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April 21, 2021

20 Fascinating Black and White Portraits of Queen Elizabeth II in the 1940s

When Elizabeth was born in April 1926, she wasn’t destined for the throne. Her father Albert, known as “Bertie” to his family, was the second son of King George V. Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret were doted on by their parents, with her father dubbing the family, “we four.” It was a comfortable but strictly confined upbringing.

Elizabeth’s world was turned upside down in 1936, following George V’s death and the abdication of Elizabeth’s uncle Edward VIII just months later. Edward’s decision to cast aside the crown to marry Wallis Simpson left her father, now King George VI, on the throne and 10-year-old Elizabeth as heir presumptive.

George VI struggled to find his footing after assuming the throne. Tentative, nervous and prone to both ill health and a relentless stutter, he found public speeches and appearances agonizing. But, as the war began, he found his footing. Bolstered by his wife and government officials, including Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the king helped rally the morale of the British people, refusing to leave London despite repeated aerial attacks by Nazi planes that left cities in ruins. He and the queen regularly visited those most devastated by the attacks, and when one bombing in September 1940 badly damaged a portion of Buckingham Castle, bringing the dangers of the war to the royal’s doorstep, the queen noted, “Now I can look the East End in the face.”

With the looming threat of a German invasion, the British government urged the queen to leave for Canada with her daughters. She refused, stating, “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave without the King. And the King will never leave.” But, like thousands of other children who were evacuated from British cities, Elizabeth and Margaret did leave London, spending much of the war at Windsor Castle. In 1940, the two sisters made one of their first public addresses, recording a radio broadcast to their fellow children in Britain and British colonies and dominions around the world. 

With the British people rallying to cause, Elizabeth, like many other young Britons, yearned to do her part. But her protective parents refused to allow her to enlist, noting that no female member of the royal family had ever joined the military. Elizabeth was a dutiful daughter, but she was also strong-willed. It took more than a year of debate before her family finally relented in early 1945, giving the now 19-year-old permission to join up.

That February she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territory Service (similar to the American Women’s Army Corps or WACs), registered as inductee No. 230873, under the name Elizabeth Windsor. The ATS provided key support during the war, with its members serving as anti-aircraft gunners, radio operators, mechanics and drivers.

Here, a gallery of 20 fascinating vintage photos of a young Queen Elizabeth II during the 1940s:


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