The Royal Observer Corps was a uniformed volunteer organisation, which has enjoyed a long association with the Royal Air Force. The badge of the Royal Observer Corps depicts a beacon lighter of Elizabethan times; these beacon-lighters were recruited from the local population and were organised and paid for by the County Sheriff, to care for and light the warning beacons in the event of approaching danger. The motto of the Royal Observer Corps is: Forewarned is Forearmed
It would appear that the earliest system for the detection and reporting of aircraft was started late in 1914. Police constables were instructed to telephone reports of any aircraft including Zeppelins, seen or heard within 60 miles of London to the Admiralty, who were in charge of the defences at that time. In 1915, it was decided to extend the area covered by this arrangement, to East Anglia, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The scheme was found to be satisfactory and in 1917, the War Office was given control. It can be said, that Major General Ashmore CB CMG MVO was the founder of the Observer Corps as it was subsequently entitled and on which the system in use before the stand-down in 1991 had been developed. In an endeavour to reduce time lag, the War Office placed all sections of the ground and air defences of London under Major General Ashmore in a Command known as London Air Defence Area (LADA). In this scheme, he made use of all the existing defence units which covered the London area and districts to the South and Southeast of London. The units comprised coastal and inland watching posts, searchlights, gun stations, balloon aprons, aerodromes and emergency landing grounds. This scheme necessarily entailed a large amount of telephone construction work and it was not until September 1918, that it was put into full operation; the last German raids having been made in 1918. It did prove however, that the time lag had been reduced appreciably and it is fair to say that this system formed the basis of the Royal Observer Corps. With the coming of the Armistice of the First World War and the considerable reduction of the forces, the system faded away to practically nothing.
In January 1924, the committee of the Imperial Defence appointed a sub-committee to investigate the aerial defence of Southeast England. It was decided that an organised system was essential for the rapid collection and distribution of information on the movements of hostile and friendly aircraft, and this led eventually to the formation of the Observer Corps. In August and September 1924, the first experiments were organised by Major General Ashmore. It was decided to use the area between Romney Marshes and Tonbridge and these two trials proved very satisfactory, so much so that in the following year two observation areas were formed to embrace the whole of Kent, Sussex and part of Surrey. With the co-operation of the Chief Constables concerned, these two areas were sited with observation posts and plotting centres manned by personnel who had been enrolled as Special Constables. The first Observer Corps Groups to be formed in 1925 were No 1 with its headquarters in Maidstone and No 2 with its Headquarters in Horsham, the former Group having twenty seven posts and the latter sixteen. By November 1926, the area covered by the Observer Corps had extended from Hampshire to Suffolk and comprised Nos 1 and 2 Groups, and Nos 3 and 18 Groups with their headquarters at Winchester and Colchester respectively. As the tests carried out within these Groups proved successful, Major General Ashmore proposed a further extension to include Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, observer posts were also established at Harrow and Uxbridge.
On 1 January 1929, control was handed over to the Air Ministry and the Observer Corps headquarters established in Hillingdon House, RAF Uxbridge. The Observer Corps was now a corporate body and it was logical therefore that it should be given an officer in command. The AOC-in-C Air Defence of Great Britain made the suggestion in a letter to the Air Ministry, that an officer of the rank of Air Commodore or Group Captain on the retired list should be appointed the first Commandant of the Observer Corps. As Commandant of the Corps, he would carry out his duties directly under the command of Headquarters, Air Defence of Great Britain and would be responsible to the AOC-in-C for the training and maintenance of centres and posts. The Air Ministry agreed, and on the 1 March 1929, appointed Air Commodore E A D Masterman CB CMG CBE AFC RAF (Rtd) as the first Commandant of the Corps. Air Commodore Masterman held his appointment until 1 March 1936, when he retired, he was succeeded by Air Commodore Warrington-Morris CMG OBE RAF (Rtd) who was destined to lead the Corps until well into the second World War.
Although the Corps had made a good start, expansion was slow and in 1929 at the end of 5 years, only the original four Groups existed. On 15 May 1931 however, No 17 Group was formed with its centre at Watford and No 18 Group was enlarged by the addition of three new posts. With the passing of years, the political situation in Europe deteriorated and in January 1935, the Boyd Committee recommended that the Observer Corps should expand in four stages. It was in 1936 that the Corps became part of the newly formed Fighter Command under Lord Dowding and moved its headquarters to RAF Bentley Priory, Stanmore, Middlesex. From this time until the start of World War ll, new Observer Corps Groups were rapidly formed and on 24 August 1939, when the Corps was mobilised, the greater part of the country was covered by Observer Corps posts.
The Corps won its spurs during the Battle of Britain and in his despatch, Lord Dowding said, “ It is important to note that, at this time the Observer Corps constituted the whole means of tracking enemy raids once they had crossed the coastline, their work throughout was quite invaluable, without it, air raid warning systems could not have been operated and inland interceptions would rarely have been made. In recognition of the invaluable work done by the Observer Corps, an announcement was made in the House of Commons on 9 April 1941 that, His Majesty King George Vl had granted the Corps the title “Royal”.
On Saturday 10 May 1941, ROC posts in the Durham, Galashiels and Glasgow Groups were responsible for tracking and reporting what transpired to be the arrival of Rudolph Hess. The aircraft was first heard and reported by Durham post A2 Embleton, it was then seen as a silhouette in the moonlight by post A3 Chatton and correctly identified as a ME110. The controller at No 13 Group Fighter Command refused to accept that it was a ME110 because of its limited range and suggested that it must be a Dornier 17. The aircraft continued on its westerly course and was seen briefly by the observers at F2 Jedburgh and G1 Ashkirk who reported it as a ME110, the track was lost for a time over the unobserved forest of Ettrick. The aircraft was next seen and reported by post G3 West Kilbride as a ME110, a few minutes later post H2 Eaglesham reported seeing someone bale out, the aircraft crashed close to the Eaglesham post and the rest is history.
In September 1941, due to the increased call-up of manpower, women were admitted to the Corps, as in all other branches of the Services they did sterling work and acquitted themselves with distinction.
In addition to reporting all aircraft flying over land, or the sea belt adjoining the coastline, ROC personnel on duty also assisted aircraft that were lost or in distress. To achieve this, personnel at selected observation posts were issued with TR9D HF short-range radio sets (code named Darky) and on receipt of an aircraft distress call, they would if possible make contact and give the ROC post location. If the aircraft required to land immediately, the observers would advise a course to steer to the nearest airfield or landing ground. Other selected ROCposts located near mountainous terrain would light red flares to warn aircraft if they were in danger of flying into high ground, the code name for this operation was (Granite). The combined efforts of Darky and Granite saved a great many allied aircraft and their crews.
During the final stages of hostilities, concern was expressed at the number of friendly aircraft being shot down by the Royal Naval anti-aircraft gunners and as a result, a call went out for volunteers from the ROC to man the Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) to identify aircraft during the D-Day Landings. The scheme was known as ‘SEABORNE’ and the volunteers temporarily joined the Royal Navy with the rank of Petty Officer/Aircraft Identifier. These volunteers continued to wear ROC uniform, but wore SEABORNE shoulder flashes and a Royal Navy brassard with the letters RN. Twenty two Seaborne observers survived their ships being sunk, two lost their lives and a number were injured. The Seaborne adventure was an unqualified success and in recognition of this, His Majesty King George Vl approved the wearing of the SEABORNE flash as a permanent feature of the uniform; in addition, ten Seaborne members were mentioned in despatches. Today there is a Seaborne Observers’ Association, of which Air Vice-Marshal G P Black CB OBE AFC RAF (Rtd) is the honorary President.
At the cessation of hostilities, the ROCwas stood down in May 1945, but was re-formed in January 1947 at the beginning of the cold war. As it had done throughout World War 2, the Corps continued with the aircraft reporting and tracking role.
On 11 April 1950, having been established by Royal Warrant, King George Vl became the Corps’ first Air Commodore-in-Chief. On the occasion of the coronation in June 1953, her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll assumed the appointment of Air Commodore-in-Chief of the Royal Observer Corps.
In 1955, the Corps was given the nuclear reporting role by the Home Office, a task that grew quickly, although command of the Corps still remained with the Royal Air Force. With considerable improvement in ground radar however, together with the heights at which modern aircraft could fly, Fighter Command decided in 1968 that the services of the Royal Observer Corps were no longer required and operational control was passed to the Home Office. The Home Office now funded 90% of the running costs of the Corps, the Royal Air Force continued to fund 10%. Having expanded rapidly, the Corps now had 1,559 underground monitoring posts and 31 Group Controls (operations rooms) manned by 17,500 part-time volunteers and a small cadre of whole-time officers and civilian staff. As a direct result of the Home Defence Review in 1968, the number of underground monitoring posts was reduced from 1,559 to 872, and the Group Controls from 31 to 25. Administrative command however, remained with the Royal Air Force and a serving Air Commodore continued as Commandant ROC; the Corps enjoyed Command status.
In the early 1960s, Nuclear Reporting Cells (NRCs), were set up at Air Defence Operations Centres and subsequently at other key military establishments in the UK. These NRCs were manned by ROC personnel and were the forerunners of the ROCNBC Cells that continued to function until 31 December 1995, when they too were stood down.
The Golden Jubilee of the Corps was celebrated in 1975 and on 27 June 1985, a Royal Garden Party was held at RAF Bentley Priory to mark the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the Royal Observer Corps.
In June 1966, the Royal Observer Corps was presented with a Royal Banner by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll to commemorate the 25 Anniversary of assuming the title ‘Royal’, this Review of the Corps was held at RAF Bentley Priory. Twenty five years later on 25 July 1991, Her Majesty the Queen presented a replacement Royal Banner and, like the first presentation, the ceremony was again held at RAF Bentley Priory. In 1991, Her Majesty graciously agreed to the commissioning of a portrait to mark this anniversary and the portrait now hangs in the ladies ante-room of the officers’ mess at RAF Bentley Priory. The original Royal Banner was laid up in St Clement Danes church in London on 29 September 1991 and the second Royal Banner was lodged for safe keeping in the rotunda of College Hall, RAF Cranwell on 8 December 1995.
In 1992, a ROCstained glass window commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, was installed in the officers’ mess at RAF Bentley Priory. The window is located by the main door in the corridor leading to the dining room and depicts two observers on duty at an Observer Corps post in London. The lessening ‘threat’ to the United Kingdom resulted in the stand-down of the bulk of the ROCin September 1991. The decision was taken however by MOD to retain the NRC element of the Corps, in order to continue providing a NBC service for all three Services. Sixteen NBC cells were retained and manned by 240 other ranks and 16 spare-time officers under the control of HQ Royal Observer Corps. HQROC comprised two whole-time officers and two MOD civilian staff. Having gone full circle, the Corps was once again fully funded and controlled by the Royal Air Force and became part of Headquarters No 11 Group. The Senior Air Staff Officer with his other hat on became Commandant ROC. Although the Corps undertook the NBC roll successfully, the ever diminishing threat to the UK continued apace and the decision was taken to stand down the remaining element of the Royal Observer Corps with effect 31 December 1995.