The beginning of King George VI’s reign was marked by the looming of the Second World War. They were also hounded by the Duke of Windsor in his endless pursuit of securing the HRH title for his new wife and his ever pressing need for money. Meanwhile, the King and Queen toured the country. At the end of October 1937, the King presided over his first opening of parliament. The following year, Elizabeth lost her mother and was still wearing black when she and her husband went on a state visit to France. The visit was a great success, with French newspapers writing, “We have taken the Queen to our hearts. She rules over two nations.”1
The atmosphere became grim in London. Air-raid precautions were put into effect, and children were evacuated to the countryside. In 1939, the King and Queen made the final preparations for a six-week trip to the United States and Canada. On the way there, Elizabeth read Hitler’s Mein Kampf. It was not an easy journey, and Elizabeth wrote to her eldest daughter, “Here we are creeping along at about one mile per hour & occasionally stopping altogether, for the 3rd day running! You can imagine how horrid it is – one cannot see more than a few yards, and the sea is full of icebergs as big as Glamis.”2 The visit was a great success and both commented that the tour had made them.
On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and two days later, Britain declared war on Germany. Elizabeth wrote, “I wish to try & set down on paper some of the impressions that remain from that ghastly day – Sunday, 3 September 1939. And yet when one tries to find words, how impossible & how inadequate they are to convey even an idea of the torture of mind that we went through.”3
Elizabeth knew all too well that her role as Queen of a country at war was to sustain morale all around the country. One of her first visits was to the London Scottish, the territorial regiment of which she was an honorary colonel. She also visited civilian organisations like the Red Cross. She also made a broadcast to the women of the Empire and sympathised with those who were separated from their husbands and children. “Women of all lands yearn for the day when it will be possible to set about building a new and better world, where peace and goodwill shall abide. That day must come. Meantime, to all of you, in every corner of the Empire, who are doing such fine work in all our Services, or who are carrying on at home amidst the trials of these days, I would give a message of hope and encouragement.”4 It was one of the busiest periods of the Queen’s life.
On 13 May 1940, the King was woken at 5 am by a phone call from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. She asked for help to defend her country as it was being invaded by Germany. Queen Wilhelmina only narrowly avoided capture and managed to board the British destroyer Hereward which she hoped would take her to the south of Holland where troops were still resisting the invasion. The Hereward took her to Harwich instead, and with great reluctance, the Queen arrived in London by train. Next to arrive were the Norwegians. Europe was collapsing, but Elizabeth remained calm on the outside. She wrote, “Sometimes one’s heart seems to be near breaking under the stress of so much sorrow and anxiety. When we think of the gallant young men being sacrificed to the terrible machine that Germany has created, I think that anger perhaps predominates, but when we think of their valour, their determination and their great grand spirit, pride and joy are uppermost. We are all prepared to sacrifice everything in the fight to save freedom, and the curious thing is, that already many false values are going, and life is becoming simpler and greater every day.”5
Elizabeth and her husband both took shooting lessons, and the King carried a rifle and a revolver in his car. “I shall not go down like the others”, she said.6 On 8 September 1940, Buckingham Palace was hit by a delayed-action bomb, which did not go off. The next morning, the King worked in his office, directly above where the bomb was. It suddenly went off on Monday night and blew out all the windows of his office and many other rooms. Some ceilings came down, but the main structure was not seriously damaged. On 13 September, the King and Queen were nearly killed when a German bomber dropped a stick of bombs on the palace. On the day of the bombing, they drove to the East End of London, where the damage was “ghastly.” The Queen famously commented that she could “now look the East End in the face.”7
In 1942, the King’s brother The Duke of Kent was killed in an air crash, and Elizabeth was very distraught. “I could talk to him about many family affairs for he had a quick & sensitive mind & a very good & useful social sense & we had a great many jokes too.”8 Victory in Europe was finally announced on 8 May 1945, and that evening the family appeared together on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Elizabeth wrote, “It is almost impossible to believe that the dreadful war is over, and Germany truly beaten – the sense of relief from bombs and rockets is very agreeable at the moment, and I hope that people won’t forget too soon.”9
The emotional and physical toll of the Second World War had aged both the King and Queen. The King, whose health had always been poor, was exhausted. He needed to rest, but there was too much to do.
On 10 July 1947, the engagement of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten was announced, and they were married on 20 November. The King wrote to the Princess on her honeymoon, “I was so proud of you & thrilled at having you so close to me on our long walk in Westminster Abbey, but when I handed your hand to the Archbishop I felt that I had lost something very precious. You were so calm & composed during the service & said your words with such conviction, that I knew everything was all right.”10 Their first grandchild, Prince Charles, now The Prince of Wales, was born in November 1948, followed by their first granddaughter Princess Anne, now The Princess Royal, in August 1950. By then, the King had been diagnosed with arteriosclerosis, and there were fears that his leg might have to be amputated. Throughout the next two years, the King’s health remained a subject of anxiety. He was told he had a condition known as pneumonitis, but he did not get better, and so a biopsy was carried out. It revealed a malignant growth in the lung. His entire lung was removed. Elizabeth sent a note to her mother-in-law, “He is so wonderfully brave about it all, and it does seem hard that he should have to go through so much.”11
In early 1952, the King waved his eldest daughter goodbye at London Airport as she and her husband left for Kenya. It was the last time they would see each other. On 5 February, he went to bed around 10.30 pm. Around 7.30 am, the next morning, the King was found dead. Elizabeth later wrote to her mother-in-law, “I was sent a message that his servant couldn’t wake him. I flew to his room & thought that he was in a deep sleep, he looked so peaceful – and then I realised what had happened.”12 The King had died, and Elizabeth now became known as Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.13
- Shawcross, William (2009), Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography p. 435
- Shawcross, William (2009), Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography p. 454
- Shawcross, William (2009), Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography p. 488
- Shawcross, William (2009), Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography p. 498
- Shawcross, William (2009), Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography p. 513
- Shawcross, William (2009), Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography p. 516
- Shawcross, William (2009), Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography p. 524
- Shawcross, William (2009), Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography p. 551
- Shawcross, William (2009), Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography p. 591
- Shawcross, William (2009), Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography p.629
- Shawcross, William (2009), Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography p. 647
- Shawcross, William (2009), Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography p.653
- Shawcross, William (2009), Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography (UK & US)