Queen Elizabeth II was not only the longest-serving monarch in the history of Great Britain when she died at age 96 in Scotland on Sept. 8. She also served as a mechanic in the British Army during World War II.
Then-Princess Elizabeth was 13 when the war broke out in Sept. 1939, according to an article from the National World War II Museum. She and her younger sister, Princess Margaret, were among the millions who evacuated Germany’s bombing of London.
“They were sent to Windsor Castle, approximately 20 miles outside of London. The young princesses were two of over three million people—mainly children—who left cities for the safety of small towns and the countryside over the course of the war,” the article states.
Princess Elizabeth addressed the nation for the first time on Oct. 13, 1940, in response to the evacuations. Speaking on the BBC’s Children’s Hour, she spoke directly to children who had been separated from their families.
“Thousands of you in this country have had to leave your homes and be separated from your fathers and mothers. My sister Margaret Rose and I feel so much for you, as we know from experience what it means to be away from those you love most of all,” she said. “To you living in new surroundings, we send a message of true sympathy and at the same time we would like to thank the kind people who have welcomed you to their homes in the country.”
On the morning of April 21, 1942, the day she turned 16, Princess Elizabeth inspected a military regiment for the first time during a parade at Windsor Castle, according to the article.
“She had been given the role of honorary colonel of the Grenadier Guards, which symbolized her military involvement in the war effort,” the article reads.
“When Princess Elizabeth turned 18 in 1944, she insisted upon joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women’s branch of the British Army.”
Britain drafted women to join the war effort for several years and unmarried women under 30 had to join the armed forces or work on the land or in industry. Princess Elizabeth’s father, King George, ensured that his daughter was not given a special rank in the Army. She began her military service as a second subaltern in the ATS and was later promoted to Junior Commander, the equivalent of Captain.
Princess Elizabeth began her training as a mechanic in March 1945, taking a driving and vehicle maintenance course at Aldershot, qualifying on April 14. Newspapers at the time dubbed her “Princess Auto Mechanic,” the article notes.
The training facility was close enough to Windsor Castle that the princess would return there each evening rather than sleep at the camp with her fellow ATS members. The King, Queen, and Princess Margaret visited her at the Mechanical Transport Training Section in Camberley, Surrey, and watched her learn about engine maintenance.
“I never knew there was quite so much preparation [for a royal visit] …I’ll know another time,” she told Life magazine of the visit.
When the war ended on May 5, 1945, Princess Elizabeth, dressed in her uniform, and her sister joined the large crowd celebrating outside Buckingham Palace.
The now Queen spoke to the BBC in 1985 about how she tried to avoid being spotted, “I remember we were terrified of being recognized so I pulled my uniform cap well down over my eyes.”
She described the “lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, and all of us were swept along by tides of happiness and relief.” There are even reports that the princesses joined a conga dance through the Ritz Hotel as they celebrated with the crowds.
“I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life,” she recalled.
At the time of her death, Queen Elizabeth was the last surviving head of state to have served during World War II.