The Royal Observer Corps

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A brief introduction.

The Royal Observer Corps was first formed loosely in 1914 in response to the threat of bombardment from the air, the objective of this newly formed organisation was to aid in the identification of any incoming enemy aircraft. This role was initially fulfilled by special constables reporting to directly to the Air Ministry, but as WW2 loomed this role was increasingly formalised and the Observer Corps developed into a professional uniformed network of posts and headquarters. The Observer Corps served with distinction during WW2 and as recognition of this the King awarded the organisation the title ‘Royal’. With the war in Europe and the Pacific coming to a close the ROC was stood down in 1945.

Cyril Carter and Bob Leake at Cuckfield Observer Corps Post in 1945

In the late 1940’s the threat of atomic attack by the Soviet Union rapidly increased with the escalation of tensions in Eastern Europe and Germany and the marked the beginning of a new period of hostilities and nuclear stand off, now commonly referred to as the ‘Cold War’.  This new era brought about the need to track Soviet bombers and monitor nuclear fallout post-attack  in order to provide warning and support to the civilian population. As the ROC already had in place a network of posts, HQ’s and a proven field force (albeit stood down), this new responsibility fell to the ROC and the Corps were re-activated in 1947, initially performing the same role as they had during WW2, but by 1955 the fallout reporting role was introduced and the first underground protected post was built at Farnham in 1956. Between 1956 to 1968 a rigorous building program ensued and saw 1563 underground posts and 40 protected group headquarters built up and down the British Isles to meet this new challenge.

Cuckfield Underground ROC Post in the 1960’s

These new underground posts were organised into ‘Sectors’ consisting of approximately 4-5 ‘Groups’. These ‘Groups’ were made up of approximately 20-40 posts and a HQ. Within these ‘Groups’ the posts were arranged into ‘Clusters’ of 3-4 with one being designated a ‘Master’ post. The Master post was equipped with a radio as well as the land-line based loud speaker telephone which ensured that communication was possible from all posts to the group HQ’s.

Bedford No7 Group ROC HQ in the 1980’s. Courtesy of Bob McIntosh

To read about the differing roles and history of the Corps, click the following links:

To explore more about the structures and buildings of the Corps, click the following links:

Key Dates in the History of The Royal Observer Corp

  • 1914 – The idea of ‘Air Defence’ and observation is first suggested
  • 1925 – The Observer Corp is formed
  • January 1929 – The Air Ministry takes control of the Corps, an Air Commodore is appointed as Commandant and the motto ‘Forewarned is Forearmed’ is adopted
  • 24th August 1939 – The Corps is mobilised at the start of the Second World War
  • July – October 1940 – Battle of Britain
  • 9th April 1941 – King George VI grants the title ‘Royal’ for services during the ‘Battle of Britain’
  • 10th may 1941 – Rudolf Hess secretly flies to Great Britain and is successfully tracked by Scottish Observer Posts
  • September 1941 – Women are admitted to the Corps
  • June 1944 – The Seaborne Venture, in support of D-Day
  • May 1945 – Stand Down, end of Second World War
  • January 1947 – Corps re-forms
  • 11th April 1950 – King George VI becomes the first Air Commodore-in-Chief and the Royal Observer Corps medal is instituted
  • 2nd June 1953 – Queen Elizabeth II assumes the appointment if Air Commodore-in-Chief
  • 1955 – The nuclear reporting role is introduced
  • 24th June 1956 – Review of the Corps by HM Queen Elizabeth II. Presentation of the Royal Observer Corps banner.
  • 1968 -Re-organisation, reduction in establishment and closure of some posts
  • 1971 – Data transmission introduced and a close association formed with the Danish Home Guard
  • 1975 – Golden Jubilee of the Corps
  • 1981-5 – Installation of new, modern, communications networks begins
  • 27th June 1985 – Golden Anniversary Garden party
  • 25th July 1991 – Review of the Corps by HM Queen Elizabeth II accompanied by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh
  • 30th September 1991 – General Stand down of the Corp (except NRC/NBCC cells)
  • 1995 – final stand down of the remaining NBCC cells and the end of the Corps

Further information


  1. Buckton H, 1994, Ashford, Buchanan and Enright, Forewarned is Forearmed: Official Tribute and History of the Royal Observer Corps ISBN 9781852532925
  2. Catford, N, 2010, Folly Books, Subterranean Britain: COLD WAR BUNKERS ISBN 9780956440525
  3. Cockroft W, Thomas R, 2003, English Heritage, COLD WAR: Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946 – 1989 ISBN 9781873592816
  4. Dalton, M, 2011, Folly Books, The Royal Observer Corp Underground Monitoring Posts ISBN 9780956440556
  5. Winslow, T, 1948, Forewarned is Forearmed: A History of the Royal Observer Corps
  6. Wood, D, 1976, Macdonald and Jane’s, Attach Warning Red: The Royal Observer Corps and the defence of Britain 1925 – 1975 ISBN 9780356084114
  7. Various ROC training manuals from 1939 to 1989

Modified: 18th Feb 2023