This sweet-faced woman boosted morale so vigorously during the Second World War that Adolf Hitler himself called her “the most dangerous woman in Europe.”
Elizabeth, mother of the current queen, died in 2002 at the age of one hundred and one, and most of us remember her only as a wrinkled old lady in a veiled hat.
But she was once beautiful enough to attract the son of a king. In 1923 Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the king’s younger son Albert, whom she called Bertie – but only after he proposed three times.
Elizabeth embraced the traditional ideas of family and public service. She became known as the “Smiling Duchess” and gave birth to two girls, Elizabeth (Lillibet) and Margaret.
When Bertie’s older brother abdicated in 1936, Bertie reluctantly assumed the throne. His speech impediment, and her support, were the subject of a movie titled The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth and Helena Bonham-Carter. Apparently even the queen herself was touched by this sympathetic portrayal of her parents.
In 1939 the royal couple took a train trip across Canada. My mother June Florence was fifteen years old, and her school class travelled from Battleford to Saskatoon simply to see the couple wave from the royal train.
My mother recalls: “We were waiting on the platform when we saw the King inside, trying to lower the blind on the window. It was stuck, and he was yanking at it with annoyance. Then the Queen appeared, and gently put her hand on his arm and spoke to him, and he turned away. It was obvious she had a calming influence on him.”
As soon as they returned home, war was declared and Britain – and the royal family – began to fight for their very survival.
In a letter, Elizabeth wrote: “I could not help tears running down my face, but we both realized it was inevitable that we must face the cruel Nazi creed and rid ourselves of this continual nightmare.”
Just two months after war was declared, on Remembrance Day 1939, she addressed women around the world on the BBC Radio in a truly inspirational speech.
She begins by sending her sympathy “to the women of Poland upon whom the first cruel blows have fallen, and the gallant womanhood of France, who are called on to share with us once again the sorrows and hardships of war.”
Britain was recruiting women into the armed forces for the first time in history, and the Queen praised their efforts.
“War has at all times called for the fortitude of women, even in other days when it was the affair of the fighting forces only. Now all this has changed. For we, no less than men, have real and vital work to do.”
She concludes: “The call has come, and from my heart, I thank you, the women of our great Empire, for the way in which you have answered it.”
The king and queen remained at Buckingham Palace throughout the war, proudly flying the Union Jack and visiting bomb sites.
When she met the survivors from a bombed school, Elizabeth could barely contain herself, writing: “It made me all the more determined to beat those unspeakable Huns to see those little faces, so hurt for the sake of Nazi propaganda. I grind my teeth with rage.”
At one point, a bomb fell on the palace, causing some damage. Elizabeth famously said she was glad to be bombed, “because now we can look the East End in the face.” That area of London near the docks took the brunt of bombing.
But she made no claims to heroism. “I am still just as frightened of bombs as I was at the beginning. I turn bright red and my heart hammers,” she wrote to her niece. “I’m a beastly coward, but I do believe that a lot people are, so I don’t mind! Well, darling, I must stop. Tinkety tonk, old fruit, and down with the Nazis!”
When Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, perhaps nobody was happier than the royals. You can see the joy on their faces in this photograph.
Princess Elizabeth is wearing her own uniform. You can read more about her wartime service by clicking here: War Veteran Wears a Crown.
Elizabeth was just fifty-one when Bertie died, and her daughter Elizabeth assumed the throne. From then on, she was known as “Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother,” an odd title that she herself found silly, although she was more commonly known as “the Queen Mum.”
She continued to live with optimism and serve with dignity. While the rest of the family squabbled and divorced, she served as example to the younger generation. Here she is pictured with her grandson’s wife, Princess Diana.
And she continued to wear her beloved hats. Can’t you just hear her saying: “Tinkety tonk, old fruit, and down with the Nazis!”