The Observer Corps: The Forgotten Civilian Volunteers of the Battle of Britain

The Observer Corps: The Forgotten Civilian Volunteers of the Battle of Britain

A spotter in the Observer Corps on a rooftop in London
A spotter in the Observer Corps on a rooftop in London

Ask any British person what they know about the Battle of Britain and you will almost certainly receive answers that include references to the Spitfire, Hurricane or ‘The Few’. However, there were many others who played an important role during the summer air campaign of 1940, whose less glamorous efforts have sadly been largely forgotten by many today. Such an example – and there are many – are the members of the Observer Corps, a civilian volunteer organisation that, along with radar, provided a vital link in the air defence of Great Britain during the Second World War.

The Observer Corps was setup in 1925 following the decision to establish a ‘Raid Reporting System’, the purpose of the corps being to provide visual detection, identification, tracking and reporting of enemy aircraft over Britain. It is, however, argued that the corps can find its roots further back in time during the First World War, when a number of observation posts were strategically sited across the country – manned by soldiers and special constables – to give early warning of German Zeppelin and bomber air raids. These posts would be equipped with telephone communications with which the observer could contact the appropriate anti-aircraft installations, and later, via a more sophisticated system, even initiate the despatch of fighter aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps.

Although the corps would not be finally stood down until 1996, it is perhaps its role during the Battle of Britain in 1940 that it proved its real worth to the defence of Great Britain. With great foresight, Air Marshall Hugh Dowding saw the need to establish a strong air defence of the country, which, along with the introduction of modern fighter types such as the Spitfire and Hurricane, would include the use of radar and observers. Radar was, perhaps, the cornerstone of these defences, but it was only of use when tracking aircraft approaching land from over the sea. Once over land the radar system could no longer track enemy planes, nor could it identify the type of the aircraft. To make up for these deficiencies, the Observer Corps would make a visual identification, using binoculars and other optics, after which they would determine the height and direction of the planes, again with the use of relatively simple equipment such as a sextant type apparatus. This information, as during the 1914-18 conflict, was reported via the use of telephones.

When the Battle of Britain began, the Observer Corps would be stretched to its absolute limits. Indeed, its members – all of whom were civilian volunteers who often had other jobs – had to provide 24-hour cover every day of the year; not an inconsiderable requirement given their part-time and unpaid nature. In order to help facilitate this, members of the corps would be placed into one of two classes dependent upon the amount of hours they were able to commit to their duties. Those in class ‘A’ were expected to perform 56-hours per week, while those in class ‘B’ committed to 24-hours; naturally, members were also expected to work shifts and unsociable hours.

Thanks to both radar and the Observer Corps, the RAF was able to scramble its fighters in time to intercept German bombers as they made their way to their targets. Although the Luftwaffe still managed to inflict considerable damage on British industry, airfields and cities during the battle, the levels of destruction would have been far higher if it was not for the hard work of the corps’ members. For its highly valued efforts during the Battle of Britain, the corps would be granted the use of ‘royal’ in its title, becoming the Royal Observer Corps in 1941.

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