen they met during the war were transported to their husbands’ home country as dependents of military personnel. Governments were concerned about this exodus of large numbers of their young female population, and politicians rationalized the migration as ‘balancing out’ as women crisscrossed the globe. New Zealand welcomed about 4,000 women whilst farewelling a similar number to the United States. Being part of that resettlement experience Dilys joined a recognized group whose romantic attachment involved marriage and migration. She is part of a well-defined cohort that created lives for themselves and their families in places far removed from their homelands. Dilys died in 2004. William, aged 91, died in 2011. Even at 90 when retelling his story, Bill recalled that the widow’s pension paid to Dilys had to be refunded to the Defence Department!
JOAN ROWBERRY AND ROBERT MCVICAR
Joan Constance Rowberry was working as an Observer, plotting forecast maps when the Second World War broke out. The Royal New Zealand Air Force then took over the meteorological office, and she enlisted with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1942.6 Joan was one of the 20 WAAFs who were sent to Laucala Bay, Fiji. When she arrived, she recalled to Bee Dawson, that she felt as though she had stepped into to a steam oven:
‘The beautiful colours of the flora and the magnificent evening sunsets compensated for the heat by day. If caught out in tropical downpours all you need to do was to hold something above your head and stand quite still until the rain stopped. Then you would continue on your merry way in the sunshine.7
Joan was working in the Meteorological Section in Laucala Bay, where she observed and plotted weather maps for American forecasters. This information was then turned into coded messages and sent back to the Post Office, where they were sent as Morse code to Army, Air Force and Navy Bases.8
About four months after Joan had arrived, three post office employees came to look over the Meteorological Office. This was how Joan ended up meeting her husband, Robert (Bob) Neil McVicar . ‘Some post office lads dropped into the meteorological office in order to see where the messages they were sending out by Morse originated.’9 A week later, Bob rang and asked if Joan would like to go to the pictures. She recalled to Bee Dawson, ‘I didn’t really remember him, so I went around asking who Bob McVicar was.’10
Naturally enough there were plenty of romantic encounters at RNZAF bases like Laucala Bay in Fiji. Some were short-lived while others endured. Most could not be kept secret! Colleen Dee, who served in Fiji, wrote to her family that:
There was some excitement in our hut – Mick [WAAF] has become engaged to one of our forecasters. He is a farmer back home and Mick has known him for years. Also, this [is a] secret Mary Wilkie is engaged to one of the weather boys –he has gone up north for six months. Her engagement is still secret although she has received cables of congratulations from her parents. Mavis Joyce the other met WAAF is going with an airman whom she intends to marry at the end of the war, so Ashby and I are the only old maids!11
Joan and Bob spent many of their evenings together. ‘When the Americans held dances at the Grand Pacific Hotel, Bob and I would sit close by in the lovely moonlight and listen to the band play music of the Glenn Miller Style. We loved that,’ she said.12 It was on one such evening a few months after they had been dating that Bob asked Joan to marry him. She said yes, and they were married at the Holy Trinity Church in Suva.
‘We WAAFs all wore our white tropical uniforms and Bob was in his army uniform. A friend of Bob’s gave me away. We had real confetti. And the girls formed a guard of honour outside the Church.’13
Joan recalled ‘Katrine Loughnan, our officer said, ‘“We’d like you to have a nice wedding.” And everyone made sure I did. The WAAFs were wonderful. There was no chance of a wedding dress for me…’14 While wearing one's uniform was the norm in Britain, austerity measures limited the availability of fabric, and clothing coupons made it difficult to purchase wedding gowns. It wasn’t always the same here in New Zealand: often the custom of long white dresses continued throughout the war, with some brides getting particularly creative in finding fabric. 15
MARGARET PASSEY AND VIVIAN MCNABB
When Wren Margaret Ila Passey married Able Seaman Vivian McNabb in 1944, it was her fellow Wrens who formed the guard of honour for the newlywed couple. Guards of honour are a ceremonial mark of respect common in military weddings. Traditionally in a naval wedding, an arch of swords would be formed by Navy Officers for the bride and groom to pass through. Breaking with tradition, it was Margaret’s fellow Wrens, from her Signal course that formed the guard of honour.
Margaret Ila Passey was born on 1 February 1922, in Palmerston North. She joined the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service (WRNZNS) as a Probationary Wren in the Steward Branch, just a few days after her 19th birthday, in 1943. Margaret was based in Wellington, and promoted to a Qualified Wren in May 1943, from June 1943 to early 1944, she was based at HMNZS Cook, in Wellington.16
In 1944 Margaret underwent training to become a visual signaller, which was one of the more urgent roles required in the Navy. Visual Signallers would use flags, which represented letters or numbers, to spell out words or pre-arranged alphanumeric sequences that represent complex concepts, which were then deciphered through codebooks.
Margaret had just finished her signals course when she married Vivian Richard McNabb, an Able Seaman with the Royal New Zealand Navy. McNabb had enlisted in July 1942, and served on minesweepers around New Zealand, mainly based in Auckland and Wellington.
The couple were married on 20 May 1944 by Rev. H. L. Fiebig, at Cuba Street Methodist Church in the bride's hometown of Palmerston North. Her fellow Wrens from her signals course formed the guard of honour to salute the couple. Because signallers were so sought after in the Navy, Margaret remained with the WRNZNS after her wedding.
Margaret and Vivian remained with the Navy until 1945, with Margaret based in Wellington Command Headquarters before being posted to the Signals Distribution Office. She was discharged on 16 May 1945, while Vivian remained in the Navy until November. The newlyweds then returned to New Plymouth, where they had five children. Margaret passed away in 2017 at the age of 95, and Vivian passed away in 2019, aged 96.
At the end of the Second World War, New Zealand welcomed nearly 4,000 women from over 35 countries. Marriage rates during both the First and Second World War reached a peak in the 1940s setting a record for New Zealand.17 Of her own war time wedding, Joan Rowberry recalled, “When we decided to get married, that was it - we didn’t really think of the war, or how we were involved in it.”18
All three couples were typical of wartime romances in that they met by accident and, in the middle of a very uncertain world where war raged, they recognised something special and acted upon it. For brides coming to New Zealand, it was a very courageous thing to do, as they often knew very little about New Zealand and few had any real concept of the distance to travel here. Whilst they were generally welcomed by their new families, it was sometimes a painful realisation that visits to their families in subsequent years would be rare events.
For Joan, who used to think about what it would be like to go back to New Zealand, finding Bob was great. ‘I’m coming back with someone,’19 she told Bee Dawson. The stories of these three women and their war-time weddings, touch on the rise of marriages during the period. It is also part of the wider story of New Zealand’s service women, and their insistence to ‘do their bit’ for their country.
 Megan Cook, 'Marriage and partnering - Marriage, 1900 to the 1960s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
 Peter McQuaid (ed), Wartime Memories: stories from our men, women and children in World War II, Dolphin, 1995, p.92-93.
 Hanson, C.M. By Such Deeds: Honours and Awards in the Royal New Zealand Air Force 1923 -1999. p.74
An account of the crash landing and survival, an extract from Martin W. Bowman, Mosquito: Menacing the Reich. Combat action in the twin-engine wooden wonder of World War II, Pen & Sword, South Yorkshire, 2008.
Bee Dawson, Spreading their wings, p. 71
 Laucala Bay,
 Dee family letter from Colleen, MS-Papers-6841, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington
 Information on Margaret Ila Passey and Vivian McNab, kindly provided by the Royal New Zealand Navy Museum.
 Stats New Zealand, New Zealand Official Yearbook, 1946.
 Fortune, Gabrielle. Weddings and war in 1940s New Zealand. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 7 April 2016. Updated: 13 April 2016.
Cite this article
Gabrielle Fortune and Madison Pine.
Love in Wartime: War Weddings. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 9 April 2021. Updated: 16 April 2021.