JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 — “My darling Mama,” the Englishwoman wrote to her mother-in-law at the height of the Battle of Britain in September 1940. “I hardly know how to tell you of the horrible attack…this morning.” Like so many people in southern England that summer, she and her husband had returned home to collect some belongings left behind during previous air raids when they heard the unmistakable drone of a German bomber. As they rushed into the hallway, they heard “a tremendous explosion.” Though three of the family’s servants were injured, there were no serious casualties. But the woman acknowledged that her knees shook for several minutes after the attack.
This relatively straightforward account of one of the thousands of air attacks carried out across England during World War II might have been tossed away and forgotten, had it not been for one thing: it was written by Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother of England, and it describes the only time the preeminent home of English royalty, Buckingham Palace, was damaged by bombs during World War II.
When the letter was published in full for the first time as part of the release of Elizabeth’s official biography last fall, it revealed that the Queen Mother’s trademark stiff upper lip wasn’t only reserved for public appearances. When the air raid sirens went off, she admits in the letter, she delayed going down to the palace’s bomb shelter because her husband, King George VI, had asked her to remove an eyelash from his eye.
When the all clear sounded that afternoon, Elizabeth and her husband went out into the city to take a tour of the devastated East End. “The people are marvellous, and full of fight,” Elizabeth wrote. “One could not imagine that life could become so terrible. We must win in the end.” After signing the note, she added a postscript: “Dear old B. P. is still standing and that is the main thing.”