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Seventy Years Ago Today, Queen Elizabeth Secretly Partied with Commoners

Before she became Elizabeth II, the then-princess slipped into London’s streets incognito to celebrate Europe’s victory over Germany

(Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

It’s been 70 years since hundreds of thousands of people gathered in streets and squares all over the world to first celebrate Victory in Europe Day — a day marking the end of World War II in Europe. But for then-princess Elizabeth, May 8, 1945, was special for another reason: it marked the first and last time she would leave the palace and mingle with her future subjects in secret. The Telegraph’s Harry Mount reports on that wild night out.

For commoners, V-E Day represented a reprieve from years of rationing and penny-pinching, notes the BBC. The motto “make do and mend” was only the tip of the iceberg for a country that withstood thousands of casualties and half a million destroyed homes during the war. When word of the German surrender reached England, May 8 was designated the official day of celebration, and revelers packed every street. Mount reports that 19-year-old Elizabeth and her sister, 15-year-old Princess Margaret, begged King George VI and mother Queen Elizabeth to join the fun. They agreed they could leave the palace at 9 p.m., but only if the girls went with a 16-person entourage.

“We were terrified of being recognized,” the Queen recalled later. She wore her Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform to avoid being spotted by the crowd. All around her, people were linking arms and walking down the street “swept along on a tide of happiness and relief.” Margaret Rhodes, who was with the entourage that night, remembers Elizabeth and her companions doing the conga through the front door of the “stuffy and formal” Ritz — an impromptu move that did not sit well with every guest. “As one congaed, though, eyebrows were raised,” she recalled.

A member of the entourage recalls being “picked up by a naval officer” and kissed, writes Mount, and another was astonished at the kissing, hugging, and lovemaking that surrounded them on the streets. A highlight of the night was when the girls were able to watch their parents appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace (one of eight total appearances that day) as spectators, not participants.

Exhausted but exhilarated, the group made it safely back to the palace at midnight. The Queen’s night on the town will be fictionalized in a movie this month. The real-life Queen has referred to it as “one of the most memorable nights of my life.”

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