King George VI together with Queen Elizabeth reigned over Great Britain in one of its hardest times - the Second World War. The new King who took over the throne after the Abdication Crisis of 1936 had to deal with the difficult task of being a wartime monarch. It was a conflict which affected everyone, regardless of social or financial status. Many people were losing their relatives, as well as their homes and jobs. However important the WWII period in the history of the United Kingdom is, the role the King and Queen played during it is rarely discussed by historians. Since the British monarchs interest me, I decided to choose the following research question: To what extent did King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s policy strengthen British society’s morale during the World War II?
The research question will be answered basing on primary (speeches, newspaper articles and newsreels) and secondary (historical books and films) sources. What will be investigated in particular, is the reaction of common people to tours and speeches as well as the nature of those public duties. A look from two perspectives – one the King’s and Queen’s, and the other the public’s – will help to find out whether the royal couple positively influenced the British morale.
The achieved conclusion is that the policy undertaken by the King and Queen influenced the British spirits to a very significant extent. From the sources which were examined, an image of the very much appreciated King and Queen comes out as clear. It has to be also mentioned that George VI carried out more important, than his wife, duties that were to maintain high morale of the nation. Nonetheless, it was the collective actions of both of them that accounted for a success which their policy almost definitely was.
The year 1936 was the year of three kings – George V, Edward VIII and George VI. The last one of them only stepped onto the throne, because of the inappropriate relationship his brother got himself into . Forced to resign, Edward VIII (known later as the Duke of Windsor) signed his Instrument of Abdication on 10 December, in presence of his three younger brothers . Prince Albert who chose the name for himself to be George VI not only never wanted to be a king, but was also unprepared to do so. The fact that he was shy and suffered from stammer, and bursting temper did not help as well . Many thought that the new king would not be capable of becoming a strong monarch.
George’s greatest moments of his kingship came with the world’s darkest times – the Second World War. Although, being a constitutional monarch, he could not decide upon the course of the war, he used all the power he had to give strength and hope to all his peoples. Through his live-broadcast speeches and public appearances, which nearly always came with a lot of stress, he struggled to set an example of how resistance should look like . Usually together with his wife, Queen Elizabeth, George VI toured around London and the entire country in order to give his subjects support and attention. Not only did their tours include destroyed houses, care centres, nurseries, and simply streets crowded with people, but also war factories, military bases at home, and occasionally at front.
One may think that as the war front never really reached Great Britain, common people did not experience the hardships and suffers, like the residents of countries occupied by Nazi Germany did. Indeed, they did not. However, the severe bombings during the Blitz and after it, combined with high taxes, food and supply rationing, and threat over lives of so many soldiers fighting in the unknown made life in Britain not as peaceful as it would seem to be . Here lay the King’s task – to deliver a positive message and give sense to the struggle.
This essay is going to investigate to what extent did King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s actions during the Word War II strengthen morale of common British residents. By evaluating the primary sources, which include newspaper articles, texts of King’s broadcasts, fragments of newsreels and several documents, and secondary sources – most of them being either historical books or films, as well as passages from encyclopaedia, I will try to give an answer to my research question.
Two days after German troops crossed Polish frontier on 1 September 1939, Great Britain and France receiving no reply to their ultimatum on withdrawal of those troops before eleven o’clock 3 September found themselves at war . It was the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain who announced that the country was at war with Germany, but the King was not left without any duty to make. He delivered a speech to the entire Empire at 6 p.m. in which he called his people ‘to stand calm, firm, and united’ and to fight for ‘world’s order and peace’ . The broadcast ‘gave encouragement as perhaps nothing else could’, as his official biographer Sir John Wheeler-Bennet said. Indeed, although the war just begun several safety measures were taken in order to protect the civilian population against feared air-raids. Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren and teachers were moved to the countryside as well as a vast number of younger children. In the cities people had to cover windows with black-out paper and air-raid sirens, and barrage balloons were installed. In addition, everyone had to carry a gas mask with himself.
Days, weeks and months followed with no sign of real conflict, between the Allies and Germany, anywhere in Europe. An expression “phoney war” was repeated more and more often. The only fighting arena was the Atlantic Ocean where Allied convoys with supplies were attacked by German warships . There, the British fought with little success scuttling one German ship, “Graf Spee” in early December.
For George VI, along with Christmas, came the task to resume the tradition, started by his father, of addressing the nation in a radio broadcast. He gave his speech on 25 December which was aimed mainly at encouraging and strengthening the spirit of people both at home and at front. The broadcast ended with a quotation of an unknown poem written by Minnie Louise Haskins: ‘I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, "Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown." And he replied, "Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way”. The address turned out to be most successful – not only did it become extremely popular, especially the quoted poem, but also it achieved its aim – strengthened morale.
The “phoney war” period ended on 9 April with Germany attacking, and eventually conquering, Norway and Denmark. However, little change did it bring either for the King or the British people at home. If only, it brought worsening of the national spirit – the German army was unstoppable which was proved by its further successes in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France in May. Meanwhile, Neville Chamberlain resigned from his office on 10 May 1940 and Winston Churchill succeeded him, forming a new coalition government.
On 24 May 1940 the King spoke again to his peoples, this time for the Empire Day. It was a long awaited speech and for that there were two reasons – it was the first one since the thriving Christmas Day speech and secondly people who fought in Europe against Nazi Germany came from many parts of the Empire, even the distant ones. Therefore George VI spoke about this conflict being one affecting the whole world. He related to universal values held by the peoples of the Empire, as well.
The broadcast, for which millions gathered in shops, hotels, clubs and at homes, was perhaps even more triumphant than the Christmas one. The “Daily Telegraph” called it to be ‘a vigorous and inspiring broadcast’.
It was not until the two following days, that on 26 May a true disaster happened – the Dunkirk evacuation. The British Expeditionary Force along with the French Army were being transported across the Channel for about 10 days leaving all their heavy equipment behind them. The British people, however united and heroic in times of a national struggle, all felt that this propaganda victory is only one of many defeats of the Allies. But when on 14 June Wehrmacht forces entered Paris and three days later the French signed an armistice, no one was looking with optimism into future.
The beginning of the German aerial offensive on Great Britain, later called the Battle of Britain, occurred in July but it was not until 13 August 1940 that it reached its top. The position of the Royal Air Force pilots was not always on the winning side. The King, having himself served in RAF, did all that he could do to support them – he visited fighter stations and army units, as well as the Home Guard. The British won the Battle, but the real struggle was about to begin.
The first hardships and serious duties
The first bombardment of London, and of any British city, took place on 7 September 1940 with hundreds of German planes attacking in the afternoon and at night. The number of Londoners dead exceeded 400. The raids continued non-stop till November when there were only three nights without bombarding followed, of course, by further offensive. In the first days as well as later on, the most heavily damaged areas of London were the poor East End districts. Other parts of the capital suffered too. The King and Queen, being stationed in the Buckingham Palace during days and sleeping in the Windsor Castle, were eye witnesses to the capital’s struggle against the raids. Their refusal to move out of London was a decision which resulted in an unprecedented feeling of unity between the monarchs and their people. Probably the first of the royal couple’s many visits which they paid to heavily bombed places was an East End “tour” on 9 September. Euan Wallace, who accompanied George VI, recorded ‘the welcome given to the King by everybody and the evidence of cheerfulness as well as courage and determination’ among the victims of the raids. However, the reception given to George VI and Elizabeth from victims of bombings was not always warm and pleasant. People, especially from poorer areas, often said that the King and Queen may say they care for and sympathize with them, but in the end they have a few palaces and castles to live in. What brought the royal couple and the London’s inhabitants closer were the two bombings of the Buckingham Palace. The first bomb was dropped on 9 September, but did not explode until the very early morning of the 10th, damaging mainly the swimming pool. The second time was far more dangerous, because there were six bombs falling during the day on different areas of the Palace and its gardens, two of them about 30 yards away from the King and Alec Hardinge. George VI was in that moment very close to death. After this incident the Queen famously said: “I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face”. Indeed, in the city which was under heavy rain of explosive materials every night, the fact that even the home of the Royal Family is not immune to being bombed, brought together the King and the Queen and the British people as nothing else could. ‘The Times’ wrote: ‘The King and Queen thus share with thousands of their subjects the hard lot of having had their homes damaged by wanton bombing from the air’ . The recordings of the royal couple inspecting the damage and holding pieces of debris just like hundreds of thousands of their subjects in other parts of London were priceless in terms of propaganda value.
Every-day tours and inspections
The King and Queen were incessantly touring bombed areas giving courage and strength to the people. They visited air-raid shelters, inspected process of packing special kits to soldiers and simply met ordinary people, as in Lambeth, East End.They travelled through streets watching broken windows, destroyed houses and debris scattered all over the places directly hit by bombs. Not rarely did something unusual happen to the royal couple while doing their duty, such as on 11 September while reviewing damage in South-East London suburbs. They were surprised by alarm signal and driven to the nearby police station to take shelter in the room beneath the station. There, Their Majesties were lively received by police officers and some other local civil workers and treated almost as if common people. Such occasions were priceless, as in normal, not-war conditions monarchs were seen by public only when driving around in a carriage or standing on the Buckingham Palace’s balcony. That was the reason, partially, for covering their inspections and travels in the newspapers and producing newsreels. The intention of doing so was simple – to inform people who could not see for themselves about their sovereigns’ every day job which was usually merely to keep their subjects’ spirits high.
George VI, after seeing what a tremendous job numbers of servicemen and civilians were doing, decided to constitute two decorations – George Cross and George Medal – for gallantry not in the face of the enemy. He announced this creation on 23 September by giving a speech which was described as one of his finest. On 27 September, the King and Queen, again with Euan Wallace, visited Hendon, Wembley and Ealing where land mines exploded. Here again the royal couple was impressed with the service of bomb disposal squads. The effects of Their Majesties’ efforts – namely high morale - were visible on daily basis. When on 11 October they visited communal feeding centers in Peckham and Lambeth they were received with words such as ‘Good luck’ or ‘Thank Your Majesties for coming to see us’. The people who cheered them had all lost their homes. King George VI did not only tour bombed places and meet civilians. He also visited military forces stationed in the country. One of such visits occurred on 3 October in Northolt where the King met with Canadian and Polish pilots, who fought with the German planes flying towards Great Britain.
Queen Elizabeth played quite an important role while touring around the devastated areas. She was the one who won hearts of common people. It was not only her look – friendly-looking plumpness and smile – but also a talent for public relations that she possessed. She would be able to talk and listen to so many kinds of different people like no one else could. Apart from that, she knew how to show that the problems’ of the nation were also hers and the King’s. She had, for example, provided victims of the bombings with spare furniture she found at Windsor Castle.
Bombardment of other cities
A new aerial offensive over about 24 other major ports and industrial centers, conducted by the Germans, lasted between the 15th and 20th of November. After the first night of massive bombardment, King George VI visited the first attacked area, Coventry. The city was devastated, its cathedral almost completely destroyed, and about 600 people were killed. His visit strengthened Coventry’s people’s morale considerably, given that lots of them lost their families or homes. Other cities which got heavily bombed included Bristol, Birmingham and Clydebank. Between the tours of the ‘Blitzed’ towns and cities the King had to deliver his Christmas Day speech. ‘In it, the King warned this people that the future would be hard “but our feet are planted on the path of victory”. The immediate future, actually, turned out to be lighter than expected – the first part of the Blitz was over. What showed the Queen’s constant carrying for her people, also during this after-Christmas period, was a creation of a new group of special servicewomen was. They were called the Queen’s Messengers and their aim was to provide help in a kind and warm way to people whose homes were destroyed.
Summary of the Blitz
The air-raids, so the Blitz itself, stopped finally in mid-May 1941. Although only 20%-30% of German aircraft operating succeeded in bombing their targets, the total number of people killed between the first days of September 1940 and May 1941 was around 30,000 but many more lost their homes, as 3.5 million houses were either completely or partly destroyed . Such mass destruction brought only grievances and huge downfalls of spirits. George VI’s tours to areas damaged by bombs in London and other cities, on which he spent one third of his working day, as ‘Time’ magazine calculated , provided a real boost of morale and general happiness. The magazine commented its calculations with a sentence: ‘Never in British history has a monarch seen and talked to so many of his subjects or so fully shared their life’.
Beginning on 22 June 1941 Germany and other Axis members started their invasion on the USSR. They moved rather swiftly through the country until December when the Russians started to fight back. On 7 of December the Japanese started their offence on the United States by attacking naval base at Pearl Harbor, and thus dragging the USA into the war. Year 1942 brought further advances to the Axis countries – Japan was conquering Asia, Germany was strong on the Atlantic and in North Africa. Till the appointment of Bernard Montgomery to Africa in October and his army’s first victories in November, the British at home heard only the worst of war news – deaths and defeats. They still needed their King to speak to them and sympathize with them, even though no air raids occurred since the end of the Blitz.
In February 1942, still touring even though the toughest days of The Blitz were over, the King and Queen travelled for seven hours through Midlands visiting areas harmed by German bombings. An important part of their trip was Coventry whose previous visit resulted in great popularity and admiration of George VI. Here the royal couple revised plans for rebuilding the city after the terrible events of November 1940. Other points were Nuneaton and Birmingham, where they met civilians on duty, as well as visited war factories.
Christmas of 1942 was marked yet again for the King with his traditional speech to the nation. He spoke about the Christmas time being the one when everyone misses their family the most. He also mentioned the great contribution to the war effort made by the Empire nations and the Americans37. The press was very fond of the broadcast, with Glasgow Herald naming it one of the most inspiring in the King’s carrier.
The advancements which the first half of the year 1943 brought in the USSR, North Africa, and eventually Italy made the general atmosphere ‘at home’ more pleasant and promising for a success. On 18 May 1943, ‘The Times’ wrote a short note preceded by a publication of two messages sent between King George and Prime Minister after the Allied forces won in Africa. It explained a special relationship between the two men, but above all it praised the King and his role in politics. George VI was also described as a person who ‘has set his peoples from the first day of the war an unfailing public example of courage, confidence, and devoted energy’.
June 1943 brought the King his first travel outside Great Britain since December 1940. He left the country on 11th to land in North Africa where Allied troops stationed to protect the Mediterranean. While being there he undertook many formal and informal duties including meeting high-ranking army commanders like Dwight D. Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle. Apart from that he also reviewed soldiers, among them the troops of the American Fifth Army. George VI moved then on 19 June to Tripoli to visit General Bernard Montgomery in his Headquarters camp. From there he sailed for a one-day visit to Malta, an island which was honored with George Cross for surviving a fourteen-month siege. King George was cheerfully received when entering the Grand Harbour at Valletta as well as when touring the entire island. As the King noted in his diary: “In each village the population gave me a great reception”. On 25 June, George VI came back to London from the excursion which proved to be a success, as noted by the press. ‘The Times’ wrote on 18 June about ‘A full-scale ceremony’ held at North African port during which the King inspected British and US. Navy. At the end of the article ‘The King with the Navies’, the newspaper cited ‘Washington Post’: ‘King George may not rule but he reigns with enough glory to give the British people an example of British courage, which is compounded equally of grace and fortitude’.
‘Wars are not won by speeches or broadcasts’, but no one can deny the fact that those, spoken by King George VI, had a huge impact on the British society and thus enabled to maximize the war effort in all parts of life. A country, faced with a total and brutal war, needed to concentrate and work hard to provide its armies with constant flow of supplies, weapons and soldiers. This could have only been achieved by sacrifice of many at home, whether compulsory or not, and was disguised in form of extremely high taxes, rationing of food, clothes and other goods, cuts on water and electricity, and increased war equipment production. The whole nation worked, nevertheless was not spared suffering too, as German bombings haunted London and many other English cities. In these hard years it was the King who was ‘very much associated with the suffering of the people’. He did what his constitutional duty was – he gave strength and sense in times when such values where in great deficit.
King George VI managed to achieve these goals by, as described in the main body of the essay, travelling around London, and covering more than 52,000 miles of railway track around the country to visit bombed areas, inspect war factories and people working in the Services. He occasionally met army generals in their front headquarters. His wartime speeches were broadly listened to and nearly always commented by the press with positive attitude. During most of these duties he was accompanied by his wife, Queen Elizabeth. Without her and her abilities to connect with people from different social backgrounds it can be stated that the King’s policy would have not been as successful as it was. Her image – friendly, warm, motherly-like – was in opposition to that of her husband’s – distinguished, serious, and army-like. Therefore, they were perceived by the public as the ideal monarchs.
The question: ‘To what extent did King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s policy strengthen British society’s morale during the World War II?’ can be answered by simply saying: to a very great extent. There are a few justifications for saying so, first one of them being the fact that the first big victory for the Allies, after more than two years of defeats, happened in early summer 1943 in North Africa. Which means that for the majority of the war, the British people could not feel optimistic when they were receiving news from the fronts, which contained almost only numbers of soldiers dead and missing. Despite that, there were no anti - war strikes – people must have well responded to their King’s messages. Secondly, the press commentaries on the speeches and tours were in great abundance and always enthusiastic, or at least positive. They were written in such a tone not because of propaganda guidelines – BBC was far more influenced by the Ministry of Information than most of the newspapers - but because it was true to the authors and editors, and so to the readers.
King George VI’s success as the wartime monarch resulted not from any coincidence but from his deliberate actions towards strengthening public morale which he considered to be an inseparable part of his service to the British nation. However, he could not have done anything without the support of his wife, Queen Elizabeth. Together they created an image of an unbreakable British resistance, very well remembered until today.