Monday, 30 November -0001

A RIGHT ROYAL KNEES-UP

Over two heady days in May 1945, Princess Elizabeth sang Knees Up Mother Brown, did the hokey cokey and partied like there was no tomorrow, says Thomas Blaikie

Written by Thomas Blaikie
VE Day – 8 May 1945 – was a Tuesday. On the previous Sunday, the King and Queen had returned from Windsor to Buckingham Palace. The following morning, amid mounting tension and excitement, Princess Elizabeth, later the Queen, visited the Grenadier Guards at the Wellington Barracks. It was unseasonably warm. Hitler had committed suicide on 30 April. At the same time, the blackout of the British Isles, which had endured for five years and 123 days, at last was lifted. After Hitler’s death, Admiral Dönitz travelled to General Eisenhower’s headquarters at Rheims to negotiate Germany’s surrender.

By 7 May, crowds had gathered in London in huge numbers. Wrens and Allied soldiers climbed up the lions in Trafalgar Square but Army policemen turned a blind eye. Someone lit a bonfire in Shaftesbury Avenue. There was jolly community dancing – the conga, the jig, Knees Up Mother Brown. But still no news. Within Number 10, as thousands waited outside, Churchill was in communication with Moscow and Washington.

Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret had spent the war at Windsor Castle. Conditions were grim and pudding every day was stewed bottled plums. They were effectively confined within the blacked-out and dust-sheeted medieval stronghold, stripped of much of its contents.

BlakieQueen-May01-03-590H.R.H. Princess Elizabeth inspecting Girl Guides at lough. She took the Salute at a march past of more than a thousand girl members of Youth Organisations, The Lady 1945, 14th June

On one occasion, they were led by Sir Owen Morshead, the Royal Librarian, into a dim dungeon, where some unprepossessing orange boxes full of scrunched-up newspapers were revealed to contain the Crown Jewels. Earlier in the war, the princesses had performed in a production of Cinderella. Princess Elizabeth thought the ticket price of 7s 6d too high. ‘No one will pay that to see us,’ she said. ‘Nonsense,’ said Princess Margaret. ‘They’ll pay anything.’

Speaking of Princess Margaret, she was often lopped out of newspaper photographs of the Royal Family because of paper shortages. Possibly owing to cabin fever, the minute Princess Elizabeth learnt to drive. She lit out for Buckingham Palace, causing consternation there when she arrived unaccompanied.

At last, late in the evening of 7 May, the German surrender was announced in London. It had in fact taken place earlier in the day. Churchill wished at once to broadcast to the nation but had been prevented from doing so by unaccountable delays in Washington and Moscow. The original plan had been for VE Day to begin at 3pm on 8 May after the prime minister’s eventual broadcast, but the public had taken matters into their own hands. Two days of public holiday were declared and extraordinary scenes of celebration ensued. Bus drivers abandoned their vehicles and danced, Churchill addressed the throng from the balcony of the Ministry of Health and led the singing of Land Of Hope And Glory.

BlakieQueen-May01-02-590-quote

Buckingham Palace, though, was the greatest magnet in this time of overwhelming national rejoicing. The King broadcast at 9pm. Before and after, he, the Queen and the princesses, with Churchill, were called repeatedly onto the balcony, which had been hastily checked against collapse after so many bombs had exploded nearby.

Privately, the Royal Family was celebrating the safe return of two cousins who had been prisoners of war. A large family party was gathered within the palace, and soon the young princesses were begging to be allowed out after dinner, to mingle with the crowds. The King agreed, apparently not reluctantly, although had he known quite how many babies, if Muriel Spark is to be believed, were to result from the frenzy, he might have thought otherwise. ‘Poor darlings, they have never had any fun yet,’ he wrote in his diary.

Princess Elizabeth wore her ATS uniform with the cap pulled down for disguise until, that is, a Grenadier in the company said he would not be seen with another officer who was not properly dressed. Fourteen people, including Crawfie, Toni de Bellaigue, who taught the Queen French, the King’s equerry, who, according to Margaret Rhodes, the Queen’s cousin, also present, was a stiff figure in a pinstripe suit and bowler hat, not a bit celebratory, and Henry Porchester, later the Queen’s racing manager, accompanied the princesses on this extraordinary adventure.

It was almost impossible to move, yet they danced the conga, the Lambeth walk and the hokey cokey with perfect strangers and went, according to the Queen’s diary, all the way up St James’s Street and along Piccadilly. Struggling back, they wriggled their way to the railings of the palace. From there, the equerry somehow got a message inside for the King and Queen to appear, which they did. So their daughters had, for them, this unique view of their parents and cheered them with abandon. On their return to the palace, the Queen was anxiously waiting, armed with sandwiches she had made herself.

BlakieQueen-May01-04-590

But this was not the end of it. The next day, 9 May, the present Queen recorded in her diary: ‘Out in crowd again – Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, Pall Mall, walked simply miles. Saw parents on balcony at 12.30am – ate, partied, bed 3am!’

There were to be just two more sorties. On VJ Day, 15 August 1945, the Queen ran through the Ritz and drank in the Dorchester, saw her parents twice on the balcony ‘miles away, so many people’. Then the next day, in the rain, she got as far as Embankment, before she ‘congered into house’ (a reference to the conga and Buckingham Palace) and went to bed at 3am.

As far as we know, she has never again mingled with her people in this way. That the experience made a great impact on her is clear from her unusual willingness to publicise it. How is it conceivable that she and Princess Margaret were not recognised? Did people wonder and just not believe it? Only a Dutch sailor who danced with Princess Elizabeth was certain: ‘I know who you are,’ he said. ‘It is a great honour.’


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