Though the 1930s brought about tumultuous change for the country and for Queen Elizabeth, the 1940s would soon become a decade that nobody would ever forget. It would also be the decade that Elizabeth would be dubbed ‘the most dangerous woman in Europe’ and many argue it was her finest decade.
The Second World War had broken out in September 1939 and it was this conflict that would see The King and Queen become national symbols in the fight against fascism. When war broke out just a few months before a new decade began, it was first thought that The Queen and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret would be evacuated to North America or Canada. It was this suggestion that prompted Queen Elizabeth to give one of the most famous replies in history: “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave The King. And The King will never leave.”
Though war had begun, the first few months of conflict were relatively quiet in Britain, though the same could not be said for 1940. The Luftwaffe began their Blitz of Britain in the late afternoon of 7th September 1940 – a raid that saw tonnes of shipping destroyed or badly damaged in the Thames Estuary, and 1,600 civilian casualties were reported. London was bombed consecutively for the next 57 nights and, while parts of the city were completely destroyed, one thing that remained intact was the British Monarchy.
The King and Queen continued to spend their working days in Buckingham Palace (night times were spent at Windsor Castle) and at the height of the raids, when Buckingham Palace was bombed several times, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were in residence at their London home. The Palace chapel was destroyed during this particular raid, whilst one bomb fell in the Palace quadrangle, just yards from the room where The King and Queen were residing.
Following the raid, a smiling Queen Elizabeth declared: “I’m glad we have been bombed. Now I can look the East End in the face.” Here we had a King and Queen who had chosen not to be evacuated to places of safety,, but to stay in London and endure the hardships of their subjects.
The Sunday Graphic put it this way:
“The King and Queen have endured the ordeal which has come to their subjects. For the second time a German bomber has tried to bring death and destruction to the home of Their Majesties. When this war is over the common danger which King George and Queen Elizabeth have shared with their people will be a cherished memory and an inspiration through the years.”
The entire Royal Family were sharing the dangers and difficulties of war with the rest of the nation, and Queen Elizabeth is often considered to be one of the biggest morale boosters for her subjects during their darkest days. It was this power that spurred Adolf Hitler to call her ‘the most dangerous woman in Europe’, viewing her popularity as a threat to German interests. A threat she may have been, though the realities of war came too close for Elizabeth when her nephew was killed in action, and King George VI’s younger brother, The Duke of Kent, was killed in a military air crash.
From the darkest days of 1940, it would be another five year before the Second World War would come to an end. Victory in Europe Day on 8th May 1945 marked the end of the Second World War in Europe after the suicide of Adolf Hitler and Germany’s surrender. The day was celebrated across the world, and in London crowds massed in Trafalgar Square and up The Mall to Buckingham Palace where King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill appeared on the balcony to the rapturous applause of the waiting crowds. It was later revealed that The King and Queen allowed their daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, to wander incognito in the crowds and take part in the celebrations. Victory in Japan day came on August 15th 1945 – a day which officially ended the Second World War.
The conclusion of war saw a General Election called in the United Kingdom and in shock result, Winston Churchill’s Conservatives were defeated by Clement Atlee’s Labour Party. Though Elizabeth’s political views were rarely disclosed, a unique letter in 1947 saw Queen Elizabeth describe Attlee’s “high hopes of a socialist heaven on earth” as fading, though Elizabeth is quoted years later as saying: “I like the dear old Labour Party”.
In 1947 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth embarked upon a tour of South Africa accompanied by their daughters Elizabeth and Margaret.
This was the first overseas tour for the two Princesses and the first state visit by The Royal Family since 1939 and the outbreak of World War Two. It was reported that on this tour of South Africa, Queen Elizabeth’s serene public behaviour was broken exceptionally when she rose from the Royal car to strike an admirer with her umbrella because she mistook his enthusiasm for hostility.
The 1947 South Africa tour was also an important one for Princess Elizabeth for not only did she celebrate her 21st birthday on the tour, it is also remembered for the incredible speech she gave to the Commonwealth on the occasion of her milestone birthday. The speech is perhaps most famous for the following words:
“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.”
Apart from the Royal tour, 1947 was also a year of joyous celebration for the King and Queen as on the 9th July it was announced that their eldest daughter Elizabeth would marry Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. It was an engagement not without controversy, as the papers initially pointed out that Philip had no financial standing, was foreign born and his sisters had married German noblemen with Nazi links. It was even reported that Queen Elizabeth was initially hostile to the union between her daughter and Philip, allegedly dubbing Philip ‘The Hun’. As said this was alleged and in later life it was apparent that there was genuine affection between Elizabeth and
The pair married at Westminster Abbey on 20th November 1947 and prior to the marriage, Philip renounced his Greek and Danish titles, converted to Anglicanism and adapted the style Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. The King created Philip The Duke of Edinburgh and granted him the style His Royal Highness.
Just as 1947 was a joyous year for Queen Elizabeth, so too was 1948 as it saw her become a grandmother. Princess Elizabeth gave birth to Prince Charles on 14th November 1948 and Queen Elizabeth became taken by her new grandson. In later years it was considered that Charles was her favourite grandchild and, upon the passing of The Queen Mother in 2002, Charles spoke of his ‘darling magical grandmother’. He said: “She meant everything and I dreaded, dreaded this moment. Somehow I never thought it would come. She seemed gloriously unstoppable.”
1948 also saw The King and Queen celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, allowing King George VI to speak passionately of their marriage and to mention how much Queen Elizabeth inspires him. This strong bond would carry Britain through the struggles of post war years, struggles that included Britain being all but bankrupt, many of its colonies striking out for independence and several years of harsh austerity. Though Britain was shedding its colonies, one good thing to come out of this was the formation of the British Commonwealth.
As the 1940s were drawing to a close, Queen Elizabeth began to be faced with more personal challenges. In 1948 a planned Royal tour of Australia and New Zealand had to be postponed because of The King’s ill health and, in early 1949, George VI had surgery to remove a blood clot from his right leg. From this point onwards Queen Elizabeth and her daughters began to fulfil many of The King’s public engagements.
So as we come to the end of a decade that not only changed Britain but also saw immense changes within The Royal Family. While the latter half of the decade brought about personal challenges for Queen Elizabeth, in my opinion it cannot be argued that the 1940s was indeed The Queen Mother’s finest decade.
Photo Credits: Eleanor Roosevelt, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth in London, England, 10/23/1942 via photopin (license)
Bury Free Press Coronation Souvenir Page 9 – 2nd June 1953 via photopin (license)