R.O.C. Memories from James E Spencer
Harold Archer thinks that I was instrumental in his decision to join the Royal Observer Corps. Time has dimmed my memory so I cannot claim that this is true. The question of service numbers might prove that I joined the Corps before him, but two matters need to be resolved. Firstly, that service numbers were issued in strict numerical order and secondly that my service number 63568 comes before his!
When and why I joined the Royal Observer Corps is now a mystery to me. Although the thought of a few pounds sterling coming to me each quarter of a year in the early 1960’s must have been an incentive. If my memory serves me correctly, a Carlisle Grammar school boy named Peter Randall who lived near my home had already joined and he may have encouraged me to do likewise.
It may well have been the uniform that attracted me! In those days the jacket and trousers were similar to the Army battledress, although in air force blue. The jacket had a fly button front and a clasp fixing at the front waist. The trousers were attached to the jackets at the back by two buttons. Although this was not essential for keeping ones trousers up, in my case braces were essential at least in the early days. Shirts were of course light blue and had detachable collars. These were kept in place by studs: one at the front behind the black tie and the other at the back of the neck.
None of your modern style blouson jackets with zips or shirts with collars attached or woolly pulleys in those days. Finally, I had a lovely, serviceable Air Force blue rain coat, a stout pair of black leather soled shoes and of course the navy blue beret with the badge.
My earliest recollection of my time at No22 Group Carlisle Headquarters is a tour of the building conducted by Observer Officer (as was at that time) Eric Barclay of whom I have very fond memories. If my recollections are correct, Observer Officer Barclay had served in the Royal Air Force and wore the insignia of a navigator on his uniform together with his medals. I was very taken with the plant room I remember and can still recall the noise the system made when starting up.
Of course the Control Room with all the display boards and telephone connections were fascinating to a newcomer. I do remember watching some Observers plotting aircraft movements on the large table plot on the ground floor. It was probably a good thing that I was never engaged on plotting aircraft. The other places of interest to me at the start were the balcony looking down of the main display table and the long range display where one sat rather precariously when plotting information.
At the end of my training nights (Wednesdays I think) there was always the cup of tea and biscuits in the rest area, where I remember chatting to my colleagues, browsing “Recognition” and completing the attendance register for the quarterly payout of cash! My knowledge of aircraft was never very good, but it has got better with the passage of years.
Now, some characters that I remember from those far off days. Well there is the individual that I mentioned at the beginning of this article; Harold Archer we went to school together in Carlisle. We spent a few years together in the ROC before work commitments moved us south to Lancashire, me to Preston and Harold to Burnley. Then there was David Dagnall who I seem to remember was the Group Training Officer and Jim Gorrie who followed on in that position. I also recall Harry Armstrong, a contemporary of Eric Barclay, he had also served in the Royal Air Force as an Air Gunner if time serves me correctly.
Of course there was the legendary Chief Observer Betty Parsons. What she did not know about the ROC its history and Operational Instructions was not worth knowing. Her expertise was displayed on her uniform with the iconic “Red Spitfire” patch and more Red Stars than anyone else. I think that I managed to secure a few similar badges but alas not a Red one. I had the honour to be a pall bearer at Betty’s funeral, which, I seem to recall, was in Carlisle Cathedral. That was a physical and mental challenge which I can vividly recall every time I see similar events on TV.
After my fledgling attempts to do various tasks around various displays and reporting issues, one evening I was taken into the Crew Officers room by Observer Officer Barclay! I thought to myself this is the end, but to my surprise he handed me the badges signifying that I was to be a Leading Observer and I think the Crew’s Communications Supervisor. In what seemed a very short time I was promoted to Chief Observer and became a Triangulation Supervisor? This was an area that I really enjoyed and eventually my team and I became very proficient in that art. I also had the good fortune to attend week long training courses at Easingwold and Taymouth Castle. However, the only things I remember about those training events was the food; it was superb by late 1960’s early 1970’s standards.
Then there were the 12 and 24 Hour exercises which I thoroughly enjoyed and used to spend as long as I possibly could on duty, so to speak. The exercises usually consisted of a period of inactivity followed by a slow build up to an intense onslaught of information being passed hither and thither, with Observers communicating and plotting on various displays. On the 24 hour exercises I usually managed a brief trip to The Coach and Horses for some alcoholic beverage before closing time, returning to re-commence duties through the night and into the early hours of the morning. I was not alone at The Coach and Horses but I won’t mention any names! Another highlight of those exercises was the ladies from the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service who used to come to the Headquarters and produce hot meals. The cooked breakfast on a Sunday morning after a long night was something special.
In June 1966 I was fortunate to be chosen along with other 22 Group Members to take part in the parade and Presentation of The Royal Banner to the Royal Observer Corps by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth at Bentley Priory. We travelled by train to London Euston leaving Carlisle at some un-earthly hour, fortunately someone had thought that we should be accommodated in sleeper carriages. I have few memories of the day! We had a cooked breakfast provided by Royal Air Force cooks! For the parade itself I was chosen, along with a number of others, by a member of the Queens Colour Squadron to be a squadron marker. I have no firm memories of the presentation or the march past. Later in the day there was a garden party where Her Majesty mingled with the “great and the good”, naturally I was not one of them. However, I did, along with some other lowly Observers, play an important part in the proceedings! We were sent to stand in front of some unsightly dustbins which had been deemed by high authority to be offensive to Her Majesty. Her Majesty was accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh who left the prescribed route and came over to us and congratulated us on guarding the dustbins.
I attended at least two annual camps and enjoyed the experiences, I remember going to RAF Conningsby and I think the other was at RAF Valley. During one of the country’s long hot summers, somebody organised a trip to an Air Show at Prestwick. I remember this event not so much for the air displays but for the rain that fell that day. I had taken my precious rain coat that I mentioned earlier. Maybe I had note of the motto “Forewarned is forearmed”!
Sometime in the early 1970’s my work took me away from Carlisle and from No.22 Group ROC and it was not until 1984 that I considered re-joining the Royal Observer Corps and by this time I was living in Plymouth Devon. The Headquarters of No.10 Group ROC was in the outskirts of Exeter and I thought it would be lovely to get a place in the NRC at Plymouth which was located at the Royal Naval Establishment HMS Vivid. To my surprise and horror it was suggested that I might like to join a Post which was short of personnel! I agreed, after some thought, and joined No.53 Post at Sharpitor which was located on the southern edge of Dartmoor.
We met on Wednesday evenings in classrooms generously provided by the Royal Marines at Bickleigh Barracks. This was very agreeable to me; warm, comfortable, and very pleasant surroundings. I must point out that I had never been inside an ROC post! My first experience of No.53 Post was on a warm summers evening, the view was stunning: Cornwall stretching away to the west, Plymouth Sound and the sea to the south and so on. Down the ladder I went into a strange new environment. I was introduced to the communications system, installed the Ground Zero Indicator, and the Bomb Power Indicator and so on. The evening exercises in the summer were very interesting and there was the chance to talk to people walking on The Moor who called by to see what we were doing. When winter came it was a very different story! We had to walk up a slight gradient for about 200yards to the post. In the dark with only a torch, freezing cold struggling to open the padlock which could have frozen, fingers ready to drop off. What was I doing? But I got used to it and loved the place. The people that I served with were great fun to be with, though sadly I have lost touch with many of them.
For a numbers of years I was Chief Observer on 10 Group 53 Post, the part of which I enjoyed most was the training aspect , getting the team prepared for exercises and of course the annual test of the Observers knowledge and Corps history and so on.
I was present in 1988 along with other Corps members at the lighting of a special beacon on Plymouth Hoe re-enacting the beacon- lighting signalling the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. I was also present with other Corps members at the unveiling of a monument commemorating Allied Airmen of the Second World War. The monument stands on Plymouth Hoe.
Number 10 Group, at the instigation of Observer Officer or maybe Group Commandant (sadly deceased) Mike Davies, decided that we should enter a team in the annual Chichester March organised by the Royal Military Police at Chichester. The March was 25 miles across the Sussex Downs starting at 7am and finishing when you finished! I had the good fortune to lead the team on two occasions, having trained hard for the events we finished in good time. We had special T Shirts made, I still have mine and we were awarded a medal at the end. I still have the medals somewhere. I seem to re-call that Mike Davis wrote an article about our exploits and got in published in Recognition magazine. There were teams from all branches of the Armed Forces and civilian organisations and on one occasion the US Army were present! They stormed passed our team on an uphill stretch shouting one of the US chants “We know who we are” and so on. We just kept going. Soon after reaching the top of the climb our US colleagues were found collapsed in a heap! We just carried on and we never saw them again. They did finish but along way behind us.
For a short time towards the end of the Corps existence, I attended the National Reporting Centre at Plymouth located at HMS Vivid. Readers will note that I had thought that a place at the NRC was the ideal place for me, however looking back, I would not have swapped it for my time at 10 Groups 53 Post Sharpitor. Sadly the hole in the ground where I had such great times with my colleagues and friends has been filled in. I must go back and have a look one day.
Observer 63568 James E Spencer. (Ex Crew Two 22 Group Carlisle)