How Queen Elizabeth II's World War II Service Set the Tone for Her Reign

As Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Platinum Jubilee with a series of national events, Newsweek looks at how the monarch's wartime service set the tone and standard for her historic reign.

'A House in the Country'

When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, members of the royal family found themselves displaced in a way that they hadn't during the First World War. Whereas the 1914-18 conflict had remained mainly on mainland Europe, a new age of airborne warfare saw British towns and cities become expected targets. Despite this, King George VI refused to leave London.

Though the king's position was firm, the next concern was what to do with his children, Princess Elizabeth (the future queen) and Princess Margaret. It was suggested that the king and queen send them away to Canada.

Royal author Ian Lloyd wrote in The Queen: 70 Chapters in the Life of Elizabeth II, that the Queen Mother made her thoughts on this clear with the statement: "The children could not go without me, I could not possibly leave the king and the king would never go."

Queen Elizabeth II ATS Passing Out Ceremony
The queen (as Princess Elizabeth) was driven to join the war effort after young women her age were conscripted. Photographed at the ATS passing out ceremony, June 13, 1946. J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

This early lesson that the monarch should stay and experience the hardships of the country would inspire the future queen to play her part in the war effort in the years to come.

Instead of being sent abroad, the princesses were kept at Windsor Castle for the majority of the conflict, with a news blackout on their precise whereabouts put in place that saw the public told only that they were at "a house in the country."

The ATS

When Princess Elizabeth turned 17 in 1945 after years spent in relative solitude at Windsor Castle, she was granted permission by her father to enlist in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service). In doing so, she became the first female member of the royal family to joined the armed services as a full-time serving member.

Unmarried women under the age of 30 had been conscripted by the government to join the armed forces or take part in land or industrial work for the war effort. As Elizabeth met this criterion, she was reportedly keen to do as others were expected.

Queen Elizabeth II ATS Wartime Service
The queen (as Princess Elizabeth) joined the ATS in 1945 undertaking mechanic training and driving instruction. Photographed April 1945. Keystone/Getty Images/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The princess was assigned to the Mechanical Transport Training detail at a base not far from Windsor Castle and learned how to pull apart and put back together an engine as well as how to drive military vehicles.

The training was a long process and involved practical and written theory tests that the princess passed.

The proximity to Windsor meant that the king and queen could visit their daughter while she was working as though she returned to the castle to sleep. She kept up with the full rota of watches and other aspects of the course alongside her other servicewomen.

Following the King's Example

Elizabeth's governess, Marion Crawford, commented that the dedication shown by the princess to her work with the ATS and her determination to serve alongside her countrymen were examples learned from the king, whom she has strived to emulate during her own reign.

She said: "Princess Elizabeth always had that will to carry on in all circumstances, just as the king had done until he became really ill and unable to continue."

"She took immense pride in the fact that she was doing what other girls of her age had to do, and apart from coming back to Windsor to sleep, she kept strictly to the routine of the mess, taking her turn with the others as duty officer, doing inspections, and working really hard on the maintenance of cars."

Queen Elizabeth II ATS Training Windsor
The queen has carried through to her own reign the lessons learned during the war in her father's reign. Photographed training in England, April 1945. CENTRAL PRESS/AFP via Getty Images

Kate Clements, curator of the Imperial War Museum in London, commented on how the queen carried forward the working practices of her mother and father, saying: "She saw what her parents were doing to boost people's morale and she learned from that the importance of duty in times of national crisis."

Post-War Legacy

The war ended before the princess could put to active use the skills learned during the course of her army training but over the course of her 70-year reign, which began after her father's early death in 1952, the importance of dedication, duty and being a leader in times of national crisis have all manifested.

Clements said of the queen's later reign that: "Princess Elizabeth was naturally quite serious and responsible, even when she was young and the war years really strengthened that aspect of her personality and provided the foundation of her later attitudes towards duty when she became queen."

Throughout her reign, the queen has often publicly drawn on the lessons learned during the war to guide and inform the way Britain navigates new troubles and crises. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic saw this utilized to full effect when in April 2020, during the first British lockdowns, the monarch revived a wartime slogan in a special address to the nation.

She said: "We should take comfort that, while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again."

Queen Elizabeth II Wartime Service Informs Reign
Many of the queen's wartime experiences have informed decisions made later in her historic reign and have been frequently referenced in speeches. Photographed (L) June 13, 1946. And (R) May 17, 2022. J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images/Andrew Matthews/WPA Pool/Getty Images

This sentiment was again revived in an address given by the queen to mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day during national COVID-19 lockdowns in May 2020. Here the queen reflected on the wartime generation and how they too handled the upheavals of national crisis saying:

"Our streets are not empty; they are filled with the love and the care that we have for each other. And when I look at our country today, and see what we are willing to do to protect and support one another, I say with pride that we are still a nation those brave soldiers, sailors and airmen would recognize and admire."

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