VE Day: The morse code message that told Kathleen and a waiting world that 'The war is over in Europe'

'Half of my colleagues were asleep. And suddenly there was a beep-beep!' Kathleen Drinkwater tells Katy Guest how she was the first person in Churchill's Whitehall to receive the big news
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Kathleen Drinkwater was three floors underground when she became the first person in Whitehall to learn the news of the German surrender. The 23-year-old was coming to the end of her night watch, in the early hours of 7 May, operating the morse code key that sent and received messages from all around the world.

Kathleen Drinkwater was three floors underground when she became the first person in Whitehall to learn the news of the German surrender. The 23-year-old was coming to the end of her night watch, in the early hours of 7 May, operating the morse code key that sent and received messages from all around the world.

"Half of my colleagues were asleep," she says. "And suddenly there was a 'beep-beep!' The message said, 'the war is over in Europe'. I thought, 'This bloke's mad.' So I said, 'Will you please repeat the message?' He did. I called over the flight sergeant and said, 'Jenny! There's a bloke here says the war's over.' And she said, 'Shove over.' She came and sat in my seat and asked him to send his message again. And that was it, the war was over in Europe.

"I can still remember some morse code. Sometimes it comes to me and I could dot it out. That message went up to the officers who were decoding. What they did, I don't know, everything was secret. Churchill never came to see us. He was in a little room above us in Whitehall.

"It's very famous now, it's called the War Rooms. My friend went back, on a tour, and where we were had been turned into a shelter for the Cabinet in case the Russians bombed us in the Cold War. You can't see our rooms, she was so disappointed.

"They all went mad when we got the message. We put names in a hat and we were given the next day off. My name came out of the hat, but I'd nowhere to go because none of my friends had been given the day off. So I got the bus from Whitehall and I thought, 'Well I'll go home and wash my hair.' But when I got off at the bus stop I heard a whistle. I turned round it was my husband.

"He said, 'Where are you going? They're going mad in London! I've got the day off, too - come on!' The place was packed. Fortunately he had a big, great coat on with a belt. He said, 'You hold on to my belt,' and that was how we got through London to the Palace.

"We were shouting, 'Come out Liz! Come out George!' They had to come out two or three times because we kept on shouting. You couldn't get in a pub, the places were packed, there were sailors up lampposts! So we got into a little RAF bar.

"The lads behind the counter said, 'Come on in, Brummie, you can have a drink!' I've never liked beer but I drank it that night.

"So we drank this beer and my husband said, 'Where are we going to stay?' I said, 'Well we'll go to Mr and Mrs Taylor in Brentford.'

"They were the parents of my friend, who was working in Wales. We got on the last Tube out of London and we had to walk the rest to Brentford. We got to the house and there was nobody in - they were out celebrating, there was a big bonfire in Brentford. I said, 'It's all right, they've told me where the key is.'

"So we let ourselves in and took our coats and shoes off and sat on the settee. They came in past midnight and said, 'We knew you two would be here!' And they put us up for the night.

"We went back to work the next day and it was just the same. Eventually, in August 1945, they were demobbing the girls who were married first. But if you hadn't got any children you had to go straight back to work.

"So I got my job back at Wilmot Breeden's, making car parts. I couldn't have my old job back, I had to go back in the typing pool. So there you go, that's how they chucked you out."

Mrs Drinkwater is now 83 and lives in the Hall Green area of Birmingham. Her husband died a few years ago, but there was a time even after VE day when she feared for his life. "My husband was still in Hong Kong for nine months. He was heading for Hiroshima and he got half-way there and they dropped the bomb and the war was over and he came back.

"People say it was dreadful to drop the bomb, but I was jolly glad because our men were safe. It meant the war was really over then."

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