Princess Elizabeth was thousands of miles away in Kenya when she became Queen

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Dressed in black, Queen Elizabeth II sets foot on British soil for the first time since her accession as she lands at London Airport following the death of her father King George VI (PA) (PA Archive)
Dressed in black, Queen Elizabeth II sets foot on British soil for the first time since her accession as she lands at London Airport following the death of her father King George VI (PA) (PA Archive)

A slim, pale figure, dressed in mourning black, descended the steps of the jet airliner – her father, the King, was dead and Elizabeth had returned as Queen.

It was dusk on February 7 1952 and the new Queen had flown back to Britain from Kenya, 4,000 miles away, where news of George VI’s death had reached her during a Commonwealth tour.

It was the Duke of Edinburgh who broke the sad news to his wife while they were alone, taking her into the garden to tell her as they walked slowly up and down the lawn.

Princess Elizabeth, as she was just hours earlier, and Philip had been staying at Sagana Lodge which had been given to them as a wedding present by the people of Kenya.

It was 2.45pm in Kenya and Elizabeth had been resting after spending the night at the Treetops Hotel, in Aberdare Forest, watching big game.

A message was given to Philip by his equerry and friend Mike Parker that the King was dead.

Just hours later the couple were on their way back home.

When Philip heard the news that George VI had died, the duke looked as if half the world had been dropped on him, his close aide once said.

But the new Queen knew it was her duty to her country that mattered now.

Lord Charteris, her then private secretary, remembered seeing her seated at her desk in the lodge appearing “very composed, absolute master of her fate”.

She was ready to fulfil the role for which she had been carefully groomed.

Asked what name she wished to use as Queen, she replied simply: “My own name, of course.”

Lord Charteris and Mr Parker packed up, worked out timetables, sent a flood of signals, organised a plane at Entebbe, another from Mombasa to get there, and timed a London airport arrival for 4pm the following day.

With the King’s health failing when they had left home, a Royal Standard had been stowed in the baggage.

Elizabeth’s mourning clothes, waiting for her in Entebbe, were prepared for her to wear.

A heavy smoker, the King’s health had begun to deteriorate by 1948. He had been suffering from pains in his leg for some time and was diagnosed as having arteriosclerosis.

There was some danger that gangrene would set in and that his right leg would have to be amputated.

In March 1949, he underwent surgery but, after a period of recovery, a shadow was detected on the King’s lung in May 1951. In September, a malignant growth was discovered.

The King was not informed of this diagnosis but an operation was performed to remove his left lung.

Elizabeth and Philip had made their first major tour together to Canada and the United States in October and November 1951.

The King rallied and seemed to recover. But, finally, he let go of life and died peacefully in his sleep at Sandringham, the royal estate in Norfolk, on February 6.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill told the House of Commons: “During these last months, the King walked with death, as if death were a companion, an acquaintance whom he recognised and did not fear.”

After a long journey home, the young Queen set foot on English soil – the runway at London airport – for the first time as sovereign.

The flight was met by the Prime Minister, with Opposition leader Clement Attlee and the Duke of Gloucester.

On February 8, Elizabeth II was formally proclaimed Queen at a meeting of the Accession Council in St James’s Palace to which all members of the Privy Council were summoned.

Members of the House of Lords, the Lord Mayor, aldermen and other leading citizens of the City of London, and the high commissioners in London of member nations of the Commonwealth were also invited to attend.

The Queen succeeded to the throne immediately on the death of her father, so Accession Day on February 6, which she marked privately each year at Sandringham, was always tinged with sadness.

In 1952, the nation mourned the King’s death and had to wait until June 2, the following year, for the Coronation and celebration of a new Elizabethan era.

The Queen’s father was laid to rest in the vault of his ancestors in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, on February 15.

A day of ceremony began when the simple oak coffin containing the King’s body was moved from Westminster Hall where some 305,800 people had filed past to pay their last respects.

As the coffin left Westminster on a gun carriage, Big Ben rang out, one chime a minute to mark the 56 years of the King’s life.

Men of the Household Cavalry in ceremonial dress marched in slow time to Paddington station where the Royal Train was waiting.

The solemn cortege passed Marlborough House in The Mall, where Queen Mary, the King’s mother, appeared at a window, across which a blind was half-drawn, and bowed her head. The King was the third of her sons to die.

Her granddaughter was now Queen at the age of just 25.