The Queen and the Army

It is a tradition, from the days when Kings led their armies into battle, that the Sovereign and senior members of the Royal Family are intimately associated with and serve in the Armed Forces.

However, The Queen, while Princess Elizabeth, was the first female member of the Royal Family to join the Armed Services as a full-time active member.

Her father The King was concerned for her safety. She was the future Queen and, like every parent, he wanted to protect her so initially attempted to find other ways she could contribute.

...the unquestioning sense of duty in times of national crisis that her parents had instilled in her meant that Princess Elizabeth wanted to do something much more practical for the war effort.

She had carried out her first public duties with the Army during the early part of the Second World War. She was made Colonel of the Grenadier Guards in 1942 and on her 16th birthday she inspected the Guards at Windsor Castle. She even carried out some of her father The King’s state duties in the UK while he was in Italy in 1944. But the unquestioning sense of duty in times of national crisis that her parents had instilled in her meant that Princess Elizabeth wanted to do something much more practical for the war effort.

Conscription of unmarried women between 20 and 30 was introduced in Britain in December 1941. Women had the choice of working on the land or in the war industry or joining one of the military auxiliary services. As the war progressed, the age limits widened to enable more women to be mobilised. Eventually Princess Elizabeth was old enough to participate too.

At the age of 18, in February 1945, Princess Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). The ATS was an auxiliary service that women could join as soldiers; which could carry out work to free up men for frontline duties. By June 1945 it had around 200,000 members drawn from across the British Empire. Women served as telephonists, clerks, drivers, postal workers, dispatch riders, and ammunition inspectors. 56,000 members worked with anti-aircraft units tracking enemy aircraft and directing the aim of anti-aircraft guns – but only men were allowed to fire them.

After joining the ATS, Princess Elizabeth enrolled on a driving and vehicle maintenance course at the ATS No 1 Mechanical Transport Training Centre in Camberley. The Army taught Princess Elizabeth to drive heavy Army vehicles, mechanics theory and map reading, and to service and maintain a fleet of vehicles. These practical skills she continued to employ throughout her life.

During her training she had to wear uniform and was treated the same as the rest of her company. It gave her the opportunity to mix informally with young people from a range of different backgrounds and gave her a tremendous insight into the lives and views of the people she would one day be asked to reign over. She worked for seven hours a day learning her trade and was defiantly ‘hands on’. The only restriction to her training was that she had to return to Windsor Castle each night so couldn’t sleep on base.

The future Queen’s Army career was a press sensation. It was a novelty at the time to see women serving in the Armed Services; to see a Princess in overalls stripping down a truck engine and changing tyres in a vehicle park was truly astonishing. The media named her “Princess Auto Mechanic”, and her training progress was a regular feature on the cinema newsreels of the time.

Proud parents, The King and Queen Elizabeth, and her sister Princess Margaret, visited the base to see Princess Elizabeth in action. This event had a profound effect on the future Queen, as she was able to witness first-hand how much effort goes on behind the scenes to prepare for a Royal visit.

To pass her final test Princess Elizabeth had to drive a heavy Army truck alone and unescorted from Camberley into central London. She graduated as a fully qualified driver and held the rank of Second Subaltern.

Five months later she was promoted to honorary Junior Commander, which was the equivalent of Captain.

The war ended before she was able to make practical use of her new skills, but her experiences in the Army would play a pivotal role in shaping how she reigned and who she was, her ethos of selfless service and of uncompromising duty.

An unbroken, unceasing bond of loyalty and service to the Crown and to the Nation.

As Sovereign, Her Majesty The Queen was Head of the Armed Forces, and was also the wife, mother and grandmother of individuals who have served in the Forces.

During visits to establishments, she was able to keep abreast of the latest innovations that made her Armed Forces such a formidable force for good around the world. She has fired new weapons systems and travelled in the Army’s latest vehicles as well as discovered first-hand from serving soldiers at all ranks the challenges they face and how military life continues to adapt to change.

She held many military appointments and honorary ranks during her reign, but it was the Army that had the honour to deliver her official birthday parade every year.

Trooping the Colour is held on Horse Guards Parade and for many years The Queen took part in Army uniform, riding her black Royal Canadian Mounted Police mount, Burmese, side saddle.

Prior to the pandemic, she reviewed the troops from an open-top carriage and on the dais beneath the Major General’s office window. It was only in 2022 that the Prince of Wales took over the responsibility of the inspection on Horse Guards because of Her Majesty’s ongoing mobility issues. The Queen still carried out the salute at Buckingham Palace at the end of the parade.

The Queen maintained a close relationship with the Armed Forces throughout her reign, meeting servicemen and women at their bases, on exercise, and overseas.

But in many ways, the links were enjoyed daily: many members of her personal and Household staff were serving or veteran Army officers and soldiers. Since Charles II fled into exile in 1651 and surrounded himself with loyal officers from the Royalist Army before returning to London and restoring the monarchy in 1660, the Sovereign has surrounded themselves with Household troops.

The Household Division remains today. The seven regiments made up of Household Cavalry and Foot Guards provide the Sovereign’s permanent bodyguard and those bonds of loyalty and selfless service remain as strong today as they did almost four centuries ago. Music from the Bands supporting the regular changing of The Queen’s Guard have provided a reassuring soundtrack to Palace life.

The Queen’s Piper, which is a regular Army appointment from the infantry to the Royal Household, played every weekday at 9am for approximately 15 minutes under Her Majesty’s window when she was in residence at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Balmoral Castle or the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

20 Transport Squadron Royal Logistic Corps had the honour of being Royal baggage handlers, assisting with the logistical move of Her Majesty and her Household from Palace to Palace during the Royal year.

While all her affiliated units and regiments will take part in her funeral, the Household Division who guarded her and her Palaces throughout her reign will continue to serve her and the Royal Family through the transition of death, proclamation, interment and, in due course, coronation of her heirs. An unbroken, unceasing bond of loyalty and service to the Crown and to the Nation.