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The Royal Observer

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Observation Corps.jpg

My grandfather Jack Pearson was a member of the Royal Observer Corps, and he joined three years into WW2, on 10 October 1942. He was not called up because he was, at the time, a miner, which was a reserved occupation.


The Royal Observer Corps was a civil defence organisation.  It was originally known as simply The Observer Corps and it was set up in 1925 to detect, identify, track and report aircraft over the United Kingdom.  It was made up of civilian volunteers from all walks of life, and was not stood down permanently until 1995.  In 1941 King George VI bestowed the title “Royal,” in recognition of their service during the Battle of Britain. 


In the early days, observation posts were sometimes ramshackle affairs, but these were eventually replaced by more substantial brick structures protected by sandbags.  They were located on hilltops, cliff edges or open fields, and on the roof tops of public buildings and factories.  They eventually became two-storey structures with an open-topped observation platform above a crew rest area. 


Preparations for war were going on for a few years before it actually happened.  Mock air raids were being organised as early as 1937 and more men were being recruited and trained up for the Observer Corps, taking part in simulated raids.  In April 1939 there was already a Bolsterstone Observation Corps, and ten of its members were presented with badges and certificates of efficiency at a Northern Observation Corps dinner in Leeds.  Fifteen members of the Bolsterstone post went to the dinner, which was attended by around 250 people from all the corps in the northern area. The local men who received awards from the Chief Constable of the West Riding were the Rev. F. W. Holt (head special), Albert Whittaker (deputy), Messrs. E. Binks, R. Creswick, G. Wainwright, G. Chandler, A. Staniforth, W. Evans, R. E. Rodgers and J. A. Helliwell.  My grandad wasn’t mentioned by name, but he could still have been a member.  Albert Whittaker, who was second in command, lived at 25 Shay Road.  In July the Ecclesfield Observer Corps, as part of their training, visited a Royal Air Station where they spent the day, with some of them taking the opportunity of a flight. 


WW2 was declared on 3 September 1939, and from then on all the Observer Posts were manned continuously until 12 May 1945, 4 days after VE Day.  Observer Corps members were highly trained in aircraft recognition, which was not an easy task, but it was a vital one. 

In WW2, Germany’s aim was to achieve air superiority over Britain by destroying R.A.F. fighter planes and bombing aircraft manufacturers.  Our radar system could warn of enemy aircraft approaching our shores, but after that the Observer Corps provided the only means of tracking their position. From July to October 1940, the Observer Corps was operational 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, plotting enemy aircraft and passing on the information they gathered.  The Battle of Britain also saw the introduction of the Blitz campaign and the shift of German bombing from airfields to cities. Again, the Observer Corps provided vital information which enabled timely air-raid warnings to be issued, thereby saving countless lives. The Blitz itself continued until early in the summer of 1941 and bombing continued, albeit on a reduced scale, until March 1945.  The Sheffield Blitz took place in December 1940.  The work of the Observer Corps was invaluable; without it, the air-raid warning systems could not have been operated and inland interceptions would rarely have been made.  As stated above, because of their role in the Battle of Britain, the Observer Corps was granted the title “Royal” in 1941 and they became a uniformed civil defence organisation administered by R.A.F. Fighter Command.  Initially, the only uniforms provided were R.A.F. overalls, “boiler suits,” with an R.O.C. breast badge, commonly referred to as the “soup plate” because of its shape and size.  1941 was also the year that women were recruited for the first time.   


Locally, the R.O.C. had a network of sites protecting the steel and heavy industries in Sheffield.  Radar was used to give the height and direction of the enemy planes, but was not so good at saying how many, or what type of aircraft.  The Observer Corps were highly trained in aircraft recognition and sound location, and fed information by landline to a control centre where the plot of the raid was tracked.  Unfortunately, the Luftwaffe tended to attack at night, which compromised this system.  Towards the end of 1941 the R.O.C. were also tasked with reporting aircraft in distress.


My grandad and his fellow Observer Corps pals used to practice their aircraft recognition at his home.  With an old white sheet tacked to the wall they used a projector called an epidiascope to project silhouettes of aircraft onto the wall which they would try to identify.   They also had picture cards of different planes and their silhouettes, and had to memorise them so that they could recognise enemy aircraft.  My grandad said that they got badges for this, which made him feel like a boy scout!  He said he had to go to Leeds to take his Spitfire examination.  Grandad was a member during the War, but I don't know when he joined; records are sparse – because there was a war on.  I think he was in the Bolsterstone Observer Corps, Post X3. 

In February 1944 Jack Pearson was one of two Stocksbridge men who qualified to take part in a national competition for the Hodsoll raid spotters’ trophy, on behalf of the north-east region.  The other was Leonard Broomhead.  Two men from Leeds also qualified, as did two from York.  Wing Commander E. J. Hodsoll, CB  was the man tasked by the Home Office to set up, from scratch, Air Raid Precautions in case of war with Germany.  During WW2 it was one of Britain’s largest ever voluntary organisations.  He was the Inspector General of the Air Raid Precautions Department.  Unfortunately, I cannot find a report on the outcome of this competition.


On 6 June 1944, the largest amphibious assault in history was launched against the Normandy coast with the goal of establishing an allied foothold in Nazi-occupied France. During preparations for this invasion, which was commonly known as D-Day, the Air Ministry issued a confidential order which consisted of proposals for the Royal Observer Corps to participate in the forthcoming Operations. There was an urgent need for a substantial number of expert R.O.C. Observers; their role was to advise as to the identity of aircraft at sea.  Over 1,000 candidates applied to join as “Seaborne Observers” of which approximately 800 were selected.  Using the ready-trained aircraft recognition skills of the Royal Observer Corps was faster than training up ships gunners and moving them from their primary role of defending our ships.  Those chosen were trained in Bournemouth before temporarily joining the Royal Navy with the rank of Petty Officer (Aircraft Identifier).  They continued to wear their R.O.C. uniforms, but wore “Seaborne” shoulder flashes and a Royal Navy brassard with the letters ‘RN’. There is a list of these men here:


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 survived being injured during the landings. The Seaborne operation was seen as a huge success and was recognised by King George VI and the participants were allowed to use “Seaborne” shoulder titles as a permanent feature of their observer uniform.


On 12 May 1945, when it was certain that all Luftwaffe aircraft were grounded, the R.O.C.  stood down.  In recognition of the contribution made by its personnel in the victory, the Air Ministry held a massed R.A.F. rally and air display at R.A.F. North Weald in Essex, from Saturday 23 to Monday 25 June 1945.  Over 2,000 R.O.C. personnel were invited to attend, with at least two observers from each R.O.C. facility representing their respective post or centre. As part of the event, the new Ensign of the R.O.C. was dedicated at a special service.

Approximately 18-months after the stand-down the R.O.C. was re-activated to meet post-war threats.  This was the time of the “Cold War,” with tensions running high between Russia and the West and the seemingly constant threat of nuclear war.  The members continued in their role of aircraft recognition and reporting, and in 1955 they were also tasked with detecting and reporting nuclear explosions.  

In June 1953 Chief Observer Eric Staniforth and Observer Leonard Broomhead travelled to Leeds to receive the Long Service Medal from the Lord Mayor at a Civic Investiture.  A piece in the Fox Magazine, published by the local steelworks, said that Eric Staniforth, of the Siemens Department, had attended the R.A.F. Central School of Aircraft Recognition and had been appointed Chief Observer in 1947.  Leading Observer Jack Pearson and Observer Thomas William Staniforth were also presented with First Class Certificates for the Yearly Test.  In a report of this ceremony, printed in the Yorkshire Post, only Eric Staniforth was listed among the recipients.  One of the medal recipients, Leading Observer Sid Lister of Leeds, had taken part in the seaborne invasion of France in 1944.

A piece in the Fox Magazine of Summer 1965 written by Observer G. Newbould (who worked in Fox’s Chemical Laboratory) aimed to recruit new members. The Corps was always ready and willing to train new recruits to this “interesting as well as useful occupation.”  Out-of-pocket expenses would be met, and the training was “not too technical.”  The age limit for men who wanted to join was from 16-60 years and for women it was 18.  There were at that time posts at Darton and Ecclesfield as well as at Stocksbridge.  Anyone wishing to join the Stocksbridge post was asked to contact Chief Observer Eric Staniforth (who also worked in the Chemical Laboratory), whose home address was 5 Armitage Road, Deepcar.  Mr. Newbould also gave a brief history of the Corps, and mentioned that it had recently become an accepted training scheme in the public service section of The Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.  He mentioned the sterling service that the Corps had given in the war, and said that some people might be surprised to know that they were still a flourishing and important part of Britain’s defences.  The old war-time role of aircraft plotting and recognition had taken a back seat and become the secondary role; the primary function had moved on to the recording and reporting of information pertaining to Nuclear Fall Out and Radiation Hazards.

The whole of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was divided into six areas, each containing a number of groups, with each group being sub-divided into clusters which usually had four posts.  Each post had a chief observer in charge of the post, and a leading observer to train recruits or observers.  For training, post meetings were held twice a month, each meeting being roughly three hours in duration.  There was a “cluster meeting” once a month when all four posts gathered together for instruction from the group officer or other senior officers.  All members were invited to attend an annual camp where there would be extra training, for example in instrument technique.  Not only had the focus of the R.O.C. changed, but so had its Observer Posts.  Instead of the old brick structure with its glass turret, the Government was in the process of constructing underground posts, walled with reinforced concrete.  Facilities were provided for a lengthy “Shut Down” in case of emergencies.

The main body of the R.O.C., the civilian volunteers who manned the monitoring posts etc. was stood down on 30 September 1991.  It was decided to retain the Nuclear Reporting Cell element of the Corps in order to continue providing a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical service for all three armed forces.  The control of the Corps was once again fully funded and controlled by the R.A.F. and became part of Headquarters No. 11 Group at R.A.F. Bentley Priory.  Some thought that it was not right that volunteer civilians were still used and the decision was finally taken to stand-down the remaining element of the Royal Observer Corps on the 31st December 1995.  The headquarters staff at R.A.F. Bentley Priory stood down three months later, on 31 March 1996.


Sources and Further Reading:

This is the main page of the Royal Observer Corps website, and it has some very informative sub-pages including history, badges, uniform, equipment and infrastructure, underground posts, etc.  The History pages have some links to old British Pathe films showing the R.O.C. at work.

Badges and uniforms of the R.O.C.

The Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum website has a page on the R.O.C.

Combined Operations: The Royal Observer Corps D Day Seaborne Operations.

Ownsworth, John.  Penistone & The Peak District in Wartime, privately printed 2017

With thanks to members past and present of the R.O.C. for their help

Photos from my own collection

Newspapers at Findmypast (also available at the British Newspaper Archive): Note: for the war years 1939-1945, the local paper, the Penistone, Stocksbridge and Hoyland Express is only online for 1940 so far (as of March 2024)

Fox Magazine Summer 1953 edition and Fox Magazine Summer 1965 edition p29 – a monthly magazine printed by the local steelworks.


These photos show the men at some kind of camp, which I have been told could be an annual camp, possibly at an R.A.F. station, location unknown.  Click on the photos for more information.  

These photos could have been taken on the occasion of one of the camps, above, the men taking a trip along the Prom at a seaside resort somewhere.


The R.O.C. Observer Post was on farmland between the villages of Bolsterstone and Deepcar, off Cockshutts Lane.  The brick structure is still there today, although it has lost its protective dome.  Dad remembered taking my grandad’s “snap” when he was on duty at the listening post. He thought there was also a listening post on Coal Pit Lane but he might have been mistaken on this. 

Below: The top photo shows the Observer Post in a field as viewed from Cockshutts Lane and is taken from Google Street View 2011.  The one below it is from Google Earth, and the third one is a close-up from Google Earth  A hexagonal shape can be seen on the right of the structure, which is where the structure's dome was situated.  The dome can clearly be seen on the bottom photograph, which shows my grandad Jack Pearson with the headphones on.

Observer Post from Google Street View 2011.jpg
Observer Post from Google Earth.jpg
Observer Post closeup from Google Earth_edited.jpg

Jack Pearson is the man with the headphones.  He is using the Post Instrument which was used to track aircraft.  It sits on a map of the local area. Jack is wearing the head and breast set which provided communication via a telephone line to the R.O.C.’s own Operations Centres.  There were 40 of these and they would plot the aircraft movements on a Plotting Table. The man on the left has been identified as Leonard Broomhead, who is on some of the other photos.

On the next photograph Eric Staniforth is using the Plotting Instrument.  The man on the left looks like Thomas William Staniforth.  There doesn't look to be a lot of room in the dome!


The next two photographs are later than the ones above, probably mid-1950s, because the men are in the new uniform which lacked the breast badge.  Instead, they are wearing shoulder flashes.  That looks like Eric Staniforth in the centre using the Plotting Instrument (or it could be a Mr. Charlesworth) and Thomas William Staniforth on the right with the binoculars.  You can just make out the glass dome of the observation station around the edges. 

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Royal Observer Corps, T. W. Staniforth on the right.jpg

Below: a typical mid-war Post Plotting Instrument. Note the two pointers on the map (near the dashed circle), indicating the addition of the Micklethwait Height Corrector. 

The Post Plotting Instrument, also known as the Observer Instrument, was the standard optical sighting system used by the R.O.C. to determine the location of aircraft.  It was used from the mid-1930s into the early 1950s, and was one of the main sources of daytime tracking information during WW2.  There were two versions of this instrument, a pre-war model using a pantograph, and a more advanced wartime version.  Both required the operator to estimate the altitude of the aircraft and enter that into the device, then point a mechanical indicator, or sight, at the aircraft. The motion of the sight moved an indicator on a small Ordnance Survey National Grid map.  The grid location indicated by the pointer was then telephoned to central control rooms, where several such reports were combined to produce a more accurate location estimate.  Later models added the Micklethwait Height Corrector, which allowed the posts to measure altitude with some accuracy and thus improve the quality of the measurements.  The R.O.C. also developed a methodology that allowed the Post Instrument to be used to produce measurements purely by sound, but it is unclear how often this was used.

Source: Wikipedia, from a page about the Plotting Instrument.  Original source: Imperial War Museum.,_1939-1945._CH8215.jpg

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Above: the Observer Post as it stands today.  The door is on the left hand side. 

Below: three men (Neville Gay on the left, Thomas William Staniforth in the centre, Eric Staniforth on the right) are stood in that doorway. They are wearing the new pattern uniform, no. 2 Battledress, which dates this to the mid-1950s. These new uniforms were introduced gradually in a rolling programme and not everyone would have got them at the same time. It would take time to transition from one style to another. The Corps identity moved from the breast badge to shoulder flashes.


I include the following about a water tank because over the years it has been the subject of discussion whenever the Observation Posts / Bunkers have been discussed.  This is what I found out - thank you to everyone who got in touch to help.


In 2014 my dad told me about what he thought was an underground listening post for the R.O.C. about half way up Long Lane, in some woodland (not the top wood).  I went up to have a look and almost fell in a deep hole which was full of water and had a ladder descending into it.  There was no fence round it, and no warning that it was there – it’s a good job that I was paying attention!  Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos.  It turned out to be an old water tank, used to supply water before the reservoirs were built.  The people of the valley depended on local springs for their water, and wells were proving unequal to the task.  Until the reservoirs were completed, the spring at Whitwell Moor was furnished with facilities including storage tanks adjacent to Long Lane and at Hungerhill Farm.  The supply was administered by the Local Board (the forerunner to the Urban District Council). People remembered playing in it as children! The tank is marked in yellow on the map below.

Source: The Whitwell Moor Archaeological Survey by Tim Cockrell and the Bolsterstone Archaeology and Heritage Group.

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There was a post-war bunker / listening site from the Cold War era in the Salt Springs area.  It was operational between 1964 and 1991.  It is 100 yards south of a cobbled bridleway and 600 yards west of Heads Lane.  The website Subterranea Britannica has an entry for this bunker which reads: “All surface features have been demolished above ground level, but the two timber lined ventilation shafts are still visible, below ground level but they are blocked after a few inches. The FSM [fixed survey meter] pipe is also visible, and it is possible to see that the room below has not been filled. There are stone steps up the mound and a pile of old metal fence posts on top.  Opened in 1964 and closed in 1991.”  The Fixed Survey Meter was a detection instrument used during the Cold War between 1958 and 1982 to detect ionising radiation from nuclear fallout generated by a ground burst.

In his book Penistone & The Peak District in Wartime, p129, John Ownsworth writes: “A Royal Observer Corps Underground Bunker situated on the Southern edge of Whitwell Moor, Stocksbridge, O.S. Map reference 252 971, Peak District Tourist Map.  About 100 to 150 metres before the lane passes through a gateway (before the lane drops down to Salt Springs Farm) on the Southern side of the lane is a gateway through a wall, 80 metres beyond this gateway can be seen, on the near horizon, a large earthen mound under which this facility is situated.  In the 1980s this bunker facility was still being maintained but now […] 19 June 2017, the entrance, which was on the Western side of the hillock, had been locked and landscaped.  On the top of the earthen mound can be seen the remains of the steel chimney which has been cut off at ground level and close by can be seen a square hold, about 12” square, which is lined with concrete sections, this hold and the chimney have been filled with stones.” 

There is nothing to be seen there today but a mound of earth. 

The website Subterranea Britannica has three of the photos below, and other photographs from underground bunkers around the country.  The link to the Stocksbridge page doesn't work so go to and type "Stockbridge" in the search box.  When the page loads, click on “images.” [note: yes, it says Stockbridge not Stocksbridge]


Please get in touch if you can add any names to this photograph.  I might have got T. W. Staniforth mixed up with T. Westhead

The breast badges date this photograph from 1941 until the mid-1950s; however, this was taken no later than 1947 because Alf Pearson was killed in the “Bolsterstone Coach Crash” at Holmfirth in October of that year.

Back row: Possibly Jeff Haigh the head chauffeur at Fox, Jack Allott, ? , possibly Cyril Firth, ? , ?

Middle row: Ashby Helliwell, ? , Joe Batty, Leonard Broomhead, ? , ? , Alf Pearson

Front row: Jack Pearson, Eric Staniforth, Mr. Senior, ? , Tom Westhead

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Eric Staniforth on the right, wearing the R.O.C. badge and tie, with Jack Pearson sat next to him.  The man on the far left is Albert Carter.

left is Albert Carter, Jack Pearson left facing camera, man on right Eric Staniforth with
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Jack Pearson, who appears to be modelling his new uniform in the mid-1950s outside his home at 4 Spink Hall Lane.

This is the new-style uniform.  It no longer has the breast badge identifying him as a member of the R.O.C. but instead has shoulder flashes.  On the sleeve that is visible is a Spitfire badge and below that a Leading Observer badge.

All R.O.C. ranks below that of Observer Officer were entitled to wear a Spitfire proficiency badge to mark success in the annual R.O.C. Master Test examination. The first version of this test was introduced during the Second World War as a measure of competency in the field of aircraft recognition, with candidates required to correctly identify a set of aircraft silhouette cards in order to be judged proficient.

The test cards were later replaced by photographic slides projected onto a screen using a “Flash Trainer” projector. Between 1956 and 1966 the test became a mix of aircraft recognition and written answers to questions relating to the nuclear detection role.

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ROC medal engraved J. Pearson.jpg
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Jack Pearson's Long Service medal, which could be awarded after 12 years' service. 

The medal slip was sent to me by an ex-member of the R.O.C. called Richard Sirley, who has published a book[1] called “The Royal Observer Corps Medal.”  It notes that Jack's qualifying dates were 10 October 1942 until 8 June 1956.   This is a period of 14 years, but there were 12 qualifying years (taking into account the stand down period after the end of WW2).  He was recommended in November 1957 and the medal issued in March 1958.  His wartime service fell just short of the required 3 years to also earn a Defence Medal.

[1] ISBN: 9780995750579, 612 pages

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