Forewarned is forearmed

The Chichester observation post on the tower at Graylingwell Hospital photographed in the mid 1950's, but illustrating what the wartime post would have been like. PICTURE: Courtesy of Tangmere Aviation Museum
The Chichester observation post on the tower at Graylingwell Hospital photographed in the mid 1950's, but illustrating what the wartime post would have been like. PICTURE: Courtesy of Tangmere Aviation Museum

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the Observer Corps, formed in 1925, to monitor and report all movements of aircraft locally.

Initially, its area only involved Sussex and Kent, but within the next 10 years or so, as the prospect of another war became likely, it had been enlarged to cover nearly the whole of the United Kingdom, and by 1939, there were 1500 lookout posts, reporting to 30 control centres.

Reports of aircraft movements were passed on to RAF Fighter Command, where decisions regarding interception were made and acted upon.

The Observer Corps, whose motto was “Forewarned is Forearmed”, was a voluntary organisation, with members drawn from all sections of the community, most of whom had full-time jobs during the day, and who gave up their spare time to train in aircraft recognition locating and reporting.

A few days before the start of World War 2, the Corps was brought to operational readiness, and it would remain that way until VE Day on the May 8, 1945. Each post had up to 20 volunteers, and a shift system was arranged to enable the posts to be manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week, throughout the war.

Their ability to identify and report enemy aircraft movements was so effective, it resulted in a massive contribution to the Royal Air Forces’ victory in the Battle of Britain.

In recognition of this achievement, His Majesty George VI was pleased to bestow the title of ‘Royal’ Observer Corps on the organisation.

The observation posts were situated at roughly five-mile intervals all round the country, and grouped in ‘clusters, all in contact with each other, and reporting to a control centre.

Locally, the posts were at East Dean, Chichester and Selsey, in one cluster, with posts at Middleton, Arundel and Worthing in another.

Other local posts included Midhurst, Petworth and Pulborough.

All of the posts reported to the control centre in Horsham.

It is not known where the original post in Chichester, known as “Peter One” was located, but it was probably somewhere like Priory Park.

At the start of the war, it was moved to the tower at Graylingwell Hospital, where their view of the action over Tangmere Aerodrome must have been spectacular.

The post at East Dean, call sign “Peter Two”, was originally placed on the village green, near the pond, but during the war was relocated to the hill west of the sawmill at Charlton.

Members of the post were mainly employed at the sawmill, or in the local forests, including some from the Goodwood Estate.

At Selsey, (“Peter Three”), the post was at first on the beach, close to Bill House, before moving to the roof of a restaurant in Hillfield Road.

Post crew were mainly village shopkeepers or tradesmen.

At “Nuts One”, Arundel, the Duke of Norfolk was kind enough to allow the Observer Corps to use the roof of St Martin’s Chapel, on the Norman keep, the highest point on the building.

Several of the members here were also employed on the Duke’s estate. The Villa Plage Hotel, on the seafront at Middleton, had a flat roof, and this was used by”Nuts Two” throughout the war.

A similar site on the roof of a restaurant above the Arcade, (opposite the Pier), was used at Worthing, call sign “Nuts Three”.

Both the Middleton and Worthing posts had excellent views over the English Channel, and, as well as reporting enemy aircraft movements, were responsible for saving many crews of aircraft that had ditched into the sea, by notifying the RAF, who sent amphibious aircraft from Shoreham airfield to rescue them.

The ROC was ‘stood’ down’ in May, 1945, its job completed, but 18 months later was re-formed, when it was decided there was still a requirement for such a reporting organisation.

But by 1960, developments in radar had made the Corps superfluous. By then, however, the threat of a possible nuclear war had prompted a new role for them, in the monitoring and reporting of the effects of such a scenario, and the ROC was ‘put underground’ in protected bunkers.

At the end of the ‘Cold’ War’ the threat had gone, and the Corps was again stood down in 1991.

• Paul Wakefield, Membership Secretary of No. 2 Group Royal Observer Corps Association, and a Trustee of the Historic Collection at Newhaven Fort, has been researching the history of the Observer Corps in the county.

He would be pleased to hear from anyone who can help with further details of the Chichester and Middleton Posts during the Second World War, especially names of post members during that time.

He can be contacted at:18, Burnham Road, Worthing, BN13 2NN.

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