In April 1944, young Queen Elizabeth – then Princess Elizabeth – 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 the Auxiliary Territorial 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.
Princess Elizabeth joins the ATS
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.