Last Updated on May 22, 2021

At the start of Season 1 of “The Crown,” Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) marries Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Matt Smith). The year is 1947. It will be five and a half years before the princess is crowned Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey.

The Crown (2016) Courtesy of Netflix

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“The Crown” flashes back to the 1930s — with scenes of Edward VIII’s abdication, and Elizabeth helping her father rehearse for his coronation — and to the 1940s — with the unearthing of a series of top-secret documents revealing Edward’s past links with Nazi High Command. But fans of the historical costume drama may want to know more about Elizabeth during these years.

“The Queen at War,” airing on PBS in May, 2021 and narrated by Phyllis Logan (Downton Abbey) offers a fascinating look at how Princess Elizabeth — just 13 years old when World War II broke out — was set on her life’s path to become a legendary monarch.

Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret, courtesy of Hulton Deutsch

Together with sister Margaret, the young princesses became symbols of hope for a nation wracked by a horrific war, the terrors of the Blitz and the relocation of over a million children. By 1945, Elizabeth had been transformed from a shy girl into a confident young woman and proved her mettle as a driver and mechanic in the women’s branch of the army. She was also already in love with the handsome naval officer she would one day marry.

Told through the reminiscences of friends, including Lady Glenconner; royal biographers Christopher Warwick, Robert Lacey, Jane Dismore and Hugh Vickers; and others, the documentary features rare footage of the Queen’s war years culled from private and public collections.

The longest-reigning monarch in British history — and the only current head of state to have served in the military during World War II — Queen Elizabeth’s life and character were shaped by the challenges of war. Like many other English children, she was often separated from her parents, sent to ride out the frequent bombings in the relative safety of the countryside. She too lost a family member when her uncle George, the Duke of Kent, was killed and her own parents survived a Nazi bombing of Buckingham Palace.

April 1945: Princess Elizabeth, courtesy of IWM

Like her fellow citizens, Elizabeth was determined to help the war effort. Speaking to the country on the radio, performing in fundraising pantomimes and serving in the military, the Princess led by example. Royal biographer Christopher Warwick says this was “a morale booster to the nation because they could see the King’s eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth, their future sovereign, doing what others were doing, what everyone else was doing — playing her part.”

The war years also saw the blossoming of Elizabeth’s enduring love story. Just two months before the outbreak of war in September 1939, the 13-year-old met a handsome 18-year-old naval cadet during a family tour of the Royal Naval College. Instantly smitten, the two wrote to each other throughout the war, during Phillip’s military service. “Whatever it meant to her personally, it gave her this same sense of identity with so many other British women during the war,” says royal biographer Robert Lacey. “Their man — husband, fiancé, boyfriend — was away, risking his life, which Phillip did.”

Princess Elizabeth, a 2nd Subaltern in the ATS, courtesy of IWM

It was during the war that Queen Elizabeth’s famous sense of duty emerged, transforming her into the leader her country needed. “I think the war made Princess Elizabeth grow up like it made me grow up,” says Ron Batchelor, who as a child during the Blitz saw the King and Queen when they visited bombed out areas. “It made her closer to people, her subjects, and it made us closer to her because they had been in the war and right through the war, they were one of us. The royal family were one of us.”

“The Queen at War” premiered in 2020 and airs again on PBS in May, 2021 (check local listings). The documentary is also AVAILABLE to STREAM. Watch the TRAILER

Also look for “Lucy Worsley’s Royal Photo Album,” which is airing on some local PBS stations in May 2021 as well. Read about that here

If you enjoyed this post, wander over to The Period Films List. You’ll also want to know about Rise of the Nazis: A Docudrama on PBS.