The Royal Observer Corps : 1925-1992

This history and homepage is by Richard Edkins of Dalbeattie, who would welcome any pictures and information about wartime or post-war Royal Observer Corps posts and their staff.
Suggestions for additions or amendments will be received with thanks, the writer reserving the right to edit presented material before display.

All visible images are thumbnails. Please click on them to see a larger image, returning with the 'Back' button on your browser. It is proposed to add short sub-pages to explain some subjects further in the future.


Table of Contents



1925-1939 :
Pre-war Formation

1939-1945 :
The Second World War

1946-1957 :
Postwar Reorganisation

1957-1992 : UKWMO :
The Nuclear Reporting Task

Is there a new role...?

Royal Observer Corps archaeology

  • The ROC in South West Scotland : History of the ROC in Dumfries & Galloway.
  • ROC Posts in South West Scotland : Details of Observer Posts in Dumfries & Galloway.
  • Index to Other Pages

    Return to Richard Wordsmith Index Page

    Return to Richard Wordsmith Text-Only Index Page

    The Eyes and Ears of the RAF

    Acknowledgements :

    Derek Wood wrote the comprehensive official history of the Royal Observer Corps in 1976, updating it in 1992. This page mainly summarises his excellent book 'Attack Warning Red', Second Edition published in 1992 by Carmichael and Sweet Limited. ISBN 0 9517283 1 8, price about 16 Pounds. Anyone interested in the ROC or in aviation history is strongly recommended to obtain a copy. I am grateful to Mr. Wood for his kind advice on aspects of this page.

    Crown Copyright is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of her Majesty's Stationary Office. I thank the HMSO staff at Norwich for their kind assistance in obtaining permission for my use of pictures and diagrams from Crown sources.

    Other information came from David Irving's 'The Mare's Nest', from members of the Royal Observer Corps Association and my own onsite investigations.

    Whilst the majority of pictures have now (7th October 1997) been found and put into place, some gaps remain. Visitors are invited to submit their own photographs, where these are of better quality.


    Nearly sixty years ago, the United Kingdom and Germany were at war. From 1939 to 1945, Hitler sent the bombers of the Luftwaffe to attack military and civilian targets throughout the country. The Royal Air Force was at first outnumbered, and had to find ways to rapidly locate and identify all aircraft approaching and entering British airspace. Most people know that radar was used to guide RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes to their targets in the Battle of Britain, but only a few recall that there was another method of spotting and identifying aircraft crossing the country. Members of the mainly-voluntary Observer Corps (OC) were on duty day and night, watching and listening in all weathers to identify and report the location of aircraft. During 1941, they were to gain the distinction of becoming the Royal Observer Corps. This was a remarkable recognition for a voluntary organisation, whose first operational Groups of Observer Posts were first formed in 1925.

    1925-1939 : Pre-War Formation

    (Major-General Ashmore)

    The history of aircraft identification and interception goes right back to balloons at the Siege of Paris in 1870, when the Germans watched for the escaping balloons and tried to shoot them down with specially-built artillery. Moving forwards in time to 1916, it was belatedly realised that high-flying and long-distance Zeppelin airships could attack Britain. To this hazard was added the remarkable development of the huge Gotha and Staaken bombers, which were less impressive than Zeppelins but faster and more reliable. The raids showed up bad organisation for air defence, which was gradually reformed by Major-General Ashmore, commanding the London Air Defence Area. After some fumbling, the Metropolitan Observation Service of some 200 posts was brought into being, with instruments to measure the bearing of the approaching aircraft and the angle of its course. Ashmore had only been given poor-quality troops for observation duties, so instead staffed the Observation Service with policemen. Reports were phoned to LADA central control at the Horse Guards in London, and artillery and aircraft controlled from there. The warnings were enough to let the fighters halt low-level daylight raids, forcing the Germans to operate at night or above 10,000 feet. Bearing in mind the lack of good radio systems and the absence of radar, the system worked surprisingly well.

    By 1924, the Air Ministry was becoming increasingly aware that it needed a system to locate and intercept aircraft. During 1924, Major-General Ashmore had carried out observing and plotting experiments with the help of Special Constables. This lead to the formation in 1925 of the Observer Corps, under Army control. As before, London was seen as the key defence area, but aviation developments meant that aircraft from Germany would be able to reach industrial targets throughout most of southern England. Wisely, Ashmore saw the need to link the Corps to the RAF, and in 1929 the Air Ministry took control of the system. Ashmore retired in 1929, but his system of volunteers, posts and control centres, linked closely to fighter and anti-aircraft artillery, was to play a vital part from 1939.

    1939-1945 : The Second World War

    The 1938 Munich crisis had added extra emphasis to the need for effective air defences, and by 1934 the Corps had begun spreading throughout the United Kingdom. Posts were organised into clusters of two to four Posts, reporting to Group centres, which passed information through Fighter Group and Sector Operations Rooms up to Fighter Command. The same system was to stay in being up into the 1960s, although details changed to keep pace with changing technology and new demands upon the system. By 1939, most of the mainland United Kingdom was covered by the Observer Corps Groups, although the 'Back Areas' (Highlands, south west Scotland, western Wales and Cornwall) were only poorly-equipped. Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man had no Observer Posts at all.

    The Battle of Britain

    The Corps' finest hour is probably its contribution to the Battle of Britain in 1940, when the reliable eyes of the Observers supplemented the then-crude radar network. The fine June weather made it possible for the Observers to keep a close watch on the aerial battle. At one stage, the Luftwaffe damaged the radar stations, but the Observers kept in action despite occasional strafing and bomb damage. The Home Chain and Home Chain Low radars were almost useless inland, so the Observers were vital to successful interceptions. Surprisingly, the Germans never developed any kind of instrument to help with aircraft observation, and their own 'Flugmeldedienst' never had the same degree of professionalism as was achieved by the Observer Corps. On April 9th 1941, this professionalism and Blitz service was rewarded by H.M. King George VI approving the change of title to 'Royal Observer Corps'. This link with royalty remained throughout the rest of the life of the Corps, H.M. Queen Elizabeth II having remained as patron of the Corps up to its stand-down in 1992.

    Rudolf Hess

    The Royal Observer Corps probably suffered its greatest frustration on May 10th 1941, when Scottish Observers tracked and identified Rudolf Hess during his ill-fated flamboyant attempt to arrange an armistice between Britain and Germany. Derek Wood has recorded that Assistant Observer Group Officer Major Graham Donald had great difficulty in persuading the RAF that the Observers had identified Hess's aircraft as a Messerschmitt 110 night fighter. Dismayed, Donald decided to visit the site of the crashed aircraft, confirmed the aircraft type, and worked out from the fuel tank that it had too little fuel to return to Germany. Learning that the pilot had been captured, Donald faced even greater difficulty when he managed to reach him, even after identifying this 'Hauptmann Alfred Horn' as the Deputy Reichsfuhrer, Rudolf Hess. Officialdom appeared unable (or unwilling) to admit that the wisdom of an ROC officer had landed this 'big fish'.

    Hess had been trying to reach the Duke of Hamilton, to relay to him a message for Winston Churchill, but only the persistence of Graham Donald made the meeting occur. In all, it was a day and a half before Churchill had the full facts, and by then Hitler had denied the whole affair, claiming that Hess was insane. There is circumstantial evidence that Hess had earlier tried to abduct the Duke of Windsor from Lisbon in Portugal to Germany, to try to force an armistice. This was at Hitler's orders, only being forestalled by the rapid removal of the Duke and Duchess to the Governorship of the Bahamas. The truth died with Hess at Spandau Prison in Berlin.

    In 1976, some long forgotten files revealed a letter dated May 14th 1941 from Graham Donald to Air-Commodore Warrington-Morris, Commandant of the Royal Observer Corps from 1936 to 1942. The Air-Commodore, in his reply of May 18th 1942, wrote "I consider that you showed great initiative in your actions at the Centre [34 Group, Glasgow] and subsequently. You must indeed be pleased at having been a 'Principal' in such an epoch making event." This seems to have been as far as Warrington-Morris was able to go in recognising the service of his subordinate

    Flying Bomb Alley

    The development by Germany of the V-1 'flying bomb' or 'doodlebug' (Fi 103)was one of the most remarkable achievements of World War II. Mass-produced from sheet steel, the weapon cost 350 Pounds Sterling , to build, prepare and launch. The more famous and glamorous V-2 (A4) rocket cost 12,000 Pounds Sterling, and was a serious drain on German war efforts. For the same price as a Lancaster with one 16-20,000 lbs. bomb-load, Hitler could attack London with 300 flying bombs with a 2,200 lbs. warhead. This did not expend valuable aircrew, complex aero-engines, and the German stockpile of aluminium. It has been argued that the diversion of resources to the V-2 saved London from an even more appalling bombardment than in fact occurred. As it was, 2,419 flying bombs hit London of 10,492 launched, whilst only 517 V-2 rockets of 1,115 launched were also to hit London.

    The Royal Observer Corps knew of the flying bomb as 'Diver', and from intelligence sources the RAF were able to issue a silhouette of its shape and size. On June 13th 1944, Colonel Wachtel's 'AA Regiment 155 (W)' launched its first salvo at London. ROC Posts between Dover and Beachy Head were to have a busy time monitoring this new threat, with the inevitable risk of injury from flying bombs that came down early due to faults, AA damage, or successful interceptions by the RAF. The writer wonders whether the 'ITMA' phrase "Don't forget the Diver, - I'm going down now !" referred to the sudden descent of the flying bomb. Due to a design fault, when the controls dropped the nose for the dive, the petrol-feed to the pulse-jet engine cut out. This unintentional warning gave seconds for those in the target area to take cover, reducing the casualty list.

    Notable Events

    The most hilarious moment in ROC history is rumoured to have been in 1944, when either the Dymchurch or Dungeness Post accidentally shot down a flying bomb, then passing directly overhead. Posts were equipped with hand-operated sirens and 'Snowflake' rockets to warn of air attack and flying bombs. The rocket, - launched a little late, - scored a direct hit on the fuse-pocket of the bomb, the explosion showering the stunned Observers with debris. The most futuristic was in 1945, when in clear conditions Observers in southern England spotted the white trails of the V-2 rockets launched from the Netherlands at Norwich and London. Other Observers frequently spotted the German weather and photo-reconnaissance aircraft, flying at 40 to 50,000 feet up, above the ceiling of Allied fighters and AA artillery.

    Aircraft Recognition and 'Seaborne'

    Aircraft recognition had been seen by Observers themselves as a vital skill, training and testing in identification of silhouettes being done by their own society. The government only belatedly recognised the need for identification, which by 1942 was the most accurate in the world. As has been shown by the tale of Graham Donald, this was not achieved without a lot of effort. The ROC had the unusual distinction of being asked to volunteer for service aboard ship for June 6th 1944. Over 700 Observers served as 'Seaborne' observers on Allied ships during D-day, preventing nervous gunners on the invasion ships from shooting down Allied aircraft. The 'Seaborne' flash was retained as an official battle honour for the Observers concerned.

    Within Britain as a whole, the ROC played an invaluable role in locating and guiding to safety those aircraft which were damaged or off-course. Using rocket-launched flares ('Granite') or radio beacons ('Augmented Granite'), the Posts could signal aircraft to avoid high ground ahead of them. Crashed aircraft were often found after Posts had plotted their course and speed when last seen, an action that assisted rescue of survivors or the recovery for burial of the dead. A further development was a ground-to-air HF radio system named 'Darky' and staffed by the ROC, used to assist Allied aircraft in difficulties. Nationally, 7000 aircraft were saved by ROC intervention and a further 1800 damaged ones assisted to a safe landing.

    VE-Day and Stand Down

    VE-day brought the ROC to a stand still, - but only when the RAF decided that no renegade Luftwaffe units were going to attack London. For this reason, the Corps only stood down at 17.00 on May 12th 1945, - four days after VE-day for the rest of the country. It seemed as if the role of the ROC had been abandoned, but in January 1947 the Corps was activated again.

    1947-1957 : Postwar Reorganisation

    The Soviet Threat

    By 1947, it became clear that a war with the Soviet Union was a real and nuclear possibility. This was partly because four US Air Force B-29 bombers had force-landed in the Russian Aleutians at the end of the war. Another contribution was that of Klaus Fuchs and the Krogers, spies who passed on information that helped Russia with its mainly home-grown nuclear research capabilities. Neglect to the radar systems from 1945 to 1947 took till 1952 to make good, so the RAF again found itself anxiously restoring the ROC to a rapid call-out capability. For about two years, the United Kingdom may have had less radar coverage than it had in 1939 at the start of World War II, so the ROC had as vital a role as the old Metropolitan Observation Service. 1955 saw a further change with the expansion of the Royal Observer Corps to cover Northern Ireland and parts of North West Scotland. This covered the risk of attack by Russian Tu-4 "Bull" copies of the B-29 long-range bombers flying in from the northwest, over the Arctic Sea.

    The Orlit Posts

    The wartime Post structures had mostly gone, so the Orlit company was commissioned to build prefabricated concrete post buildings for sites where no permanent structure existed. These 'Orlit Posts' were about eleven feet long by eight feet wide, roughly a third of the length having a shelter cubby with a concrete slab roof, the remainder being an open observation area, with the map plinth at its centre. Delivered in sections, the Orlit was designed to be assembled on a simple cast concrete base, much like a modern prefab garage. They were in use up to 1965, in East Anglia as late as 1975, and were sometimes (Mark II version) mounted on concrete stilts in flat land. Observers had mixed feelings about them, mainly because the doorway from the cubby was apparently designed for four-foot-high dwarfs, and there was no provision for heating. During periods when the posts were not in use, a three-piece corrugated steel sheet roof could be fastened over the observation area. This was awkward and time-consuming to remove and to replace; some Observers resorted to removing the whole roof in one piece, which was liable to cause crushed fingers and back strain. As against that, Post crews in many cases were sad to lose their Orlit posts, retaining them even when underground posts entered service.

    'Rats' and Jet Aircraft

    Right up until 1965, the ROC Observers stood ready to be 'the eyes and ears of the RAF'. Radar could find and estimate aircraft locations and numbers, but identification called for the human eye and the human ear. World War II aircraft had flown at little more than 500 miles per hour at heights up to 30,000 feet. By 1965, frontline aircraft routinely flew at heights of up to 60,000 feet and at speeds of 1,400 miles per hour. This increase in speed and altitudes of jet aircraft made identification and reporting a faster and harder task, so Observers' reporting systems were now too slow.

    For many years, the Observers had made use of the 'Post Instrument' developed in the 1920s and 1930s, but this was too slow to cope with low-level jets. Posts reverted to so-called 'finger-plotting', giving estimates of direction and speed. The idea was to identify the growing threat of low-level 'terrain following' intruders, who were labelled 'Rats', interceptors being 'Terriers'.There is no doubt that the Observers were still as eager and as able as ever, but the Ashmore reporting system was simply not fast enough to warn air defence units of the approach of fast-moving low-flying jets.

    The final development of airborne early warning aircraft such as the Shackleton, Nimrod and AWACS overcame another radar problem, in finding aircraft hidden from ground-based radar by hills, buildings and other 'ground clutter'. The last 280 surface posts were closed down in 1965, ending their duty of helping to defend the East Anglian airbases of the airborne nuclear deterrent. However, the ROC was to find a new role to replace the one that they had lost.

    1957-1991 : UKWMO : The Nuclear Reporting Task

    UKWMO and the ROC

    From 1957 the Observers gradually took on their final task, - training to measure and to report the onset , location and after-effects of a possible nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. The ROC had reported to the RAF in the past, but for the new nuclear reporting task it reported to Group and Sector Controls now run by the officials and scientists of the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation. The UKWMO was charged with identifying and giving warning of air attack, then assessing and advising on the effects of a possible nuclear, chemical or biological weapons attack. Of these, the nuclear role was the most developed and considered the most credible. Biological weapons were unreliable, and liable to affect both user and victim, whilst the use of chemical weapons beyond a battlefield could have triggered a nuclear response.

    Underground Posts

    Observers were obviously unable to monitor the effects of nuclear explosions from flimsy surface buildings, even where these might be outside the main blast radius of a nuclear explosion. Observers might have to report from a fixed point to ensure that even the highest radiation levels could be measured and reported. Shelter and support would have to be provided for between two days and a month, before any re-supply or Post crew changes. Between 1957 and 1964, Observers moved from rainy and windswept surface posts to 1,562 underground posts, small reinforced concrete boxes the size of a caravan. These had simple instruments to measure explosive blast, the height and angle of flash from nuclear explosions, and the short-lived but lethal radiation from weapons fallout. Although they were never called upon to use these skills, the Royal Observer Corps carried on with training for this potentially life-saving task. The author recalls with distaste the ill-informed and ill-judged criticism of the ROC by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who confused the detection of weapons effects with the military detonation of weapons.

    The Problems of Fallout

    Radioactive materials such as natural uranium have a very low level of radiation output, which only diminishes over centuries to millenia. Separated and enriched uranium fissioned in a nuclear reactor produces a very high radiation field, enough to split (fission) the metal into far more unstable by-products. These have a shorter lifetime, decaying over time into more stable substances such as lead. A nuclear weapons explosion is a very rapid form of fission, the radiation field being so high that it can change other materials into short-lived radioactive fallout that can give off a lot of radiation over a short time. The significance for warfare, is that a very high level of fallout radiation decays within hours and days to levels at which living organisms can survive.

    Fallout is largely insoluble, and varies in size from gravel to fine dust, the latter travelling farthest before deposition by dropping to the ground or being rained out. The highest radiation levels would be near the point of detonation. Obviously, the longer the time between detonation and deposition, the lower will be the overall dose in any case. Human beings can survive doses of 100-200 cGy over a week or so, without significant additional deaths. Muscle tissue in farm livestock would still be fit to eat, as would buried root crops and threshed grains, but fallout might be impossible to clean off leafy vegetables. The whole subject of radiation injury and fallout levels in food is still being carefully studied, as what is acceptable in wartime (dose in a week of 70-150 cGy, then up to 10 cGy per day) is totally unacceptable in peacetime (dose in a year of 1 to 5 cGy). In a population of a million, irradiating each person with an additional 1 cGy will apparently add one additional death to the usual peacetime total. As against that, the body has its own self-repair mechanism to deal with damage from radiation, by enhancing cell replacement; this, presumably, gets out of hand in occurrences of cancer.

    Most types of housing can serve as shelters, reducing radiation dosage to between a fifth and a hundredth of what may be measured in the open air. Taking cover in a basement, cellar or covered trench, reduces dosage to between a hundredth and two thousandth of its outdoors value.Warning people to take cover during a crisis, and then telling them when (and for how long) it was safe to come out, became almost the over-riding role of UKWMO, and a well-tested warning system became its most famous function.

    The Warning Sequence

    The warning system had been based upon the 1939-1945 siren-based air raid warning system, updated at intervals. In 1986 it was operating as follows :-

    1. Threat of attack identified by RAF Fylingdales Ballistic Missile Early Warning system (BMEWS), or by ground or airborne radars of NATO or the RAF.
    2. Assessment of attack by United Kingdom Regional Air Operations Centre (UK RAOC). Decision to alert warning network.
    3. Start of simultaneous TV and radio broadcasts through BBC and commercial stations.
    4. Key-switch turned to alert 250 Carrier Control Points (CCP) in major police stations. These would in turn trigger :-
      1. Up to 7,000 power sirens triggered by area, or throughout the whole of the UK, from CCP.
      2. Up to 11,000 other Warning Points triggered in key establishments and in rural areas. Some of these (including many ROC Posts) would use hand sirens to re-broadcast the warning.
    5. Nuclear detonations would be monitored by ROC underground posts, as follows :-
      1. Pinhole cameras (Ground Zero Indicators, - GZI) record altitude, size and bearing of detonation
      2. Blast sensors (Bomb Power Indicator, - BPI) record peak blast pressure level of nearby explosions.
      3. Fallout radiation sensors (Fixed Survey Meter, - FSM) record levels of fallout gamma radiation, to give time of onset, peak radiation values and measurements of fallout decay rate.
    6. Readings from clusters of 2 to 4 Posts plotted at Group and Sector Control Centres to triangulate detonation points, give an assessment of damage, and to display and forecast movements of airborne fallout.
    7. Information transmitted by data line and radio link to user services - local authorities, Emergency Services, service and transport utilities, the BBC, Armed Services, - for relay to their staff and to the public.
    8. Information on phased release from shelter, - and/or possible re-sheltering, in case of alternative conventional warfare, - passed through BBC, Emergency Services and local authorities' emergency administrations to public at community/parish and street levels.

    The famous 'golfball' radomes at Fylingdales were dismantled and the site restored to moorland during the 1990s. The siren system has also largely been removed, although a few can still be found. The WTB1400 units are also no longer in service. That leaves the ROC posts as the main physical manifestation of the Warning and Monitoring service.

    Life Underground

    Living underground away from the wind and rain had its advantages, but its drawbacks were to be fairly serious. Only a few lucky Posts were properly 'tanked' to prevent seepage from the surrounding soil, those bone-dry few being the envy of their colleagues. The cynical designers of the Underground Post, or 'UGP', provided access through a hatch that had a counterweight to help in lifting it. One had then to descend a ladder, - carefully avoid the impact of counterweight on cranium, - arriving on the metal grid above a sump. To one side was a semi-rotary hand pump similar to those used in small boats to drain the bilges, and with a similar purpose. Draining the sump was a necessary duty in all Posts, during weekly meetings and exercises. At some very wet Posts, duckboards were rigged to keep unfortunate Observers' feet dry. The writer recalls optimistic half-rotted carpet pieces in all the dozen operational Posts he visited whilst a Scientific Adviser, and the intense cold of the unheated and uninsulated Posts. Beside the shaft was the dark hole holding an Elsan chemical bucket toilet; the generator lived in the same place, and both would operationally be hoisted out of the shaft. As the generator was very heavy, and the bucket insanitary, one can understand why these two items were heartily disliked. On exercises, male staff were forced to use a hedge or trench, to put off the dreadful moment of hoisting the bucket. Replacing the Elsans with 'Portapotti' type cassette toilets would have been a cheap upgrade, and the writer wonders if this was ever done.

    Home Office scientists had worked out that the Posts could rely upon natural air circulation through ventilation turrets, but failed to take into account the need to provide adequate heating. Solid meths fuel in 'Tommy' cookers, placed optimistically at the bottom of the entry shaft, was supposed to be used to prepare hot food. Posts were issued with ration packs based on Army 'K' Rations, experimented unsuccessfully with self-heating rations in the early 1960s, then rather more successfully with modern zero-emission self-heating 'Hotcans' in the late 1980s. 1990s Post crews were not much better provided for than their 1960s predecessors. The writer recalls using a simple two-burner Coleman petrol stove to prepare really hot drinks for the crew at Dumfries Post, to be told that this was better than Thermos flasks. A row of mugs emerged from the hatch, to be filled and carefully taken below. The crew decided to order their own three-fuel single-burner stove following the visit, in a display of enterprise worthy of the 1940s wartime Observers.

    Post crews all wanted better insulation (provided), electrically heated forced ventilation (never provided), and fluorescent lights for better operational life (finally provided). Conditions in the Posts were never as comfortable or as pleasant as the modest 1964 level required even for Swiss domestic air-raid shelters.

    The equipment supplied to the Posts in the early 1960s was partly replaced in the late 1980s, the old Fixed Survey Meter being replaced by the Plessey Dose Rate Meter 82F (PDRM82F). The communications 'Teletalk' unit was made more compact, and improvements made to the WB1400 Warning Point receiver. Replacements for the GZI and the BPI emerged too late in 1991, and were never deployed. Also delayed was the provision of lightweight petrol generators for charging equipment batteries, a rather heavy Petrol Electric Generator (PEG) being the bane of staff at many Posts. The Westair filtered ventilation system was tested and was to have been deployed, but only was deployed to a handful of Posts.

    Radio Posts and ROCMET

    One Post in each cluster of two to four Posts was designated as 'Master Post' of that Cluster, with the ability to talk directly to the others by landline telephone as well as to the Group Control. These Posts became 'Radio Posts', as it was realised that line damage and exchange failures would isolate some Clusters. The Master Posts were to be equipped with VHF radio to report directly to their Group Control and to other Group Controls if theirs was disabled. The curious round cowling of the connector-box, and the clamps for the pneumatic aerial masts, are still visible at some posts.

    As fallout 'dust' follows the wind until it reaches the ground, knowing the wind strengths and directions is a vital part of forecasting fallout movements. Initially, it was planned to make use of weather reports from the Met Office at Bracknell, using the information from weather stations, radiosonde balloons, RAF weather flights and ground observations. This would be supplemented by 'ROCMET' information from ROC Posts equipped with simple wind-gauges and other basic measuring equipment. By the late 1980s, the development of computer-processed satellite weather forecasting and weather radar had revolutionised and displaced much of the earlier system, but the ROC still trained to provide that extra service.

    1968 : The Cutbacks

    Many aspects of military activity altered in 1968, most notably the complete change from an air-launched nuclear deterrent to the hidden silence of the Polaris submarines. Civil Defence, - always the Cinderella in preparations for war, - was 'stood down', in a euphemism that hid its complete disbandment. The ROC survived mainly because there was no effective substitute for its monitoring network , providing details of air or missile attack. However, it was cut back by 686 Posts to a final rump of 876 Posts. This near-halving retained a high level of activity but coarsened the detection grid.

    NEMP and Communications

    The vulnerability of copper landline telephony was possibly the nail in the coffin of the ROC, as nuclear detonations release a powerful electro-magnetic pulse (NEMP, EMP) of radio-frequency radiation. This can produce inductance surges as high as 1,000 volts per metre, and in the 1970s and 1980s was expensive to cope with. Undaunted, the ROC made its own plans to radio reports in through its own UHF systems, supplemented in some areas by Radio Amateur and Citizens' Band VHF radios. Local authorities' Emergency Planning units often incorporated plans to link ROC Posts informally into their own emergency radio communications, maintaining the value of the service.

    Aware of the vulnerability of their 1960s systems, the Home Office commissioned studies in the early 1980s for the 'Message Switch' line and radio data store and forward system. This crude ancestor of modern e-mail and the Internet was never very efficient, but that was mainly due to persistent underfunding. A later development for local authority use was never completely deployed, both systems being superseded by modern communications in the 1990s. All the same, a cheap and secure Internet service might have been the best solution for UKWMO and ROC operations.

    ROC from the User standpoint :

    Between 1984 and 1990, the writer attended several exercises serving as a Scientific Advisor (the local authority equivalent of an UKWMO Warning Officer), plotting and interpreting readings received by teleprinter or radio from UKWMO Group Controls. The exercises were fast and hard work, and it was very easy to see what the effects and problems of a genuine nuclear war would be. One unfortunate and misleading aspect of all UKWMO exercises was the need to provide all Posts with at least one hypothetical detonation for triangulation, plotting and monitoring purposes. This gave the uninformed the mistaken idea that a nuclear attack would involve blast damage to most of the United Kingdom. Nuclear weapons progressively became more numerous but far smaller; instead of one large megaton-value warhead, a missile would be the 'bus' for up to a dozen independently-targeted kiloton-value warheads of great accuracy. That this change was not reflected in UKWMO exercises, made the public mistakenly believe that very large warheads were still commonly deployed.

    Local authority Emergency Planning exercises were able to make use of the ROC and UKWMO data to provide attack scenarios as training for the real thing. As Scientific Advisers, we had to consider the impact of war on every aspect of life, working our way towards finding solutions for a widespread disaster that would take years to recover from. The impact upon the countryside from all kinds of intense warfare has always been severe, as history has consistently shown. The effects of nuclear weapon explosive blast were likely to be confined to targets of genuinely military 'war-fighting' importance. That left us with the usual dislocation of war, - damage, refugees, losses to food, fuel, industry, agriculture and so on, - compounded by the varying but reducing effects of nuclear fallout. Some of the solutions resembled those used in the Second World War, but others were completely new. Amongst other points, it became clear that the most efficient food production system was not the 'ragged refugees planting potatoes' solution, but rather intensification of agriculture in the best productive land using as high a technology as was possible. Food, cement, electric power, fuel and transport, were our most limiting factors.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the ROC and UKWMO would have played a vital part in saving life and resources within Britain in the event of a nuclear attack. During the aftermath, as much as during their Post-based monitoring, their knowledge and skills could have been turned to radiological monitoring of contamination and decontamination. Whilst the feared attack from Russia never in fact materialised, the knowledge had to be practised and refined in case the event occurred; that can be hard to accept, but it is the truth.

    1991-1992 : The Operational Stand Down

    Changes in technology and world politics together led to the Royal Observer Corps Posts being stood down in 1991. Equipment able to detect thunderstorms could be used to precisely locate the positions of nuclear explosions by the 'flash' of radio energy produced. Radiation could also be monitored by equipment (PDRM82, similar to the post instruments) in the hands of local authority emergency planning staff, providing a nation-wide network. As indicated, nuclear weapons have continually reduced in size and power as accuracy improved. In the 1950s, a nuclear weapon had to be of Megaton yield to overcome inaccuracy, but by the late 1980s it was possible to target smaller Kiloton yield nuclear weapons to within a few hundred metres. The 1950s ROC equipment was simply too basic and too widely spread to find the newer and smaller weapons. For a time, it seemed as if the Chernobyl explosion had given the ROC a new role, but this was not implemented due to the cost of (a) providing sensitive radiation equipment and (b) the problem of providing better communications. Sadly, the ROC was ripe for shutdown, and the 1989-1990 collapse of Soviet Russia was enough to persuade the government to say farewell to one of the cheapest and most committed voluntary organisations in Britain.

    Is there a new role...?

    The writer recalls a great deal of debate about finding a role for the ROC, possibly as plotting and advisory staff with local authority District, County or Regional Emergency Centres, but the reduction in Civil Defence budgets made this a pipedream. However, the development of new technology might belatedly have allowed the Corps to continue in a modified role. Telephone wires have been replaced by optical fibre links, which are naturally resistant to electromagnetic damage from nuclear detonations. Computer equipment is also more widely available and more capable, offering the ability to input information by any phone-line into the Internet. Remotely-operated sensors do offer a way of collecting information on radiation, blast, chemical weapons and transport movements, but they are restricted by design and cost requirements. Any future role for an Observer Corps would have to take account of changing technology, but bring to bear the human factor of volunteer support.

    ...Maybe there is

    The human factor is adaptable, determined, mobile and able to find solutions to unexpected problems. That argues for a role still gathering 'intelligence', but possibly on civil emergencies as well as wartime events, - maybe a 'roving reporter' within a set distance of a fixed base. The equipment required could be a kit of instruments, whilst the 'Post' and 'Observers' may have a 24-hour duty rota callout. This information capability may not be newsworthy or very glamorous, but it could expand the information-gathering capabilities of utility and emergency services in a crisis. Reports could be forwarded by secure e-mail, or encoded on digital messages transmitted through cellnet phones or a similar system.

    Any Comments ?

    I look forwards to debate on this matter. Call me on 01556-612131, or e-mail Richard Edkins, to discuss the pros and cons. Who knows ? Maybe there's a new Ashmore out there.

    Royal Observer Corps archaeology

    Many of the structures of the Observer Posts remain in isolated locations, silent witnesses to the dedication and courage of the men and women of the Royal Observer Corps. This and the associated pages are a small tribute to them.

    ROC Posts in South West Scotland : Posts in Dumfries & Galloway.

    The ROC in South West Scotland : ROC in Dumfries & Galloway.

    Index to Other Pages

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    ROC Museums : Museums and others with ROC displays.

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