The Queen at War: A New Documentary Shows How WWII Made Queen Elizabeth the Leader She Is Today

On April 21, 1947, the then-Princess Elizabeth gave a speech to the entire British Commonwealth for her 21st birthday. “I am thinking especially today of all the young men and women who were born about the same time as myself and have grown up like me in terrible and glorious years of the second world war,” she said. “Will you, the youth of the British family of nations, let me speak on my birthday as your representative?”

It’s those “terrible and glorious years” that are the subject of a new documentary, The Queen at War, which premieres tonight on PBS. Interweaving the Queen’s coming-of-age and London’s despair and determination during WWII, it aims to show how those tumultuous times made her the dutiful leader she is today.

Those looking for an action-packed retrospective should look elsewhere: the Princess and her sister were, well, protected kids during these years. But that’s not to say they were immune from the anxieties and realities of conflict: over one million women, children, elderly and disabled people were evacuated from London, including the Princesses, to escape the Blitz. They spent the war years 45 minutes outside the city, at Windsor Castle, where they could still hear the German planes ominously roaring towards the metropolis. (One of their targets? Buckingham Palace. “Dive Bombers Try to Kill the King and Queen!” read the post-attack headline in The Daily Express. The bombs narrowly missed her parents, and later the Queen Mother wrote a letter to her daughter clarifying her will. “In case the Germans do me in,” she explained.) But the film does provide a fascinating insight into the formation of a steadfast, stiff upper lip psyche that defines the Queen today.

In 1940, at the age of 14, she made an address to the displaced children of Great Britain. Many were far away from home—shipped away to the countryside, and in the case of 24,000, overseas to places like the United States and Canada. The future queen spoke clearly, confidently, and from the heart: “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 we love most of all,” she said. “We know, everyone of us, that in the end all will be well; for God will care for us and give us victory and peace. And when peace comes, remember it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place.”