Women played a crucial role in the day-to-day life of the Cabinet War Rooms during the Second World War. They worked as switchboard operators, typists and clerks, often privy to sensitive information about the war. 

A series of handwritten letters donated to IWM by the family of one of the women of the War Rooms shines a light on life, love, and historic events, like VE Day, that the women of the War Rooms were witness to.

Letters from Edith Florence Cochrane, known as 'Peggy', offer a fascinating insight into her work life and her experiences of the VE Day celebrations in Whitehall, encapsulating the joyous excitement and atmosphere of the momentous day.  

The collection of letters document the early months of her relationship with the man she would later marry, providing a window into the daily life of a young woman in wartime London. 

Switchboard operators working in the Cabinet War Rooms during the Second World War.
© IWM 27532
Switchboard operators working in the Cabinet War Rooms during the Second World War.

Top secret operations

Typists couldn’t help but read the documents that crossed their desks. One woman is said to have come across the name of her boyfriend’s ship. It had been sunk with the loss of all hands. All the work done at the War Rooms was top secret. Many of the staff didn't tell their families what they had done until years later.

The switchboard operators and typists who occupied Room 60 were all civilian women. During the dark days of the Blitz, many of them remained underground day and night.

One switchboard operator remembers that there was no such thing as an emergency call, because every call was treated as urgent. Switchboard operators were even given specially adapted gas masks that would allow them to continue their work in the event of a gas attack.

Peggy

Edith Florence Cochrane was a Clerk in the War Cabinet Office. She was known as ‘Peggy’, after Peggy Cochrane, a famous singer at the time. She also spent time working for the Deception Committee. A collection of letters from Peggy to her boyfriend, Lance Corporal Ronald ‘Ron’ Gibson, provide a fascinating insight into life in the War Rooms and wartime London. 

Peggy's letters cover the period from May 1944 until November 1945.

In late May 1944, not long after meeting Peggy at a dance, Ron was confined to camp in preparation for D-Day. Peggy's letter of 28 May contains several references to knowing where he might be, and for what reason. She laments that it might be the end of their fledgling relationship: ‘Since you seem to have disappeared… I feel it is high time I wrote to find out what has become of you. Of course, I’ve a pretty good idea… from where I’m sitting it looks very much as if we’ve had it. It’s a depressing thought.’

She wrote again on 31 May 1944, reflecting on her working conditions in the War Rooms. The existence of the War Rooms was a closely guarded secret but Peggy alludes to the difficult conditions: 'The weather is so beautiful at the moment it seems terrible having to work at all, especially in our dungeon, where on a hot day like last Monday I nearly put a coat on to keep warm…I’m actually writing this letter at work, while everybody is out at lunch.'

References to the Cabinet War Rooms are fleeting, although she comments that it is cold in her ‘dungeon’ and mentions her time ‘underground, which grant a window into what life was like working there. 

Image showing 'Peggy' with Ron's sister, Dot
© IWM Documents 27532
'Peggy' (left) with Ron's sister, Dot (right).

VE Day

In May 1945, Germany surrendered and crowds of people in London took to the streets to mark VE Day. 

Peggy wrote to Ron, describing the mood in central London on that momentous occasion: 'It was all one seething mass of people, very colourful, with the women all wearing their brightest frocks...lots of red and bright blue.’

Despite enjoying the memorable VE Day celebrations, Peggy admits that her mind was on Ron and the other men marking the special day:

'Well at last VE Day has come and gone, and as far as I'm concerned, it was a very great day, and one I'll never forget. But during all the celebrations here in London, I couldn't help wondering all the time how you and all the other men who made it possible were spending the day.'

She is also thankful to be able to mark VE Day in the capital: 'I felt that of all places to be on that day, London was the only one, and the only place in London to be in was Whitehall, and so it was - I wouldn't have been anywhere else for anything in the world!'

In August, the Second World War officially ended, with the Allies recognising 15 August 1945 as VJ Day. 

For Peggy, writing to Ron two days later, the VJ Day celebrations felt lacklustre. She remarks, ‘You can’t go on having victory days – it gets a bit monotonous!', she said. 

But it also meant something important to her: 'Well darling, the war really is over at last, and what constantly amazes me is that I, and everyone I know, with the exception of Bill and one of two casual acquaintances, are still alive. How all I have to do is to wait patiently until you are demobilised (demobbed, so yes, demobilised), which now I really think will be this year.'

The end of the war

In the final weeks of the war, two atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan by the United States. Peggy's letters reveal her thoughts on what the development of this technology might mean:

‘...it terrifies me to think of future wars... I never thought before that war could be abolished, I think now it will have to be… where... will be the point of perfecting all the bombs to pick people off gradually when everyone knows that it can be done, if need be, in one fell swoop.’

They also revel her own personal connection - she tells Ron she had been the committee clerk for the Tube Alloys Committee, the code for the UK's research into the development of nuclear weapons. 

Peggy and Ron married in November 1945, when the letters end. In 1951, the two had a son together. The photograph above shows Peggy (right) with Ron's sister, Dot (left).

In 2022, Peggy and Ron's son placed the letters into IWM's care, ensuring their preservation for future generations.

Now part of IWM's collections, the letters provide a compelling picture of Peggy’s daily life as a modern woman in wartime. They also represent an exciting new addition to our collection of stories from women who worked at the War Rooms during those tense days and nights.

Discover more about Peggy's letters that feature in an episode on The One Show website.

Visit Churchill War Rooms today.  

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