Wikipedia says of Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth II),

In February 1945, she joined the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service as an honorary second subaltern with the service number of 230873. She trained as a driver and mechanic and was promoted to honorary junior commander five months later.

Was this just a symbolic role, e.g. to encourage volunteers or boost morale, or did she actually do driving or mechanical work like any other driver or mechanic in the service? An older member of my family tells me she drove an ambulance. Is that true?

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    The wikipedia article cites three sources for the relevant sentences. Did you have a look at them?
    – taninamdar
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 12:07
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    @taninamdar: To be fair, two of the sources are London Gazette supplements that have no additional information whatsoever (just listing the fact that she indeed got the rank indicated).
    – DevSolar
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 13:01
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    Here's a more recent example of her using her military driving experience: That one time when Queen Elizabeth hazed the crown prince of Saudi Arabia
    – Nathan
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 17:46
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    While she didn't actually have to join up - she would not have been liable for conscription until she turned 20, in April 1946 - not doing so would have been poor form at the time, and that's very bad in a constitutional monarchy. It was more a question of showing solidarity with the people than raising morale or encouraging volunteers. Her mother was quoted as being glad when Buckingham Palace was bombed in 1940, because it meant she could face ordinary Londoners. Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 18:29
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    @taninamdar Thank you, I took your advice and looked up the sources. See my answer below.
    – SpamSnook
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 17:30

3 Answers 3


According to this article,

Once in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, Elizabeth learned how to change a wheel, deconstruct and rebuild engines, and drive ambulances and other vehicles.

Joining the ATS as an honorary Second Subaltern, Elizabeth achieved the rank of honorary Junior Commander within five months. [..]

Unlike the other members of the ATS, Elizabeth returned each night to sleep in the royal residence of Windsor Castle.

So it was definitley more than a symbolic role and the last sentence seems to imply that she actually did the same full-time training and service as other people in the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service, though her schedule and placement would of course have been influenced by her standing.

See also this video: The Queen as a Mechanic (1945) [Full Resolution] (YouTube). It proves pretty conclusively that she at minimum did learn to drive trucks.

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    There is a good deal of anecdotal evidence that she drove like an Army driver: with the feeling that you're in a big tough vehicle, and aren't liable for its repair costs. She usually only drove on private roads, basically for fun. I would expect she's given it up now, being 90. Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 13:54
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    @JohnDallman As far as I'm aware, she still drives herself down the Long Walk in Windsor (relatives of mine saw her recently), and she still rides in Balmoral (I was there earlier this year and shown her route by one of the workers there). She's very active for her age.
    – user22859
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 14:42
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    Some photos collected here: mashable.com/2015/04/22/queen-elizabeth-army/#i0MgZnvSakqz
    – AllInOne
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 16:51
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    @AllInOne Thank you. I've used your link in my answer, and worked out these would have been taken during her training.
    – SpamSnook
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 17:39

I took taninamdar's advice to look up the sources from the Wikipedia article in order to answer my own question.

One reference in the article refers to four other sources: "Bradford, p. 45; Lacey, p. 148; Marr, p. 100; Pimlott, p. 75". Each of these authors has published more than one book on Queen Elizabeth II. Googling I found the following books:

  • Sarah Bradford, Elizabeth: A Biography of Her Majesty the Queen;
  • Sarah Bradford, Elizabeth: Queen Elizabeth II : her life in our times;
  • Robert Lacey, Royal: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II;
  • Robert Lacey, The Queen: A Life in Brief;
  • Andrew Marr, The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II;
  • Andrew Marr, The diamond Queen : Elizabeth II and her people;
  • Ben Pimlott, The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II;
  • Ben Pimlott, Queen: Elizabeth II and the Monarchy.

At the library I was able to find Robert Lacey p. 137 (not p. 148, so different from Wikipedia), Royal: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and Ben Pimlott, p. 75, The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II, so I refer to these in what follows.

One of the Wikipedia sources is a scanned image of the London Gazette 9 March 1945 (Wikipedia says 6 March 1945), listing under the title "AUXILIARY TERRITORIAL SERVICE", "H.R.H. The Princess Elizabeth (230873) Col. Gren. G'ds. is granted the hon. rank of 2nd Sub., 24th Feb. 1945." "Col. Gren. G'ds." refers to her previously having been appointed Colonel of the Grenadier Guards (in 1942 according to Wikipedia).

Lacey & Pilmott confirm that "2nd Sub." means 2nd Subaltern. The "hon." refers to the rank being honorary. Lacey describes her as embarking on the Vehicle Maintenance Course, learning how to service and maintain army vehicles at Aldershot and continues,

"...[She] was eager to get to know her coursemates. But while they slept in huts at the all-female base, Elizabeth was chauffeured back to dine and sleep at Windsor. Every lunchtime she was 'whisked away' by the officers to lunch in their mess, and at lectures she was placed in the middle of the front row, with a protective sergeant on either side."

Lacey refers to the diary of Corporal Eileen Heron, when he adds,

"By the end of the three-week course on 16 April, Elizabeth had managed to escape from her over-protective mentors and take tea with the other girls. 'These cups of tea are getting a nice chatty institution,' noted Corporal Heron, 'She talks much more now she is used to us and is not a bit shy ... [She] says she will feel quite lost next week, especially as she does not know yet what is going to happen to her as a result of the course.'"

"She told Eileen Heron that she was hoping to join ATS headquarters later that summer as a junior officer, where she would have worked in an office with young women on transport organisation."

"Less than a month after her course ended came VE day - 8 May 1945. There was ATS work aplenty in the months of demobilisation that followed, but George VI wanted his daughter back home on royal duties. He did not see her future as working in an office, even a military office, alongside other women, and Princess Elizabeth bowed to his wish."

Lacey p. 138 continues by saying Princess Elizabeth wore her ATS uniform on VE day when she, and her sister with a group of Guards officers slipped away from Buckingham Palace to mingle with the celebrating crowds, and walked down Birdcage Walk, up Whitehall and round Piccadilly to the Ritz Hotel.

Pilmott says,

"The rank was an honorary one, but the training in driving and vehicle-maintenance she underwent at No1 Mechanical Transport Training Centre at Aldershot, was genuine."

"'The Princess is to be treated in exactly the same way as any other officer learning at the driving training centre,' maintained the official report at the outset. [5.3.45, The Times.] To back this up, the Queen requested that photographers should not be given any facilities. [1.3.45, RA GVI PS 7423]"

"If it was not quite true, as a 1957 assessment put it, that 'the rule of seclusion was maintained and she did not mix with her fellows on the course,' [unpublished obituary, 1957, Manchester Guardian] the extent of mucking in, on equal terms, was limited. She kept to the routine of the ATS mess, took her share of duties, and acquired the basics of driving, car mechanics and maintenance. But she returned to Windsor [Castle] every night to sleep."

The policy on not granting facilities to photographers seems to have been short lived. Pimlott describes Princess Elizabeth as becoming

"an unwitting mannequin for the uniform of the service - pictures of her with a spanner, at the wheel of a lorry, leaning on a bonnet, or peering purposefully and fetchingly under one, appeared in the newspapers and magazines of every Allied nation."

These look like the photos in the link mentioned by Michael Borgwardt and AllInOne http://mashable.com/2015/04/22/queen-elizabeth-army/#i0MgZnvSakqz which according to the article are from March 1945 (which would have been during her training). King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and her sister Princess Margaret also appear in some of these photographs. Pathe newsreel footage https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2grMaRttws shows Princess Elizabeth competently driving a Red Cross lorry or ambulance during her training, and shows her in overalls working on a Red Cross lorry during a visit to the training centre by her parents King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and her sister Princess Margaret.

Pilmott thinks it is impossible to disentangle her private motives from the public effort:

"Since the enrollment of a royal princess could not be kept secret, her participation in the ATS inevitably became part of the morale-boosting display of the Monarchy."

Pilmott says a few days before the final end to the war she was promoted to Junior Commander, which is confirmed by the Wikipedia source showing a scanned image of the London Gazette 3 Aug 1945 (Wikipedia says 31 July 1945) "Hon 2nd Sub H.R.H. The Princess Elizabeth (230873), Col., Gren. G'ds., is granted the hon. rank of J. Comd., 26th July 1945."

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    Found the quotes within quotes difficult to follow and have added some formatting for you @SpamSnook, forgive me if I crossed anything up...
    – AllInOne
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 18:03
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    @AllInOne thanks, That's cool, I didn't know how to make those stand-out quotes. Following your style, I have amended a bit because my quotes were not consecutive from the sources I cite.
    – SpamSnook
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 18:11

In 1941 my mother was called up to the ATS and was sent to driving school in London. As well as driving she had to be able to repair the truck and to graduate she had to drive across London in the blackout with minimum headlights. Unfortunately her father (my grandfather) died so she couldn't complete the course. She always joked that there was no way the Queen ever completed the course the way everyone else had to and the whole thing was a publicity stunt. On returning my mum was assigned to an ack ack battery in Hyde Park, where many hundred ack ack girls were killed by V1 doodle bugs. At the end of the war my dad was sent a bunch of medals, but women in the ATS didn't get anything. The one exception was the Queen, who received a whole chest full.

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    I'm not sure any of this anecdote can be considered as evidence. Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 8:11
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    My mother is alive and kicking and will celebrate her 94th birthday this year. This is not an anecdote as she has told this story as far as I can remember, including last week when I spoke to her. Also, women in the ATS not receiving medals is a fact. My dad served in the RAF in North Africa and my mum was as much in the line of fire on the anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park as he was. Finally, the Queen wearing medals at ceremonies is also a fact, so how did she deserve them when other woman soldiers that actually saw action got nothing. Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 12:49
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    @KillingTime why can in-person testimony not be considered valid? I knew both a 1914 veteran and a Burma veteran as a child. I know what they told me about things they saw in person. No one thought them important enough to interview, that it is not printed does not make their testimony less valid. The unfairness of medal allocation and lack of credit to fighting women is well-documented. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 15:22
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    This isn't "in-person testimony" that relates directly to the question. The only part directly addressing the question is that she "always joked that there was no way the Queen ever completed the course". She doesn't appear to have been a direct witness to the Queen's training so this is pure supposition on the mother's part. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 22:51
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    OT, but interesting. Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 6:25

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