Words: Alison James Pic: Rex Shutterstock
It was a day the like of which Britain had never seen before and is unlikely to do so again. After six long, hard years of war, Victory in Europe had been proclaimed. Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared VE Day a public holiday and the population went wild with joy. Hastily-arranged street parties were held, church bells pealed and in London the dancing, laughing, kissing crowds converged on the Palace demanding to see King George VI and ‘Good Old Winnie!’.
From her position on the palace balcony (pictured top left), 19-year-old Princess Elizabeth, dressed in her brown, subaltern’s Auxiliary Transport Service uniform, gazed down at the mass of people – little imagining at that point that once night fell, she and her sister, Princess Margaret, would have been given permission by their parents to sneak out and join in the celebrations. ‘Poor darlings, they have had so little fun as yet,’ George VI later wrote in his journal.
To mark the night the young princesses were let loose a new film is due to be released, called A Royal Night Out. Margaret, played by Bel Powley, is seen evading her guards after dancing at The Ritz and jumping on a bus. She is seen celebrating in the fountains at Trafalgar Square, while Elizabeth (Canadian-born actress Sarah Gadon) and a young airman search for her.
But what really happened on that night? The film-makers describe the movie as ‘Cinderella in reverse’, exactly the words used by Margaret Rhodes, Elizabeth and Margaret’s cousin. Mrs Rhodes was in the Princesses’ party that night and wrote about it in her 2011 memoir, The Final Curtsey. She describes how Elizabeth pulled her peak cap down low to disguise her much-photographed face. However a Grenadier Guard, also part of the group, took exception and refused to be seen in the company of an improperly dressed officer, however junior (and Royal).
‘My cousin didn’t want to break King’s Regulations, and so reluctantly she agreed to put her cap on correctly, hoping she wouldn’t be recognised,’ wrote Mrs Rhodes. ‘Miraculously, she got away with it. London had gone mad with joy; it was a riot of song and dance. We danced the Conga and the Hokey-Cokey, and at last fought our way back to the Palace, where there was a vast crowd packed to the railings. We struggled to the front, joining in the yells of “We want the King; we want the Queen”.
‘I rather think an Equerry who was accompanying us got a message through to say that the princesses were outside, because before long the double doors leading onto the balcony were thrown open and the King and Queen came out, to be greeted by a rising crescendo of cheers to which their daughters and the rest of us contributed. It was a view of their parents that the princesses had never before experienced, and for all of us young people it was the grand finale to an unforgettable day. My cousins were having the time of their lives.’
In her own teenage journal of May 8, 1945, Princess Elizabeth wrote: ‘PM (Winston Churchill) announced unconditional surrender. Sixteen of us went out in the crowd, cheered parents up on the balcony. Up St J’s (St James’s Street), Piccadilly, great fun.’
The next night Elizabeth, her sister, cousin and friends did it all over again. ‘Out in crowd again — Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, Pall Mall, walked simply miles. Saw parents on balcony at 12.30am — ate, partied, bed 3am!’
There was another night out on VJ Day (August 15) when Elizabeth and company left the palace once more but the memory of VE night, her first night of freedom, must surely be the most vivid. On this May 8, the 70th anniversary of that night, the Queen will no doubt be at Windsor Castle before travelling up to London on May 10 for the Service of Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey.
She will not attend the main events commemorating the formal end of the Second World War in Europe on May 8 itself, in order to remain ‘one step removed’ from coalition talks that could follow the previous day’s General Election. We can’t help hoping that she uses the free time to go incognito again for the first time in 70 years, slip out to her nearest cinema, and see how her younger self is portrayed on what was arguably one of the most memorable nights of her life!
- A Royal Night Out is on general release from May 15 but some cinemas are running advanced screenings on May 8. Contact your local complex for more details.
Official VE Day 70th Anniversary Celebrations, May 8-10
Friday, May 8
VE Day will start with a remembrance service at The Cenotaph and a national two-minute silence at 3pm, marking the moment Winston Churchill broadcast his historic speech announcing the end of the war. In the evening, a chain of more than 100 beacons will be lit across the country.
Saturday, May 9
At 11am, cathedrals across the country will be invited to ring their bells in celebration. Festivities will peak with a Forties-themed concert held on Horse Guards Parade on Saturday night, featuring a line-up of international recording artists, stars and celebrities. The show will be broadcast that evening on BBC1.
Sunday, May 10
A service of thanksgiving will be held at Westminster Abbey, attended by veterans and their families, and members of the Royal Family. There’ll be a parade of current personnel and veterans from the Abbey along Whitehall, past the balcony of HM Treasury where Winston Churchill made his historic appearance on VE Day. The afternoon will see a flypast of current and historic aircraft from the Royal Air Force. St James’ Park will also be transported back to the Forties with a display of vehicles from the period.