Queen Elizabeth II during the Second World War

As Britain’s longest serving monarch, Queen Elizabeth III has devoted her life to serving the people of Britain. But before this she entered a different kind of service, becoming the first female member of the Royal Family to become an active duty member of the British Armed Forces.

During the Second World War, life changed for the people of Britain, and the Royal Family were no exception. The then Princess Elizabeth was just 13 years old when war broke out on 3 September 1939. Like many other children, Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret were evacuated outside of London, relocating to Windsor Castle.

Close-up studies of Princess Elizabeth at the saluting base during the march past

As the war progressed, Princess Elizabeth did her bit for the home front, just as others were doing up and down the country. For example, in 1943 she was photographed working in the Windsor Castle allotments to promote the government’s “Dig for Victory” campaign.[1] Furthermore, on the morning of her sixteenth birthday, Princess Elizabeth undertook her first inspection of a military regiment during a parade at Windsor Castle.[2]

In 1944, Princess Elizabeth turned 18, and immediately wished to volunteer for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). After a year long battle to be allowed to enlist, she was eventually allowed to take up the role, starting as a second subaltern, the Princess was later promoted to Junior Commander, the equivalent of Captain.[3] She began training as a mechanic in March 1945, and undertook a six-week driving and vehicle maintenance course at Aldershot.[4]

Princess Elizabeth, a 2nd Subaltern in the ATS, wearing overalls and standing in front of an L-plated truck. In the background is a medical lorry

Learning how to deconstruct, repair and rebuild engines and change tires, this was the first time the Princess worked alongside ordinary Britons, a freedom which had previously been denied. Her enlistment made headlines around the world, with many applauding her commitment to the war effort, and some dubbing her “Princess Auto Mechanic.”[5]

When the war ended in May 1945, the Princess Elizabeth, along with her sister Princess Margaret, slipped into the crowds on Trafalgar Square to celebrate the victory. Dressed in her ATS uniform, the Princess later commented in 1985 that she was “terrified of being recognized so [she] pulled [her] uniform cap well down over [her] eyes.”[6] Her active military service came to an end later in the year, when Japan surrendered.[7]

The Queen during her visit to HMS Ocean in Devonport, 20 March 2015

Princess Elizabeth’s connection with the Army didn’t end there. Now Queen, she is colonel-in-chief of 16 British regiments and corps, along with many Commonwealth units.[8] Furthermore, her late husband, Philip Mountbatten was an officer in the Royal Navy. Setting a new precedent, many of their children and grandchild have gone on to serve in the British Armed Forces, including Prince Charles, Prince Andrew, Prince William and Prince Harry.[9]


[1] The National WWII Museum, “A Princess At War: Queen Elizabeth II During World War II,” last accessed 2 June 2022, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/queen-elizabeth-ii-during-world-war-ii

[2] The National WWII Museum, “A Princess At War: Queen Elizabeth II During World War II”

[3] The National WWII Museum, “A Princess At War: Queen Elizabeth II During World War II”

[4] The National WWII Museum, “A Princess At War: Queen Elizabeth II During World War II”

[5] Biography, “Queen Elizabeth II’s Surprising Military Role During World War II,” last accessed 2 June 2022, https://www.biography.com/news/queen-elizabeth-ii-mechanic-world-war-ii

[6] The National WWII Museum, “A Princess At War: Queen Elizabeth II During World War II”

[7] Biography, “Queen Elizabeth II’s Surprising Military Role During World War II”

[8] The National WWII Museum, “A Princess At War: Queen Elizabeth II During World War II”

[9] Biography, “Queen Elizabeth II’s Surprising Military Role During World War II”

[Image 1] Imperial War Museum, “HRH Princess Elizabeth visits Guards Armoured Battalion,” H 28983, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205501189

[Image 2] Imperial War Museum, “Women at War 1939 – 1945,” TR 2835, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194945

[Image 3] Wikimedia Commons, “Queen Elizabeth II March 2015,” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Queen_Elizabeth_II_March_2015.jpg


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