Queen's closest friend Alathea Fitzalan Howard on the war effort

‘Elizabeth was wearing her battle dress… I thought she looked awful’: In the final part of her deliciously candid diaries, the Queen’s closest childhood companion ALATHEA FITZALAN HOWARD describes how the Princess threw herself into the war effort

As the war draws to a close, the young Elizabeth enjoys a new-found independence in the ATS. 

Romance is also in the air as the future queen dances around her room with a photograph of Philip. 

And as Alathea Fitzalan Howard reveals in this last extract from her teenage diaries, the princess she once loved to play childish games with is growing into the public figure the world would also come to love.

1944: Thursday, July 20

Cumberland Lodge, Windsor Great Park

Went out with the princesses and Crawfie [governess Marion Crawford] for a walk — P.E. [aged 18] was rather moody today, silent and walking, for the most part, some paces away by herself.

She is like the King in this way, v. different from P.M. [aged 15], who darts from one side to the other of those she’s walking with, catching at their hands or slipping her arm through theirs, chattering and telling the latest jokes all the while.

Princess Elizabeth in her Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform in front of an Army ambulance during the second world war

Thursday, July 27

Crawfie was with [the princesses] and we all drove to Maidenhead in the shooting brake. We got into our boats, two small electric canoes, at the Boat Club, and started up the river as far as Cliveden, where we landed and chose a grassy path hidden from the river by bushes to have tea.

It was extraordinary how no one recognised the princesses although the latter often looked at them full in the face and quite near to, especially in the locks, obviously enjoying the rare experience of passing unnoticed.

Going back I sat with P.M. in the end of the boat — we were all rather rude and roared with laughter at the other people we saw. Sometimes we threw ropes to each other in the other boat and pulled each other along.

We got back to the Boat Club and had delicious dinner, though this time the princesses were known and everyone stood up.

Wednesday, August 23

At 1[pm] we heard of the LIBERATION OF PARIS, which made us wild with excitement

Tuesday, August 29

Nada [Muir, a friend] considers it a great pity P.E. is not encouraged to read more cultured books and that all their conversation should revolve round the dogs and the latest radio joke.

I so agree but then, much as I love them, they are not an intellectual family in any way.

Thursday, October 26

Drawing [lessons with Princess Margaret at Windsor Castle] started again. P.E. said she was sorry she never answered my letter, but it was one of the things she was v. bad at!

Friday, October 27

We had a rocket at 6.30, quite close, which shook the whole house.

Tuesday, November 21

Went to the schoolroom, where the princesses were with Crawfie. The rest of the party then arrived, the Philipps [Sir Jackie Philipps was commander of the Castle Company] and several Grenadiers —16 in all.

After [tea] we played games in the Red Drawing Room. We also played charades in which my side, including P.M., did an exact replica of the others’ scenes only to a different word — we thought ours was better — but they didn’t appreciate it and when we came in for the last scene we found them all hidden behind the curtains to pay us back!

Friday, November 24

My 21st Birthday. After breakfast I opened all my presents. A lamp came from the princesses, in pale green and pink, which I love. Mummy arrived — she criticised many of my presents.

The princesses brought with them a present from the Queen — a beautiful brooch in pale blue enamel and diamonds with E.R. in diamonds and a crown on top. It is in a pink leather case, also with E.R. on it, and there was a note from the Queen. No words can describe how thrilled I am.

Saturday, December 2

Taxied round [from Claridge’s hotel in London] to Charles Street [for] a sort of cocktail party [that] went on as a dance upstairs to a radiogram. About 60 people and plenty of men.

P.E. was there, with the new lady-in-waiting, Mary Palmer. To my surprise I thought her most attractive, though not at all pretty.

Her husband was there, and looked v. dull, fat and unattractive, but as Mummy says, it’s v. often those sort of people who turn out best.

P.E. wore a bright red crêpe dress — the colour suited her though the shape was ugly, and her shoes were terrible.

Saturday, December 23

Went up to the Castle for the pantomime at 2.30. Old Mother Red Riding Boots. The princesses were both girls this time and they sang and acted excellently.

Alathea Fitzalan Howard. I went up to London for [a] cocktail party. P.E. was there, looking extremely nice in navy blue, and spent most of the time talking to older people but, apart from this, she said she enjoyed it

1945: Saturday, February 3

Annabel [daughter of Sir Cecil Newman] met me at Royston [Hertfordshire]. After dinner, three Americans whom A knows at her canteen came.

We talked and at intervals went into the dining room to drink sherry — they are extraordinary: they do not want to spend an ordinary evening in the presence of older people, playing cards for instance, but just like hanging about with their arms round a girl, talking utter drivel and never know when to leave.

One of them, Dreiling, bore me off into the drawing room and we sat on the sofa — he held my hand, then pawed my arms and finally kissed me, which he went on doing for about five minutes, till the others came in.

This was my first experience of being kissed and quite frankly I thought it revolting.

They didn’t leave till nearly 12 and then how A and I laughed!

Thursday, February 15

P.M. told me Prince Philip sent P.E. a photograph of himself for Christmas and [P.E.] danced round the room with it for joy! She then said: ‘I wonder who Lilibet will marry?’

Prince Philip certainly seems to consider the possibility and P.E. would welcome it, I am sure.

Monday, March 5

P.E. has been given a commission in the ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service] and is taking a driving course. No doubt it is a good gesture for the last few months of the war.

Wednesday, March 7

Changed into my blue velvet frock and bussed up to the Castle [for a dinner-dance].

Everyone had to go along to the Red Drawing Room in small groups because the Duchess of Kent doesn’t like meeting a great many strangers at once. We shook hands with her and the princesses and then drank and talked before doing the treasure hunt.

There were 24 people altogether — the ladies [included] Mrs Townsend [wife of equerry Peter Townsend, with whom Princess Margaret later had a romance] whom I don’t care for much (she is a nondescript little thing) — and Crawfie.

I knew a few of the men only —mostly Grenadiers. We played clumps, then sardines. Even those who don’t enjoy playing games —and I know there are many — must feel themselves affected by the natural gaiety of the princesses and their unrestrained enjoyment of their own party.

Thursday, March 8

Both the princesses were in London at the dentist, so Crawfie and I took the dogs for a walk and then had tea in her sitting room.

We had long discussions on everything and everybody. She said she regretted P.E. had no taste at all but she wanted them to be so perfect so she was inclined to be disappointed. She told me that P.E. soon goes to Camberley for a course every day for three weeks. They think the experience will do her good.

Thursday, March 15

P.E. was wearing her ATS battle dress, which consists of trousers and I thought she looked awful.

She now drives all over the place, even halfway to London — I really cannot understand them allowing her to do it.

She has had her hair done shorter, which does not suit her as it broadens her face so.

Wednesday, March 28

Jackie [Philipps] too disapproves greatly of P.E. joining the ATS and crawling under cars.

Monday, April 9

We all drove over to Coppins [home of the Kents]. There were 30 people altogether including the whole Luxembourg Royal Family. The girls are all very shy and quiet and terribly dowdy but nice.

We began by playing games, and then we went upstairs to tidy for dinner. We ate curried eggs and lobster, chicken in aspic and salad, and chocolate soufflé, orange salad and pastry cornets, filled with real cream and we drank Champagne and coffee. We danced all the rest of the evening, except for playing one or two rather amusing games.

P.M. told me Prince Philip sent P.E. a photograph of himself for Christmas and [P.E.] danced round the room with it for joy! She then said: ‘I wonder who Lilibet will marry?’ Pictured, a rare picture of Prince Philip of Greece at the public school of Gordonstoun in Scotland

Friday, April 20

It is P.E.’s birthday — her nineteenth — tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 2

Hitler is declared to be dead, though the details are all so mythical that one is inclined to believe either that he died some time ago or else that he is still alive and hidden away somewhere.

Monday, May 7

Went out into the garden and lay on a rug and slept. Suddenly, I was woken up by Moira [a local Windsor girl], who came to tell me that the war was over! We all rushed to the wireless.

Tuesday May 8

THE DAY OF VICTORY IN EUROPE.

The great day dawned and yet how exactly like any other it seemed! Four Grenadier officers came round — Moira knew one of them.

[We] paraded down Eton High Street — it was by this time quite dark and there were hundreds of people all shouting and singing and waving flags. 

All the windows were hung with red, white and blue and we tore down two enormous flags to carry round ourselves. 

All the Eton boys were out in force, running in one dense procession, though in no particular direction! 

Our party got separated in the dark and I found myself with two officers whom I still don’t know the names of! We spent most of the time getting rides on the running boards of cars, and I enjoyed myself madly.

Wednesday, June 13

I went up to London for [a] cocktail party. P.E. was there, looking extremely nice in navy blue, and spent most of the time talking to older people but, apart from this, she said she enjoyed it.

Thursday, July 12

I tidied in P.E.’s room today and noticed a large photograph of Prince Philip on her mantelpiece, though it was unsigned.

Saturday, July 28

P.E. rang up early to say that [her lady in waiting] was ill, so there would only be her and me going down [to Arundel.] I bussed to the Castle at five. P.E. appeared and we set off.

[At Arundel] we dressed for dinner — [P.E.] wore her white satin and I wore the blue lace. After dinner we set off in different cars for Amberley [a medieval castle] The setting was beautiful but the whole thing lacked spirit and spontaneity. However, we enjoyed it up to a point, though were not sorry when it ended.

Sunday, July 29

[After] tea we played Ladida, which consists of sitting in a ring on the floor and passing ashtrays round in a certain manner.

The men spent three-quarters of an hour over their port while we gossiped upstairs and when they did join us, we played more games. Certainly, the weekend was the v. greatest success — the first the princess had ever spent away on her own on a private visit and she adored it.

Extracted by Corinna Honan from The Windsor Diaries: A Childhood With The Princesses by Alathea Fitzalan Howard

Saturday, August 11

P.E. is tremendously energetic at dances, hardly ever sitting down, and this is as much due to her fear of disappointing the many young men who come up in rows to ask her.

Saturday, October 13

I set off for London by train and I felt that curious, sick feeling of excitement because this day really marked the beginning of a new life for me.

Monday, October 15

I went off at nine to Wimborne House, Foreign Relations Department of the Red Cross.

I was put in the German-Austrian Section, and my work consisted of writing cards out for all the people who have either enquired after, or have been enquired after by, their relations in Germany and Austria.

Friday, October 19

I am finding London terribly lonely. I cannot see how it is possible to find a husband for myself — I would so much prefer to have a suitable one produced for me and then make the best of life.

Thursday, November 22

P.E. rang up to say that poor P.M. had her appendix out today — in the nursery!

Tuesday, December 11

Had a letter from Mummy. She said: ‘Why don’t those princesses ask you to a theatre?’

It wounds me in a sore spot, especially as the next morning the papers had glaring headlines of the princesses’ night out in a small party. Naturally, they cannot always ask me, but I always fear P.E. will forget me.

AFTERWORD

Alathea’s eventual marriage in 1953 to the Hon. Edward Ward, younger brother of the Earl of Dudley, was not a happy one. Nor did she ever have children or achieve her dream of becoming a lady-in-waiting.

Her friendship with the Queen, however, persisted until the end of her life. She was invited to her wedding and, although Alathea moved to Switzerland, the friends met occasionally for lunch.

In 1999, she gave a small cocktail party in her sister’s Knightsbridge flat for the Queen — serving M&S frozen canapés. This would have been perfectly all right, had Alathea thought to thaw them.

A few months before she died from a brain tumour in 2001, she went to a ball at Windsor Castle. She had a wonderful evening and was gratified to be one of the few placed on the Queen’s table.

  • Extracted by Corinna Honan from The Windsor Diaries: A Childhood With The Princesses by Alathea Fitzalan Howard, edited by Isabella Naylor Leyland, to be published by Hodder & Stoughton on October 8, £25. © Isabella Naylor Leyland 2020 To order a copy for £21.25 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15. Offer price valid until 10/10/2020. 

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