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~ THE ROYAL OBSERVER CORP

SEABORNE OPS - D-DAY

The Royal Observer Corp provided vital early identification of approaching enemy ships and planes for Allied gunners. Their aim was to reduce Allied aircraft losses to so called 'friendly fire' by providing high quality aircraft recognition information. In essence they answered the question "friend or foe?"

This paper was written to give well deserved recognition to the small but significant part played by the 796 talented people in the ROC who participated in the D-Day landings. They were, however, not part of the Combined Operations Command but their uniforms comprised aspects of all three services. They therefore more than meet the spirit, if not the letter, for being included in this Combined Operations website! (Patches part of the Phil Scott collection, Dorset).

Background Formative Years Planning Influences Training D-Day
D-Day Roll of Honour Further Reading Correspondence Acknowledgements  


Background

'Friendly fire' is an all too familiar euphemism in use to this day to cover the destruction of forces by allied rather than enemy action. Such tragic events are nothing new in the chaos of war and in most cases are due to a lack of a single skill - the ability to recognise the difference between friend and foe. Throughout WW2 there was seldom a time when sufficient aircraft were available to meet demands so any pilots and planes saved as a result of the work of the ROC was of immeasurable value to the war effort.

From the lesser conflicts of the 19th century to the start of large-scale warfare in the 20th century identification of enemy ships, flags, banners and uniforms was of paramount importance. The required knowledge was gained on the field of conflict through observation and informal contacts with fellow servicemen. However, as warfare became more technical and sophisticated, the shape of the opposition’s equipment, vessels, tanks etc, became a subject of great importance to be researched and studied in detail. In this regard the most famous record of naval vessels from around the world can be found in the weighty tomes of 'Jane’s Fighting Ships.' In these books silhouettes, photographs and technical information provide everyone with the means to recognise friendly and hostile vessels. (Cap Badge part of the Phil Scott collection, Dorset).

During WW1 the burgeoning area of aviation created the need for the opposing forces to recognise military aircraft from both sides. These targets were of course small in size and they operated in the much more demanding environment of the air where all three dimensions came into play. There was also the added complication of high speeds and much reduced time in which to confirm identification.

As WW1 turned into the first global conflict, the military were not the only ones who wanted to know what was flying over them! Elements of the civilian populations became fascinated with the new world of aviation and so the enthusiastic civilian aviation experts; later to become known as ‘plane spotters,’ were born.

Early accurate identification of aircraft was a difficult and responsible task as can be seen from the 'Second Grade Test' page (right) showing the front views of a selection of German, Italian, British and USA aircraft. Little wonder that some mistakes were made in the heat of the battle when ROC expertise was not available.

The Formative Years

The story starts in 1925 with the formation of the Observer Corps to report on the movement of aircraft over the counties of Kent and Sussex when the perceived hostile threat was from the French Air Force! The Corp was administered by the Home Office as a civilian uniformed organisation whose numbers were originally enlisted as special constables. On 1 Jan 1929 the administration of the Observer Corps was moved to the Air Ministry but it still retained its status as a civilian uniformed body. From that small start the Observer Corps would eventually cover the entire country, with a total establishment of around 27,000 people. The majority would still be part-time volunteers - civilians in R.A.F blue uniforms, Army black berets and Royal Navy armbands! (Photo opposite)

This article is concerned with the part played by the ROC in the D-Day landings, but to set this into proper historical context, we briefly consider their role in the Battle of Britain. Most histories state that the radar system set up before and during the first years of the WW2, gave the UK a major advantage over the Luftwaffe... and, to an extent this is true, but it's not the complete story. The initial radar systems gave early warning of high-level raids approaching the country but they did not detect low level attacks, or track aircraft across the United Kingdom. In pre-radar days, from the late 1920s, this monitoring was undertaken by the Corp alone. Later as radar was developed the combination of the excellent command and control system and the Observer Corps allowed the RAF to make the best use of their resources. For example there was no need for combat patrols since aircraft were vectored over land using ROC reports. Pilots, who bailed out, were recovered very quickly and returned to duty much earlier than before. Aircraft losses were reduced by the use of flare warnings over high ground and radio communications with lost or disabled aircraft, in some parts of the country, which helped them locate air fields or landing strips.

In this way the combined advanced warning by radar and the tracking by the Observer Corps produced what would now be termed a ‘force multiplier’. Due to the very successful service performed by the Corps and its long association with the RAF, within the Air Defence of Great Britain organisation, the addition of ‘Royal’ to the name of the organisation was bestowed on 15th February 1941. The ROC had come of age and was recognised as the expert in aircraft recognition in the United Kingdom by its major client the Royal Air Force.

It is interesting to note that it wasn’t until the arrival of the advanced AWACS system in the period between the late 1980s and early 1990s, that the UK had the ability to successfully track low-level flights across the UK land mass.

Influences on planning for D-Day

After the Allied invasions of North Africa, Sicily and the Italian mainland, analysis of logs and reports showed that the Allies were losing significant numbers of aircraft to armed allied merchant ships. It was clear to the planners that similar losses could not be sustained in the forthcoming Normandy landings and the services of the ROC were consequently called upon. Air-Commander-in-Chief, Allied Expeditionary Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory, issued a request for around 2000 experienced ROC personnel to act as aircraft spotters for the defensively equipped merchant ships (DEMS).

The request and its implications were considered at a conference held on 5 April 1944. In attendance were senior staff from the Air Ministry (the government department which administered the ROC at the time), the Admiralty, Headquarters ROC, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and the Allied Expeditionary Air Force. It was agreed that the ROC should supply 240 men for 30 British Landing Ships (infantry), and 90 Motor Transport Ships. The United States forces requested 300+ for similar vessels. To cover the legal and administrative problems of using a civilian organisation in the naval and merchant marine elements of the Allied Expeditionary Force, the ROC personnel were to enlist as volunteers in the Royal Navy with the ranks of Petty Officer for one month, with an option to extend to two months if required.

Personnel were to continue to wear ROC uniform with the addition of a navy-blue brassard bearing the letters "RN" and a shoulder badge bearing the word ‘Seaborne’. They were to be paid a special rate of one pound a day. This led to the unusual circumstance, in that civilians ended up wearing an RAF blue uniform with Army black berets, while at the same time serving as Royal Naval senior NCOs! If captured by the enemy this 'arrangement' would have been very hard to explain!

Training

The RAF officer commanding the ROC, sent a personal letter to all ROC members; the following is an extract:

"The supreme commander has asked me to provide a considerable number of ROC observers to serve aboard ship for recognition duties during forthcoming operations. The highest importance is attached to this request, for the inefficient and faulty recognition has contributed largely to enemy successes against our shipping and to losses of aircraft from friendly fire."

The result was no fewer than 1376 observers volunteers, together with 29 officers. Of these 1094 reported over a period of four to five weeks to a depot set-up by a combined unit of Royal Navy/ROC/RAF full time officers in the Royal Bath Hotel, Bournemouth. After a medical and very tough trade tests, 290 were returned to normal duties, the remaining 796 were enrolled in the Royal Navy within the terms mentioned earlier.

They were an eclectic force taken from all walks of life and ages. One the one hand there was Ian Ramsbottom (17)... a winner of the ‘Spitfire’ master observer badge and, on the other, 70 year old veterans from WW1. The successful volunteers received intensive aircraft recognition training, although most were very proficient anyway, and basic training in naval procedures. One element of the recognition training was a test based on a film. One of the volunteers from the Scottish Highlands was heard to remark that it was the "first" movie he had ever seen! Another element included the use of identification cards similar to those on the right. (All these images will enlarge until identification details are easily read.)

By the fifteenth of May 1944 the first Observers had been drafted to their ships. This was just forty days after the initial meeting, and sixteen after the setting up of the depot in Bath.

D-Day - "The Longest Day"

In common with all Allied forces personnel preparing for the D-Day landings, the ROC volunteers were subjected to waiting, boredom and apprehension as the planners took account of weather and other operating conditions before launching the big offensive. This was alleviated to some extent by a review of the fleet along the south coast of England by King George.... at least it gave the men an excuse to polish and clean!

For the first 500 Observers posted by 5 June 1944, all plans and preparations came to a climax with the issue of General Eisenhower's order, (Supreme Commander Allied Powers Europe), to start the Allied invasion of France.

The heroic efforts of the military personnel involved in this historical action have deservedly been told and retold many times, in many different ways. While the roles of the merchant marine, the ROC and other groups, such as dock and railway employees, failed to capture the public imagination in the same way, it is a matter of record that without them there would have been no invasion! Supplying the advancing allied forces was undertaken by hundreds of vessels of all sizes and uses. All were subject to the hazards of mines, fast-attack boats, shore batteries and attack by aircraft; as well as the storms and natural hazards found in the channel and its approaches.

Messages to the Air Ministry and ROC Headquarters, from ships' Captains, various naval and air commanders, (both land and ship based) were unanimous in their praise for the work of the ROC. Included in these were the personal congratulations from Admiral Ramsey, Allied Commander-in-Chief Naval Forces.

This signal was received from Lieutenant Lyon, commanding US Naval armed guard aboard the SS John A. Sutter:

"Subject named men" (Observers W.E.Hills, and J.F.Rolski) " formerly members of your command and now serving as aircraft identifiers on our ship, Merchant Transport 22, attached to my US Naval gun crew, have already proved their weight in gold to us in properly and quickly identifying all aircraft we have encountered in our initial invasion trip.

As an example, on the morning of June 10th, with visibility poor, they caused us to hold fire on two RAF Spitfires, which all other ships, except naval units, were firing at for a period of half an hour.

When they reported aboard they told me they could identify anything, which they could see. Such has proved to be the case and I find myself, along with my men, relying on them for services far in excess of any other personnel in the crew. It is a pleasure to have them with us, and a great satisfaction to have man so carefully trained to do a job which is so important for the safety of our troops and cargo."

From Wing Commander P.B. Lucas, Air Staff Air Defence of Great Britain:

"The general impression amongst the Spitfire wings covering our land and naval forces over and off the beach-head appears to be that in the majority of cases the fire has come from naval warships and not from merchant ships. Indeed I personally have yet to hear a pilot report that a merchant vessel had opened fire on him"

After two and a half months of stalwart service the ‘Seaborne’ scheme was brought to an end. However the ROC did not come out unscathed; two men were killed, one was injured by shell splinters and one by a V1 flying bomb which hit his vessel while in dock in the UK. Twenty-two survived their ships being sunk. ‘Petty Officer’ Ian Ramsbottom (who must have been the youngest ‘Senior NCO’ in the Royal Navy for those two months) returned safely back to school!

The final word went to the original proponent of the use of the ROC on D-Day, Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory. He wrote the following to be circulated to all ROC personnel:

"I have read reports from both pilots and naval officers regarding the Seaborne volunteers on board merchant vessels during recent operations. All reports agree that the Seaborne volunteers have more than fulfilled their duties and have undoubtedly saved many of our aircraft from being engaged by ships guns. I should be grateful if you would please convey to all ranks of the Royal Observer Corps, and in particular to the Seaborne observers themselves, how grateful I, and all pilots in the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, are for their assistance, which has contributed in no small measure to the safety of our own aircraft, and also to the efficient protection of the ships at sea.

The Work of the Royal Observer Corps is quite often unjustly overlooked, and receives little recognition, and I therefore wish that the service they rendered on this occasion be as widely advertised as possible, and all Units of the Air Defence of Great Britain are therefore to be informed of the success of this latest venture of the Royal Observer Corps."

(Certificates left are part of the Phil Scott collection, Dorset).

 

ROC D-Day Roll of Honour

Killed in action: Chief Observer John B. Bancroft (Motor Vessel Derry Cunily 24 June 1944 – sunk by acoustic mine); Observer Bill Salter (Steam Ship Empire Broadsword sunk by a mine).

Injured in action: Observer Percy Heading (Steam Ship Sambut sunk by shellfire).

Mentioned in despatches: Observer Lieutenant George Alfred Donovan Bourne; Leading Observer Joseph Douglas Whitham; Observer Thomas Henry Bodhill; Observer John Hughes; Observer Derek Norman James; Observer Edward Jones; Observer Albert Edward Llewellyn; Observer George McAllan; Observer Anthony William Priestly; Observer John Weston Reynolds... and all the remainder of the 796 courageous volunteers!

Further Reading

There are over 200 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click 'Books' for more information.

The following works were used extensively to produce this paper:

Forewarned is Forearmed – [An Official Tribute and History of the ROC] by Henry Buckton, Publisher: Ashford, Buchan & Enright 1993. ISBN 1 – 85253-292-0,

Attack Warning Red – [The ROC and the Defence of Britain 1925 to 1975] by Derek Wood. Publisher: Macdonald and Jane’s 1976. ISBN 0356 08411 6

Further information and links to ROC exhibits can be found on the web sites of the following organisations:

Royal Observer Corps Association : http://www.rocassoc.org.uk/

Subterranean Britannica: http://www.subbrit.org.uk/rsg/index.shtml

Radar Developments in WW2 (Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) + Technical Data)

Correspondence

Dear Sir,

I am a 'Friend' of Fort Pannerden which is near the German border in Holland where the Rhine enters Holland and splits forming the river Waal and the Pannerdens Kanaal. Fort Pannerden was constructed around 1870 and has been recently renovated. During the early years of the "cold war" an observation post was positioned on top of the fort. (Photo opposite). It was manned by the Korps Luchtwacht Dienst from 1950 to 1964 when their primary task was to observe the movement of Russian aircraft over the area.

Ideally we would like to reinstate an identical apparatus which bears the trade name NEHOME and to find out more about it. Failing this we would look at the possibility of making a working copy.

I will be very grateful to hear from anyone with information that might help us achieve our goal. Just click on the e-mail icon opposite.

With kind regards,

Johan Kip

Acknowledgments

Contributed by Christopher Michael Hayes, former member of the No 6 Group (Norwich) Royal Observer Corp.

(Copyright Christopher Michael Hayes 2004)

 

News & Information

Please 'like' the Combined Operations Command memorial  Facebook page in appreciation of our WW2 veterans. See the 'slide shows' of the dedication ceremony and the construction of the memorial plus the 'On this day in 194?' feature where major events are featured on their anniversary dates. 

WW2 Combined Operations Handbook. This handbook was prepared for Combined Operations in the Far East. It illustrates the depth and complexity of the planning process necessary to ensure that the 3 services worked together as a unified force.

Legion d’Honneur Applications. In conjunction with events to mark the 70th Anniversary of the Normandy landings, the Government of France has advised the Ministry of Defence that it wishes to award the Legion d’Honneur to all surviving veterans; not only of the landings, but also the wider Battle for Normandy; the Invasion of Provence (Operation Dragoon); the Liberation of Paris and the Liberation of France.

Any veterans, not only troops that landed, but also Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel who operated in support of the landings may apply. Click here for application form and further information from the MOD.

 

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Follow in the footsteps of the Commandos. Exclusive guided tour of the places in Tunisia with advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Steve Hamilton of Western Desert Battlefield Tours.

 

 

Thames River Cruiser FARMAR. Do you know what this craft did in WW2? If so you may have information to help a restoration project. More information on our Notice Board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gazelle Helicopter Squadron Display Team. The Gazelle Squadron is a unique team of ex-British Military Gazelle helicopters in their original military colours and with their original military registrations. The core team includes four Gazelles, one from each service; The Royal Navy, The Royal Marines, The Army Air Corps and The Royal Air Force. A fifth Gazelle in Royal Marines colours will provide intimate support for the team. Their crest includes the Combined Operations badge. The last, and possibly, only time the badge was seen on an aircraft was in the early mid 40s. A photo of the Hurricane concerned is included in the 516 Squadron webpage.
 

 

 

Legasee Film Archive. As part of an exciting social history project, the film company Legasee is looking for veterans from any conflict who would like to have their stories filmed for posterity. Films are now available on line.

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