ROYAL OBSERVER CORPS MEMORIES
Kathryn Little 22 Group Carlisle
Although I wasn’t an official member of the ROC until the mid-60s my memories go back a bit further than that because both my parents were members of the Corps, I think from the mid-50s, so the Royal Observer Corps was in the background of my life from quite a young age. Mum & Dad (Muriel & Jack Little) initially served at the Group HQ when it was in Norfolk Road. I don’t recall ever having been there but certainly remember some of the names George Garton and Jack Musgrave being the senior (full-time?) officers. I think Mrs and Mrs Garton actually lived in the building but can’t be sure of that. I do know that at that time observers were paid in cash and that George Garton used to go to the bank and get the cash and then it was made up into the different payment amounts for individuals and put into little brown envelopes. On a more social note the watering hole of choice after training and exercises was the Prince of Wales public house just down the road — now sadly demolished.
My other memory of this time relates to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 when I was 13. I can only remember fragments of this. I remember that Mum was at home but I don’t remember Dad being there so maybe he was at work. I assume that my grandfather must have been there as he lived with us and also my siblings. I remember that Mum had to go to the Group Control (now at RAF Carlisle?) and my impression is that she went in something of a rush. As we had no telephone at the time I also assume that someone must have come to the house. The biggest impact for me wasn’t the political situation but that I was left in charge of the gingerbread that Mum had in the oven. Total failure, I took it out of the oven too soon and it sank!
Clearly it was never a question of if I would join the ROC but when. So I joined officially as soon as I was old enough in the summer of 1965, service number 63801. I think when I joined the Wednesday night crew was Crew 4 which later became Crew 2. Eric Barclay was the Crew Officer and I think one of the supervisors was Margaret Chivers and another may have been Lily Nicholson (Nicky). Other crew members I remember from that time were Harold Archer and Jim Spencer and Michael & Peter Wright, brothers whose father was a serving Officer at RAF Carlisle. Linda Laidlaw, later Simpson, was also around then. Ken Maynard was GC and Obs./Lt (W) Muriel Stewart was the Crew Officer on a Monday night. Supervisors on Monday included Winnie Graham and Rachel Bell. By that time I think that Obs./Lt Hubert Ware had retired and been succeeded by Harry Armstrong on a Tuesday evening with Jessie Mansfield as one of his supervisors. Harrys daughter, Helen Armstrong, was also on one of the crews.
After 2 year’s service I went to what was then the Polytechnic of Newcastle upon Tyne to study librarianship but luckily with judicious use of trips home at weekends for exercises and regular attendance during the holidays I didn’t have to resign and as an impoverished student the quarterly grant came in very handy.
No further changes happened for some time, if you discount the minor operational matters such as the change from a plotting table to post display boards, the long range board with magnetic plaques (the whole display could be wiped off by a slip of the hand!) becoming a Perspex screen on which we had to learn to write backwards and the introduction of the tape centre. Then in 1974 Muriel Stewart reached retiring age. Although I wasn’t on her crew I knew her from contact with her during exercises and I had a great deal of respect for her. To my astonishment she sought me out and said that she would like me to apply for the upcoming Crew Officer vacancy. As I wasn’t even a supervisor the idea of becoming an officer wasn’t even a passing thought and I certainly had no ambitions in that direction. I pointed this out to Muriel but she wasn’t very good at taking no for an answer and I didn’t want to go against her wishes. So I agreed to apply, thinking that it would keep Muriel happy, and also thinking that there was absolutely no danger of me being appointed. All I can remember about the interview is that I was not in the least bit nervous as I was only there to make the numbers up. Imagine my surprise when I was appointed! Although I have to say that if I had realised what I was getting in to it would have been terror rather than surprise that I was feeling. The letter advising my appointment ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’ is dated 17th December 1974 so I assume that I first met with my new Crew in January 1975, taking up my duties as Ken Maynard retired as GC and was succeeded by Douglas Edgar. I can’t help feeling that it must have been a daunting few months with an extremely steep learning curve but I don’t really remember any of the detail. I was given sage advice from Bill Farries, one of the Group Officers, to the effect that if I ever didn’t agree with something that came from above I should write down my thoughts, put them to one side for 24 hours and then if I still felt the same then I should make my feelings known (politely of course). On exercises I had great guidance on the interpretation of fallout plumes on Display A from Frank Cooper (his wife Lily was an Observer on Crew 2) and Roger Jefferson of the Warning Team.
Shortly after taking up my appointment (presumably early 1975) I attended my first Western Area Officers Conference. It took place in Blackpool at the Metropole Hotel, an imposing building which is right on the sea front. It sounds idyllic but the reality was far from that as the March winds roared in off the sea the windows in my room rattled so much that I thought they might fall out and the accompanying draughts were arctic. So another lesson learnt, always take extra layers and possibly a hot water bottle as off season is usually chilly and at that time the standard of hotels used was a bit variable. In subsequent years thankfully the venues improved somewhat.
Back at 22 Group the routine of training and exercises continued as usual. Over time Harry Armstrong was succeeded by Bill Haddon and subsequently by Jim Anderson. Eric Barclay gave way to Harold Archer and following Harold’s promotion to Group Commandant my brother, Ian, took over as Crew Officer on Crew 2. In 1986 Ian became a whole-time officer, posted to Winchester, and was succeeded on Crew 2 by Ernie Simpson. At some point (1977?) I was awarded the ROC medal and on 1st October 1984 was promoted to the honorary rank of Obs. Lt with the caveat, in the letter, that it would not ‘attract any change in conditions of service, annual grant or emoluments’! In 1989 I was awarded the clasp to my ROC medal.
Sometime later, possibly in the early 1990s, it became clear that Roger Pett would have to relinquish his appointment as Duty Officer on Crew 2 because of health reasons. I was asked if I would transfer to Crew 2 as Crew Officer and a replacement would be appointed to take my place with Crew 3. For a number of reasons I was reluctant to do this and after a period of reflection I expressed my views (politely of course!). After discussion it was agreed that for a while I would manage both crews and that, following the appointment process, the new Crew Officer would take over as Roger’s replacement on Crew 2. I had amazing support in carrying out this dual role from all the members of both crews and particularly from the supervisors. Eventually the appointment process was completed and I handed Crew 2 over to the capable hands of Mary Temple.
As well as the routine of crew meetings and exercises there were other events to be fitted in, namely Cluster Meetings, CLOCs and Camps. Cluster meetings were held across the Group enabling members from a group of posts to meet and train together. Sometimes the clusters would come into Group Control for a familiarisation visit and sometimes Crew Officers were invited to go out to sing for their supper by helping to present whatever the topic of the evening was. At various times I remember going to Cluster meetings in Grasmere, Hexham, Langholm and Caldbeck amongst other places. Caldbeck also sticks in the mind for the annual ‘tatiepot’ supper.
CLOCs (Chief and Leading Observers Courses for those not conversant with R.O.C. abbreviations!) were an annual weekend event with venues including the Crest Hotel, close to GHQ, the Hilltop Hotel, also in Carlisle, and the Windermere Hydro. I’m told we also went to the Shap Wells Hotel but for some reason I have absolutely no recollection of that and even recent visits to Shap Wells for 22 ROCA Reunions failed to jog my memory. CLOCs gave crew and post personnel a chance to socialise as well as train together, this was especially welcome when one of our Clusters was on the Isle of Man as we very rarely had the opportunity to meet up. That cluster was eventually transferred to 21 Group Preston so it was a real delight to meet up again with Martin Benson, Group Officer from the Island, at the St Clement Danes event in 2015.
Camps were also an annual event which entailed a week’s training (and socialising) for Observers from across the country. My first camp was RAF Coningsby in 1967 and I set off to camp with Margaret Chivers, a seasoned camper, who was only too well equipped to keep me right and introduce me to lots of people. In the early years of my camp attendance formal parades were held every morning, usually 3 squadrons of male observers and one of females. Any necessary announcements were made and it also gave the officers a chance to select personnel for the Guard of Honour for the VIP visit on Friday. Some people really wanted to be on the Guard of Honour and some really didn’t. As far as I can recall I managed to escape that until I became an officer and then it caught up with me but more of that later. At another early camp, RAF Watton, the Airman’s Mess where we got our meals was on the opposite side of the Norwich to Watton road from the hanger and classrooms where the rest of our activities took place. Consequently we were formed up and marched backwards and forwards like an overgrown school crocodile. Accommodation was basic, we were in long dormitories which must have had 20 beds, so not for shrinking violets who liked a more peaceful and private existence. When we went to RAF Brawdy, a former RNAS station, in 1972 we were amazed when we saw our accommodation. Rooms with only 4 beds and bathrooms that were positively modern, we couldn’t believe the luxury.
Just a few years later I was starting on unfamiliar territory again as an instructor not a student and living for a week in the Officers Mess at RAF Colerne. I remember that David Pringle, one of our Group Officers, was in the entrance hall to greet me and generally point me in the right direction for which I was very grateful. What he later omitted to tell me as part of my informal briefing was that although the front door of the mess was locked in the late evening there would be a side door open. I think it must have been the Monday evening when myself and another new female officer went to the dance in the Naafi and came back to find the door locked. Luckily she had a ground floor room and had left the window unlocked so we were able to make a somewhat unorthodox entrance with our nerves in shreds.
Memories of subsequent camps tend to merge together with details of the individual venues being a bit vague.
I said that I would come back to my experiences of the Guard of Honour. Naturally there were rehearsals beforehand. One year we spent what seemed like hours rehearsing falling in the guard and then marching forward into position. I couldn’t understand why we were doing that as there would be no one there to see and in my previous experience we simply took up our positions ready for inspection. After a few practices the Station Warrant Officer approached me very respectfully and asked if it would be possible for me to take a slightly longer stride. I gathered from what he didn’t quite say that the squad behind me, all obviously with longer legs than me, were catching up with me. Let’s just say that by the time we finished I was in danger of needing medical attention for a bad back. It may have been on the same occasion when one of my less tactful male colleagues, who had been watching the rehearsal, informed me that my voice carried wonderfully across the parade ground.
I think that the first year I was nominated to act as Women’s Flight Commander for the Guard of Honour was in either 1977 or 1978 at RAF Cosford. Most of the ROC officers (myself included) were billeted at the Mess at RAF Shawbury which was about half an hour drive away, slightly longer on the RAF bus which was provided for our use each morning and evening. Having spent some considerable time pressing my uniform ready for the Guard of Honour I was reluctant to get the skirt creased and so spent the whole journey standing up. On another occasion I was on the Guard of Honour when Leon Britten, then Home Secretary, was the Inspecting Officer. Yet again much time had been spent by the participants in polishing buttons and shoes and pressing uniforms. However my lasting impression of our VIP guest was that his suit looked as though it had been slept in and his shoes were definitely unpolished! Finally, my most traumatic experience came at the end of a scorching hot week in the Cotswolds. We were on parade in full uniform, slowly melting away, when the VIP arrived. As he was inspecting the men’s flight I started to turn to walk to the end of the women’s flight to greet him. Nothing happened! While we had been standing to attention waiting for his arrival the heels of my shoes had sunk into the softened tarmac and I was stuck. If I had been hot before I was even worse then. I had a split second vision of accompanying the VIP in my stocking feet with my shoes left behind still standing to attention. I think panic kicked in and one final effort later my shoes finally became unstuck.
The ROC has always been an organisation that has an active social side so I can’t finish without including reference to that. Back in the early days we had dances in the civilian canteen at RAF Carlisle. They were self-catering affairs (we made sandwiches and presumably opened bags of crisps). There was usually a live band as discos hadn’t been invented. The band was paid in cash from ticket sales and the proceeds of the raffle, much chinking of money as the organisers counted up the proceeds and hoped there was enough. As time went on and tastes became more sophisticated we went to local hotels, Langley Hall, Newby Grange and the like, and they did have discos! We also went beyond the immediate Carlisle area with a regular diary date being the Burns Night Suppers at Bentpath, in the hills beyond Langholm, and I particularly remember an evening at the Beaumont Hotel in Hexham when 2 of our number got together for the first time and the outcome was a wedding. Some more distant events necessitated an overnight stay, mostly in south west Scotland. The same group of people from GHQ tended to go to all of these events and we named ourselves the Go-Anywhere Gang. It was at several of these occasions that I discovered that Jim Anderson was prone to whistling at ungodly hours of the morning and also that his breakfast of choice was kippers. I always tried to sit well away from him and Margaret at breakfast. The addition of a separate training building at GHQ meant that we could also use that for more informal occasions (as well as training obviously!) and it was where we had our first ROCA meetings in 1988.
As for many others the ROC had become more than just a once weekly place to go. I had formed strong and lasting friendships not only with people in my own locality but from across the UK. I’d had the good fortune to spend time on many different RAF stations and also to explore the local areas. I’d learned new skills, some from formal tuition, some from the example of others and some by teaching them myself (although I never did really understand the meteorology that I had to teach at one camp). So when Stand Down came it had a huge impact, as it did for many others. But, clouds and silver linings seem to come together and never would I have believed that some 27 years later ROCA would still be going strong, old friendships would still endure and new ones be made and that many of us would still be going to an annual get together albeit with more luxury and no spit and polish.