But like the queen, even the youngest war veterans are now approaching 100 years old, and a steady stream of obituaries tells the story of a vanishing generation.
“It’s extraordinary how that sense of the passage of time is being felt so strongly at the moment,” said Charles Byrne, director general of the Royal British Legion, the country’s largest armed forces charity.
“The queen was an embodiment of that generation…and with her passing, it just drives home the feeling that time moves relentlessly, as it does.”
That loss is perhaps more widely felt in the UK than in a country like the US, because the very existence of the UK was threatened during the war. Bombs fell on cities from London to Belfast, women were conscripted into war work, and wartime rationing did not end until 1954.
Elizabeth, who saved up ration coupons to make her wedding dress in 1947, led a remembrance ceremony for all of the nation’s fallen service personnel each year on the anniversary of the end of World War I.
“She is the epitome of that stoic sense of service and contribution,” Byrne said. “And that is treasured more than ever.”
British authorities don’t know exactly how many World War II veterans remain because the nation’s census takers didn’t track military service until last year. Those figures will be released next month.
The Royal Air Force says it knows of only one surviving pilot from the Battle of Britain, the men Winston Churchill immortalized as “the few” who helped turn the tide of the war. The group’s captain, John Hemingway, celebrated his 103rd birthday in July.
But the number of survivors is declining.
Among those who died this year was Henriette Hanotte, who ferried downed Allied pilots across the French border on their way home. And Harry Billinge, who was just 18 years old when he joined the first wave of troops to land on Gold Beach in Normandy on D-Day, as well as Douglas Newham, who survived 60 bombing raids as a Royal Air Force navigator but was hunted down. for those who did not return.
It was a time of shared sacrifice. The then-Princess Elizabeth, like many teenagers, had to persuade her father to let her join the army in 1945.
When Elizabeth turned 18, King George VI exempted her from compulsory military service because he said that her training as heir to the throne took precedence over the need for manpower in times of war.
But the princess, who began her war work at age 14 with a broadcast for displaced children and later tended a vegetable garden as part of the government’s “Dig for Victory” programme, got away with it.
She enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Service in February 1945 and trained to become a military truck driver and mechanic. The ATS was the largest of the auxiliary services deploying women in non-combat roles such as clerks, drivers and dispatch passengers to free up men for front-line duties.
Elizabeth, the first female member of the royal family to serve in the armed forces, was promoted to honorary junior commander, the equivalent of an army captain, after completing five months of training. But the war ended before she could be assigned to active duty.
On May 8, 1945, Princess Elizabeth appeared in uniform on the balcony of Buckingham Palace as the royal family waved to the crowd celebrating Germany’s surrender. That night, she and her sister, Princess Margaret, left the palace to take part in the festivities.
“We hailed the king and queen on the balcony and then walked for miles through the streets,” he later recalled. “I remember lines of strangers linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept away on a tide of happiness and relief.”
Many of those who participated in that joy have already left.
Among them is Frank Baugh, a Royal Marine who helped guide a landing craft to Sword Beach during the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944. He later campaigned for a monument to be built to commemorate the 22,442 men and women who died under British command during the Battle of Normandy.
A few months before his death in June ’98, Baugh visited the British Normandy Memorial, which overlooks the beach where he fought.
“I would like to see children coming all the time,” he said. “Because they are the people we need to tell what happened, and those guys who didn’t come back, to remember them.”
Follow all AP stories on the death of Queen Elizabeth II at https://apnews.com/hub/queen-elizabeth-ii.
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