War Veteran Wears a Crown

Princess Elizabeth was born eighty-eight years ago, on April 21, 1926. Just six months after her thirteenth birthday, the world went to war. This determined teenager threw herself into the war effort and over her father’s objections, she even joined the armed forces and trained as a mechanic.

When war was declared on September 3, 1939, thirteen-year-old Elizabeth and her nine-year-old sister Margaret Rose were in Scotland with their parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The King and Queen rushed off to Buckingham Palace in London, where they spent the remainder of the war.

Many British parents sent their children to another country. The royal couple considered sending the princesses to Canada for their own safety, but their mother famously said: “The children could not go without me, and I could not possibly leave the King, and the King will never leave.” So that was that.

However, it was decided that Windsor Castle might be safer for the girls, so they moved there with their nanny and governess, and remained in this gloomy fortress about fifty kilometres west of London for the next five years. Whenever there was an air raid, they sheltered in one of the castle dungeons.

The family was separated for long periods. Although the King and Queen visited Windsor every possible weekend, the girls missed their parents terribly, and were understandably very worried about them.

On one occasion, the King and Queen were in Buckingham Palace when several bombs struck, damaging the palace and killing one staff member. It was never officially announced what a close call they had. Here’s a photo of them examining the rubble.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

The Queen's courage and determination during wartime made her an excellent role model for her daughters. She gave an impressive speech to women of the Commonwealth in 1939, urging them to participate in the war effort. To read my previous post and hear her speech, click: The Queen Mother: The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe.

Here's a lovely photograph of the two girls with their mother.

Following her mother’s example, when Elizabeth was asked to make a BBC Radio broadcast to evacuated children on October 13, 1940, she readily agreed. This was her first taste of royal duties, and the first of the broadcasts she still makes each Christmas.

You can hear in her youthful voice that she sympathizes with children who are separated from their parents. She begins: “My sister Margaret Rose and I feel so much for you, as we know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all.”

After a short speech, she concludes: “We are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers, and airmen, and we are trying, too, to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war . . . When peace comes, remember, it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place.”

It’s a lovely little speech. Click Princess Elizabeth’s broadcast to children to hear the full four minutes and 18 seconds.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

While living at Windsor, the girls coped with blackouts and rationing, knitted for servicemen, and became members of the Girl Guides. Here Elizabeth places Margaret's arm in a sling as part of their first aid training.

Each Christmas, they put on a pantomime with the help of war evacuees and local schoolboys to raise money for the war effort. One year, a handsome young prince, five years older than Elizabeth, came to see the performance – and from then on, Elizabeth and Philip wrote to each other.

Who could resist “the Viking prince,” as he was called?

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

As Elizabeth grew older, she began to take on more responsibility. In 1942, when she had not yet turned sixteen, her father made her Colonel of the Grenadier Guards and she carried out their inspections. She looks very young and small between the rows of guards!

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

By the time she turned sixteen, Elizabeth was desperate to join one of the women’s services. Like any father, the King was reluctant to see her in danger, but eventually he gave in and agreed. She joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service as a subaltern.

Elizabeth was pleased and proud to wear her new uniform.

Along with the other girls on the course, Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, as she was known, learned to take engines apart and rebuild them, and to drive heavy vehicles such as military trucks and ambulances. (Because she was the heir to the throne, she had to return to sleep at the palace each night).

Here she is honing her map-reading skills.

As part of her training, she also learned how to change a tire under the watchful eye of her officer. Here’s a photo that was featured in Life magazine.

Her proud parents came to see the princess perform a driving demonstration, and they couldn’t help but worry when she drove through the busy traffic of London, down the Mall and through the gates of Buckingham Palace to show them what she could do! But she loved driving, and still drives today when she has the chance.

(Photo Credit: PA Photos)

One of Elizabeth’s new official roles was Councillor of State. Along with the Queen, she had the authority to act in the King’s absence. She continued to take on more official duties, such as her visit to the 6th Airborne Division in May 1944, shortly before D-Day.

Imagine everyone’s joy when Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945. The princesses went to London with the King and Queen so they could take part in such a momentous occasion, and they appeared on the Buckingham Palace balcony alongside their parents, Elizabeth wearing her Auxiliary Territorial Services uniform.

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.

Her beloved father died suddenly on February 6, 1952 when Elizabeth was just twenty-six years old, and the mother of a small baby. Her coronation ceremony was delayed for a year to allow the nation a period of mourning for their king. But Elizabeth assumed the crown on June 2, 1953.

Elizabeth’s wartime years, although often sad and frightening, were excellent training for the duties she would assume as Head of the British Armed Forces. She has now held that role for seventy-five years, and counting.

Elizabeth was the only female member of the royal family ever to serve in the armed forces. And she is now the last surviving head of state who served in uniform during the Second World War.

Do you recall the words she spoke back in 1940? "When peace comes, remember, it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place.”

Elizabeth has done just that.

Happy Birthday, Your Majesty! And Long Live the Queen!

*****

STAR WEEKLY AT WAR

The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week.

Here’s an image showing the Royal Air Force bombing Naples (although it seems doubtful that Mount Vesuvius would have erupted at the same time!) This cover appeared on April 25, 1942 – one day before Elizabeth’s sixteenth birthday.

To see all the Star Weekly covers posted to date under one heading, click Star Weekly at War and scroll to the bottom. I will add a new cover to the collection almost every week.

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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