At the age of 19, Queen Elizabeth the II (then Princess Elizabeth) became the first female member of the Royal Family to join the military. Elizabeth (13 when WWII first started) was determined to help the war efforts in any way that she could. Seventy-six years on, Elizabeth is the last living head of state that lived through the conflict. Here are four surprising ways that the teenaged princess actively served her country during the Second World War.
Bombing and broadcasting
On the 8th of September, 1940, the Luftwaffe dropped a 50-kilogram bomb landed on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. Placed in central London, the Palace had been a suspected target for the Luftwaffe’s campaign for some time, but just five days later, five bombs shook the castle. The King and Queen, drinking tea at the time, were unharmed by the blast, but the event would go on to bolster the community spirit and raise the morale of those who couldn’t flee the capital to the countryside.
Following the near-miss, the Royal Family was advised to flee the country and seek safety somewhere further removed from the ongoing conflict. The Queen, however, refused to leave her husband’s side and insisted that the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret remain with their family. The family remained in the UK, moving between palaces, throughout the duration of the war.
One month later, Elizabeth and her sister Margaret would give their first royal address as part of the BBC’s Children’s hour. Addressing the children of the commonwealth and evacuees, the princesses spoke about the importance of the support of the troops fighting overseas and doing whatever possible to ensure that they had the best chance of a safe return.
The refusal of the royal family to back down in the face of the German bombardment would bolster the public’s support and view of the Royal Family - something that would prove useful as the full effects of the war began to bite.
Dig for Victory
It wasn’t long until Elizabeth, and her sister, were back in the press stirring up support for the war efforts. At 14, she was photographed picking up a spade and taking part in the Dig for Victory campaign. Complete with a Corgi in a wicker wheelbarrow, the image of the princesses doing their part for the war effort encouraged other families across the country to pitch in and take part in the Dig for Victory campaign.
With increased rationing and restrictions on food and the need for any and all storage space available for ammunition, families across the UK were encouraged to pick up spades and dig up their gardens, local parks, and any other green spaces to grow food and keep livestock.
Auxiliary Territorial Service
As the war progressed, Elizabeth became increasingly eager to get involved and do her part to show support. Much to the reluctance of the King, Elizabeth signed up to the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) shortly after she turned 18.
The ATS was the women’s branch of the British Army during the Second World War. Initially, a voluntary service, the ATS started conscripting unmarried women under the age of 30 to work in agriculture and industry to stop the gap and compensate for the labour shortages across the UK.
Based out of a training camp in Camberly, Surrey, Elizabeth trained as a mechanic and driver for the Second Subaltern Windsor Unit. Despite spending the day at the camp working, Elizabeth was close enough to Windsor Castle that she could return at the end of each day and sleep in her own bed, avoiding the bunks she would have otherwise had to have shared with her fellow members.
Leading by example
Elizabeth continued to lead by example to raise morale and inspiration in post-war Britain. Still gripped with shortages in food, labour, the UK was living in a time of extreme austerity. The Royal Family was not exempt from the measures that restricted food and clothing. In 1947 Elizabeth dutifully saved her clothing ration coupons to pay for her own wedding dress. With a 200 coupon supplement from the government, Elizabeth’s dress took 350 women seven weeks to create and cost £30,000.
Members of the public were so excited and even sent their own clothing coupons to the princess to help cover the costs; however, as it was illegal to transfer ownership of the coupons, each donation was sent back to the original owner with a thank you letter.