Royal Observer Corps

Britain's earliest air defence system was developed during the Great War to combat raids by German airships, and later Gotha bombers.

Fighter airfields were opened around London and throughout eastern England and these were supported by guns, searchlights and barrage balloons. As part of this organization, the Police set up observer posts to pass reports of enemy aircraft to air defence controls.

Royal Observer Corps - 17.2k The system was dismantled at the end of the war, however in 1925 two Observer Groups were set up in Kent and Sussex to practice the tracking hostile aircraft and reporting their movements to the RAF. Once again this was organized by the Police, and Special Constables were recruited locally to man posts and controls in their spare time.

The first uniform consisted of a Special Constable's brassard (armband) overprinted Observer Corps, and a lapel badge which depicted an Elizabethan beacon lighter looking out for the Spanish Armada. Its motto was Forewarned is Forearmed, the design and motto later adopted by the Royal Observer Corps.

In the early 1930s the Air Ministry embarked on a major expansion of the RAF, and as part of this Observer Groups were set up to cover most of Britain. Observer Posts were opened in villages about 5-8 miles apart, with crews of 10-12 Observers initially.

Radar was also developed in the years just before the war; the early Chain Home system could only identify raids coming in over the sea and the Observer Corps was responsible for tracking overland. Observer Corps reports and sea plots were passed to Fighter Command sector operations rooms and these were used to direct fighters against incoming raids.

The organization was mobilised on 24 August 1939 and was immediately transferred from the Police to RAF control.

The Observer Corps made a major contribution to victory in the Battle of Britain, and in April 1941 it was awarded the title Royal by His Majesty King George VI in recognition of this. Later that year women were recruited for the first time.

In addition to tracking hostile aircraft Posts provided direct warnings of air raids to local factories and military installations, helped friendly aircraft in distress and reported crashes, parachutists and minelaying. Almost 800 Observers served aboard merchant ships as volunteer aircraft identifiers for the D-Day landings in 1944.

Royal Observer Corps - 18.4k By 1945 almost 40,000 Observers were serving on 2,000 Posts and 40 Observer Centres throughout the British Isles. The majority of these worked full time and went on duty at nights and weekends; they were supported by a nucleus of full time members and civilian staff.

The ROC maintained a continuous watch on the skies over Britain throughout the War until it stood down on 12 May 1945. It reformed on a part-time basis in 1947 and continued to support the RAF in the air defence role until the early 1960s.

In 1955 the ROC was given responsibility for monitoring nuclear attack and radioactive fallout, and the issue of warnings to civil and military authorities. Protected accommodation was built at Posts and Group Controls. Training and exercises were carried out on a regular basis along with annual camps at RAF stations.

In later years the ROC became the field force of the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organization (UKWMO). Strength was reduced to about 10,000 personnel, with over 800 monitoring Posts in 25 Groups.

In 1966, HM The Queen presented a banner to commemorate the 25th anniversary of her father's award of the title Royal and the voluntary service of members in war and peace. Throughout its existence, the majority of members of the ROC were part time volunteers who served at posts and operations rooms close to their homes.

The ROC continued its work until September 1991, when the Corps finally stood down as part of the force reductions at the end of the Cold War.

The ROC Association and ROC Benevolent Fund maintain the links between and support to former members of the Corps.

Royal Observer Corps

ROC Post Database

Truro ROC Association

Richard Edkins' ROC History


Royal Observer Corps

text copyright © Charles Parker
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last updated on 16 September 2012

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