The Windsors at war: what did the royal family do during WW2?

Stephen Bates describes how the response of George VI, his wife Elizabeth and their two young daughters during the battle against Nazi Germany helped cement the royal family's place in the British people's affections

King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and their daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret of United Kingdom. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

At about 11am on 13 September 1940, a week after the start of the London Blitz, a German bomber ducked under the clouds, flew deliberately low across the capital and dropped five high explosive bombs on Buckingham Palace. George VI and his wife, Elizabeth, were just taking tea. At the precise moment that they heard what she described as the “unmistakable whirr-whirr” of the plane, the queen was battling to take an eyelash out of his eye and they rushed out into the corridor to avoid the blast. Two bombs fell in the palace’s inner quadrangle a few yards from where the couple had been sitting, a third destroyed the chapel and the remainder caused deep craters at the front of the building.

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It was not the first, nor the last, time that the palace was hit during the Second World War – there were two other attacks that week, one of which destroyed the swimming pool, and altogether nine direct hits in five years – but that was the moment that the royals themselves came closest to injury. It was perhaps also the point at which the monarchy finally recovered the public esteem that it had lost at the time of the abdication crisis less than four years earlier (when Edward VIII felt compelled to give up the throne because of his relationship with Wallis Simpson). They could now be seen to be sharing at least some of the privations of their bombed-out subjects. In the queen’s famous words: “I am glad we have been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”

The bombing also gave George VI and Elizabeth a chance to demonstrate the dutifulness and stoicism that the king’s elder brother had so conspicuously lacked when he gave up the throne. Unlike Edward VIII they had stayed at their posts, not fleeing to Canada or seeking sanctuary as some other monarchs had (although King Leopold III of the Belgians, who chose to remain in Brussels after the Nazi occupation, was unpopular for doing so and was later forced to abdicate).

As the queen also said: “The children will not leave unless I do. I shall not leave unless their father does, and the king will not leave the country in any circumstances, whatever.” The children were of course the Princesses Elizabeth (the current Queen, born in 1926) and Margaret (1930).

This was the royal family’s chief, symbolic, contribution to the war effort. Although the king, who had seen service at a junior level as a naval officer at the battle of Jutland in the First World War, met prime minister Winston Churchill for lunch every Tuesday, he had no military role in the conflict, beyond that of raising public morale. And although both men came to respect each other, they were not initially natural soulmates. Churchill had been a supporter of Edward VIII during the abdication, while George had publicly supported former prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s “peace with honour” Munich appeasement of Hitler, which proved so short-lived. When Chamberlain resigned in 1940 George would have preferred Lord Halifax to become prime minister instead of Churchill.

If the Nazi high command thought the attack on the palace would sow defeatism and despair in Britain, they were gravely mistaken. The newsreels and newspapers of the time made no attempt to minimise or disguise the damage. Indeed, recognising its reverse propaganda potential, the Ministry of Information gave 40 reporters access to the site. Pathé News showed workmen repairing the craters, the royal couple were pictured inspecting the wreckage, while the prime minister and the associated commentaries and editorials all stressed the dastardliness of the attack on “our beloved sovereign”.

“May this planned assassination recoil a hundred-fold on the beast of Berlin,” blared the newsreel. Reginald Simpson, editor of the Sunday Graphic, wrote: “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 concept of sharing – of being all in it together – was heavily emphasised in propaganda throughout the war and has played well in the royal family’s favour ever since: the present Queen could hardly have been so prominently and sympathetically associated with the commemoration of wartime anniversaries had that not been the case, even though her own personal military involvement was necessarily slight.

It was diligently reported that the royal family had been issued with ration books and clothing coupons like everyone else, though not that the queen received 1,277 coupons a year in excess of the standard 66. The king was pictured gazing soulfully at the pigs being fattened for the table at Windsor, just like his subjects who clubbed together to rear pigs of their own; the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were depicted knitting for the troops; the palace rooms were lit by single light bulbs and rings were drawn around the royal tubs to limit the depth of baths to five inches like everyone else. The family, parents with two young daughters, were often photographed domestically, as a group, reading or chatting together in their drawing room or cycling in the countryside. It was not a false picture, though it was a massaged one: they could at least retreat away from the capital for the night, to Windsor Castle, when the Blitz in London got too heavy.

The king and queen were regularly shown among their people, especially when they toured bombed sites, or when visiting troops and gun installations. George VI was invariably in uniform when seen on official business – he was a stickler for military correctness – and would frequently be shown presenting medals. How far some of their visits were really welcomed may be questioned. At the time Mass Observation, a project set up in 1937 to survey social attitudes and opinions, recorded some grumbling and sullenness because of unnecessary fuss – but there was clearly also an appreciation that the royal visits showed the monarchy’s concern for their people and demonstrated that they were still with them.

George Vi King Royalty Royal Family
King George VI, H.M. Queen Elizabeth, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, of United Kingdom, Portrait, World War II. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The queen wrote: “It does affect me, seeing this terrible and senseless destruction – I think that really I mind it much more than being bombed myself. The people are marvellous, and full of fight. One could not imagine that life could become so terrible. We must win in the end.” Her ostentatious charm, what playwright Noel Coward described as “an exhibition of unqualified niceness”, made up for her husband’s stiff nervousness and periodic bouts of bad temper and loss of nerve.

These quirks tended to be forgiven as the king was so obviously, painfully, striving to do his duty. His stammer was widely known about – it could scarcely be hidden – and previously, at the time of his accession, it had been seen in some quarters as a sign of his mental and physical fragility. “It need cause no sort of embarrassment,” declared Archbishop Cosmo Lang unnecessarily in a broadcast. But now it became a symbol of integrity and of decent ordinariness.

George was indeed very different from his flashy brother. Edward VIII, the playboy king, a man who, his friend Walter Monckton said, believed that God had dealt him trumps all the time, had precipitously fallen from public favour within days of abdicating in December 1936 and was perceived to be having a cushy war as governor of the Bahamas. He had given up the throne rather than Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee he loved – a dereliction of duty and birthright in the eyes of the public, whose letters to Stanley Baldwin’s government (preserved in government archives) fizz with indignation and contempt – leaving his brother to pick up the pieces.

George VI may not have been an intellectual or original in thought or outlook, but he was obviously sincere and dedicated and that was precisely what was required from a public figurehead. “His making was, of course, the war,” noted Martin Charteris, who would later be a private secretary to Queen Elizabeth II.

Appearances by the royal family in cinema newsreels – the only form of pictorial broadcasting operating during the war, as the nascent BBC television service closed down for the duration – rose dramatically. Mass Observation estimated that stories featuring members of the royal family rose from them being covered in 23 per cent of bulletins to 80 per cent at the height of the crisis, while spontaneous clapping when they came on screen trebled. One man told researchers after watching the palace bombing sequence: “Now the king is clapped not so much as a man but as a symbol of the country.”

At the heart of these public appearances were the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, who made their first radio broadcast in October 1940, a month after the bombing of Buckingham Palace. Two years earlier royal officials had contemptuously rejected a request from Helen Reid, the owner of the New York Herald Tribune, for the princesses to make a radio broadcast to the US to open national children’s week – “there is of course no question… nor is it likely to be considered for many years to come”. Now, times had changed and the broadcast, ostensibly to British children evacuated to North America, was heard across the world. The evocative words: “We know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all… come on Margaret… Good night and good luck to you all” were sentimental, but effective as an example of British stoicism.

As both princesses grew up, their progress was closely observed by the public in wartime: from performing in annual Windsor Castle plays to, in Elizabeth’s case, launching HMS Vanguard, the largest battleship ever built in Britain, in 1944. By the following year, the 19-year-old princess had been allowed, not without some misgivings by her father, to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the ATS, where she went on a six-week training course in driving and vehicle maintenance at the major garrison of Aldershot.

Young women had been conscripted in 1941, with the choice of working in industry or joining one of the auxiliary services – the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS, the women’s branch of the British Army), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) or the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), with the aim of freeing up men from these services for frontline duties.

Elizabeth’s attendance was somewhat circumscribed – she was driven home to Windsor Castle every night and was taken to the officers’ mess for meals – but it was at least an opportunity to test herself against less privileged contemporaries for the first time in her life. And, more importantly, the pictures of her fiddling with an engine and the newsreel of her driving a truck showed her doing her bit. She qualified just as the war ended.

The royal family did not escape unscathed from the war. George VI was exhausted and worn down by the unrelenting tension and emotional strain created by the conflict, in a role that as second son he had never anticipated or been trained for. By the war’s end however he was, in Churchill’s words: “more beloved by all classes and conditions than any of the princes of the past”. The royal family’s wartime example and reputation have stood it in good stead now for three-quarters of a century.


Four royal brothers at war

While George VI’s reputation soared, his brothers faced danger or dishonour

1

King George VI (1895–1952)

George VI (christened Albert) was the second son of George V. He trained at Osborne Naval College and saw action in the First World War at Jutland. In 1918 he transferred to the Royal Air Force, the first royal to qualify as a pilot. In the Second World War he became a figurehead, visiting factories, hospitals and bombed-out areas and making morale-boosting visits to British forces abroad, including at Normandy in France after D-Day in 1944 (seen above with General – later Field Marshal – Montgomery).

2

Edward, Duke of Windsor (1894–1972)

George V’s heir abdicated as Edward VIII in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson. He trained at Osborne Naval College, serving with the Grenadier Guards in the First World War. He was living in France in 1939, but fled to Portugal where the Nazis unsuccessfully attempted to abduct him. Two years before he had met Hitler (above) and was suspected of Nazi sympathies, but denied it. In 1940 he was appointed governor of the Bahamas – “a third-class colony”, he believed – to keep him out of trouble.

3

Prince George, Duke of Kent (1902–42)

The fourth son of George V became the first English royal to die on active service since King Richard III fell at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. George had been in the navy and worked as a civil servant (another royal first). He had a louche reputation, with talk of affairs with both men and women and drug taking. An air commodore in the RAF, he was killed when a plane taking him to inspect air bases in Iceland crashed into a hillside in Caithness in Scotland.

4

Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester (1900–74)

George V’s third son (above, on the right) was a career soldier, though he had retired from the 10th Hussars in 1937. He was appointed chief liaison officer to the British Expeditionary Force in France and was wounded during the retreat to Dunkirk. He then served as second in command of 20th Armoured Brigade. He was not risked in combat after the Duke of Kent was killed.

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This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘Royal Dynasties’ bookazine