Queen Elizabeth II held the title of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. But before she served her country within her official capacity as Queen, she became the first female British royal to become an active duty member of the British Armed Forces. It took her a year-long battle before she was allowed to take up the role, which primarily involved being trained as a mechanic and driver, fixing and refitting car engines and tyres.
It seems Queen Elizabeth’s time spent as a driver and mechanic left a lasting legacy on her and her family, even after the war ended: the Queen taught her children how to drive, she continued to drive well into her 90s and is said to have occasionally fixed faulty machinery and car engines some years after World War Two.
Queen Elizabeth was the last surviving head of state to have served during World War Two. Here’s exactly what role she played during the conflict.
She was only 13 when the war broke out
When World War Two broke out in 1939, the then Princess Elizabeth was 13 while her younger sister Margaret was 9. Owing to frequent and severe Luftwaffe bombings, it was suggested that the princesses should be evacuated to North America or Canada. However, the then Queen was adamant that they would all remain in London, stating, “the children won’t go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.”
As a result, the children remained in Britain and spent their war years between Balmoral Castle in Scotland, Sandringham House and Windsor Castle, the latter of which they finally settled in for many years.
At that time, Princess Elizabeth was not directly exposed to the war and led a very sheltered life. However, her parents the King and Queen frequently visited ordinary people, with the Ministry of Supply finding that their visits to workplaces such as factories increased productivity and overall morale.
She made a radio broadcast in 1940
At Windsor Castle, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret staged pantomimes at Christmas to raise money for the Queen’s Wool Fund, which paid for wool to knit into military materials.
In 1940, 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth made her first radio broadcast during the BBC Children’s Hour where she addressed other children in Britain and the British colonies and dominions who had been evacuated because of the war. She stated, “we are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers and airmen, and we are trying, too, to bear our own share of the danger and sadness of war. We know, every one of us, that in the end all will be well.”
She was the first female royal to join the military
Like millions of other Britons, Elizabeth was eager to help with the war effort. However, her parents were protective and refused to allow her to enlist. After a year of strong-willed persuasion, in 1945 Elizabeth’s parents relented and allowed their now 19-year-old daughter to join.
In February of the same year, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territory Service (much like the American Women’s Army Corps or WACs) with the service number 230873 under the name Elizabeth Windsor. The Auxiliary Territory Service provided crucial support during the war with its members serving as radio operators, drivers, mechanics and anti-aircraft gunners.
She enjoyed her training
Elizabeth underwent a 6-week auto mechanic training course at Aldershot in Surrey. She was a quick learner, and by July had risen from the rank of Second Subaltern to Junior Commander. Her training taught her how to deconstruct, repair and rebuild engines, change tyres and drive a range of vehicles such as trucks, jeeps and ambulances.
It seems that Elizabeth relished working alongside her fellow Britons and enjoyed the freedom that she had never enjoyed before. The now-defunct Collier’s magazine noted in 1947: “One of her major joys was to get dirt under her nails and grease stains in her hands, and display these signs of labor [sic] to her friends.”
There were concessions, however: she ate the majority of her meals in the officer’s mess hall, rather than with the other enlistees, and each night was driven home to Windsor Castle rather than living on site.
The press loved her involvement
Elizabeth became known as ‘Princess Auto Mechanic’. Her enlistment made headlines across the world, and she was praised for her efforts. Though they had initially been wary of their daughter joining up, Elizabeth’s parents were extremely proud of their daughter and visited her unit in 1945 along with Margaret and a swathe of photographers and journalists.
Elizabeth was still a serving member of the Women’s Auxiliary Territory Service by the time Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945. Elizabeth and Margaret famously secretly left the palace to join the revellers celebrating in London, and though they were terrified of being recognised, enjoyed being swept away with the joyous crowd.
Her military service ended with Japan’s surrender later that year.
It helped foster her sense of duty and service
The young royal went on her first overseas tour in 1947 with her parents through southern Africa. While on tour, she made a broadcast to the British Commonwealth on her 21st birthday. In her broadcast, she made a speech written by Dermot Morrah, a journalist for The Times, stating, “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.”
This was notable since her father King George V’s health was, by then, deteriorating. It was becoming increasingly clear that Elizabeth’s experience in the Auxiliary Territory Service was going to prove useful more quickly than anyone in the family had anticipated, and on 6 February 1952, her father died and a 25-year-old Elizabeth became Queen.