Wednesday, February 3, 2016

World War Wednesdays: From Gloves to Grease: Princess Elizabeth During WWII

    One of the most fascinating aspects of the Second World War is the way in which it affected every person who lived through it. People around the world of all ages and social standing, both males and females, were thrown into the chaos. We regularly discuss local folks and everyday heroes who rose to the occasion and made their mark on history, but I thought it would be interesting this week to talk about how our current and longest-reigning monarch answered the call and got her hands dirty with the best of them.

     When war was declared in September 1939, King George V and Queen Elizabeth sent the two young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret to live at Windsor Castle, just outside London because they felt it would be safer than Buckingham Palace. The girls' parents remained at the palace and visited them on weekends. The Royal Mews were also moved to the castle, where the horses were put to work on the farm. The sisters remained there until the end of the war in 1945. Many people thought it was dangerous for the King and Queen to remain in the city during the heavy bombing of the Blitz in 1940, but Queen Elizabeth insisted, "The princesses will not leave us, I cannot leave the King and the King will never leave".

     During the height of the Battle of Britain, the young princess gave her first public address on 13 October 1940. Broadcast over the radio during the BBC Children's Hour, it was a message to British youngsters who had been evacuated from the cities to safety in the Empire. A 1947 article by Irving Wallace for Collier's magazine describes this address:
     "In a voice very much like her mother's, pretending to read from a script she had already memorized, Elizabeth went through her paces while her sister Margaret stood at a distance behind her, and the king and queen watched from an adjacent room. As she finished her last words, Elizabeth suddenly stopped, said extemporaneously, "My sister is by my side, and we are both going to say good night to you-- come on, Margaret!" Margaret appeared, murmured good night, and then Elizabeth returned to the microphone and added, "Good night, and good luck to you all!" Since royalty never extemporizes on official occasions, this interjection shook her parents, but created a happy sensation throughout the Empire."
     You can hear the speech here:

     By 1942, young Elizabeth was sixteen years old. According to Wallace, she wanted to join up in one of the women's services to do her part in the war effort. Her father took it up with the Minister of Labor, but it was decided that Elizabeth's training for the throne was most important and she should not enlist in anything. Feeling that she would be a slacker and carry the guilt for the rest of her life, she relentlessly persisted. Just before her nineteenth birthday in 1945, her father finally gave in and she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) as an auto mechanic and driver. Though she still slept at the castle, she spent her days working with oil, valves, and engines from 10:00 to 5:00. One of her greatest joys was getting dirt under her nails and grease stains on her hands to show to her friends. Here is a clip of her in action:
Elizabeth (far right) has her work inspected by her parents
     The training was accepted by her parents until it came time for her to be put into real action. Wallace describes the anxiety caused by her final test as a truck driver:
     "At graduation, a new crisis was provoked. Every ATS student, for her final exam, was was required to drive a truck from the camp to busy London. The king and queen went into a hurried conference with Mr. Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, about this. It was agreed that Elizabeth must not take this exam, since she might be involved in an accident. When the trio came out to announce their decision, they found a grinning Elizabeth guiding a lumbering camouflage truck into the palace gates. She had made the complete journey, from Chamberley to London, through the thickest traffic and twice around Piccadilly Circus, on her own, because she wanted to attend a party at the palace-- and hear the royal decision on her final exam."

     At any rate, the war ended soon after she finished her training. On 8 May 1945, VE Day, Elizabeth appeared with her parents, Margaret, and Winston Churchill on the Buckingham Palace balcony to greet the cheering crowds. In the evening, the two princesses, escorted by police officers, were allowed to mingle among the crowds celebrating the end of the war.
     I hope this post sheds some light on what a spirited and plucky young girl the Queen was, and how hard she tried to contribute to the struggle being carried on by her people. Wallace's article is courtesy of, and other information is supplemented by 

     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

P.S. Stay tuned next week for a very interesting post which I was eager to make this week but have been asked to postpone!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your informative pieces.

Delany Leitch said...

Thanks so much for reading!

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