Princess Elizabeth in the British Army
Many dramatic narratives describe how a young Princess Elizabeth drove ambulances in the Blitz in WWII, as German bombs fell upon London. They are great stories, and it would have been awesome if they were true, but alas, they are not – although there is no doubt that the Princess would have loved to do that. The fact of the matter is that she was still a child, only fourteen-years-old during the Blitz, and thus too young to serve. What she did do when she turned eighteen in 1944 was to join the ATS, the British Army’s female auxiliary branch. Her father, King George VI, made sure she received no special rank or privileges, and she was duly commissioned as a subaltern, later promoted to junior commander – the equivalent of a captain. She began to train as a mechanic in March, 1945, just a few weeks before WWII ended in Europe.
At the Mechanical Transport Training Section in Camberley, Surrey, she learned how to drive and maintain army ambulances and other vehicles. The press dubbed her “The Princess Mechanic”. Germany surrendered on May 8th, 1945, before she got to see any action. London and the rest of the country erupted into victory celebrations, and Princess Elizabeth, dressed in her ATS uniform, slipped incognito into the crowd with her sister to enjoy the festivities. As she recalled decades later: “We asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves. I remember we were terrified of being recognised … I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief … I remember we were terrified of being recognized so I pulled my uniform cap well down over my eyes“.