Monday, 12 September 2016

The Royal Observer Corps - "Forewarned is Forearmed"

James Watson,
Royal Observer Corps
Lanarkshire, Scotland, c.1941-1945
[From my own collection]

The Royal Observer Corps (the prefix "Royal" added from April 1941) served an important role during World War Two, that of keeping a lookout for and tracking enemy aircraft.

The R.O.C. had originally been formed as the "Metropolitan Observation Service" in the south of England in 1917 then reformed and renamed as the "Observer Corps" in 1925 when further counties were added. By 1926 it had been decided that the whole of Great Britain would be covered, initially by eighteen groups or control centres.

James Watson's Royal Observer Corps
Cap Badge
[From my own collection]

Re-mobilised in 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis, the R.O.C,, being always manned by trained volunteers, became an essential part of Great Britain’s air defences during the years of the Second World War. Their role was specifically to provide valuable and co-ordinated “on the ground” assistance in tracking enemy German aircraft. Information on enemy aircraft movements observed from observation posts, including coordinates, height, “sector clock code”, and the number and type of aircraft for each sighting would be passed onto a regional R.O.C. Control Centre. By 1945 there were now 40 Control Centres covering Great Britain which in turn controlled more than 1,500 observation posts. The R.O.C. itself came under the administrative control of RAF Strike Command and the operational control of the Home Office.

Close-up of James Watson wearing his R.O.C. Badge
(shown above) and uniform with breast-plate.
[From my own collection]

My Great Uncle, James Watson of Stonehouse in Lanarkshire Scotland, was one such R.O.C. volunteer. His photo in the uniform of the Royal Observer Corps and looking skywards alerted me to the fact that he had served with this unit, most likely from 1941. Surprisingly, and although he died in Scotland in 1957, it was only in the last couple of years that I realised that quite remarkably, I held the very self same cap badge shown in this photo which bears the rather appropriate inscription “Forewarned is Forearmed”. As James' widow emigrated to New Zealand in 1963 she brought the badge with her hence it eventually ended up in my ownership (remarkably, the fifth owner since James died).

Royal Observer Corps Breast Badge
[Source : Wikipedia]

Clydebank in Scotland (the area encompassing the heavily industrialised Clyde Valley area west of Glasgow) had suffered its own “blitz” on the 13th and 14th March 1941, the town being largely destroyed and suffering the worst destruction and civilian loss of life in all of Scotland. 528 people are known to have died, 617 people were seriously injured, and hundreds more were injured by blast debris. Out of approximately 12,000 houses, only seven remained undamaged with 4,000 completely destroyed and 4,500 severely damaged. Over 35,000 people were made homeless.

An R.O.C. observation post plotting co-ordinates using a
Mickelwaith Height Corrector instrument to determine
height, a simple but effective mechanical tracking device.
[Source : Wikipedia]

Thus the necessity of early warning of any further raids, especially around the heavily industrialised and populated areas of Lanarkshire, Glasgow and Clydebank, was imperative. Such “terror attacks” were also intended to crack morale and force public calls to end the war. However, it had quite the opposite effect, “strengthening resolve for the war in Scotland.”

The Royal Observer Corps Ensign
[Source : Wikipedia]

Initially, the only uniforms provided from 1941 were Royal Air Force overalls (boiler suits), with an R.O.C. breast badge, commonly referred to as the "soup plate" because of its shape and size. Standard issue R.A.F. No.2 Battledress uniforms were issued in a rolling programme over the next two years and it is this uniform that James Watson is shown wearing.

For the remainder of the war, the R.O.C. would provide an essential part of Great Britain's air defences until being stood down on the 12th May 1945 when it was confirmed that the Luftwaffe had ceased combat operations.

Copyright : 

Those images from my own collection may (only) be freely copied for private, academic or non-profit use provided this site is acknowledged. Thank you.

Sources :

- Watson family memorabilia (held by the author)
- Wikipedia

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