As Victory in Europe was declared, on May 8th 1945, a shy man who had found himself at the centre of the efforts to defeat the Nazis prepared to speak to millions by radio. At his side was the wife who had played just as crucial a role throughout World War Two. The words of King George VI, delivered at 9pm on VE Day, were a public event that became part of history. But behind the scenes, both George and his queen, Elizabeth, recorded their most private thoughts in diaries and letters.
George VI wrote in his diary, as the peace that had been so desired since 1939 finally arrived, that ”we have only tried to do our duty during these five and a half years.” However, he and Elizabeth had won huge admiration for their conduct through the conflict and as VE Day finally came, the King wrote that they were overwhelmed by ”the kind things people have said over our part in the war”.
Queen Elizabeth also voiced how stunned she felt by events in a letter to Osbert Sitwell as peace began to take hold and instead of focusing on the praise being given to her, she underlined her own pride in how everyone in Britain had coped with the traumas of the war. She movingly wrote ”our people respond so magnificently when they are asked to do hard things, to die, to smile amongst the wreckage of their homes, to work until they crack, to think of their neighbours before themselves, and the more difficult things you ask of them, the more response you get.”
However, both were well aware that more challenges lay ahead. War went on outside of Europe until August with the global conflict finally ceasing on August 15th 1945, VJ Day. And Britain, like many countries, faced the daunting prospect of rebuilding. This was foremost in the King’s through the days of celebration. He wrote ”I have found it difficult to rejoice or relax as there is still so much hard work ahead to deal with.”
The wartime role of George VI and Elizabeth is still widely admired and, on this 75th anniversary of VE Day, their poignant words resonate still.