At 6pm on 3 September 1939, King George VI spoke to the people of Britain and the Empire. In his radio broadcast, he talked of the difficult times ahead and urged his people to stand firm.

The King held the ranks of Admiral of the Fleet, Field Marshal and Marshal of the Royal Air Force (RAF). He and Queen Elizabeth inspected troops and visited work places. On these occasions the King always appeared in uniform.

During the Blitz, the King and Queen visited bombed areas to see the damage caused by enemy air raids. On these visits, the Queen took a keen interest in what was being done to help people who had lost their homes. After Buckingham Palace was bombed on 13 September 1940, she said she felt she could 'look the East End in the face'.


A Royal visit

The King and Queen took a real interest in the work that people were doing. This raised morale and gave factory workers a renewed enthusiasm for their work. The Ministry of Supply studied the effects of royal visits and found that, in most cases, production figures dropped on the day of the visit but the weekly production figures invariably rose

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret spent most of the war years at Windsor Castle and, like many other British children, were often apart from their parents. In October 1940, 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth broadcast a message to evacuees on the radio programme Children's Hour, urging them to have courage.

At the age of 19, Princess Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). After joining, she trained as a driver and mechanic with the rank of Second Subaltern. Five months later she was promoted to Junior Commander, which was the equivalent of Captain. Her younger sister Princess Margaret was a Girl Guide and later joined the Sea Rangers.

At 6pm on VE Day, 8 May 1945, the King again broadcast to the nation. During the afternoon and evening, the King and Royal Family made eight appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to acknowledge the crowds gathered below. The princesses were allowed to leave the palace and secretly take part in the celebrations.

The London Blitz, 1940

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth standing with workmen, while inspecting bomb damage at Buckingham Palac
© IWM HU 63234

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth standing with workmen, while inspecting bomb damage at Buckingham Palace.

Princess Elizabeth joins the ATS

In this video, see newly-discovered footage of the Princess in the ATS, as curator Kate Clements explains why Queen Elizabeth signed up for war work. 

In 1945, Life magazine published an article about Princess Elizabeth. It reported that King George VI had ruled, that “[Elizabeth’s] training as a princess outweighed the nation’s increasing manpower problems and that ‘Betts’ should not join any of the women’s auxiliaries, nor work in a factory”.

But the King would not get his way. In April 1944, the young Princess had turned 18. Her teenage years had been against the backdrop of the Second World War. Elizabeth was determined to ‘do her bit’ for the war effort, as so many of her peers were.

Within a year of turning 18, Elizabeth would sign up for service. It was an unprecedented decision – this would make her the first woman in the Royal Family to become a full-time member of the armed services. And it was a decision that would shape her life and reign.

Newsreel: "Making rapid progress withe her training as an ATS Second Subaltern, Princess Elizabeth has now passed her tests as a fully trained motor driver and mechanic."

At the outset of the war, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth decided that they would not be seen to be hiding away from the war. In September 1940, five high explosive bombs were dropped on Buckingham Palace. Rather than move away from the danger, the King and Queen decided to remain at Buckingham Palace in solidarity with those living through the Blitz. The Queen is reported to have said: 'I am glad we have been bombed. Now we can look the East End in the eye.'

The King and Queen made many visits to areas that had bombed during the Blitz, as well as to serving personnel, to munitions factories, to RAF bases and Royal Naval ships, and to troops training for combat. They wanted to keep people’s spirits up during the war years and took on the role of boosting morale with fervour.

Kate Clements, IWM curator: "The King’s sister, Princess Mary – known as the Princess Royal, was also involved in the war effort. She had been a nurse during the First World War and had started a fund to buy gifts for soldiers at Christmas and now in the Second World War she continued her support – she was the Controller Commandant of the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service and she travelled around the country visiting its units."

Princess Elizabeth was just 13 years old when war broke out, and her younger sister Princess Margaret was 9.

Newsreel: "Princess Elizabeth's upbringing has been carefully watched over by her parents. There must be the same thrill to them, as to all parents, in seeing their children growing up."

Kate Clements: "Princess Elizabeth had a fairly sheltered childhood prior to the war – she didn’t attend school with other children but was instead educated at home with her sister by a governess. When war broke out, Elizabeth and Margaret were evacuated to Windsor Castle as it was felt to be safer than Buckingham Palace in London. And there they were kept safe from the bombing and also had an allotment as part of the national ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. She saw the work her parents were doing to boost people’s morale and she learned from that the importance of duty during times of national crisis."

Princess Elizabeth carried out her first public duties during the war. She became the Colonel of the Grenadier Guards in 1942 and on the morning of her 16th birthday, she carried out her first official public engagement when she inspected the Guards at Windsor Castle. She also launched her first ship, HMS Vanguard, at Clydebank when she was aged 18. And she even performed some of her father the King’s head of state duties while he was in Italy in 1944. But Elizabeth was determined to contribute more to the war effort.

Women had been volunteering for war work since the start of the war. The conscription of unmarried women between the ages 20 to 30 was introduced in Britain in December 1941 – women could choose between working on the land or in war industry, or joining one of the military auxiliary services. Later, the age limits expanded and more women were mobilised. Eventually Elizabeth got her way and enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, known as the ATS, in February 1945, aged 18.

Kate Clements: "The ATS was an auxiliary service that women could join or be conscripted into during the war. Its members became women soldiers who carried out roles that would free up men for front line duties. The ATS was the largest of the women’s auxiliary services and, by June 1945, it had around 200,000 members who were drawn from across the British Empire."

Women were not allowed combat roles so instead they served as telephonists, clerks, drivers, postal workers, dispatch riders and ammunition inspectors. Around 56,000 members of the ATS also worked with anti-aircraft units, in which they tracked enemy aircraft and aimed anti-aircraft guns – but only men were allowed to fire them. 

Kate Clements: "In 1945 Princess Elizabeth joined the ATS and she wore a uniform just like this one on display here. She enrolled on a driving and vehicle maintenance course. Her classes included mechanics theory and map reading and she learned how to service, maintain and drive heavy army vehicles at the ATS No. 1 Mechanical Transport Training Centre. The princess was treated the same as the rest of her company during their training and was able to mix with young people from different backgrounds.  This was quite unusual for the time and there was great press interest in seeing the young heir to the throne during her military training. Photographers captured her dressed in overalls, working on vehicle engines and changing tyres, and the press even named her ‘Princess Auto Mechanic’." 

Newsreel: "ATS drivers have also got to do their own repairs, and servicing every type of army vehicle is an important part of the training."

Throughout her training Elizabeth worked for seven hours a day, but didn’t stay in the barracks on site – she would return to Windsor Castle each evening. After five months of training as a mechanic and military truck driver in Camberley the future queen was promoted to the rank of honorary Junior Commander. The King and Queen and Princess Margaret visited Princess Elizabeth during her time at the training camp, and watched her in action. The Princess commented to Life Magazine that she “never knew there was quite so much advance preparation [for a royal visit] ...I’ll know another time.” 

Doreen Walden: "It was closing down. I think we were the second last group, and the Queen had learnt to drive there. And the men in the workshops had made a beautiful clock as a presentation to her. We didn't get any driving for about a week because we had to paint the tree trunks white and all the stones white and everything. Then we were all taken up to this big parade ground, and she arrived and was escorted round, and then went off to the officers' mess, I think. She seemed to chat to the CO most of the way round, and of course we all got the instructions that you never looked, you just looked straight ahead."

The young princess graduated as a fully qualified driver, but the war ended before she was able to make practical use of her new skills. To pass her final test, she made a solo journey in a heavy vehicle from Camberley in Surrey into London. 

On VE Day – 8 May 1945 – Princess Elizabeth joined her parents and sister on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, along with the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to greet the huge, cheering crowds that had gathered there to celebrate the end of the war in Europe. Later on that day, the young princess was allowed to leave the palace and mingle with the crowds, anonymously. She later spoke about this when she was queen, saying it was one of the most memorable nights
of her life. Elizabeth later describer this day saying: ‘We asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves. I remember we were terrified of being recognised … I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief.’

Although the Second World War ended in 1945, restrictions in Britain continued and the Royal Family followed suit. Rationing did not end until 1954 and Princess Elizabeth even saved up ration coupons to buy the material for her wedding dress in 1947. 
Just seven years after the end of the war, Elizabeth became Queen. This experience of coming of age during a war would play a pivotal role in shaping how she reigned and who she is. She formed a relationship with Winston Churchill over these years, who would later be her first Prime Minster when Queen. She learned from her father the importance of the monarch being visible and present during times of national crisis. 

Related Content

A truck of revellers passing through the Strand, London, 8 May 1945.
© IWM HU 41808
Second World War

What You Need To Know About VE Day

8 May 1945 – VE (Victory in Europe) Day – was one that remained in the memory of all those who witnessed it. It meant an end to nearly six years of a war that had cost the lives of millions; had destroyed homes, families, and cities; and had brought huge suffering and privations to the populations of entire countries.

Remains of the 600-year-old St Michael's Cathedral two days after the devastating air raid on Coventry on 14-15 November 1940
© IWM (H 5603)
Second World War

The Blitz Around Britain

The 'Blitz' – from the German term Blitzkrieg ('lightning war') – was the sustained campaign of aerial bombing attacks on British towns and cities carried out by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) from September 1940 until May 1941.

An ATS FANY Motorcycle Messenger sits on her motorbike as she receives her instructions from a FANY Corporal at the ATS MTC training centre, Camberley.
© IWM (D 5721)
Women in Wartime

The Vital Role Of Women In The Second World War

Women were conscripted in December 1941. They were given a choice of working in industry or joining one of the auxiliary services – the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) or the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS).