Musings and Memories of Carlisle 32 Group Observer Corps
These recollections were written circa 1989 by Obs/Off Hubert Ware some seventeen years after he retired from the Corps in 1972.
Now, read Obs/Off Ware’s recollections.
I recall 32 Group was formed in some haste in the autumn of 1939. I was pressed into joining by my next door neighbour, as a part timer, and we opened for business around Christmas 1939 and I became a full timer at some point in 1940. In those early days Posts and Centre were under separate command which I presume was to speed things up and get things going.
Posts were under a Brigadier Pringle, a crusty old bloke, who, at the start, had four assistant Obs/Grp. Officers. All were chosen from his “watering hole” the Border Club in Lowther Street Carlisle. There was Captain Brooks who had a large estate at Kinmount, Annan then Captain Jolly who lived at Blenkinsop Castle, Haltwhistle. A chap called Horrocks who lived near Penrith and, finally, Bob Ritson of Eden Bank, Maryport. The posts were run from an office in Bank Street but we never saw much of them in Centre.
The Centre was under the supervision of Col. F.R.W. Graham who was a typical “between the wars” Col. who would persist in rushing into things without thinking them over first. Still, we did have a certain amount of sympathy for him. He had been sent out in charge of the Shanghai Defence Force and was more or less promised a promotion to Brigadier on his return. In the event, on his return, he, along with some others, was called to the War Office and given marching orders. The reason given by the then War Minister was “acceleration of younger Officers”
Col. Graham had his office at 55 English St. with the Centre in West Walls in what had been a Funeral Stables. One descended from street level down a steep flight of stairs to the rest room, which had only one window high up, and where the lights were kept on day and night. This led into the plotting room, where there were windows, which had been used by the previous owners for manufacturing purposes, coffins etc. The only heating was by electric panel heaters, placed half way up the walls for some reason, which meant that if your head was warm your feet were cold! The next room was where the horses had been kept and, at times, the “pong” was pretty bad, at least at the start. One got used to it in time.
In the early days there were seven crews, those who were full time being in crews 1 and 4 who had Bernard Ashman as Controller. Crew 2 had Roy Hanson as Controller, Crews 3 and 6 had George Watson, Crew 5 Claude Metcalfe, Crew 7, who were all part timers, had Cecil Bowie.
In the rush to get things going they advertised for applicants as well as getting the Labour Exchange to send people along. There was no vetting of peoples backgrounds in those days. Folk were sat down at the plotting table with a head set on and, if you could read the numbers on the table and hear what was said over the earphones, you were IN. At the start the rate of pay was 1/3d (nearly 7p in today’s money) an hour and 10 bob (50p) for an eight hour night shift. In the early days we had several members around 70yrs old and one charming old man who claimed to be 75. Those days were spent in finding where the numbers were on the plotting table, using Halma Men (pieces from an old board game called Halma) for the plots. These were replaced, eventually, with metal shields and arrows.
On a raised platform above the plotting table was situated a reader who kept a record of all our tracks on a paper map and, up to two, inter centre tellers who passed on tracks leaving the Group. They also received details of tracks approaching which they wrote down on paper slips. The amount of paper used was colossal. There was also a main teller linked to the R.A.F. (13 group, Kenton Bar, Newcastle) passing on any tracks they required. We also had links, in the early days, to Leeming and Turnhouse R.A.F. sectors.
At some point in 1940 Roy Hanson was given the job of forming an Air Raid Warning Team in the centre. It had been realised that warnings issued to the public were covering, through necessity, large areas at a time. Factories were losing production so a scheme, which gave various works direct lines to centres, was introduced to enable them to continue production until the threat of an attack became close. They could then drop everything and take to the shelters. Our Group, in due course, had a large number of customers which included R.A.F. Airfields, Munitions Units, Workington Steel Works and many more. One interesting customer was the C.D.L. (? Civil Defence League) School at Lowther who used to have Tanks, fitted with powerful search lights, roaring up and down Lowther Park for hours at night. One could see the lights from many miles away.
Col. Graham was convinced the centre would be attacked by saboteurs so had the entrance covered by sandbags with an armed sentry on duty. This continued until one Saturday night when the sentry fired at “something” in the street. It was realised the danger to the public was greater by having an armed sentry than from saboteurs. So, after that incident, the sentry had just the rifle with bayonet. I can tell you, it did not pay to walk quietly down West Walls at night.
When women finally came along (1941) it was realised that conditions in West Walls were completely unsuitable, toilet facilities being pretty basic to say the least, so an empty house in Norfolk St. was requisitioned by the Air Ministry. Two rooms were knocked into one and, for a time, we had a super Ops. Room. Col. Graham composed a motto for one of the walls. It went something like this,
MAY WE, SERVING KING AND EMPIRE, KEEP WATCH EFFICIENTLY. BY OUR VIGILANCE WE ASSIST IN DISMAYING THE ENEMY AND SAVE THE LIVES OF OUR AIRMEN.
He was very proud of this and all visitors had to be shown it. He was not best pleased when he was told, one day, that the word efficiently had been spelt wrongly. A painter had to be sent from 14 M.U. to alter the spelling. In those days every little thing had to be done by people from 14 M.U. If a lamp from the ops room failed two men had to come from 14 M.U. One held the steps, one replaced the lamp. Trade Union rules! (Apparently)
I do recall a worse incident though! Col. Graham ordered 6 toilet rolls from 14 M.U. as he was not allowed to buy anything in the town. I remember going on duty (this would be 1940) to find a large lorry blocking West Walls whilst the poor driver tried to find someone to sign for the delivery. Not long after that the sandbags were removed.
When Geoff Ambler became Corps Commandant he ordered all Ops. Rooms were to be of one standard design so there were a lot of alterations made at Norfolk Rd. In 1943 orders came through that each crew had to have a doorman responsible for door security and odd jobs like sweeping up, emptying ash trays etc.
Col. Graham was now Observer Commander Graham in charge of the whole Group following health problems for Brig. Pringle who had collapsed whilst visiting his mother in St. Boswell. He began sending letters direct to H.Q. R.O.C. on any matters he disagreed with. It would not have been too bad if he had sent his protests to Area H.Q. but he insisted on going straight to the top. The final straw came when the cleaning lady left for another job with more pay being offered. The Labour Exchange could not find a replacement for the pay offered so Col. Graham, I believe, sent a real stinker of a letter to Bentley Priory. Shortly afterwards he was “retired”. This was 1944 and a new G.C. arrived, from outside the group, whose name was Rowlands.
In 1944 the Duty Controllers were made up to Observer Officers and “divorced” from the crews. This meant there would be four of us. Messer’s Ashman, Thompson, Bowie and yours truly!
Things went on thus until the end of the war. Norfolk Rd. was eventually returned to its owners with, I imagine, some compensation for the damage caused by the alterations.
Musings and Memories of Carlisle 32 Group Observer Corps