The Royal Observer Corps
South West Scotland - Ayr (No. 33 Group 1940-1953)
Between August and October 1940, eleven Observer Posts were set up in Kirkcudbrightshire and eight in Wigtownshire. All nineteen were makeshift sites, and poorly equipped, for it was thought that the so called 'Back Areas' in the west of Britain would not be overflown by German aircraft. The equipment consisted of a map on a circular plotting table, binoculars for watching for aircraft, and a telephone for contacting the nearest RAF-run Reporting Centre. The telephone was plugged into a box on the nearest telegraph-pole, which at many Posts might be a seven-foot high pole. In early days, no hut or other cover from the weather was supplied, and the Observers had no more uniform than a badge and a Special Constable armband. The Post at Gatehouse of Fleet had a stone wall surround or 'sangar' built by the Observers themselves, with a simple shelter. At Rockcliffe, the Local Defence Volunteers (Home Guard) had a dugout and an observation mound, later supplanted by a turf and stone sangar not unlike that at Gatehouse. The Kirkcowan Post made use of the Church tower, and avoided the muddy conditions at many other sites.
When German aircraft based in western France began to fly up the Irish Sea to attack Glasgow, the harsh conditions at the 'Back Area' posts began to improve. The observation area and its map table were surrounded by a low wall, - of turf, stone or sandbags, - with a hut or open-fronted cubby to give a little weather protection. Posts elsewhere in Great Britain had long been equipped with the 'Post Instrument', a simple device for estimating aircraft height and speed. The Instrument was known as the 'Micklethwaite', after an observer who improved it for use at night. Its introduction into the Galloway area would have been seen as really high technology.
Conditions at many of the Scottish Posts were to remain appalling, many Observers walking miles through severe weather to carry out their duties. Asthmatic and lame Observer John McLennon, living in Glenluce, routinely walked six miles to the Post at Auchenmalg. On one occasion in January 1942, the Head Observer noted that McLennon had taken five hours, starting at midnight, to get through six foot drifts during a blizzard. McLennon had volunteered for 56 hours' duty each week, for a very low pay. His devotion to duty was reported to his superiors, but there is no record of any kind of award for it.
The Galloway hills, - most notably the Carsphairns, - had an infamous reputation as killers of aircrew. The Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum has a collection of material from many crash sites. Ten of the eleven Observer Posts in Kirkcudbrightshire were equipped with flares ('Granite') and at Parton Post an automatic radio beacon ('Augmented Granite'). These were triggered to warn aircraft observed to be too low and heading for high ground. The Post plotting tables were marked with the dangerous vectors; unusually, although nothing else survives, the circular map for Gatehouse's wartime post still exists. Another and less-known memorial is in the title the Observers gave to the Solway Firth; they called it 'Hudson Bay', after the Lockheed Hudson bombing training aircraft that had to ditch there on several unfortunate occasions.
The author has found few signs of the ROC wartime posts, whose rudimentary shelters, sangars and sheds, were soon removed by farmers or destroyed by vandalism. Of seven posts visited in 1992, the author found possible wartime remains at only two, the others being on over-ploughed arable and grazing land. Collapsed features at Rockcliffe suggest the presence of the dugout and sangar, and a fragment of drainpipe may be all that remains there of a shed. Some intriguing fragments of brickwork at Moniaive may be the footings of the shed, which may also have been of corrugated iron. Some excavation and reconstructive archaeology may be needed to work out where and what the sites were like. Like their determined and individualistic Observers, few Posts were exactly the same.
During 1947, the ROC began a period of internal reorganisations that was to last until 1957, mainly because of the improvements in modern combat aircraft. The effect on South West Scotland was a series of changes, Posts which had reported to Ayr changing for Carlisle, and vice versa. New Posts were started at Portpatrick, and at Langholm, increasing coverage. This was probably the high point of ROC activity in the area, and may reflect the pre-occupation with the threat of Russian bombers entering the United Kingdom from the north west of Scotland. The Orlit itself was a sign of changing times, a prefabricated building whose structure still survives on many a Galloway hilltop.
The author first became involved in ROC archaeology when attempting to identify Rockcliffe Orlit Post. Others were founbd to survive at Kirkcudbright, Kirkgunzeon, Creetown, Ervie of Kirkcolm and Moniaive, whilst the superstructures of ones at Castle Douglas, Gatehouse of Fleet, Newton Stewart, Dumfries, Parton and Kirkbean were definitely demolished, in some cases by the Post Observers themselves. All except Gatehouse and Castle Douglas have the old ten by eight feet concrete base still present. The base at Newton Stewart has a brick radio equipment shed on one end of it.