The Netherlands had been neutral during the First World War, but the German invasion on 10 May 1940 changed everything. Juliana and her two daughters had been sleeping in a shelter by Huis ten Bosch, and Wilhelmina ordered her heir to leave the country. The initial plan was for her and her daughters to go to Paris, but that was soon no longer an option. England was plan B.
In the early morning of 10 May, Wilhelmina issued a proclamation protesting the attack on the Netherlands and the violation of the neutrality. Huis ten Bosch, with its rural setting, was considered to be too vulnerable to an attack and so Wilhelmina moved to Noordeinde Palace, which is located in the centre of The Hague. They would spend the nights in a shelter in the gardens of Noordeinde Palace. On 12 May, Juliana and her family finally managed to board a British ship. The goodbye between mother and daughter was difficult. Bernhard accompanied his wife and daughters to England, but he was also an officer in the army and felt that he should be staying. Bernhard immediately returned to the Netherlands when Juliana was safely in London.
Queen Wilhelmina had been told by her cabinet that she should be leaving the country as well. In the early hours of 13 May, Wilhelmina received a visit from General Winkelman, who told her that the situation was dire. Wilhelmina spoke on the phone with King George VI of the United Kingdom before bursting into tears in the shelter. There was no other option left – she would need to go as soon as possible. Wilhelmina boarded the HMS Hereward at Hook of Holland and initially wanted to travel to the province of Zeeland. This turned out to be impossible, and the HMS Hereward set sail for England.
Wilhelmina later wrote in her memoirs, “Of course I was fully aware of the shattering impression that my departure would make at home, but I considered myself obliged, for the sake of the country, to accept the risk of appearing to have resorted to ignominious flight. If the guerilla against the parachute troops had not cut off all connections with the army fighting on the Grebbe, I could have joined it to share the fate of the soldier and, as William III put it, to be the last man to fall in the last ditch. I knew that this was not granted to me either.”1
Later that day, Queen Wilhelmina arrived at Harwich, where the British authorities had already arranged for a train to London. Wilhelmina wrote, “At the station, I was met by King George and by my children, who were very upset and did not understand that I should have had to follow them so soon. The King asked me to be the guest of himself and the Queen, and escorted me to Buckingham Palace.”2
The following day, she issued another proclamation telling the people that the government had to be moved abroad. “Do not despair. Do everything that is possible for you to do in the country’s best interest. We shall do our best. Long live the fatherland!”3
On 24 May, Wilhelmina spoke on the radio for the first time. From July, the BBC broadcasted Radio Oranje (Orange) where Wilhelmina spoke 34 times over the course of the war to encourage the Dutch people. It was illegal for the Dutch people to listen to the broadcasts and many did so in secret. King George VI was most impressed by Wilhelmina, calling her “a remarkable woman and wonderfully courageous.”4 However, Wilhelmina knew she would not be able to stay in Buckingham Palace indefinitely and by the end of the month, she was looking at other possibilities. It was decided that Juliana and her children should go to Canada for their safety but Wilhelmina wanted to stay in London. Her daughter’s absence hit her hand during those first few weeks and she was often, understandably, emotional.
Queen Wilhelmina eventually moved to Eaton Square 82, “a grand and dark London house.”5 While she spent most of her time in exile in England, she also visited the United States in 1942 and addressed a joint session of the United States Congress. She also visited her daughter in Canada a few times, like for the baptism of Princess Margriet on 29 June 1943.
She was finally able to return to a semi-liberated Netherlands in March 1945 before returning officially on 2 May 1945.