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The Royal Observer Corps Story - A Hidden Gem of World War II

Aug 17, 2007
One of the hidden gems of the Second World War is the story of how local volunteers watching the skies above England, Scotland and Wales helped saved many lives and brought about a change of fortune for the beleagured RAF.

Formed in 1925 in the South East of England, and expanded to cover more of the country throughout the 1930s, the Observer Corps acted as the "Eyes and Ears of the RAF". Observer Corps posts were sited in all sorts of prominent positions, often on top of hills, so that the Observers could get good all round vision, and be able to spot any aircraft. The Corps plotted the movements of all aircraft in the skies over wartime Britain, friend or foe, enabling the limited resources of a battered Royal Air Force to triumph over Hitler's Luftwaffe. The Corps' contribution in the Battle of Britain was so significant that it was recognised with the award of its Royal title.

The work of the Corps continued throughout the war, saving many lives with the early warning of air attacks, but many members of the Corps were keen to be more involved with activity closer to the action. When the call was made for volunteers to join gun crews onboard defensively equipped merchant ships, 1400 men volunteered. Those that passed the rigourous training and testing were known as Seaborne Observers, and were involved in Operation Overlord, saving many aircraft from "friendly fire".

In the course of filming two video documentaries about the Royal Observer Corps, "Tocsin Bang" (about the Cold War nuclear reporting role the Corps had) and its prequel "Sentinels of Britain" (the wartime story), we met many really interesting people, and heard plentiful fascinating stories! It is easy to forget that all those we have spoken to about their involvement in the wartime work of the Corps were between 16 and 25 at the time!

Bill Harford, who was on the Mevagissey Post in Cornwall told us,

"In 1942 I was a school boy at grammar school, and I was very, very keen on aircraft recognition and I came to join the Royal Observer Corps really by somebody listening on the bus to what I was saying as we were going to school, and reported it to the local Chief Observer, 'there is a boy on the bus who is brilliant at aircraft recognition!'"

Joyce Shrubbs, a plotter and teller at the Bedford Centre adds,

"I think like every other young person I wanted to join the Services and I wanted to be in a uniform and feel that I was that I doing my part for the country. I was particularly interested in the Womens' Auxiliary Airforce, but you had to be 18 to do that, so when I saw an advert in the local shop window, there was this huge advertisement, 'Join the Royal Observer Corps and live at home', and you only had to be 17 and my seventeenth birthday was coming up so I thought that's for me. The uniform was the same colour as the Womans' Auxiliary Airforce and same style and everything I just thought this is what I need to do. So I went along and joined actually on my seventeenth birthday. It did take an agonizing 10 days for it to be formalised but I did actually start on my birthday."

"Sentinels of Britain" is the wartime story of the Royal Observer Corps, told by its members, the Observers who were there.
About the Author
Andrew Denyer Produced and Directed "Tocsin Bang" and "Sentinels of Britain" with David Wakefield. More previews of the documentaries and information about the Corps can be found at www.cyclops-prods.co.uk
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