ROCA 22 GROUP HISTORY PROJECT
A CELEBRATION OF
ROYAL OBSERVER CORPS
“75 YEARS ON”
A Celebration of Royal Observer Corps Seaborne “75 years on”.
On Saturday 19 October 2019 ROCA 22 Group met for lunch at the Metal Bridge Hotel.
This was a celebration of Royal Observer Corps Seaborne – 75 year on. Recognising the dedicated and professional efforts of our Seaborne Colleagues. Many Allied airmen owed their lives to the prompt actions of the 796 Seaborne Observers who took part in the D-Day operations.
Codenamed Operation Overlord, the battle began on 6 June 1944, also known as D-Day, when some 156,000 American, British and Canadian forces landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the heavily fortified coast of France’s Normandy region.
The following pages are a summary of the presentation and information gathered for the ROCA 22 Group History Project, and relate specifically to ROC Seaborne Observers.
“Seaborne” [a Summary]:
32 Group [Carlisle] Seaborne Observers:
Recruitment and Training:
Presentation and Toast:
A short presentation was given by Hamish Waugh, of the Seaborne contribution to the D-Day operations, followed by a toast to the Seaborne Observers.
Seaborne ROC Hamish Waugh Presentation and Toast
“D-Day with the Seaborne Observers [ROC Journal Vol 26 No 6 June 1984]
ROC Journal Seaborne 2
ROC Seaborne Part One [ROC Journal Vol 14 No 8 August 1972]
ROC Seaborne [Part 1]
ROC Seaborne Part Two [ROC Journal Vol 14 No 9 September 1972]
ROC Seaborne [Part 2]
Two of our Observers failed to return [ROC Journal Vol 29 No 11 April 1987]
Two of our Observers failed to return
A Peaceful Return [ROC Journal Vol 18 No 4 April 1976]
A Peaceful Return
Seaborne Meet Again – after forty two years [ROC Journal Vol 28 No 12 December 1986]
Seaborne Meet Again
ROC Communications from 1944
The ROC Journals used above were kindly donated by Josie Cooper and Ralph Pickering.
I regret some of the scanned photographs contained in this document are not of the best quality. I have tried my best to obtain a clear scan; however, given the age of some of the documents there is a compromise with the quality.
This document will also be included on the 22 Group History website.
“Seaborne” [a Summary]:
On the 6th June 1944, the largest amphibious assault in history was launched against the Normandy coast – its ultimate goal was the establishment of an allied foothold in Nazi-occupied France. During preparations for this invasion; (commonly known as D-Day and code named “Operation Overlord”), the Air Ministry issued a confidential order A63/1944, which consisted of the proposals for the Royal Observer Corps to participate in the forthcoming Operations. The order outlined an urgent need for a substantial number of “expert” ROC Observers to be employed on recognition duties in defensively-equipped merchant ships. Their initial role was to advise as to the identity of aircraft at sea. This role was deemed to be only advisory, and responsibility for accepting or rejecting the advice and taking any necessary action rested with the ship’s captain.
Over 1,000 candidates applied to join as Seaborne Observers of which approximately 800 were selected to perform the seaborne duties. Under the leadership of Group Commandant C.G. Cooke, these “Seaborne” Observers were trained at the Royal Bath Hotel in Bournemouth before temporarily joining the Royal Navy with the rank of Petty Officer (Aircraft Identifier). They continued to wear their ROC uniforms, but wore ‘Seaborne’ shoulder flashes and a Royal Navy brassard with the letters ‘RN’.
During the D-Day Landings two Seaborne observers were allocated to each warship of the U.S. Navy and the defensively equipped merchant ships and were duly given control of each ship’s anti-aircraft battery, thereby reducing any risk of friendly fire incidents, which had previously been at a relatively high level. In total over the period of the operation, only two observers lost their lives; 22 survived their ships being sunk and a number being injured during the landings. The Seaborne operation was seen as an unqualified success and was recognised by His Majesty King George VI, by the approval of the use of “Seaborne” shoulder titles as a permanent feature of the observer uniform. After the invasion and just before his death Air Chief Marshall Trafford Leigh Mallory wrote the following to be circulated to all ROC personnel.
“I have reports from both pilots and naval officers regarding the Seaborne volunteers who have more than fulfilled their duties and have undoubtedly saved many of our aircraft from being engaged by our 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 unjustly overlooked, and on this occasion be as 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”.
32 Group [Carlisle] Seaborne Observers:
The ROCA 22 Group History Project has been collating information on all aspects of 22 Group and formerly 32 Group Observers. This included some of our own Seaborne Observers, to date we have found four from our Group, they are David Grant, John Metcalf, William Tweedie and Willie Young.
Willie Young’s detailed information was found in our History files, we hope to add further details on our other Seaborne colleagues as we uncover more details/documents.
Bill Barbour remembered David Grant from Waterhead of Dryfe, North of Lockerbie (possibly serving on Pheonix Lodge Post) who was also a Seaborne Observer.
David Shaw provided details of John Metcalf originally with 29 Group (Lancaster) who later served on Appleby Post, and was recognised as being a Seaborne Observer.
Harold Archer found details of a presentation to William Tweedie former Chief Observer of Parkgate Post who joined the Corps in December 1939 and retired in 1977. The presentation recognised his Seaborne service.
Originally we found details of Willie Young from the Eskdalemuir Post. Wilie was thought to be the only Seaborne from our Group. Details of Willie and his later presentation of his D-Day Medal are shown in the following pages.
We would be grateful if anyone can provide further records of any Seaborne Observers from our area.
Recruitment and Training:
The RAF officer commanding the ROC issued a personal letter to all ROC members;
“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.”
1376 observers initially responded together with 29 officers but, 4 or 5 weeks later, around 1094 actually participated in the selection process.
The recruitment panel comprised full time officers from the Royal Navy, ROC and RAF and was held at the Royal Bath Hotel, Bournemouth. After medicals and very tough trade tests, 290 were returned to normal duties, the remaining 796 were enrolled in the Royal Navy within the terms described earlier.
They were an eclectic group taken from all walks of life and ages. At one extreme, Ian Ramsbottom, aged 17 was a winner of the ‘Spitfire’ master observer badge and at the other, there were 70 year old veterans from WW1. The successful volunteers underwent additional intensive aircraft recognition training, together with basic training in naval procedures. Part of the recognition training was a test based on a film. Amazingly, a volunteer from a remote location in the Scottish Highlands admitted it was the first movie he’d ever seen! Another training element used identification cards.
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.
In common with all Allied forces personnel preparing for the D-Day landings, the ROC volunteers endured a period of inactivity, as the planners considered the 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 an order from General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander Allied Powers Europe, to start the Allied invasion of France on June 6, 1944.
The heroic efforts of the mainstream military services involved in this historical action have, deservedly, been told and retold many times. However, the vital supporting 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. However, it’s a fundamental truth that each contributed towards the victory that would come the following year.
In the weeks and months following D Day, the advancing allied forces were supplied by thousands of vessels and craft of all sizes and uses. They faced danger from enemy mines, fast E boats, shore batteries and aircraft, as well as the storms and other natural hazards in the channel and its approaches.
The Air Ministry and ROC Headquarters received messages of gratitude from ships’ Captains and naval and air commanders on land and sea. They were unanimous in their praise of the work of the ROC. Included 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 men 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 ended. Two ROC men were killed, one was injured by shell splinters and one by a V1 flying bomb, which hit his vessel while in port. Twenty-two survived when their ships were 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 came from Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory. He requested that the following message 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.”