The Queen was 13 when World War II broke out on 3rd September 1939, and was staying at Balmoral in Scotland with her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later to be the Queen Mother) and her sister Margaret, then aged 9. Like everyone else in Britain, the war had a profound effect on her life, especially as it covered the period of her teenage years, when she turned from child to adult and took on her first royal duties.
When war was declared, the King and Queen had to hurry back to London but the princesses stayed in Scotland with their nanny, Clara ‘Alah’ Knight and their governess Marion ‘Crawfie’ Crawford. The idea was for them to live as normally as possible, and indeed, they continued with their usual lessons, joined the local Girl Guides company for hikes, tea parties and outings, and enjoyed the occasional cinema show in their schoolroom, with all the royal staff invited. The only slight differences were the setting up of a sewing party once a week so that the princesses might do some kind of war work, and the inclusion of evacuees in the Girl Guides outings. There was no bombing and life was peaceful.
At this point, the ‘phoney war’ was in full swing, the time when nothing much seemed to be happening and there was certainly no bombing on the home front. It was decided that the royal family would spend Christmas at Sandringham as usual. This now seems like an astonishing decision, considering that Sandringham is on the east coast and presumably an easy target for German bombs. However, the princesses were delighted to be having Christmas as normal and to see their parents again, as the family had not been all together since war broke out.
On 2nd February 1940, the King and Queen returned to London and the princesses went to Royal Lodge, the family’s comfortable house in Windsor Great Park. The princesses still had to cope with rationing and clothing coupons – the Queen and Queen Mary had a certain number of extra coupons for their official clothes, but the princesses had the usual allocation for children. Nevertheless, they had a happy time at Royal Lodge, again joining the Girl Guides and evacuees for the usual activities, having lessons, and attending dancing classes with local girls. The dancing classes were led by Miss Vacani, a famous London dancing mistress. Elizabeth had history lessons with Sir Henry Marten of Eton College and the King and Queen came to Royal Lodge at weekends. A decision was made not to evacuate the princesses, although there had been talk in some quarters of sending them to Canada. Queen Elizabeth is often remembered for saying “the children could not go without me and I could not possibly leave the King and the King will never leave” so that was the end of that.
However, it was recognised that Windsor Castle itself might be safer than Royal Lodge, so on 12th May, the princesses, Alah and Crawfie moved there and remained there for the next 5 years, until the war finished. A small paragraph was put in the newspapers stating that the princesses had been evacuated to “a house in the country”. However, Windsor Castle was certainly more a fortress than a house. It was very gloomy, as all the paintings had been removed from the walls, the glass chandeliers had been taken down and the state apartments were muffled in dust sheets with their glass fronted cabinets turned to face the walls. It didn’t feel much like a home at first. Low powered light bulbs had been substituted for the usual high powered ones, causing Crawfie to describe it as living in a “sort of underworld”. When air raids started, they all went to the shelter in one of the castle dungeons. Beds and bathrooms were put in and a few home comforts were provided, but walls were reinforced and beetles still scuttled along the floor. The children wore siren suits and slept in the shelter every night when bombing was really bad – a similar experience to many who slept in their Anderson shelters every night, although they probably would have been envious of the princesses’ better bathroom facilities! When air raids happened during the daytime, if the princesses and Crawfie were outside, they sheltered in one of the many summer houses in the park at Windsor, or in the caves built into the hillside by George III.
Life became slightly more interesting when a company of Grenadier Guards moved into the castle, and some shared meals with the princesses. This gave Elizabeth the chance to practice being hostess – an important job for a future Queen. One day, the Windsor Castle librarian took the children to the vaults under the castle. He showed them some ordinary leather hatboxes stuffed with newspaper. When they looked more closely, they found the hatboxes contained the Crown Jewels! The King and Queen stayed at Windsor with the children every weekend they could, but the girls often worried about their parents while they were in London during the week. On one occasion, the King and Queen were in Buckingham Palace when several bombs hit, destroying the Palace chapel and swimming pool and killing one member of staff. The King and Queen narrowly escaped death themselves – they had not gone to the shelter when the sirens started and were sitting near a window. It was never officially announced what a narrow escape they had had. For the princesses, the worry about their parents and having some understanding of the pain of being separated from their families during the war, meant that when Elizabeth was asked to make a radio broadcast to the children of the nation in 1940, she readily agreed. It was her first taste of royal duties and of the Christmas broadcasts she would have to make each year when she became Queen.
There was still fun at Windsor during the war – the girls played lots of games to lift the gloom, and knitted and made brooches to be sold for the war effort. In 1940, they put on a Christmas play called ‘The Christmas Child’ with the help of local evacuees and schoolboys. The play made £30 for the war effort and the princesses enjoyed themselves so much that they decided to put on yearly pantomimes, among them Cinderella and Aladdin. In total, between £800 and £900 was raised for the Queen’s Wool Fund and the King got some much needed relief from his heavy workload in reorganising scenes and advising on costume. He was very proud of his daughters and got heavily involved in each pantomime. One year, Prince Philip came to see one of the pantomimes – Elizabeth was very excited to see him and from then on, she and Philip exchanged letters. The happy days at Windsor during the war are possibly why the Queen now regards the castle as one of her favourite homes. We must not forget, however, that the royal family knew heartache caused by the war when the Duke of Kent, the King’s brother and a much loved uncle to Elizabeth and Margaret, was killed in a plane crash while on active service. Of his 3 children, the youngest, Prince Michael of Kent, was only 7 weeks old.
When Elizabeth turned 15, she began to take on more social tasks. In 1942, her father made her Colonel of the Grenadier Guards and she carried out their inspections. When she turned 16, she registered with the Labour Exchange like every other girl her age, and she became desperate to join one of the women’s services. The King was reluctant in case she was placed in danger, but eventually he agreed. He could see the sense in her request to do just as other young women were doing. She joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) as a subaltern. She learnt with all the other girls on the course, to change wheels, take engines apart and rebuild them, and to drive heavy vehicles such as ambulances. However, it was felt necessary to make some concessions to the safety of the heir to the throne and she went back to the castle to sleep each night. As proud parents, the King and Queen came to see the princess perform a demonstration on the day of her last test and could not help be a little worried about her when she drove through the busy traffic of London up The Mall and through the gates of Buckingham Palace to show them what she could do! One of Elizabeth’s new official roles was to become a Councillor of State. Along with the Queen and other Councillors, she had the authority to act in the King’s absence, such as when he made a secret wartime trip to Italy. When Elizabeth had to sign a reprieve in a murder conviction, she wondered at the horrible things that some people could do. For her, it was another part of growing up.
When the war ended on 8th May 1945, the princesses went to London with the King and Queen. It was felt that they should take part in such a momentous occasion and they appeared on the Buckingham Palace balcony alongside their parents and Winston Churchill. Elizabeth was in her ATS uniform. Amazingly, the King agreed that, escorted by some Guards officers, the princesses could go down into the crowds outside the palace, and they cheered and shouted for their parents with everyone else, totally unrecognised. Truly a once in a lifetime experience for them.
Like many others, Princess Elizabeth grew up in wartime, being 13 at the start and 19 when it ended. World War II made her more independent more quickly and gave her more contact with ordinary people, including evacuees and fellow ATS officers, than she would have experienced otherwise. Like most young women of her generation, it was a turning point in her life.