This month sees the nation and the Commonwealth celebrate Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. This is a remarkable achievement and only Louis XIV in France has reigned longer (by 2 years) in modern European history. Her Majesty has led a life of devoted service, a modus operandi learned from her parents during the dark days of World War Two.
Elizabeth’s life changed drastically when she was ten years old as the abdication of her uncle meant her father became king and she became the heir presumptive. Although Elizabeth was home-schooled, her nanny Marion Crawford, known to the family as Crawfie, thought it would be good for her to mix with other girls her age and so she joined the Girl Guides. Elizabeth took seriously her Guide Promise to do her best to do her duty to God and the King and soon earned her badges and became her patrol leader. She was photographed practising her First Aid on her younger sister Margaret.
When her father was struggling with what to say in his Christmas broadcast to the Empire in 1939, it was the 13-year-old Elizabeth who handed her father the words of a poem written by Minnie Louise Haskins saying she thought it might help. It did. The King quoted the words “I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’” The speech was well-received and inspired millions.
As the threat of invasion loomed Elizabeth and her sister were moved from Buckingham Palace to the Royal Lodge at Windsor. They knew something of what it was like to be away from their parents, having endured the separation during the King and Queen’s visit to Canada & the USA in 1939. Elizabeth referred to that experience when she broadcast on 13th October 1940 on the Children’s Hour programme to evacuees scattered across Britain and in Canada and the USA. This was the first time the British public had heard her voice. The broadcast was a great success and morale booster.
Elizabeth appeared in various wartime initiatives such as Dig For Victory which saw her photographed tending her allotment in Windsor Castle or in morale-boosting wartime newsreels usually alongside her parents. On the morning of her 16th birthday, 21st April 1942, she undertook her first solo inspection of the Grenadier Guards at Windsor Castle. She had been made their honorary Colonel. She also launched her first ship HMS Vanguard and when her father visited Italy in 1944 she undertook some of his Head of State duties in his absence.
When she turned 18 in 1944 she insisted on joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service to do her bit for the war effort. Her father finally agreed and she signed on in February 1945. She started as a Second Subaltern and was later promoted to Junior Commander, the equivalent rank to Captain in the army. In March 1945 she undertook a driving and vehicle maintenance course at Aldershot and passed in April. The King and Queen and Princess Margaret visited Princess Elizabeth at the Mechanical Transport Training Section in Camberley, Surrey, in a visit captured for the newsreel cameras. Later in life, those skills had never lost her. On one occasion in the 1970s a motorist had broken down near the Sandringham Estate and was stood with his head under the bonnet when this woman in a headscarf stopped and offered her assistance. She quickly diagnosed the problem and fixed it and it was only as she was going back to her own car to drive off the motorist realised he had been helped by none other than Queen Elizabeth.
In 1945 on Victory in Europe Day crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace and called for the King and Queen to appear on the balcony. As darkness fell Elizabeth donned her ATS uniform and with her sister and two guards officers as protection went out and joined the crowds in the Mall singing and dancing linking arms. They joined in the calls for the King and Queen to appear again on the balcony and the royal couple duly complied knowing their daughters were in the throng below. Elizabeth later said that she pulled her cap down over her eyes to prevent her from being recognised. In a BBC interview marking the 40th anniversary of VE Day the now Queen recalled “lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, and all of us were swept along by tides of happiness and relief.” There are even reports that the princesses joined a conga dance through the Ritz Hotel as they celebrated with the crowds. “I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life,” Queen Elizabeth said. She was still wearing her ATS uniform when she appeared on the Buckingham Palace balcony the following day 9th May 1945 with her parents, sister and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The war’s impact continued some years afterwards. Rationing did not end until 1953. Princess Elizabeth saved up her clothing ration coupons to pay for her wedding dress in November 1947 when she married Philip Mountbatten, a young naval officer she had first met on a visit to the Britannia Naval College in Dartmouth during a wartime visit.
Her Majesty is the only surviving Head of State to have served in World War Two, so as we pay tribute during the Platinum Jubilee Celebrations for a life of service as our Queen, remember the formative experiences that shaped her attitude to duty were forged during Britain’s long and hard struggle during the Second World War. We owe so much to that generation for all we enjoy today, so raise a glass and sing, ‘Long to reign over us, God save the Queen.’