When Princess Elizabeth turned 16 in 1942, the nation was in the depths of the Second World War. Women from the ages of 16 to 45 had to sign up for war work, and Princess Elizabeth considered that she should be treated no differently from everyone else—royalty or no royalty.
Her father, King George IV, was against it at first, but she was adamant and gradually changed his mind. Just as an ordinary woman would have done, she registered with the Labour Exchange, which was the wartime employment office that attached available workers to war positions. Soon she had been accepted into the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, called the ATS for short. Essentially, the ATS women stepped in to fill non-combat jobs in the Army, so that the men could be free to fight.
Trained as a military truck mechanic—her report number was No. 230873—she was given the honorary title of Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, although within five months she was promoted to honorary Junior Commander. Her uniform comprised a khaki woolen skirt suit, with dark coveralls to be worn while working. Taught how to change a wheel, deconstruct and rebuild different types of engine, she was expected to drive all sorts of military vehicles, including trucks and ambulances. She was based at the Mechanical Transport Training Section, just outside London, although unlike her colleagues who slept in dorms, she went home to the comforts of Windsor Castle every night.
One day in 1945, her parents and sister came on a royal visit to the center, and she stood in line along with the other women to meet them. She is the only female member of the royal family ever to have entered into the military forces, and she is the only remaining living head of state who served in the Second World War.
By all accounts, she adored her job and the important role she was playing in the war. One of her major joys was to get dirt under her nails and grease stains on her hands and display these signs of labor to her friends. Always keen not to put herself above the ordinary woman, when she was married, she famously saved clothing coupons for her wedding dress as clothing was heavily rationed.
In 1992, Queen Elizabeth gave an interview where she said, “Training is the answer to a great many things. You can do a lot if you're properly trained.” And I often wonder if she was thinking back to her Second World War days, rubbing shoulders with the other ATS women and mending ambulances and military trucks.