The Royal Observer Corps 1925-1992

The history of aircraft identification and interception goes back to 1916 when it was belatedly realised that high-flying and long-distance Zeppelin airships could attack Britain. The raids showed up bad organisation for air defence and the Air Ministry became increasingly aware that it needed a system to locate and intercept aircraft. Lt.Col.Edward B.Ashmore was put in command of the London Air Defence Area in August 1917. He transferred to the RAF in 1918 as Major-General and during 1924 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. Two “groups” were established with headquarters in Maidstone and Horsham and a network of 43 aircraft observation posts were set up across Kent, Sussex and parts of Surrey. Following this, the network of posts was gradually expanded to cover more and more of the country and by November 1926 two more groups with Headquarters in Winchester and Colchester had been formed. 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 in Britain's defences. By the outset of war, the Corps' network covered a large part of the country.

Lapel badges and cap badge

In 1940, the Observer Corps' biggest challenge yet was in the Battle of Britain, tracking and aiding the interception of vast numbers of enemy aircraft. 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 success of the part they played led to the granting of the “Royal” title by H.M. King George VI on April 9th 1941.

The ROC also helped locate and guide to safety those aircraft which were damaged or off-course. Using rocket-launched flares or radio beacons,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.

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. H.M. Queen Elizabeth II remained as patron of the ROC up to the stand down of the bulk of the Corps on 30 Sept 1991. The MoD retained the the Nuclear Reporting Cells element of the Corps until 31 December 1995 when this remaining element stood down. On 31 March 1996 Headquarters Royal Observer Corps closed down.