By Beth von Staats
“I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
– Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II, on her 21st Birthday –
Aided by ascension to the throne at a young age, the wonders of modern medicine, a culture heralding tradition as a core value, and most pointedly a steadfast call to duty, Queen Elizabeth II today becomes the United Kingdom’s longest reigning monarch – not just for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined, but also each individually, history heralding back a millennium. Her Majesty, Elizabeth the Second, is not only Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, and Defender of the Faith by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories, but she is also our anointed Queen of “The Greatest Generation” – the beloved Queen a full partner of those men, women and children for whom the rest of us owe our freedom, and for many of us, our very lives.
Born to Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George, Duke of York and his delightful Duchess, once the beloved Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Her Majesty the Queen was not born to reign. She and her younger sister Margaret were the children of the “spare to the throne”, not the heir. Initially, this was quite fortunate indeed. Unable to verbally articulate due to a profound stammer, Her Majesty’s father was once ill equipped to reign in a age where one communicated directly to the realm via speeches in large forums and worldwide by radio. Through one of Great Britain’s greatest a twists of fate, however, not only through exhaustive therapy did the Duke of York overcome his demons, but he also overcame the demons of his brother, a man who chose his personal desires over duty. Thus, upon the abdication of King Edward VIII, the Duke of York suddenly became King George VI and Princess Elizabeth, heir presumptive.
“For Valour.” These two words penned originally to the Victoria Cross appropriately defined the monarchy of Queen Elizabeth II’s father, so much so that Sir Winston Churchill penned them once again upon a note laid with the Government wreath accompanying the King’s casket. King George VI’s reign was short, but through His Majesty’s example of courage and fortitude, along with that of his remarkable wife, Great Britain galvanized with a shared strength of purpose during the dire years of World War II. In a generation where “all gave some, and some gave all”, as everyone did around her, through the example and steadfast support of her parents, the then Princess Elizabeth “rolled up her sleeves” to do the work that needed to be done to win a war so crucial to preserve a nation, to preserve an empire, to preserve a way of life going back a millennium.
World War II erupted while the then 13 year old Princess Elizabeth was vacationing at Balmoral, Scotland with her sister and parents on 3 September 1939. Obviously, King George and Queen Elizabeth rushed to London. Their children initially remained in relative safety at Balmoral cared for by their nanny and governess, along with other royal staff. With the war concentrating for the moment on the European mainland, the Royal Family spent the holidays as usual at Sandringham. Once the King and Queen returned to London, however, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret took up residence at the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park. Members of the Girl Guides, they continued forward with as normal childhoods as their royal status and the war would allow.
It was during the early months of 1940 that discussions took place regarding the safeguarding of the Royal Family, particularly Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Moving the girls to Canada for the duration of the war or at the very least to Wales or Northern Scotland were all options “on the table”. Had King George VI decided to safeguard his daughters and in doing so also safeguard the succession by moving them to a safe haven, no one would have found fault with it. Instead, Queen Elizabeth famously explained to the realm her thoughts on the matter, “… the children could not go without me, and I could not possibly leave the King, and the King will never leave.” With that so pointedly decided, by May 1940, official announcements declared the girls were living in a “house in the country”. Instead, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were safeguarded for the remaining duration of the war within the walls of Windsor Castle, it’s deepest dungeons, as well as caves dug into the hillside by King George III, used as air raid sheltering. How the Princesses felt while holed up in a dungeon or a cave while bombs fell on London can only be imagined.
Sharing Windsor Castle with a Grenadier Guards company, Princess Elizabeth began her now life-long call to service, sharing meals and playing the royal host. Though the castle was gloomy, it’s contents protected from possible bombing damage (including the royal jewels being stored in hat boxes within the castle vaults), the Royal Family made the most of a downright dangerous situation, the King and Queen visiting their children on weekends. Nearly killed themselves during a bombing raid on Buckingham Palace, the King and Queen continued their royal duties, raising morale visiting British subjects displaced by bombing raids, British troops, and munition factories. Following their example, Princess Elizabeth made her first radio broadcast to the children of Great Britain in 1940. Her remarkably composed broadcast is highlighted below.
Video Credit: British Pathé War Archives, You Tube
War, like illness, is often an inevitable equalizer among classes of people within a society, and the Royal Family did not avoid the heartache of many impacted by World War II Great Britain. Thus, at age 15, Princess Elizabeth mourned the death of her beloved uncle, Prince George, Duke of Kent. Killed in a plane crash during active duty, Prince George left his wife and three children, the youngest only seven weeks old. It is within this context of nationally shared heartbreak that Princess Elizabeth began her royal duties in earnest, named by her father Colonel of the very Grenadier Guards she hosted in her wartime home at Windsor Castle. With steeled determination and poise, Princess Elizabeth dutifully inspected her troops.
At age 16, Princess Elizabeth dutifully registered with the Labour Exchange, a requirement of all British teenagers. Eager like her peers to join the military services, the King finally acquiesced to her desire to contribute more meaningfully to the war effort. Thus, she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) at age 18, becoming to date the only female member of the Royal Family in British history to serve her country in the military. A subaltern, Princess Elizabeth worked alongside her peers, learning how to change tires, dismantle and repair motor vehicle engines, and how to drive heavy military vehicles, ambulances in particular. Beyond Princess Elizabeth’s military service, she became of age to act as Councillor. Within this role, she acted as a Regent when her father was away, most notably when he made a highly top secret trip to Italy.
Through the shared hardship of people throughout the allied nations, along with the Grace of God, World War II ended throughout Europe on 8 May 1945. After joining her sister, parents and Prime Minister Winston Churchill upon the balcony of Buckingham Palace to greet those in celebration, Princess Elizabeth, grown from a child to a woman through the hardship of war alongside all other British children of the “Greatest Generation”, slipped outside with her sister. Together they celebrated unrecognized alongside their London neighbors, cheering their parents on to immortality.
God save the Queen. Long may she reign.
Author Unidentified, Rare Pictures of Queen Elizabeth II Serving in World War II, Vintage Everyday: Rare Pictures.
Cohen, Jennie, 8 Things You May Not Know About Queen Elizabeth II, History in the Headlines.
Couzens, Ellen, The Queen’s War, Royal Central.
Wallace, Irving, She Did Her Bit, Collier’s Magazine, March 22, 1947.
Beth von Staats is the owner and administrator of Queenanneboleyn.com. Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.
Beth’s interest in British History grew through the profound influence of her Welsh grandparents, both of whom desired she learn of her family cultural heritage. Her most pronounced interest lies with the men and women who drove the course of events and/or who were most poignantly impacted by the English Henrician and Protestant Reformations, as well as the Tudor Dynasty of English and Welsh History in general.
By profession, Beth works in non-profit program administration as Director of Residential Services at New England Village in Pembroke, Massachusetts.