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From quiet childhood to life on the balcony

queen's platinum jubilee celebrations in london
Britain's Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth, Prince George, Prince William, Princess Charlotte, Prince Louis and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge stand on the balcony during the Platinum Pageant, marking the end of the celebrations for the Platinum Jubilee of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, in London, Britain, June 5, 2022. Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS

COLIN SMITH looks at the formative years of Britain’s Queen after the official celebrations to mark her 70 years in the position draw to a close

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born in London on 21 April 1926. Her name should have ended Saxe-Coburg Gotha from Queen Victoria’s Saxon husband Albert. Then World War One came along and King George V – future doting paternal grandfather of ‘Lilibet’ as the infant Queen Elizabeth II always called herself – thought it politic to change it to Windsor. But as far as this granddaughter was concerned he was neither a Gotha or a Windsor. She always called him: ‘Grandpa England’.

For most of her childhood Princess Elizabeth was third in line to the throne and the chances of her becoming Queen were slim. In 1936 she was ten when her beloved Grandpa England died and her Uncle Edward became King Edward VIII. This made her second in line after her father, though as succession is decided by male primogeniture, she would have dropped down a place had either one of her grandfather’s two sons produced a legitimate male heir. Instead, as we all know, Edward did something much more startling. After slightly less than a year in the job, because he was the titular head of an Anglican Church then adamantly opposed to divorcees remarrying, he abdicated in order to wed the woman he loved, the glamorous and twice divorced American Wallis Simpson who was usually described as ‘a socialite’ whatever that means. Anyway, Elizabeth’s father, who until he met the right speech therapist had a bad stammer, rather reluctantly at first, became George VI. And since Elizabeth had no brothers this made her heir presumptive. She is by the way distantly related by their common Tudor ancestor Henry VII, to Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen who defied the Spanish Armada.

Her own war wasn’t entirely uneventful. Between 1939-45 Buckingham Palace and its grounds were hit 16 times. At one point she was fascinated to see some unexploded ordinance being gently removed from the palace on a stretcher. The worst attack occurred in September 1940 at the start of what is usually referred to as the London Blitz. A stick of five bombs exploded around the Palace’s Chapel Royal, its Victoria Memorial, Inner Quadrangle, and the main gates. A building worker died and three others were injured. Lord Hailsham, a cabinet minister, urged that Elizabeth and her younger sister Princess Margaret be immediately evacuated to Canada. A lot of better off Brits had already done this but their mother Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, wouldn’t hear of it. ‘The children won’t leave unless I do,’ she told Hailsham. ‘I shall not leave until their father does and the King will never leave.’ Afterwards she admitted she was glad they had been bombed, famously remarking: ‘At least now we can look the East End in the eye.’

Even so, fears the Luftwaffe might eventually succeed in flattening Buckingham Palace resulted in the Royals being secretly moved to Windsor Castle about 20 miles away. This remained their real residence for most of the war. During the day the King and Queen often returned to the Palace for official receptions and the like and occasionally still overnighted there. But almost throughout hostilities their children remained at Windsor with their governesses and horses and saw little of their commuting parents. Fourteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth made an oblique reference to this when, during her radio debut on BBC Children’s Hour, she put herself and her sibling in the same category as those other child evacuees moved away from major cities while their parents continued essential war work. ‘My sister Margaret Rose and I feel so much for you,’ she told her listeners. ‘We know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all.’

By contemporary standards they grew up quickly. Princess Elizabeth’s first official solo outdoors appearance came in April 1942 when, on her sixteenth birthday, she became the Grenadier Guards’ Honorary Colonel and was invited to inspect a Grenadier battalion billeted conveniently close to home at Windsor Castle. A photograph shows the Guardsmen are not in ceremonial scarlet but wartime khaki battle dress with flat caps. Soon she was in khaki herself as one of the youngest members of the ATS – the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service – in which she enthusiastically trained as a driver-mechanic and came to like cars almost as much as horses. Years later, at a time when rebellious Saudi women were being flogged for daring to drive, she mischievously sat behind the wheel of a Land Rover and insisted on personally chauffeuring the kingdom’s visiting Sheikh Abdullah around the narrow lanes of Balmoral’s estate. But if she learned to drive young she learned to shoot even younger. It started during the summer of 1940 when she was 14 and the invasion scare was at its height. At that time, before the princesses moved to Windsor, a parachute assault on Buckingham Palace itself wasn’t considered beyond the realms of possibility and part of mother and eldest daughter’s regular pistol practise was on the rats that infested the palace gardens.

As they grew older her parents did their best to impose some kind of normality on their children. For instance, allow them to meet boys. In May 1944, a few days after Princess Elizabeth’s 18th birthday, selected officer cadets nearing the end of their training at Sandhurst or Mons were invited to ‘a small dance’ at Windsor Castle. Most of the cadets were about the same age as Princess Elizabeth and given the heavy casualties anticipated during the imminent D-Day landings there seems to have been a hint of the Duchess of Richmond’s Eve of Waterloo Ball about it. Among the guests was Coldstreamer  John Gale who survived the war, joined The Observer as a foreign correspondent, which was where I first met him, and published a much-lauded autobiography called A Clean Young Englishman. In it he writes of his dance with the future Queen.

At two or three in the morning, feeling by now robust, I approached Princess Elizabeth again. ‘Ma’am,’ I said. ‘I believe this is my dance.’ I put out my arms to her. Before I knew exactly what was happening, we were on the dance floor and beginning to sway in the right direction. I realised I had had a lot to drink. We said nothing, but swayed and rocked to the music as best we could; I knew no steps. Happily it was a foxtrot, which made few demands. We said nothing for a long time. Was I perhaps leaning too heavily on my partner? The band played on. At last Princess Elizabeth asked, ‘Are you at Sand’ust?’ ‘No Ma’am,’ I replied. ‘Mons Barracks.’

Memories of Cadet Gale’s fearless foxtrot were no doubt soon eclipsed by the beginning of the German V1 and V2 rocket attacks not to speak of a regular correspondence with a decorated young naval officer called Philip Mountbatten. It would be almost exactly a year after the dance at Windsor Castle before the war in Europe was at last over. The princesses joined their parents and Churchill on the Buckingham Palace balcony to acknowledge the ecstatic, flag waving, conga dancing crowd below. Forty years on, in a rare royal interview granted during 1985’s 40th anniversary of the Nazi surrender, for the first time the Queen revealed details about her own participation in the biggest street party of them all. Following several appearances on the balcony she and her sister had persuaded their parents to allow them to join the revellers. After almost six years of blackout, the lights were going on again and in particular the floodlights illuminating the palace and other landmarks. ‘My sister and I realised we couldn’t see what the crowds were enjoying,’ she told the veteran war correspondent Godfrey Talbot. ‘So we asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves.’

Chaperoned by a Grenadier Guards officer and wearing an ATS uniform with her lieutenant’s pips up – Princess Margaret aged 15 was in civilian clothes – they had slipped out of a side door and mingled incognito with the usually uniformed and increasingly alcohol-fuelled masses. In a rare royal interview with the BBC’s Talbot, the Queen recalled being ‘terrified of being recognized’ and pulling her cap over her eyes only to be reprimanded by their Grenadier escort. ‘He refused to be seen in the company of another officer improperly dressed so I had to put my cap on normally,’ she explained. ‘After a while we joined the crowd shouting for the King and my father was obliged to make yet another appearance. Then we walked miles through the streets. I remember people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief. It was one of the most memorable nights of my life.’ And this was only the beginning.


  • Colin Smith, an award winning correspondent for The Observer and author of Singapore Burning and several other successful military histories, wrote and presented this tribute to Queen Elizabeth at last Sunday evening’s Platinum Jubilee service at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Nicosia.


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