‘The Princess was a quiet girl. She didn’t put herself for- ward.’ Gwen Evans (née Ansell) is 98 years old and served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service between 1942–6. We’ve only just met. Finding women in their late nineties who served in Britain’s female army in World War II comes with its own unique set of challenges. Finding women who served alongside HRH Princess Elizabeth in the last two months of that conflict is harder still. Ironically both were made much easier with the publication of my previous book, Army Girls.
Any writer will tell you that a positive response to their work is always hugely welcome. However in November 2021, the Armistice month when Army Girls was published, the sheer deluge of emails and letters I received was both surprising and deeply moving. Sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, friends and former military rushed to champion their own extant or late ATS member. The book tapped into a well of unspoken pride for a generation of women who quietly got on with the unexpected: military service.
Inevitably in an oral history featuring women in their late nineties, since publication several of the original Army Girls have ‘left to meet their maker’ as former Private Daphne Attridge wryly puts it. In the nick of time I was able to catch and curate their memories and personal archives. Perhaps only now do I fully understand what ‘living history’ means. Being able to telephone Lady Martha Bruce, (who recently celebrated her hundredth birthday) to double check what she wrote in a letter to her parents from a gun-site in 1943, was both a privilege and a joy.
It is this direct connection to a conflict like no other that gives our monarch Elizabeth II’s extraordinary life a unique military hallmark. In the midst of her Platinum Jubilee year, we not only celebrate a Queen who has reigned for a staggering 70 years but also a young Princess who served king and country in World War II. More than four centuries ago it was Elizabeth I who went down in history for her rousing speech to troops in the face of the Spanish Armada: ‘I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.’ However, the Virgin Queen did not serve with her soldiers in uniform. That first from a female member of the royal family came much later in the form of a modest teenager, heir presumptive HRH Princess Elizabeth.
Just two months shy of war’s end in March 1945 the Princess was finally permitted to join the ATS. Despite its brevity, the future Queen’s military service saw her become the symbol for a generation of women who went to war in unprecedented numbers. Ever since, Her Majesty’s familiar face has tied us back to the Blitz, Churchill and female service. I drew on Princess Elizabeth’s military archive in the National Army Museum for this book. It makes for astonishing reading: the level of to-ing and fro-ing and bureaucratic fuss involved for one young girl to enter the ATS and learn to drive was stifling. Nothing was left to chance. Elizabeth was a pawn in a greater game and even when she was finally allowed out of Windsor Castle to train at Camberley’s No.1 Motor Transport Training Centre, her experience was minutely controlled. In the morning when the Princess arrived on site, the other girls had already been fed and drilled, and, according to Gwen, chauffeur-driven bottle green army vehicles swept up again in the evening to take Elizabeth home. Above all else, the veterans featured in this book treasure the friendships forged in their communal living quarters; the small talk, the japes and the letters home. But that rite of passage was not available to the Princess, she slept at Windsor Castle. ‘I think she did have some friends. She was in a unit that was training to be officers. They were a bit separate from us but we all learnt mechanics.’ Former ATS driver Gwen smiles. ‘You opened up the front of a Bedford truck and put all the parts on a ground sheet. A fan belt, a carburettor, that sort of thing.’ She waves her hand. ‘And in front of an inspection officer you had to name all the parts and know how to put them back together again.’ ‘Yes everyone.’ She nods. ‘Even the Princess.’
We are talking about the most famous woman in the world, revered for her longevity, her discretion and her sense of duty. I’m hungry for any detail, big or small. But Gwen, like the other Army Girls, has a more nuanced take on our sovereign’s military service. HRH Elizabeth was younger than the women in this book (Gwen frequently reminds me that the Queen is two-and-a-half years her junior), and she joined the war later; a slip of a girl who squeezed into a superior officer’s uniform at the last minute.
By the time Gwen arrived at Camberley for six weeks of training she’d already served in the ATS for over two years, predominantly as a short hand typist. In comparison Elizabeth ‘seemed shy and a bit unsure of herself.’ Apparently the Princess ‘was never pushy’, quite the opposite. Freshly pressed out of her castle closet where she had been holed up with little sister Margaret while her parents picked their way across Britain’s bomb sites, the future Queen lacked the easy assurance around her peers that comes with familiarity. Public messaging insisted ‘The Princess is to be treated in exactly the same way as any other officer learner at the driving training centre’, but that was to deny Elizabeth’s exceptional position. The Princess was already accustomed to reviewing parades of uniformed troops and one day she’d be Queen and titular head of all she surveyed.
‘Just as we did with the ATS commanders, we knew to respect her. It was built in. You didn’t treat her differently but you just knew she was something different from you.’ Gwen glides over the contradiction of royalty. ‘I am a monarchist.’ And to prove it she adds: ‘My parents read the Daily Mail and it was always going over what the royals were doing.’ Nowhere is that hereditary magic more important than the military, where our armed forces have always served in the name of their sovereign.
Gwen’s living room is heavy with the pungent aroma of hyacinths; she closes her eyes and conjures up the past. ‘We were pleased to see them. We were taught how to curtsey.’ She’s referring to Elizabeth’s parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. They famously visited their daughter when she was doing a vehicle inspection; the photographs are legion and the Princess a composed subject. The press was a world she knew well. I wonder out loud if Elizabeth ever complained about the strictures on her army life and all the attention. Gwen looks at me and says very slowly: ‘She would not have complained. None of us did.’
But at least Gwen and Elizabeth were learning to drive. ‘I wanted to drive, we all wanted to drive. Once I drove a male officer to Hull and I went at 50mph. He was holding onto the sides of his seat.’ Irrespective of rank or destiny, rattling Bedford trucks were joyously liberating creatures to the young female recruits at the wheel, but while Gwen carried on driving convoys and delivering troops and munitions into 1946, the Princess’s military set piece was almost over before it began.
Joyce, an Army Girl and driver in this book, thinks that like her Elizabeth might’ve needed to sit on a cushion to reach the pedals in larger military vehicles, and former Corporal Joan recalls a member of her Norfolk ATS branch who trained the Princess at Camberley. ‘Irene’s job was to show her what was under the bonnet of these army trucks.’ Like many other female veterans she too is quick to remind me: ‘The Princess had lunch every day in the Officer’s Mess and went home each night.’
Elizabeth’s ATS experience was so fleeting that her peers are fairly dismissive about the subject but her choreographed war was never primarily about impressing the service’s rank and file. Most importantly it sent a message to the watching world that imperial Britain’s fight for freedom and democracy included the military service of a young princess and heir to the throne. The war had involved everyone and so must the peace.
Joyce’s fondest wartime memory was dancing the ‘Lambeth Walk in a giant crocodile across Piccadilly and down the Mall on VE day. It was terrific! It was wonderful! It was as good as the pictures suggest.’ Joyce didn’t need pictures; she lived it, pushing her way towards the palace and waving at the distant clutch of individuals on the balcony. ‘There was Winston Churchill, the King and the Queen and of course Princess Elizabeth in her uniform. They let her out you know. She joined the crowds and probably danced down Piccadilly just like me!’
The last entry in George VI’s diary that evening referred to his daughters: ‘Poor Darlings, they have never had any fun yet.’ The King knew just how curtailed nine- teen-year-old Elizabeth’s war had been – he’d instigated much of it. For many girls, the conflict pushed them out of the family home into a medley of work and play they never forgot. Not so Elizabeth. The Princess’s wartime sacrifice wasn’t her military service but rather the restrictions placed upon it. But if she could never be the same as the other ATS recruits, her training gave her invaluable credibility. For the rest of her life the Queen has tirelessly represented a generation of women who grew up in an era that demanded their military service. In extreme old age Joyce and Gwen are certain: ‘She has done a wonderful job honouring the war effort’, and there is not one Army Girl who disagrees.
Dr Tessa Dunlop is a historian and broadcaster and author of Elizabeth & Philip: The Story of Young Love, Marriage and Monarchy.