The Royal Observer Corps provided vital early identification of approaching enemy ships and planes for Allied gunners. Their aim was to reduce Allied aircraft losses to so called 'friendly fire' by providing high quality aircraft recognition information. In essence they answered the question "friend or foe?"
This paper was written to give well deserved recognition to the small but significant part played by the 796 talented people in the ROC who participated in the D-Day landings. They were, however, not part of the Combined Operations Command, but their uniforms comprised aspects of all three services. They therefore more than meet the spirit, if not the letter, for being included in this Combined Operations Website.
D-Day - "The Longest Day" In common with all Allied forces personnel preparing for the D-Day landings, the ROC volunteers were subjected to waiting, boredom and apprehension as the planners took account of weather and other operating conditions before launching the big offensive. This was alleviated to some extent by a review of the fleet along the south coast of England by King George.... at least it gave the men an excuse to polish and clean!
For the first 500 Observers posted by 5 June 1944, all plans and preparations came to a climax with the issue of General Eisenhower's order, (Supreme Commander Allied Powers Europe), to start the Allied invasion of France.
The heroic efforts of the military personnel involved in this historical action have deservedly been told and retold many times, in many different ways. While the roles of the merchant marine, the ROC and other groups, such as dock and railway employees, failed to capture the public imagination in the same way, it is a matter of record that without them there would have been no invasion!
Supplying the advancing allied forces was undertaken by hundreds of vessels of all sizes and uses. All were subject to the hazards of mines, fast-attack boats, shore batteries and attack by aircraft; as well as the storms and natural hazards found in the channel and its approaches. Messages to the Air Ministry and ROC Headquarters, from ships' Captains, various naval and air commanders, (both land and ship based) were unanimous in their praise for the work of the ROC. Included in these were the personal congratulations from Admiral Ramsey, Allied Commander-in-Chief Naval Forces.
This signal was received from Lieutenant Lyon, commanding US Naval armed guard aboard the SS John A. Sutter:
"Subject named men" (Observers W.E.Hills, and J.F.Rolski) " formerly members of your command and now serving as aircraft identifiers on our ship, Merchant Transport 22, attached to my US Naval gun crew, have already proved their weight in gold to us in properly and quickly identifying all aircraft we have encountered in our initial invasion trip.
As an example, on the morning of June 10th, with visibility poor, they caused us to hold fire on two RAF Spitfires, which all other ships, except naval units, were firing at for a period of half an hour.
When they reported aboard they told me they could identify anything, which they could see. Such has proved to be the case and I find myself, along with my men, relying on them for services far in excess of any other personnel in the crew. It is a pleasure to have them with us, and a great satisfaction to have man so carefully trained to do a job which is so important for the safety of our troops and cargo."
From Wing Commander P.B. Lucas, Air Staff Air Defence of Great Britain:
"The general impression amongst the Spitfire wings covering our land and naval forces over and off the beach-head appears to be that in the majority of cases the fire has come from naval warships and not from merchant ships. Indeed I personally have yet to hear a pilot report that a merchant vessel had opened fire on him"
After two and a half months of stalwart service the ‘Seaborne’ scheme was brought to an end. However the ROC did not come out unscathed; two men were killed, one was injured by shell splinters and one by a V1 flying bomb which hit his vessel while in dock in the UK. Twenty-two survived their ships being sunk. ‘Petty Officer’ Ian Ramsbottom (who must have been the youngest ‘Senior NCO’ in the Royal Navy for those two months) returned safely back to school!
The final word went to the original proponent of the use of the ROC on D-Day - Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory. He wrote the following to be circulated to all ROC personnel:
"I have read reports from both pilots and naval officers regarding the Seaborne volunteers on board merchant vessels during recent operations. All reports agree that the Seaborne volunteers have more than fulfilled their duties and have undoubtedly saved many of our aircraft from being engaged by ships guns. I should be grateful if you would please convey to all ranks of the Royal Observer Corps, and in particular to the Seaborne observers themselves, how grateful I, and all pilots in the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, are for their assistance, which has contributed in no small measure to the safety of our own aircraft, and also to the efficient protection of the ships at sea.
The Work of the Royal Observer Corps is quite often unjustly overlooked, and receives little recognition, and I therefore wish that the service they rendered on this occasion be as widely advertised as possible, and all Units of the Air Defence of Great Britain are therefore to be informed of the success of this latest venture of the Royal Observer Corps."
ROC D-Day Roll of Honour
Killed in action: Chief Observer John B. Bancroft* (Motor Vessel Derry Cunily 24 June 1944 – sunk by acoustic mine); Observer Bill Salter (Steam Ship Empire Broadsword sunk by a mine).
Injured in action: Observer Percy Heading (Steam Ship Sambut sunk by shellfire).
Mentioned in despatches: Observer Lieutenant George Alfred Donovan Bourne; Leading Observer Joseph Douglas Whitham; Observer Thomas Henry Bodhill; Observer John Hughes; Observer Derek Norman James; Observer Edward Jones; Observer Albert Edward Llewellyn; Observer George McAllan; Observer Anthony William Priestly; Observer John Weston Reynolds... and all the remainder of the 796 courageous volunteers!