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July 2023


Veryan ROC Post on Carne Beacon View to the West

The view from Carne Beacon, a Bronze Age barrow close to the south Cornish coast near to the picturesque village of Veryan, is breathtaking. Looking west the vista pans from the Lizard in the south past Tregonning Hill, Four Lanes, Carn Brea to St Agnes Beacon in the north. Looking east the panorama extends from Carland Cross in the north past Scarcewater, Watch Hill, Hensbarrow Down to Dodman Point on the south coast. It is hardly surprising that the very first above ground aircraft reporting post in Cornwall was sited on top of the 8 metre high Beacon in January 1940. Operated by the Observer Corps it was to become part of No 20 Group (Truro) and was designated T2 Veryan Post. When some of the locals objected to the desecration of the barrow the Air Ministry pointed out it had been a beacon post in Elizabeth I’s time and was part of the chain of signal beacons that took news of the sighting of the Armada off the Lizard to London in just 23 minutes. Thus it was fitting it should once again be utilised to warn England of attack in 1940.


The Observer Corps started in 1925 as part of the Home Defence plans being upgraded for the age of the aeroplane after the experience of the Zeppelin raids during the Great War. They were activated on 26th August 1939 and observers had the status of a special constable complete with armband that had the words Observer Corps imposed on the usual S.C.’s blue and white stripes. Their role was to plot the movement of enemy aircraft after they had crossed the coast and so passed behind the nation’s line of radar stations. Thus they were a crucial part of the Dowding system of air defence. Forewarned is forearmed was their motto.


The first structure at Carne was wooden, some 3m by 4m and boasted an observation area with aircraft plotting instrument and a small ‘cubby’ for shelter, making tea and cooking. Communication was by land line to the operations room in Truro. This was first sited in the GPO Exchange and had a direct link to No 10 Fighter Group based a Box in Wiltshire. In 1941 this switched to the Sector Ops Room at RAF Portreath.



ROC Mevagissey (R1) at Bodrugan Barton in 1944


The neighbouring post at Bodrugan Barton above Portmellon was designated R1 Mevagissey and opened in June 1940 – the third in Cornwall. Twenty six posts were set up in the county by the end of the year – eight opening in the month of October including the one at Helston. The posts were grouped together in threes to allow for the cross-fixing of a plane’s location and direction. Thus Helston was grouped with the Lizard and with Praze-an-Beeble, St Ives with Sennen and Madron.


The names posts were known by can be misleading as names were chosen to mask their exact location. Thus Veryan is at Carne, Mevagissey at Bodrugan and Nanpean is actually three villages away near Lanjeth. Occasionally it is thought the post name was determined by where the Chief Observer lived rather than the geographical location of the post. However, in a rural community where everyone knew everyone’s business, secrecy was a myth; silent discretion was more the norm.



Chart from Helston ROC post (Q1)

Observers became expert at working out the height of planes from their contrails, identifying the aircraft from its silhouette from various angles and in inclement weather when visibility was poor from the sound of their engines. They were trained and tested using playing cards with aircraft silhouettes on them. Training also included special films at the Plaza Cinema in Truro showing aircraft of all types from all angles. A pass rate of 180 out of 200 was needed to earn the proficiency badge.


Once identified the posts passed on information on the number, height and direction of planes by phone, which was on a special harness worn by one of the observers, to Truro which would corroborate the details from neighbouring posts plotting the path of the aircraft on their large chart before passing the report to the RAF.



Observer J Clayson at the Bodmin ROC Post (S3) in 1943

Observers worked 8 hour shifts with two on at a time, the rotation being staggered every 4 hours to give continuity. Paid 1s 3d an hour some full timers, known as A class observers, worked a 48 hour week. Part timers, known as B class, were paid 9d an hour and often did 4 hour shifts fitting them in around work or school (as many were teenagers). Many part timers often clocked up a 38 hour week. In July 1941 women were admitted due to the youngsters being called up for military service. They were paid 10d an hour rising to 1s by 1945. There were rules about women not being allowed on a mixed overnight shift and many ended up working in the operation centres doing the plotting. Frank Connor, Chief Observer at the Veryan Post, eventually enrolled his wife Kathleen, his son and even his housekeeper into the Corps.


Recruitment was often done locally by word of mouth. Bill Harford, aged 15 in 1942, was a schoolboy at St Austell Grammar School and keen on aircraft recognition. When someone on the bus to school overheard his conversation and recognised his ability, Bill received a message to go and see the chief observer in Mevagissey. He was tested on a pack of cards and there and then offered a position at the post where he served for two years.



George Ellis in the Bodmin ROC Post (S3) in 1943

In Bodmin’s ROC Post, S3 which was sited near the Gilbert Obelisk on the Beacon, Cornish Guardian photographer, George Ellis, was one of the observers.


Due to the fantastic work carried out by the Observer Corps during the heady days of the invasion threat of the summer and autumn of 1940 King George VI granted the ‘Royal’ title on 9th April 1941 and the Royal Observer Corps became a uniformed civil defence organisation administered by RAF Fighter Command. The Western Area Commandant was Observer Captain J.W. Sanders.



The Bodmin ROC Post (S3) seen near the Gilbert Obelisk

1942 was to see a number of upgrades to the posts and to their methods. T2’s wooden post on Carne Beacon was replaced by a more substantial block post which was elevated and had glass side panels around the top to give some protection from the weather. Likewise R1 Mevagissey was changed to a tower of brick and concrete block construction. The lower floor included a toilet and sleeping accommodation. The upper observation area, reached by external wooden stairs, also included the ‘cubby’ – the roofed crew room. The move away from wooden posts couldn’t come soon enough for the St Ives post. On the hill by the Knill Obelisk their wooden post was prone to blowing over and on one occasion did so falling on its door trapping the observers inside for six hours until the change of shift. The new concrete block post was built 20 feet from the site of the wooden one. The number of posts in Cornwall had increased to 36.


In response to the tip and run raids of 1942, from which Cornwall suffered badly, an additional 16 satellite posts were set up to cover blind spots in observation, especially of points where low-flying aircraft could slip between the radar coverage. Only two were ROC posts, the rest were observers placed in coastguard stations. The satellite stations were manned by a single observer who would report direct to the mother post. Thus Penzer Point reported direct to St Ives, Pentargus Point to Veryan, and observers at Polruan coastguard station reported to Polperro ROC post. There was also a satellite set up at Coad’s Green, the only inland one sited to plug a gap on the eastern side of Bodmin Moor.


Three Cornish posts were issued with the TR9D high frequency short range radio sets for communication with aircraft lost or in distress. The sets, codenamed ‘Darky’ sets, had a range of about ten miles and were issued to Veryan, Polperro and Sennen. Others were given homing searchlights to direct lost planes back to their airfields, such as the posts at St Ives, Nanpean or Helston. At St Ives the searchlight was on a concrete plinth just outside the post.



The remains of Mevagissey ROC Post (R1)


Snowflake illuminating rockets, codenamed ‘Totter’, were used to warn of hostile aircraft below 1,000ft for the benefit of Anti-Aircraft gun crews and patrolling fighters. Nine posts in Cornwall received them in 1942 including Helston, Par and Mevagissey and seven more in 1943 including St Agnes, St Anthony and St Columb Major. Also in 1943 red ground flares were issued to be fired if a plane was deemed to be on a flight path into high ground. The Cornish Moors had seen numerous crashes killing crews and destroying aircraft.


The Operations Room in Truro had moved to the Masonic Hall in Pydar Street and in June 1943 it received an upgrade with a vertical long range map visible to controllers in the balcony as well as plotters on the floor. It was also linked to the Ground Control Intercept radar station at Treleaver on the Lizard with a CGI interrogator based at ROC Truro and an ROC agent based at RAF Treleaver. Other efficiencies were made with the use of communication codewords, such as Rats for low urgent raid.



The Observers of Helston ROC Post (Q2)


The value of the Royal Observer Corps (and the shortcomings of Cornwall’s network of Chain Home, Chain Home Low and Chain Home Extra Low radar stations) was seen on Thursday 6th August 1942. The ROC post on the hill above Pelynt, near Looe, spotted two enemy planes crossing the coast. In fact, there had been four: two went to St Breward where they bombed the village and the water works causing loss of life (9 year old Roland Skinner died of his wounds on the way to hospital) and the loss of Bodmin’s water supply.


The other two planes headed over Wadebridge and up the Camel Estuary before banking to port and heading over St Issey where the ROC post reported two planes coming in low and fast down the Camel Estuary at 7.31pm. There was no radar plot but the control room in Truro started receiving reports of two aircraft heading fast and low towards Truro. At 7.33pm there was a firm report that two German intruders had been seen flying fast and low near Grampound Road. A minute later they were spotted at Shortlanesend.


Former 20 Group Ops Room Duty Controller W/Off Daphne Steward (nee Paul) recalled to ROC historian and former controller Lawrence Holmes, “Sometime after 1900 hrs the coastal posts reported enemy aircraft approaching Truro. The Duty Controller reported this to the RAF Sector Ops Room at RAF Portreath. Rather unusually the RAF Controller said that there were no enemy aircraft in the vicinity and the ROC must be mistaken. The ROC Duty Controller doubted this and several minutes later other reports came in from posts again stating enemy aircraft heading inland. He again reported these plots to Portreath and was again told that the ROC must be mistaken. Several minutes later the Truro Ops Room was shaken by the sounds of explosions and gunfire. By now a furious ROC Duty Officer snatched up the phone and roared to Portreath ‘....you know those B.....dy aircraft you keep telling me are friendly – well they are blasting the hell out of Truro’ and slammed the phone down’.”


The railway station was hit with cannon fire killing two and injuring four. The Royal Cornwall Infirmary suffered a direct hit where the bomb killed nine, seriously injured 58 with another ten with lesser injuries. All 200 patients had to be evacuated to other facilities. Another bomb which exploded above Agar Road killed two and injured one hundred.


Among those killed at the hospital were ROC member Percy Arnold Mortimore, aged 33, his wife Mabel Louise, aged 34, and their 8 year old daughter Margaret Ann. Margaret Ann had pneumonia and pleurisy and her parents were visiting. Her brother was orphaned and brought up by grandparents. Percy had joined the Corps on 10th January 1941 as a B Class Observer in the Truro Ops Room. All were buried in Kenwyn Church Cemetery.


The St Columb Chief Observer, George Gregory, received the British Empire Medal for his part in rescuing the crew of a Hudson that crashed near the St Columb post shortly after take off from RAF St Eval on 19 May 1943. Air Commodore Sir Nigel Norman, on his way to the Middle East for an Airborne Forces Planning Conference, died as a result of the crash caused by fuel starvation to the port engine. The pilot was attempting a forced landing in a wheat field at Crugoes Farm. Pilot Officer (Obs) Arthur Rotenberg, died of his injuries a few hours later in the RAF St Eval medical facility. He is buried in St Columb Major Cemetery. Farm workers Bill Richards and Eddie Thomas looked after the two injured crew who exited the plane while George Gregory managed to retrieve the other four crew from the wreck before it burst into flames. All the survivors had broken limbs. George Gregory’s prompt actions that day saved lives and his medal was well deserved.



The remains of Week St Mary ROC Post (N2)

The Royal Observer Corps was stood down on 12th May 1945. They were reformed in 1947 for the Cold War. In the late 1950s their role changed from one of aircraft recognition and plotting to monitoring radiation levels after a nuclear missile attack. Thus their posts moved underground. The Mevagissey post at Bodrugan Barton remained in use until the ROC moved to a new site at Trewollock where their underground post was built in 1958. In September 1962 the post at Carne Beacon moved to its underground bunker on Nare Head which became fully operational in July 1963. At Bodmin the post moved the other side of the hedge for its underground bunker. These remained operational until the Royal Observer Corps was released from duty in 1991 and finally stood down in 1995.



Bodmin Cold War ROC Post in the early 1980s

Today a few of the wartime posts remain in Cornwall, such as those at Mevagissey and at Week St Mary, although are often in a ruinous state and on private land. At Bodmin it is possible to find a few lumps of concrete amongst the gorse. Similarly at Madron a small length of concrete block walling can be seen against the hedge. At St Ives the base of the concrete post can still be seen amongst the undergrowth on publicly accessible land. Carne Beacon is accessible via the public footpath through the field where the concrete base of the wartime post is all that remains.

The Royal Observer Corps are credited with being the “eyes and ears” of the Royal Air Force. Dowding stated shortly after the Battle of Britain, “It is important to note that at this time they (the Observer Corps) constituted the whole means of tracking enemy raids once they had crossed the coastline. Their work throughout was quite invaluable. Without it the air-raid warning systems could not have been operated and inland interceptions would rarely have been made.”


WORLD WAR TWO ROC POSTS IN CORNWALL

Much of the information below on wartime posts is incomplete. If you can add any detail, or have evidence to correct any information, please get in touch via the contact page.


World War II ROC Posts in Cornwall
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The concrete base is all that remains of Veryan ROC Post (T2)

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