D-Day’s 75th anniversary, Remembering Our Own Seaborne…

Although some details are not clearly recorded from 32 Group, we are aware of three Seaborne Observers from 32/22 Group: Willie Young [from Eskdalemuir, later Langholm and served on Eskdalemuir Post], David Grant [from Waterhead of Dryfe, North of Lockerbie (possibly serving on Pheonix Lodge Post)] and John Metcalfe [originally with 29 Group (Lancaster) later serving at Appleby Post.]

We would be grateful if anyone can provide any further records of Seaborne Observers from our area.

In 1944, during preparations for the invasion of France, (Operation Overlord), a request for volunteers from within the ranks of the ROC produced 1,094 highly qualified candidates, from which 796 were selected to perform aircraft recognition duties as Seaborne Observers.

These Seaborne Observers, under the command of Group Commandant C.G. Cooke, undertook specialist training at the Royal Bath Hotel, Bournemouth, prior to being temporarily seconded to the Royal Navy with the rank of Petty Officer (Aircraft Identifier). The Seaborne Observers continued to wear their ROC uniform, but in addition wore a “SEABORNE” shoulder flash and Royal Navy brassard bearing the letters “RN“.

During the D-day landings, two Seaborne Observers were allocated to all participating US Navy vessels and Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships. The Seaborne Observers assumed control of each ship’s anti aircraft batteries with the intention of reducing the previously high incidence of friendly fire, (collateral damage), between allied vessels and allied aircraft.

Seaborne Observers were seconded to allied DEMS and US Navy vessels for the D-Day landings. Sadly, John B Bancroft[Royal Observer Corps Seaborne Volunteer, Chief Observer, Petty Officer], Service No P/JS 2639 was killed on 24/06/44, when MV Derry Cunily was sunk by an acoustic mine.
Also, William John (Bill) Salter [Royal Observer Corps Seaborne Volunteer, Observer, Petty Officer], Service No P/JS 2903 was killed on 21/07/44, when Steam Ship Empire Broadsword was sunk by a mine.
Both are remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

Injured in action: Observer Percy Heading (Steam Ship Sambut sunk by shellfire).

Mentioned in despatches: Observer Lieutenant George Alfred Donovan Bourne; Leading Observer Joseph Douglas Whitham; Observer Thomas Henry Bodhill; Observer John Hughes; Observer Derek Norman James; Observer Edward Jones; Observer Albert Edward Llewellyn; Observer George McAllan; Observer Anthony William Priestly; Observer John Weston Reynolds… and all the remainder of the 796 courageous volunteers!

The success of the Seaborne Observers in undertaking this role can be measured by a signal sent from Wing Commander P.B. Lucas, Air Staff Officer, who stated that:

“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 British Navy warships and not from the merchant ships. Indeed I personally have yet to hear a single pilot report that a merchant vessel had opened fire on him”

During Operation Overlord a total of two Seaborne Observers lost their lives, several more were injured and twenty two survived their ships being sunk. In addition, ten Seaborne Observers were mentioned in despatches. The deployment of Seaborne Observers was regarded as an unqualified success and in recognition for their contribution to the success of the landings, King George Vl approved the permanent wearing of the SEABORNE shoulder flash on the ROC uniforms of those individuals who had taken part.

Following the invasion, Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory wrote a message which was 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 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 often unjustly overlooked, and receives little recognition, and I therefore wish that the service they rendered on this occasion be as widely 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.”

Seaborne Observers remain the only members of the ROC whose service during World War II entitles them to wear the HM Armed Forces Veterans Badge, their qualifying for such resulting from the approximately ten-week period of secondment to the Royal Navy.

(The ROC itself never having been one of HM Armed Forces; ROC members being non-combatants during wartime with the exception of full-time officers who could be armed and therefore legally classed as combatants). A Seaborne Observers’ Association exists with Air Vice Marshal George Black CB OBE AFC RAF (Rtd), a former Commandant ROC, acting as Honorary President.

I am grateful for the following link provided by David Shaw…
Combined Ops Link

Do you have any further information on our own Seaborne Colleagues?  If so please use the “Contact Us” link and we will be pleased to include any relevant details, thank you.