This sweet-faced woman boosted morale so vigorously during the Second World War that Adolf Hitler himself called her “the most dangerous woman in Europe.”
Elizabeth, mother of the current queen, died at the age of one hundred, just eleven years ago, and most of us remember her only as a wrinkled old lady in a veiled hat.
But she was once beautiful enough to attract the son of a king. In 1923 Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the king’s younger son Albert, whom she called Bertie – but only after he proposed three times.
Elizabeth embraced the traditional ideas of family and public service. She became known as the “Smiling Duchess” and gave birth to two lovely girls, Elizabeth (Lisbet) and Margaret.
When Bertie’s older brother abdicated in 1936, Bertie reluctantly assumed the throne. His speech impediment, and her support, were the subject of The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth and Helena Bonham-Carter. Apparently even the queen herself was touched by this sympathetic portrayal of her parents.
In 1939 the royal couple took a train trip across Canada. My mother June Florence was fifteen years old, and her school class travelled from Battleford to Saskatoon simply to see the couple wave from the royal train.
My mother recalls: “We were waiting on the platform when we saw the King inside, trying to lower the blind on the window. It was stuck, and he was yanking at it with annoyance. Then the Queen appeared, and gently put her hand on his arm and spoke to him, and he turned away. It was obvious she had a calming influence on him.”
As soon as they returned home, war was declared and Britain – and the royal family – began to fight for their very survival.
In a letter, Elizabeth wrote: “I could not help tears running down my face, but we both realized it was inevitable that we must face the cruel Nazi creed and rid ourselves of this continual nightmare.”
Just two months after war was declared, on Remembrance Day 1939, she addressed women around the world on the BBC Radio in a truly inspirational speech.
She begins by sending her sympathy “to the women of Poland upon whom the first cruel blows have fallen, and the gallant womanhood of France, who are called on to share with us once again the sorrows and hardships of war.”
Since Britain was recruiting women into the armed forces for the first time in history, the Queen praised their efforts. “War has at all times called for the fortitude of women, even in other days when it was the affair of the fighting forces only. Now all this has changed. For we, no less than men, have real and vital work to do.”
If you listen to the entire eight-minute speech here, you will feel the power of her words. (And note how much she sounds like the current queen).
The king and queen remained at Buckingham Palace throughout the war, proudly flying the Union Jack and visiting bomb sites.
When she met the survivors from a bombed school, Elizabeth could barely contain herself, writing: “It made me all the more determined to beat those unspeakable Huns to see those little faces, hurt for the sake of Nazi propaganda. I grind my teeth with rage.”
At one point, a bomb fell on the palace, causing some damage. Elizabeth famously said she was glad to be bombed, “because now we can look the East End in the face.” That area of London near the docks took the brunt of bombing.
But she made no claims to heroism. “I am still just as frightened of bombs as I was at the beginning. I turn bright red and my heart hammers,” she wrote to her niece. “I’m a beastly coward, but I do believe that a lot people are, so I don’t mind! Well, darling, I must stop. Tinkety tonk, old fruit, and down with the Nazis!”
When Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, perhaps nobody was happier than the royals. You can see the joy on Elizabeth’s face in this photograph.
To read my blog post about Princess Elizabeth's wartime years, click: War Veteran Wears A Crown.
Like most young women of her generation, the war was a turning point in Elizabeth’s life. She spent almost her entire teenagehood at war, and was still only nineteen when the conflict ended. Just two years later, she married her fairytale prince at the age of twenty-one.
And continued to wear her beloved hats.
Can't you just hear her saying: “Tinkety tonk, old fruit, and down with the Nazis!”
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