From the start of the 1930s, the political situation in Europe deteriorated with the threat from the growth of German air power. On 7th and 10th December 1934, a conference chaired by Air Commodore O.T. Boyd, O.B.E, M.C, A.F.C was held.
The report published in 1935 highlighted the need for a considerable expansion of the Observer Corps (O.C.), and that such developments should be progressed as soon as possible over a four year period with a final completion date for such measures being set at 1st March 1939.
Eventually the system was extended to cover the whole of England and Wales. The Observation Posts were usually simple constructions generally consisting of emplacements surrounded by sand-bags.
In addition the Observation Posts were issued with an instrument which allowed readings to be taken in both direction of movement and aircraft height. A standardised reporting format based on a common map reporting grid system was established; this allowed readings from two or more posts to be used to provide a more accurate mapping of aircraft position, direction and height. Training in aircraft types was improved by the issue of aircraft recognition cards.
The key outputs from the report recommended that there should be a greater geographic coverage of the network of observation posts. In addition, effective communications should be developed between observation posts and O.C. group centres and between O.C. group centres and the two RAF fighting area headquarters covering the north and south of the country. The emphasis was also placed on bringing control of the Observer Corps closer to the Royal Air Force and this incorporated the Corps into the RAF’s programme of expansion and development of an effective Air Raid Warning system.
On 3rd September 1939, Neville Chamberlain announced to the nation that the country was at war with Germany. To some, this was no surprise. This belief had directed operational developments within the Observer Corps through a number of exercises during 1938.
THE CAPTURE OF RUDOLPH HESS
Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) was Adolf Hitler’s Deputy in the Nazi Party and, after a flight of almost 1000 miles in 1941, parachuted out over Eaglesham near Glasgow.
He planned to meet with the Duke of Hamilton at his home, Dungavel House, believing (incorrectly) that the duke was willing to negotiate peace with Germany on terms that would be acceptable to Hitler.
Two Spitfires of No. 72 Squadron RAF, No. 13 Group RAF were sent to attempt an interception but failed to find the intruder. A third Spitfire sent from Acklington at 22:20hrs also failed to spot the aircraft; by then it was dark and Hess had dropped to an extremely low altitude, so low that the volunteer on duty at the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) station at Chatton was able to correctly identify it as a Bf 110, and reported its altitude as 50 feet (15m). Tracked by additional ROC posts, Hess continued his flight into Scotland at high speed and low altitude, but was unable to spot his destination, Dungavel House. Hess was nearly out of fuel, so he climbed to 6,000 feet (1,800m) and parachuted out of the plane at 23:06hrs. The aircraft crashed at 23:09hrs, about 12 miles (19km) west of Dungavel House.
Hess considered this achievement to be the proudest moment of his life.
During the war, many aircraft were lost each year through flying into areas of high ground. “Granite” was to make use of red ground flares in the path of an aircraft that was deemed to be flying towards high ground in order to allow the aircraft to take evasive action.
On 12 May 1945, the ROC temporarily stood down. In recognition of the contribution made by ROC personnel in the allied victory, the Air Ministry held a massed RAF rally and air display at RAF North Weald, in Essex on 23rd and 24th June 1945. On the day of the dedication of the new ensign, approximately 2,000 observers present undertook the first ever uniformed ROC march-past. The parade then formed into a huge square and the ROC Ensign was presented by Lord Beatty. The Ensign was borne from the drumhead by Observer Lieutenant Pollock, VC. who is buried in Ayr Cemetery.
CORPS’ STRUCTURE DURING WW2 TO STAND-DOWN
By the end of the war in 1945 there were some 40 observer corps centres covering England, Wales and Scotland, with approximately 1,560 observer posts. Approximately 18 months later from the stand-down the ROC would be re-activated to meet post-war threats. The ROC did not operate in Northern Ireland until 1954.
On 24th August 1939 notices were issued to all members of the Observer Corps. War was declared on 3rd September 1939 with observer posts and centres being manned continuously until the end of the war on the 12th May 1945. Radar stations were able to provide warning of enemy aircraft approaching the British coast but once they had crossed the coastline the Observer Corps provided the only means of tracking through the network of observation posts. This provided information enabling air raid warnings to be issued and RAF fighter intercepts.
After the successes of 1940 and early 1941, and especially in respect to the work undertaken as the ‘eyes and the ears’ of the RAF during the ‘Battle of Britain’, on the 9th April 1941, His late Majesty King George VI honoured the “Observer Corps” with royal recognition and the new title of the “Royal Observer Corps”.
WOMEN IN THE CORPS
1941 saw the introduction of women into the Royal Observer Corps.
On D-Day, 6th June 1944, the Air Ministry issued a confidential order which outlined an urgent need for a substantial number of ROC Observers to be employed on aircraft recognition duties in defensively-equipped merchant ships. They continued to wear their ROC uniforms but wore ‘Seaborne’ shoulder flashes and a Royal Navy brassard with the letters ‘RN’ During the D-Day Landings. Two observers lost their lives; 22 survived their ships being sunk and a number were injured during the landings. The Seaborne operation was seen as an unqualified success and was recognised by His Majesty King George VI by the approval of the use of “Seaborne” shoulder titles as a permanent feature of the observer uniform.
Sketch depicting a Seaborne Observer during ‘Operation Overlord’, D-Day, 6th June 1944.