The Windsors at War – Part 1 King George VI
King George VI was a reluctant monarch. He grew up with the expectation that his elder brother would become king, a situation he was more than happy with as he was a rather shy man who suffered from a stutter. Unfortunately for George his plans for himself and his family were turned on their head when his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated in December 1936 so that he could marry Wallis Simpson. George suddenly found himself in a position he had never wanted and, what was worse, at a time of impending crisis. But George also had a profound sense of duty and honour, things he found sadly lacking in his elder brother, and vowed to be the best monarch he could as the world faced up to the growing threat of Nazi Germany.
George VI had served in the Royal Navy during the Great War and was present at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 when Britain lost 14 ships and over 6,000 men. As with many of his generation the King wanted to avoid another war like the one which had blighted his youth and so was in favour of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, but as time passed he realised that this was hopeless and war against Germany was unavoidable. In 1939 George VI travelled to America and Canada in an effort to build support for the inevitable conflict. By 3rd September of that year, the day that Britain declared war on Germany, he was resigned to what was to come; he wrote…
“As 11 o’clock struck that fateful morning I had a certain feeling of relief that those 10 anxious days of intensive negotiations with Germany over Poland, which at moments looked favourable…were over. Hitler would not and could not draw back from the edge of the Abyss to which he had led us. Despite our protestations that the Polish Question could have been settled without force, Hitler had taken the plunge.” The King went on to compare his situation in 1939 to the one he had been in at the outbreak of war in 1914 when he was “keeping the middle watch on the bridge of HMS Collingwood… Today we are at War again, and I am no longer a midshipman in the Royal Navy.” The King obviously felt that Edward VIII had shown a great lack of character, and remarked in his diary that, before the abdication, he had “never expected to have all this responsibility on me”.
On the day that war was declared the King spoke to the nation in a radio broadcast, something he always found difficult as those who have seen the film ‘The King’s Speech’ will know. In his address George VI said “In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history…for the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain…The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead and war is no longer confined to the battlefield, but we can only do the right as we see the right and reverently commend our cause to God…with God’s help we shall prevail. May He bless and keep us all.”
(You can listen to the full speech here.)
King George VI made it a matter of principle that, no matter how busy he was, he would write a diary entry every night for however long the war lasted, and his writings give an insight into the reluctant monarch, his relationship with his government, and his sense of duty and service.
In May 1940 Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister and the King, along with many others, wanted Lord Halifax to take his place; the monarchs role in appointing a Prime Minister is, however, little more than a symbolic confirmation of the will of the ruling party and George was reluctantly persuaded that Winston Churchill should be made Prime Minister. The King initially found Churchill difficult to get along with, but as time passed they developed a deep respect for each other and a close personal relationship, meeting for lunch every Tuesday to discuss the war in private in a very open and frank way.
At the outbreak of the war some of the King’s closest advisors suggested that he should move from London to the countryside to avoid enemy attacks, but both he and the Queen were adamant that they would stay in the capital as a symbol of strength and unity. George VI was not reckless, however, and personally set up the Coats Mission which was to be enforced if a German army invaded the British Isles. The key to this was the creation of a personal bodyguard of Coldstream Guards and Royal Lancers led by Major Coats to protect the King, the Queen and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The Lancers had specially adapted armoured cars which were to be used to take the royal family from Buckingham Palace to either Windsor or one of four other country houses which had been secretly prepared to conceal them, and where they would be met by the Coldstream Guards. King George was firm in his instructions that the royal family should not be handed over to the enemy and the guard were to fight to the last man if necessary. The second stage of the plan was to fly the Princesses abroad whilst the King and Queen remained behind to bolster resistance.
Thankfully the invasion never came and the Coats Mission was never put into operation, but there were other actions which did take place to ensure the safety of the royal family and Britain’s heritage. Hiding the Crown Jewels in a biscuit tin is just one example. This may sound like a comedy sketch but it did, in fact, happen. Some of the most precious jewels, including the Black Prince’s Ruby from the Imperial State Crown, were taken to Windsor Castle where they were put into a biscuit tin and buried under what is known as a sally port (a secret exit which could be used in an emergency). A large hole with two chambers protected by steel doors had been dug in preparation and was accessible by a trap door which, reportedly, still exists today.
The royal family spent most of the war at Buckingham Palace, although they often spent the night at Windsor Castle during times of heavy air raids. The King and Queen were at Buckingham Palace on 13th September 1940 and narrowly missed injury or death when two bombs exploded in the courtyard. In a letter to her mother-in-law the Queen wrote that they had gone to the Palace to collect some possessions after a previous bombing raid when they heard the approach of a German plane closely followed by the scream of falling bombs. At the first explosion they all dived for cover, after the second they all made their way to the shelter. The Queen describes how everyone remained calm whilst the three people who had been injured were treated. She later went on to say that “I am glad we have been bombed. It makes me feel we can look the East End in the face.”
King George VI believed that he had an important role to play in keeping up the morale of the British people and so frequently visited bomb sites and munitions factories, accompanied by the Queen who took a great interest in what was being done to help people whose homes had been destroyed in the bombings. The Royal couple were also interested in the war work which was being done by civilians, often women, and their visits had a profound effect. The Ministry of Supply found that production figures inevitably dropped on the day of a royal visit, but the workers found it such a morale boost that they worked even harder and the weekly production figures always rose after such a visit. Both King George and Queen Elizabeth were compassionate by nature and also toured hospitals to visit wounded civilians and troops.
In his role as monarch George VI held the ranks of Admiral of the Fleet, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, and Field Marshall, and he made a particular effort to visit every type of unit within the armed force; whenever he toured work places or inspected troops he would invariably do so in uniform. The king often visited troops in the UK, but it was not always so easy for him to do so abroad because of fears for his safety, although he did visit military troops in France in December 1939 during the ‘Phoney War’, Malta and North Africa in 1943, Normandy 10 days after D Day in June 1944, southern Italy in July 1944 and the Low Countries in October 1944. His trip to the Mediterranean in 1943 is an example of how he saw his role as that of a ‘morale booster’ for armed forces and civilians alike as he inspected the Roya Navy (and also the US Navy), the Merchant Navy, the Royal Marines, the Army, and the Royal Air Force before going on to the island of Malta. As well as visiting troops George VI also took a keen interest in the planning and strategy of the war and it was after he made a personal request to be kept informed that Dwight Eisenhower briefed him on the plan for Operation Overlord – the invasion of Europe via the Normandy beaches in 1944.
King George VI created the George Cross which is awarded “for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger” and can be awarded to civilians as well as members of the armed forces. During the war air raid wardens, fire men, policemen and other individual civilians were awarded the George Cross, but one of the best known awards went to Malta. The people of the island had suffered dreadfully when besieged by the Germans and Italians who bombed the island round the clock. Malta held a strategically important position in the Mediterranean and so the people were determined not to give in even though whole towns and villages had been reduced to nothing but rubble, and there was a terrible food shortage. King George made a personal decision to award the George Cross to the island of Malta saying that “To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history”. During his visit to North Africa in 1943 King George was determined to visit Malta and spent a day touring the island where he was greeted by cheering crowds and the ringing of the island’s church bells.
Although he was the monarch George VI believed that he and his family should share the same difficulties and dangers as his subjects. He insisted that the royal family should have the same rations as everyone else and follow all other war time directives; what’s more, this also applied to visitors. When Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American President, visited Britain she commented on her time at Buckingham Palace which was unheated and boarded-up and where she was only allowed limited bathwater and was served rationed food. The royal family also knew what it felt to lose a loved one to the conflict with the King’s brother and the Queen’s nephew both killed.Prince George, Duke of Kent, was a member of the Royal Air Force and set off alone on a mission about which little is known. His plane crashed into a hillside in Caithness in Scotland, and his body was found with a briefcase full of 100 Krona banknotes handcuffed to one wrist.
After sharing the dangers and deprivations of a country at war it was only fitting that the royal family shared in the jubilation when victory was finally achieved in Europe. At 6pm on the 8th May 1945 the King made a broadcast to the country, and during the afternoon and evening of that day the royal family made eight appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace as the city celebrated VE Day, huge crowds cheering the royals who had refused to leave Britain and stayed to play an active part in the war effort. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had become symbols of national resistance, as had Princess Elizabeth who served in the ATS. The man who had only reluctantly taken on the role of king at his brother’s abdication had proven to be the one most fitting to lead his country in a time of war and, as such, was greatly loved. It is sad that he did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of peace as he died in February 1952, aged 56, the beloved king of a country which still had another two years before rationing was finally over.