The death of Queen Elizabeth II marks the end of a 70-year era full of conflict and change. Born in 1926, she is the same age as actors Marilyn Monroe and Andy Griffith, dictator Fidel Castro, author Harper Lee, and musicians Miles Davis and Chuck Berry. She is part of a generation that came of age during World War II, and as with many of that generation, the war was a defining experience in her life.
Princess Elizabeth was thirteen when World War II broke out in 1939, and like many London children, her parents sent her away from the city for her safety, though she lived in Windsor Castle and still saw her parents often. The future Queen Elizabeth II made her first public speech during this time, addressing the other children who were separated from their parents by the war. Her parents stayed at Buckingham Palace in solidarity with the people of London, and the royal residence was bombed by German planes during the Blitz.
When she turned eighteen in 1944, Princess Elizabeth enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, which was the female branch of the British Army designed to shift some non-combat military jobs to women to free men to fight. Her royal title didn’t earn her an automatic advancement, and she served as an auto mechanic and driver with a junior officer ranking. She was among 200,000 young women serving in the ATS, of which 335 were killed in the line of duty, and many others injured.
Princess Elizabeth wasn’t wounded in the line of duty, and the war ended in 1945. Probably breaking quite a few rules, she took to the streets to celebrate with everyone else, keeping her uniform hat pulled low so no one would recognize her. She linked arms with her future subjects and marched in celebration, and some rumors even say she danced in a Conga line.
Princess Elizabeth maintained an enjoyment of driving and engine repair into her reign as Queen Elizabeth II, and also an ability to connect with many of the citizens of her country. Some people credit her as the first royal British woman to serve in the armed forces. This ignores many medieval and Renaissance queens who took active roles in defending their countries, but it’s fair to say that Princess Elizabeth’s role in the war set a positive example for British women – royal and otherwise.