Mary Muhr's WW 2 experience in New Zealand and sailing to England from New Zealand in 1945 to marry

Dear Mackenzie,

I came across your interesting website while considering responding to the BBC Radio 4 broadcast, 'Prescott at your service'. Could you please give the BBC the opportunity to use first the attached letter for their Feedback programme on Friday and Sunday, but if you would then be interested in adding it to your letters page, please do so.

My mother (of Scottish parentage) has also written about her experience in sailing to England from New Zealand in 1945 to marry my father, who she met during the war while he was a gunnery instructer out there.

Best wishes, Ken


Dear Madam/Sir,

Last week’s fascinating BBC Radio 4 broadcast ‘Prescott at your service’, describing how current (Labour) Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott had, as a ship steward/waiter in 1957, served the then recently resigned (Conservative) Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, on a six weeks voyage to New Zealand in the Ocean liner Rangitata, brought back memories to me. Despite their political and class differences, Prescott regarded the convalescing old-Etonian Sir Anthony, who had suffered ill health and exhaustion since his controversial decision to invade in the Suez, as “an old-fashioned Tory gent” who treated him politely.

In early 1960, my widowed mother (Mary Muhr, nee Paterson) took her young family, my two sisters, my younger brother and myself, on a similar voyage on the Ruahine, a New Zealand Shipping Company sister ship of the Rangitata, back to her native New Zealand for the first time since she had sailed in convey (on the Empire Grace) to Britain in 1945, to marry my father. We were leaving Fen Ditton, Cambridgeshire, to live with her mother (my grandmother), at the old doctor’s house/surgery in Eastbourne, Wellington Harbour, where her late husband (my grandfather) had been the GP.

We were certainly not travelling first class, but although us children had to eat in a separate restaurant, I remember as a 9 year-old being impressed, after the austerity of Britain, that we could choose from the same superb menus as the adults, and were treated with great respect and kindness by the waiters. Not only was the food excellent but there was also plenty of it, and sometimes we ate on deck.

There were also plenty of films and entertainment. Unlike John Prescott, who was awarded by Sir Anthony two bottles of beer and two hours’ overtime for his boxing prowess, I won no prizes, but I did make an impact on the voyage. My 6 year-old brother, Alan, wearing a fir coat and made up with lipstick, powder and jewellery, and with (fake) £50 notes almost falling out of his handbag, posed as the pretentiously vulgar Lady (Norah) Docker in a fancy dress party - and was judged a winner. When the ‘little girl’ was to asked to come up to collect her prize, my exclaim, “It’s not a girl!  It’s my brother!” caused great mirth!

Although I was tearful about leaving home, I recall with pleasure my 6 weeks sailing on the Ruahine those 47 years ago.

Yours sincerely,

Ken Muhr

Hello Ken,


Thank you for that, I will wait until next week to add your letter to AHOY.

By coincidence, I was married in December 1945, and was still serving in HMAS Shropshire, as a Lieutenant RAN. The ship carried the Australian Victory Contingent to England in mid 1946, I stayed behind to undergo the first combined Torpedo Anti-Submarine Specialist Officer course all through 1947, and part of 1948 in various RN schools.

After a lot of wangling I managed a passage for my bride from Melbourne to Tilbury later in 1946, by coincidence the ship was SS Rangitata.

Small world sometimes.
Best wishes,

Good to hear from you Mackenzie, and to learn about your own experiences.

I attach for your interest wartime recollections my mother wrote in 2005 to coincide with the 60th anniversary of VE Day. A local historian/barrister collected, exhibited and published a pamphlet of a number of recollections from older residents from the parishes of Fen Ditton and Horningsea (near Cambridge), selling the latter (pamphlet) to raise funds for the churches. I would need to ask my mother and this lady if they minded, should you want to use my mother's recollections.

Best wishes, Ken

Royal Navy * Civil Defence * St John 8 Merchant Navy * Royal Air Force * A.R.P

Name: Mary Muhr

My story:

Compared with the experiences of people living in Britain and considering that for most of its duration I remained in New Zealand, the country of my birth, my war was an easy war. There we had no food rationing, black-outs, gas masks or air raids. We had a plentiful supply of foods, especially of all the dairy products, as well as seasonal crops of fruit and vegetables. Imported foods including tea and coffee and popular brands of tinned and packaged foodstuffs e.g. Heinz, were often hard to come by, however, and there was a rush on whenever they appeared in shops.

All the same we were very conscious of the war, which more and more began to impinge upon our lives. When I was a student in its first year, 1939 – 1940, young men of my acquaintance began joining one or other of the services and going overseas, some sadly never to return. The same thing was happening in my small home town. Such sacrifices made people very keen to do all they could for the war effort.

On finishing my studies I lived at home for a while and joined a group training to be Red Cross ambulance drivers. We received instruction in such subjects as First Aid and mechanics. I might have been much more efficient with my own car now, thus saving garage bills, had I been able to finish the course but I had been interviewed for a library job in Wellington and put on a waiting list and now they were offering me a job. As it was something I really wanted I accepted and started a new life in the city.

The entry of Japan into the conflict brought New Zealand into much closer  contact with the war. When the Japanese began advancing rapidly southwards Australia and New Zealand had their own countries to defend in addition to all the Pacific islands, although America on entering the war helped with the latter. The threat of Japanese invasion affected people in various ways; in my own case three main ways.

Firstly, the library in which I worked was a national one holding many unique items relating to New Zealand history and also valuable rare editions of English literature. The decision was taken to evacuate these treasures to a safer place and a large room suitable for this purpose was rented in a building in a town 60 or 70 miles north of Wellington. The staff helped with the packing up of the books which were then sent on by train and followed (1)  by members of staff, usually two at a time, who would unpack, check and place the books on the shelves provided. Although we younger ones enjoyed these excursions which were a change from our usual duties, it was a blow when shortly after everything was neatly installed, this town, Masterton, was the epicentre of quite a violent earthquake which pitched it all off the shelves on to the floor and the job had to be done again. Not that we minded so very much as it meant more days out!

The next event that affected me was the posting of my eldest brother, the father of three young children, to New Caledonia which I think the Japanese had actually invaded. If I remember correctly I saw him when he returned on leave, after which he was posted to Italy where he remained until the end of the war. I was not to see him again until 15 years later.

The third outcome of the threat of invasion to make its mark on me was to change the course of my life for ever although I did not realise it at the time. Apparently the New Zealand government, concerned about the defence of the country, appealed to the British Army for assistance. The Army responded by sending a team of at least twelve men, all with expertise in various defence tactics such as anti-aircraft gunnery, the use of searchlights etc. These experts were to be distributed to different parts of the country where they were to spend a year passing on their skills to New Zealand officers who in turn would train the men under them.

No doubt the Royal Navy and R.A.F. also sent instructors in various fields of modern warfare and defence but if so their presence was not publicised. I only know about the Army ones through a chance meeting with one of the gunnery instructors, a S.M.I.G (Sergeant-Major Instructor in Gunnery) who was assigned to the Wellington area.

When we first met, on finding that I worked in a library he professed to be very interested in books (which was true!) and turned up the next time I was on evening duty. Then he asked me if I would show him Wellington the following weekend. This soon became a regular pattern and by the time his year was up we both had a very detailed knowledge of all the paths, tracks and beauty spots in the city and its environs. By then we were also contemplating marriage! However as it was impossible for me to leave New Zealand and he had no idea where he would be posted next we decided to wait until the war was over when I would be able to travel to England. Consequently we bade each other a fond farewell and parted for an unknown length of time, which turned out to be nearly two years. (2)

During this time he remained in Britain continuing to instruct anti-aircraft gunnery in Oakham, Stiffkey, Tenby and finally Tonfanau in North Wales.

The war seemed to drag on until at last the landing in Normandy and successful advance of our troops gradually brought the end within sight. With the tension easing New Zealand relaxed the rule forbidding civilians to leave the country and allowed them to do so “for good reasons”. I had become impatient by this time and as marriage was one of the approved reasons I applied for a passage to Britain. Once I had supplied proof to the Department of Internal Affairs that my reason was genuine all I had to do was wait.

Between Christmas 1944 and New Year I received a letter from Shaw Savill Shipping Company requesting me to call at their office When I did they informed me that they could offer me a berth on a ship sailing for England in two weeks’ time. As the reality of the situation swept over me I was in a state of shock, realising more than ever before just how hard it was  going to be to leave my home, parents, brothers, friends and the library job I enjoyed so much. Then I thought how cross I would be with myself if I turned the offer down and was put to the bottom of the list so I pulled myself together and resolved to go ahead with the great adventure.

As it happened the cargo ship on which I was to travel over-ran its loading time and I had an extra week. Finally I sailed on 17th January 1945 with a load of luggage including most of my worldly goods e.g. books, clothes, wedding presents, a 3 tier wedding cake and a few pounds of icing sugar.

Now for the first time I began to experience real war-time conditions. Although we could see nothing but ocean around us the ship was completely blacked-out at night. Neither the light of a match nor the glow of a cigarette was to be shown on deck. We had frequent life-boat drills and sometimes had to carry our life-belts about with us all the time. There was a gun on one of the decks with a gun crew always on guard.

It was far from being a luxury cruise. There was no organised entertainment, we had to make our own. The meals were simple but good. There were eight of us in a cabin meant for four.

As we were travelling unaccompanied we relied on speed and deviation of our route for safety. For example instead of going straight up towards Panama at an angle we sailed towards the south of South America then north up its coast without being near enough to see it, apart from when we called at a port (in Colombia I think) to take on fresh water and provisions. Also passengers were allowed on shore for a few hours. (3)
Soon afterwards it was a pleasant change for us to see land and trees as we sailed through the Panama Canal.

Once we were through the canal we faced crossing the most dangerous stretch of water. The weather quickly became much cooler which according to our crew friends meant that we were travelling north. Sometimes, or so they told us, in an attempt to avoid u-boats and enemy strafing they had even encountered icebergs. We did not go as far north as that but encountered something even more impressive.

One morning when we went up on deck we could hardly believe our eyes for instead of being on our own we were in a huge convoy consisting of about 200 ships of all kinds and sizes, all flanked by destroyers. I will never forget that first sighting which I found very moving. It was a humbling thought that all the time we had been on our own someone knew about us until we and the other dots on the ocean had been brought together, no doubt by secret coded messages, to be guided and protected on the final stage of our journey.

We sailed together for a few days until one morning we found that the convoy had disappeared just as mysteriously as it had come and we were on our own again. We began to catch glimpses of land and rumours were rife as to which port we were making for. Of course all this time none of us knew where or when we would land, only that it would be somewhere in Great Britain.

Eventually the throbbing of the engines stopped and word went around unofficially that we were anchored off Avonmouth awaiting the morning tide. This proved to be correct and when we went on deck the next day we were moving slowly up the Bristol channel with Wales on one side of us and England on the other. It was wonderful to have arrived at last but I was also feeling apprehensive because here I was in the south-west worried about how I would get to the north-east! Miraculously an official of the shipping company who had come on board with the immigration authorities sought me out and told me what to do. How this miracle came about is another story!

I was soon to take a train from Bristol to Birmingham where I would be met by my fiancé’s friend Tony and possibly also by Douglas himself. He was coming on leave from his camp in North Wales. As it happened both of them were there and as it was Saturday Tony drove us to his home in Claverdon near Henley-in-Arden where we enjoyed a restful weekend before the busy week ahead. (4)

We were hoping to arrange for our wedding to take place while Douglas was on leave and by the time we arrived at his home in Hartlepool at four o’clock on Monday afternoon his mother had managed to fix it for 11.30 am on Thursday. The minister of the Park Road Presbyterian Church where it was to take place would like to meet us on Tuesday morning.

And so we were married, with my husband being the only person present whom I already knew and my uncle from Edinburgh whom I had only just met, giving me away. The reception for about twenty of us was in my new parents-in-law’s home and local bakers made a fine job of icing the cake at short notice.

A remarkable coincidence was that a cousin who accompanied my uncle had just come home on leave from the Royal Navy and had been the signalman of “my” convoy!

After a very brief honeymoon in Rothbury my husband  returned to his camp in Wales where I was to join him as soon as he found accommodation for us both. In the meantime, apart from a visit to Edinburgh to see my relations I stayed on in his parents’ home. During the war they slept downstairs to be near the air-raid shelter. One night soon after I had gone to bed I heard loud bangs, then my mother-in-law called up that it was an air-raid and I was to go down to them if frightened. As the guns kept on firing I lay in bed feeling more excitement than fear, and that was all I knew because I fell asleep! In the morning I was disgusted at missing a real air raid which my mother-in-law said was a bad one. In fact it had become so noisy that they thought I would surely come downstairs. We heard later that Stockton-on-Tees had suffered and a few people had been killed. That was the last air raid in the north-east so that I never had another chance to experience one. It was best for everyone that I didn’t!

Soon afterwards I moved to Tywyn where we rented two rooms and shared kitchen and bathroom with a pleasant landlady. Our surroundings were beautiful and at that time of the year the banks of the lanes were covered with primroses. The next months were for me like an idyllic holiday. We acquired bicycles and when the weather was warm enough I would cycle along the coastal path towards the camp from which my husband cycled in my direction. When we met we would swim in the sea and then eat sandwiches I had brought. At weekends we cycled further afield even on tracks over the hills. We called on farmhouses for tea and Welsh cakes and sometimes bacon and eggs. Our diet was also supplemented by gifts (5)

of food from my family and friends in New Zealand. My husband used to tell people he married me for the food parcels!

Once again I was having an easy war, a war that perhaps brought me more blessings than hardships. Though I sometimes feel guilty about having contributed so little to it, I am everlastingly grateful to those who did so much and gave us a peaceful world to live in afterwards.


In the spring of 1945 my husband was attached to the Royal Artillery and I were living at Tywyn to be near the Army Practice Camp at Tonfannau where he was an anti-aircraft  gunnery instructor.

We had arranged for friends, another couple, to visit us on the first weekend in May, not realising that the date was going to be of any significance.

As there was not room for them in our house, which we shared with our Welsh landlady, we had booked for the four of us to stay on the shore of Tal-y-Llyn, one of our favourite spots. I cannot remember whether our accommodation was in a farm house or the inn but I do know that we spent the evening celebrating the signing of the European Peace Treaty with the locals at the latter place. It was wonderful to be with friends on such an auspicious occasion. My main memory of it was that on that first night of peace the valley was not as peaceful as it usually was!

Royal Navy * Civil Defence * St John * Merchant Navy * Royal Air Force  * A.R.P


Royal Navy * Civil Defence * St John * Merchant Navy * Royal Air Force  * A.R.P

(7)The beginning of the war and an example of how the outbreak of war affected ordinary citizens, even in far away New Zealand

In 1939 I was a student living in New Zealand and in September of that year was at home for the spring vacation. Rumours of war had been circulating until on September 3rd we heard that the British Prime Minister would be making an announcement on the radio late that evening. I have a very clear memory of listening to it with my father as we huddled up to our wireless set trying to catch every word above the noise and static that were common to the early stages of long distance broadcasting.

We listened intently as Neville Chamberlain explained his discussions with Hitler to whom he finally gave the ultimatum that unless Hitler agreed to withdraw his troops from Poland by 11am on September 3rd, Britain would go to war. “No such statement has been received”, said Chamberlain, “consequently this country is now at war with Germany”.

Of course that meant that New Zealand was also at war with Germany and as we took in the meaning of this solemn declaration I knew what would be uppermost in my father’s mind as it was in mine; his wife, his son; my mother, my brother.

For two years my brother George had been studying and researching at King’s College, London towards gaining a Ph.D. degree in Chemistry. He had nearly completed his work when he became ill and as reports of his progress were not very satisfactory my parents had decided that my mother should travel to England to see for herself how he was and take appropriate action. As flying was not an option in those days she had made the long sea voyage and had only been there for a few weeks which was hardly long enough to make an assessment of my brother’s condition. Now that there was a war, what would become of them? Would they be able to get home or would they be trapped in Britain for the duration of the war, however long that might be?

As it happened my mother decided that they should both return home as soon as possible and she managed to acquire berths for them on a ship sailing in the New Year. It was overcrowded and uncomfortable but eventually they arrived home safely in early 1940.

In the meantime we at home (my father, two other brothers in New Zealand, and myself) had many anxious moments reading and listening to frequent reports of sinkings in British waters and further out on the ocean. It was a tremendous relief to us all, especially to my father, when their perilous voyage was over. Little did I know then that in four or five years time I would be subjecting my parents to the same anxieties!

Incidentally on her arrival home my mother was able to relate more of their experiences, one of which was about their return to London from Edinburgh where they had been staying with my mother’s sister, prior to their voyage home. They had gone to King’s College to pick up the nearly completed thesis my brother had been working on only to find that the department he had worked in had been turned into an extra fire station for the purpose of dealing with air-raid fires and incendiary bombs. Neither his professor nor anyone there had any idea of what had become of the thesis. It never was found and as a result of its loss George never did get his Ph. D.
A minor outcome of the war one might say but it was a bitter disappointment to him.

Royal Navy öCivil Defence öSt John öMerchant Navy öRoyal Air Force  öA.R.P ö

I cannot remember exactly when censorship of mail started in New Zealand but it must have been soon after the outbreak of war and from its onset was applied most rigorously, if not entirely, to correspondence to and from countries abroad. Any such letters often arrived bearing the stamp of the censor to indicate that they had been opened and examined. If any information had been given that might have been of use to the enemy, concerning for example the movement of troops or shipping, it was obliterated with thick black lines before the letter was forwarded to the recipient. As a rule the information would have been given thoughtlessly and the writer was not admonished in any way.

Although air travel for passengers was new and practically nil in New Zealand until after the war a certain amount of mail was flown in and out. Indeed this was encouraged by the issue of special air letter forms which were designed to save space. After they had been written on and posted they went through a process that reduced them to the size of an ordinary postcard, making the writing look exceedingly small. In fact unless the recipient had exceptionally good eye-sight a magnifying glass became a necessity for the reading of the message!

Home Guard * Fleet Air ArmöRed Cross * Land Girl * Boys’ Brigade *Coast guards

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