WWII: The Battle of Britain | Memories of 'Britain's finest hour'

London Calling - The Men Who Watch

Two members of the Observer Corps describe their duties.

BBC ARCHIVE DOCUMENT 1940

Article from 'London Calling'.

18th July 1940

The Men who Watch for Nazi Planes

[Page 1, Column 1]

The Observer Corps is an important part of the defences of Great Britain. The Corps has the job of detecting the approach of German raiders and passing on the news for the use of searchlights, guns, and fighter planes. Here a member of the Corps, who is a barrister in civil life, describes an exciting night's work

It is midnight at one of the posts of the Observer Corps near a small country town somewhere in England. I am one of the crew on duty. My mate has just said it isn't a bad night, but he wishes it were a bit warmer. And so do I, for I call it decidedly chilly, even for an English midsummer. It's dark, too, for the waning moon has not yet risen and the stars do not seem to have much brightness about them.

We came on duty at ten o'clock, just as it was getting dark, and since then we've been watching the skies and listening, as we have watched and listened since the war began. But the night is quiet. The wind has blown away the rain-clouds which threatened a wet night, and has now died down. My mate and I discuss the prospects of a raid. He thinks it most likely that Jerry will come over a bit later on - when the moon rises.

Suddenly our telephone bell rings. A message from headquarters: 'Keep a sharp lookout - we're expecting a spot of trouble.' My mate and I stand-to with increased vigilance. But all is quiet. A little breeze brings the scent of new-mown hay across the meadows. The river murmurs as it wanders below us on its way to the sea. All is as it had been for centuries - the war is a thousand miles away.

The bell rings again. This time the voice at the other end is a little more explicit. Jerry, the gentleman who drops the bombs, is definitely about. Certain figures and directions are given, and on the map we are able to trace his course from the spot where he last disclosed his unwelcome presence. The telephone is very busy now, and we hear our neighbouring posts take up the tale as they pick up the sound of the raider and pass him on to the next post, and the next. Still we can hear no sound of him - he is too far away yet.

[Page 1, Column 2]

Sirens in the Dead of Night

Suddenly the air raid sirens - a melancholy sound at the best of times, but in the dead of night a most depressing performance. And when they have died away we are able to listen again. Our nearest neighbour now has the raider within his hearing: on the telephone we hear him reporting the track of the plane across the sky. Will he come towards us, we wonder? The beams of the searchlights sweep the sky, but they cannot pick up the plane - he is too high. At last we hear him, but he is still a long way off and our neighbour hasn't finished with him yet. Faintly and intermittently at first, then louder, we hear him and finally our neighbour passes him on to us. And now we start to track him - he's still too high to be seen, but we hear him quite plainly now. There's no gunfire yet, but we can picture the anti-aircraft gunners behind their guns waiting for the moment when he dares to come within the probing beams of those searchlights. On and on comes the raider - a lone machine, we decide. Suddenly there's a flash and a report, and a light in the sky. He's dropped a bomb - and another - and another.

Following Every Movement

My mate and I are very busy. It is vitally important that every movement of the raider should be followed and reported, and we watch and listen for every change in his height or direction. Ah, he's turning now, coming straight towards us - his engine becomes suddenly louder. Still the searchlights sweep the sky, but Jerry is taking no chances and won't risk coming low enough to encounter their beams. On he comes, louder again now, turning again till he strikes his course for home. Fainter and fainter grows his engine, and at last we pass him back to our neighbour, a little regretfully.

We had hoped he would have shown himself for just one moment - just long enough, as my mate puts it, for the boys to crack-off at him. But his is a long way from home yet, and he has many perils of British fighters and anti-aircraft guns to face before he can say he is safe. On the telephone we hear him being passed on from one post to the next.

Before long the sirens sound again - this time the long sustained note of the 'all-clear.' Gradually the sounds of activity in the little town beneath us die away. The worthy country folk return to their beds, and my mate and I settle down once again to our routine job of watching and listening.

Image with caption that reads: Members of the Observer Corps are taught to locate, identify and track down every plane, be it a friend or foe, which enters their area. These photographs from a lonely outpost show two observers taking a bearing on an aircraft, and that there's nothing like 'a nice cup of tea' in a spare moment.

The Gunners who Bring them Down

[Page 2, Column 1]

There is no news I like to hear better on the radio than that 'umpteen enemy aircraft were shot down today.' And I must confess that when the words 'by anti-aircraft fire' are added, I get a bigger kick still, because I am an 'Ack-Ack' gunner on the South coast. And I know that every time our anti-aircraft batteries bring down an enemy raider there is a bunch of men who have been rewarded for their patience through long months of inactivity.

I know what a thrill it is, because quite recently on a Sunday my own battery shot down an enemy fighter off the South-East coast. It didn't take long, either, once our spotters had him in view. Only six of our guns fired. Four fired only one round each, and the other two fired two rounds each, making eight rounds in all. It took less than thirty seconds from the moment the 'Open Fire' order was given to the 'Cease Fire.' So you see we all had to move pretty quickly to get him. So quickly, in fact, that we ourselves did not see the actual direct hit which demolished the enemy's tail and sent him diving headlong into the sea. But other people saw the hit, and they have told us the story.

We have been in action quite a lot lately. We may have shot down other German raiders that no one actually saw hit. But like our friends of the R.A.F. Fighter command, we never claim a success until it has been definitely confirmed.

A.A. Fire an Exact Science

It may interest those of you who've not been attacked by the enemy from the air that a raid can be over and done with in such a short space of time. This is what we have in our log-book for that Sunday lunch-time, for instance:

13.12 hrs: enemy aircraft seen at 8,000 feet. 13.14hrs: Open Fire. Range 6,000 to 7,000 yards. 13.14.5 hrs: Cease Fire. Enemy aircraft have disappeared.

What happened was this. We first got a warning that enemy aircraft were approaching. Every man was on his toes at every gun in the battery. Suddenly the spotters saw a Dornier 215 through a break in the clouds. Then its escort of Messerschmitt fighters. The alarm was flashed to each of us. In a twinkling we worked out height, speed, and direction of the raiders. Guns were loaded and at the psychological moment the command rang out, 'Fire.' Half a minute later a Messerschmitt 109 was hit.

Anti-aircraft fire nowadays is an exact science. The men on the guns do not see a thing: they do everything by accurate instrument reading. When someone asked one gun crew how they enjoyed seeing their shells get home one of them said: 'We didn't. All we know is that our shell was intended to explode at a certain spot in the sky, at a certain height and distance from the gun. And, according to the clocks, an enemy aircraft should have been at exactly the same spot at exactly the same time. It was.'

We now realise more than ever before how immensely important in the defence of this country is the 'Ack-Ack.' It makes our long winter waiting seem worth while. It was a long winter, too, but we thoroughly enjoyed it. At one time we had all our provisions brought to us by sledge, and a couple of our gunners brought their skis and winter-sports clothes and gear to act as runners when the snow was deep.

Image with caption that reads: 'A suitable end to a Nazi fighter. This Messerschmitt 109 was shot down by British fighters after it had crossed the South-East coast of Britain. Our photo shows Air Ministry officials examining the wrecked plane.'

[Page 2, Column 2]

Here is the officer of an anti-aircraft unit which recently brought down an enemy fighter in the South of England. He describes the action which resulted in the enemy plane being shot down, and says something about the officers and men who are his colleagues.

Ninety per cent of us are local men: we were born and grew up in the same time and villages near our gun sites. The others are Militiamen, and one of them, who next week celebrates his first anniversary in the Militia, is now a subaltern in charge of one gun crew. Our Colonel is a fine type. He is a farmer in civil life. He first joined the Territorial Army in 1912, went right through the last war, and won the D.C.M. He has gone through the ranks and won his promotion through sheer hard work and efficiency. He was largely responsible for getting our battery into being. He rejoined the Territorial Army in 1921 and has worked hard for the Regiment ever since. Now we are grateful for all the encouragement he gave us during the days of peace.

Our battery major is a local estate agent who has been in the Terriers for a round dozen years. Many of the gunners were employed by the local Corporation. One was a sanitary inspector, others had manual jobs. One lance-bombardier was assistant prosecutor for the local Corporation, and another was a dairyman.

Many of us have been in the Territorial Army for years. Two of our sergeants, the 'Number Ones' on two guns, joined within two days of each other, twelve years before the war started. Another of our sergeants has been with us for fourteen years.

So, you see, we have been comrades-in-arms for a long time. Most of us were friends even before we joined. There are old soldiers and very young soldiers: one gun is manned by youngsters whose average age is about twenty-one. Another gun has men around it wearing ribbons from the last war.

No Slackness during the Winter Months

I mentioned just now the winter months. We were by no means idle then, you know. We made our own dug-outs, fitted up our underground office with telephone and electric lights, and also built our own huts. All this work was done when we were off duty - we volunteered for it! We built our own dining hall near the gun sites, and our first meal in it was Christmas dinner.

We hope to have a lot more enemy raiders to our credit by the time our next Christmas dinner comes along!

Image with caption that reads: 'Britain's anti-aircraft defences have accounted for many enemy machines that have ventured over British soil. This remarkable picture, taken by a high-speed camera, shows one of our latest anti-aircraft guns at the moment of firing.

[Document ends]

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Document Type | Magazine Article

18 July 1940

Document version

Writtenin

1940

Synopsis

A typical night is described by two representative volunteers who operate the searchlights and 'ack ack' guns which search out and deal with any German enemy aircraft that make it across the English Channel.

These documents have been broken down into sections to make them easier to read.

Did you know?

As a result of their role during the Battle of Britain, in April 1941 the Observer Corps was granted the title Royal by King George VI, and the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) became a uniformed civil defence organization administered by RAF Fighter Command.

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