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15 October 2014
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MAPS, LIGHTS, AND SIRENS: Royal Observer Corps in Cambridge

by cambsaction

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People in story: 
Vere Stoakley
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Background to story: 
Civilian Force
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Contributed on: 
01 June 2005

[This story was submitted to the People’s War site by a volunteer from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire on behalf of Vere Stoakley and has been added to the site with his permission. Mr Stoakley fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.]

We were enrolled originally as special constables, and went up to be sworn in. I was a book-binder by trade and was familiar with maps. There were roughly 50 in the crew I was in charge of - some of the crew were part-time and worked at the Pitt Press [University of Cambridge].

Our observation room had been built on top of the main Post Office building in St Andrew’s Street. It was made of glass because of an error: we weren’t actually observing. After Dunkirk, the windows were all bricked up! Our job was to receive communications from posts around the County and feed the information through to RAF operations rooms. There were Ops Rooms like ours across the country… at Watford, Bury St Edmunds, Bedford, Norwich, in this area.

The posts were at 5-mile intervals and the information we received from them about planes flying over was used to decide when sirens would be sounded. The factories would be told last of all to keep production going as long as possible - there were so many aircraft engines that wouldn’t have been built if the sirens had been sooner.

In our Ops Room, there was just one table at first, with eleven people, two supervisors, six tellers, plus some other personnel. There was a light on the ceiling with three colours — red, green and yellow. Each colour was on for 5 minutes and the tokens on the table were changed accordingly, depending on how close the aircraft were. As aircraft became faster with improvements, the intervals were only two-and-a-half minutes.

All aircraft movement was recorded — civilian as well as military. When they were dropping the paras in Holland, we could plot the planes all the way there and back again. We didn’t know what they were doing there, though. If there was a foggy night, you’d get almost a night off, because the planes couldn’t fly easily.

One day, people on the shift at Oakington asked if there was anything coming towards them because they were using Beaufort guns which didn’t fire very high. We gave them a 4 figure grid reference and they held back until the plane was right over them, then they switched on the search light. They could see the plane clearly and shot at it. It came down and landed on a farm of a friend of mine and the people there were all killed. The farmer was actually our Oakington post.

As I was familiar with book binding, I worked on the map mounting. As parts of the map wore out on the table, I would replace the damaged parts. The positions of the posts and RAF stations would all be plotted again on the parts, with 6 figure references. The maps would then be given four coats of cellulose to protect them.
Several times, I was called up for active service but my senior officers asked for me to be allowed to stay. It would go to tribunal and they would say that they needed my specialist skills with the map mounting. So I stayed with the R.O.C. in Cambridge.

In between shifts, I would dash off to my book-binding premises, trying to keep the business going. It was close to the University’s Union building, near the Round Church. Once when I was going back, a bomb fell very close.

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