Queen Elizabeth II – Aiding The War Effort

Queen Elizabeth II – How wartime helped define her life of service

Many veterans have been paying their respects to Queen Elizabeth II at her lying in state. As sovereign she was head of the armed forces, but her association with the military began much earlier, in wartime.

When World War II began in 1939, her majesty was just 13 years old and was known as Princess Elizabeth.

The Queen Mother refused to leave the UK, and the family stayed and supported their country. The family, like their country, endured hardship. Buckingham Palace was reportedly bombed nine times throughout the war. One of the worst bombings happened in 1940 while King George VI and his wife were in residence.

There were suggestions the Royal Family itself should seek safety abroad, specifically in Canada, but the King and Queen would have none of it.

“The children will not leave unless I do,” declared Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother. “I shall not leave unless their father does, and the King will not leave the country in any circumstances whatever.”

The furthest the children were ever moved was to Windsor Castle, about 30 miles from London. “We went for a weekend and stayed five years,” they said. The very fact that Elizabeth and Margaret remained in the country was a significant morale-booster.

As Princess Elizabeth, The Queen made her first public speech on 13 October 1940, with a radio address to the children of the Commonwealth, many of them living away from home due to war. Her younger sister, Princess Margaret, joined in at the end.

Princess Elizabeth Broadcasts To The Nation on Children’s Hour (1940) | War Archives

Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret speak to the nation on Children’s Hour in 1940. They speak to the children who have found new war time homes in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States of America.

The full speech can be heard here.

As the war progressed, Princess Elizabeth championed more aspects of wartime life and resilience. In 1943, she was photographed tending her allotments at Windsor Castle as part of the government’s “Dig for Victory” campaign, in which people were urged to use gardens and every spare piece of land to grow vegetables to help combat food shortages. Before the Second World War, Britain had relied on food imports from across the world, but when the war started, shipping was threatened by enemy submarines and warships. This resulted in food shortages and led to rationing of foods such as meat, butter cheese, eggs, and sugar.

On the morning of her sixteenth birthday, Princess Elizabeth undertook her first inspection of a military regiment during a parade at Windsor Castle. She had been given the role of honorary Colonel of the Grenadier Guards, which symbolised her military involvement in the war effort.

When Princess Elizabeth turned 18 in 1944, she insisted upon joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women’s branch of the British Army. For several years during the war, Britain had conscripted women to join the war effort. Unmarried women under 30 had to join the armed forces or work on the land or in industry. King George made sure that his daughter was not given a special rank in the Army. She started as a second subaltern in the ATS and was later promoted to Junior Commander, the equivalent of Captain.
Those six years of conflict would see her begin in earnest her public role as the heir to the throne.

The King and Queen and Princess Margaret visited Princess Elizabeth at the Mechanical Transport Training Section in Camberley, Surrey, and watched her learn about engine maintenance.

She was registered as number 230873, Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, and she spent three weeks with a carefully chosen group of other recruits, learning about basic motor mechanics and how to drive a lorry. It was said to have been the first time a female member of the Royal Family had ever attended a course with “other people”.

While Princess Elizabeth spent the majority of her days at the training facility, it was close enough to Windsor Castle that the Princess would return there each evening rather than sleep at the camp with her fellow ATS members.

Now in her late 90s, Gwen Evans trained alongside the future Queen in the ATS, and remembers Princess Elizabeth receiving much the same treatment as everyone else. “The only difference was when we finished work at five o’clock we went back to our barracks, whereas Elizabeth was picked up and taken to Windsor Castle,” she says.

The princess learned how to drive large trucks, like the ambulance pictured above, during her ATS service.

Though Princess Elizabeth did not serve in a combat role, volunteering with the ATS was not without risk. According to the BBC, at its peak, 210,308 women were serving with the ATS, and 335 women were killed.

It would be a defining period in the life of the future Queen, and at her death she was the last surviving head of state to have served in the war.

Princess Elizabeth driving an ambulance during her wartime service in 1945. Popperfoto/Getty Images

Before ascending to the throne in 1952, the then, Princess Elizabeth was the first female member of the Royal Family to serve in the armed forces in 1945.

Following her time in the war, the then-Queen Elizabeth had often been spotted driving, with many news outlets commenting on her love of being behind the wheel. The Queen was the only person in the United Kingdom who was allowed to drive without a driver’s license, as part of the “royal prerogative” – powers and rights exclusive to the country’s monarch.

Queen Elizabeth II seen driving her Range Rover car as she attends day 2 of the Royal Windsor Horse Show in Home Park, Windsor Castle (Getty Images)

As Sovereign, The Queen was Head of the Armed Forces, as well as being the wife, mother and grandmother of individuals who served in the Forces. Throughout her reign, she remained a committed and informed champion of the Army, Navy and Air Force, with a great empathy for the challenges faced by the Forces community.

As Head of the Armed Forces, she held more than 50 ranks and appointments in the UK and Commonwealth Armed Service.

Three of Queen Elizabeth’s children served in the armed forces. Charles, now King Charles, served in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy as a pilot and the captain of a warship; Andrew served in the Royal Navy as a helicopter pilot; Edward briefly served in the Royal Marines. Her grandson Prince William served in the Royal Air Force search and rescue, and Prince Harry served in the British Army as a forward air controller and WAH-64 Apache attack helicopter pilot.


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