Royal Observer Corps
Reminicences of Joan Corfield 1939 - 1945
I was born on 18th December 1925 – war broke out in September 1939. I can recall our Prime Minister, Mr Neville Chamberlain declaring war on Germany on our radio. From then on our way of life changed completely. The black-out was enforced as every house and building had to be in complete darkness from the outside when darkness came, also the street lights were never turned on. Some people covered their widows with brown paper – this also prevented them possibly shattering if they were bombed. Every district had Air Raid Wardens to look after their areas. One of my friend’s father became a Warden and in his road someone’s garage was taken over to form an H.Q. They were on duty day and night, mostly men beyond the call-up age. Everyone did some sort of work to help where they could. I can remember being issued with a gas mask at a local school - everyone had to have one, and take it everywhere – they were in small cardboard boxes – I had mine hung over my shoulder.
Young men and women were called up to do war work at the age of 18. My eldest brother Jimmy was called up and he joined the RAF and trained as a pilot. He was killed in action in 1941, flying a Blenheim aircraft. My younger brother William joined the RAF on leaving school – he was also a pilot flying Lancaster bombers. He survived the war.
I joined the Royal Observer Corps just before I was 18. The Corps was known as “The Eyes and Ears of the RAF"– their motto was “Forewarned is Forearmed”. Our uniform was RAF Blue. I was in No.7 Group which had their Operations HQ situated in the country at Biddenham, Bedford, opposite the golf course in Days Lane. The Operations Room was in the main part of the building, where the plotters worked, seated round a table wearing headsets with a mouth piece, who took the information from 3 outposts, there were 2 observers working on each post. I plotted the information from the Queenie Posts, 1, 2, and 3.
All the outposts were marked on the HQ table by circles with the numbers of the posts, which had a circle drawn round on the table at the centre, and the whole table was mapped out with squares especially marked.
The plotters at the centre were able to establish the height and position of each aircraft flying, from the information they received from the outposts. One observer on the outposts would identify each aircraft by visual means in daylight and sound in darkness; the second observer on each post would take the readings with the instruments they had and pass the information to the plotters in the centre. The plotters set up a plaque for every aircraft flying, using a small symbol and put on the magnetic plaques showing the type of aircraft and height. There was also a Long Range Board which stood upright from the floor, where mainly the WAAFs (who were stationed at RAF Cardington) worked using headsets only, taking the information of aircraft flying into our area, from adjoining ROC centres. The Operations Room also had a balcony above the main table with a duty officer and plotters reporting aircraft movement to RAF Fighter Command HQ.
The Home Office had men working from our Operations Room who were responsible for operating the Air Raid Warning system all over the country, so that everyone was able to take cover where ever they happened to be. The sirens indicated to everyone that enemy aircraft were coming into their area, and the sirens would go again to indicate the “All Clear” with a different sound. Most people took cover indoors, and in London they would go into the Underground – taking blankets and food as when the “Blitz” was on in the cities and towns, they might have to take cover for a long time in the night.
Very little was ever mentioned about the Royal Observer Corps as the work had to be kept very secret as was all our Forces operations.
We were told about the “Doodle Bugs” coming six months before they arrived, so we knew how to plot them when they did arrive, as they were pilotless aircraft. These were followed by a more sophisticated aircraft known as the “Pilotless Flying Rockets”. I can recall when visiting London, for a short break to stay with friends, hearing these Rockets exploding – these came after “The Blitz” of London, which caused immense damage and loss of life. During “The Blitz” someone we knew used to go up to London regularly to help, driving an ambulance. Sadly she was killed as the ambulance she was driving was hit by a bomb.
I recall quite clearly when our troops had to be evacuated from Dunkirk, France. An appeal went out in the country for anyone with a boat, no matter how small, to go over to France to rescue our soldiers from the beaches. A friend of ours had a small boat kept somewhere on the South Coast, so he and his son went immediately to their boat and went to rescue as many as they could.
The Home Guard did a great job – men of all ages, working part-time as well as their civilian jobs. The girls who joined the Land Army worked on the farms. The Women’s Voluntary Services contributed to many things which needed doing – they also had a uniform to wear. The Fire Service and Police Force also contributed so much.
The American Air Force came into the war later to help us, and had one of their Air Force bases situated at Thurleigh, near Bedford. They had Nissen Huts built for them for their Officers’ Club where they could relax when off duty. It was situated on the tennis courts at the bottom of Kimbolton Road where it joined Goldington Road, Bedford. Many well-known film stars came from America to entertain their Air Force men based at Thurleigh, including Glen Miller and his orchestra who also broadcast their music from the Corn Exchange and Granada Cinema.
The BBC used Bedford school for their broadcasts – the BBC Theatre and Symphony orchestras were also evacuated to Bedford during the war. They had their headquarters in Bushmead Avenue, Bedford where we lived, and took over the Kingsley and Cavendish Hotels for the duration of the war. Glen Miller went “missing” when he took off in a light aircraft from Twinwoods, next to Thurleigh, to fly to France to join his Band who flew there the previous day. It was thought the plane in which Miller flew was lost over the sea to France. It was very foggy the night he flew, and unfortunately never heard of again. No one really knew what actually happened.
When I was in the Royal Observer Corps, we worked an 8 Hour shift and a 48 hour week ie on at 8am until 4pm then back again at midnight until 8am next morning- then back that same day at 4pm until midnight – then a break of 48 hours I think it was, at any rate we did work 48 hours every week.
The RAF from Cardington, Bedford, provided us with transport to our Head Quarters at Biddenham as the WAAFs from Cardington worked with us at the Centre and we were picked up on the route from various points in the town. It was a bit scary, walking alone from our homes to the pick-up places in pitch darkness when on a midnight to 8am duty. Fortunately I only had to walk from our house in Bushmead Avenue to the top of the road where a few of us went from.
In the war we had food rationing – I can recall we had 2ozs of butter per week per person, and likewise for many other foods. I can remember my mother used to put eggs in what we called “Glass” in a container which contained special liquid to preserve them – so egg and chips formed a large part of our diet during the war. I recall never seeing a banana again until after the war, and likewise most fruits which came from abroad.
Our Merchant Navy were wonderful in the way they brought our food to us. In fact, many of their ships were torpedoed or bombed. My mother did all our food shopping, and very often had to queue for various items when the shop had a delivery of food (not purchased with our Food Ration Books) became available, as everything got sold out quite quickly. There was no such thing as frozen food in those days – no one had refrigerators. A farmer friend of ours sometimes provided a little extra.
A lot of men and women worked part-time in some capacity – we had them working with us in the Royal Observer Corps. Farmers, office workers, married women with children, and people of retirement age who were able, did as many hours as they could. Some did at least four hours a day, either day or night shifts, as they did in other organisations where they were needed. I can recall one day going home to Bushmead Avenue and seeing a lot of soldiers sitting on the grass verges outside the houses – they had come from France, tired and worn out, really exhausted. Many were also sent to nearby Russell Park, waiting to be rehoused on a temporary basis. Some of their officers went to every house to ask how many soldiers could they take in – we had four who slept in our one spare room. I remember they first had a bath, then my mother gave them food of course, and they stayed with us for a week until their whole battalion moved elsewhere. From memory, they were a Scottish Regiment. I know one of my mother’s sisters gave them all 50 cigarettes each.
My older sister also did war work – she worked at W H Allen Engineering Works, Bedford as a night telephonist. Allen’s made naval engines. Mary, my sister remained at Allens throughout the war. My eldest brother Jimmy had a Dutch friend, Hank who was an apprentice at Allen Works before the war. Jimmy was an Articled Clerk to a firm of Chartered Accountants and he was called up for service in the Armed Forces shortly before he was to take his final exam. His friend Hank Doornbash went to Manila just before the war broke out, as his uncle who lived there wanted Hank to work for him. He was later taken a Prisoner of War by the Japanese. Fortunately he survived and returned to England after the war. He married a friend of my sisters, Patricia Clark who was a driver in the A.T.S. (Women’s Army) during the war. They lived in Vancouver, Canada where Hank had a job with the Water Authority. They built a small house on the water front on Vancouver Island. I went to Canada some years later to stay with them.
Jimmy was born 13th August 1916. William Corfield was born 24th May 1924.
Jimmy and his crew of 2 were all killed on a daylight raid over Cologne, Germany on 12th August 1941 and all are buried on Texel Island, Holland.
Page last updated: 11th May 2017