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?"
[Patche and cap badge
part of the Phil Scott collection, Dorset.]
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
'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.
[Photo; General view of personnel at work in an ROC Centre.
© IWM (CH 11758).]
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.
would still be part-time volunteers - civilians in R.A.F blue uniforms, Army black
berets and Royal Navy armbands!
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.
The Need for Seaborne ROC
[The complexity of accurate
identification by untrained observers, under battle conditions, can be imagined
from this single sheet of head-on views.]
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).
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!
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 observer 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
They were an eclectic force taken from all walks
of life and ages. On 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
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.
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
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
"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!
There are around 300 books listed on
our 'Combined Operations Books' page. They, or any
other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the
Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner link, on our 'Books' page, checks the shelves of
thousands of book shops world-wide. Just 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.
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 –
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:
Radar Developments in WW2 (Identification
Friend or Foe (IFF)
+ Technical Data)
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.
Contributed by Christopher Michael Hayes, former member of
the No 6 Group (Norwich) Royal Observer Corp.
Christopher Michael Hayes 2004)