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Watching the Skies – The RCAF Ground Observer Corps

Essa Times
23 November 2007
During the 1950s, North America was under constant watch for attack by Russian bombers flying over the North Pole. To counter this threat, three lines of early warning radar stations were built across Canada: the arctic Distant Early Warning Line, the short-lived Mid-Canada Line and the Pinetree Line, whose southernmost station was RCAF Station Edgar in Oro Township. Although these radar networks were the primary early warning detection system for North America, the RCAF Ground Observer Corps was conceived as a manual backup system in 1951.

Although it had a brief 12-year life, the Ground Observer Corps (GObC) played an important role in the defence of Canada and Simcoe County played a role in it. Twenty GObC Detachments were spread out across the country in big cities and small towns. Barrie was the home to No. 51 GObC Detachment, with a Filter Centre located at 129 Dunlop Street East, which shared quarters with the RCAF Recruiting Centre.

Each GObC Detachment had four to seven Regular Force RCAF officers, supplemented by civilian volunteers, whose enthusiasm constantly amazed RCAF command. The motto of the GObC was “The eyes and ears of the RCAF” Originally each GObC was known as either a Unit or Detachment but by 1958, all were re-designated as Squadrons.

Like all technology, radar was not infallible. Besides being susceptible to electronic or mechanical breakdown, low-flying aircraft could easily radar escape detection. The GObC was a defence reporting system consisting of a network of observation posts across Canada manned by civilian volunteers. Each post would observe and report aircraft movements to their respective filter centres, which would confirm the report before passing it on to Air Defence Command. If necessary, fighter jets would be dispatched to intercept the aircraft.

The GObC was not a new concept, having been born out of the former Air Detection Corps, which was formed in 1938 before the advent of radar. However, without the GObC, Air Defence Command would have had a hard time covering the entire country.

These unpaid civilians came from a variety of professions, including lighthouse keepers, forest rangers, businessmen, police officers, farmers, sailors, housewives, students or anyone with spare time and a willingness to watch the skies for hours upon hours. The observers were trained not only to recognize aircraft by sight, but also by their silhouettes under low light conditions. They would man these posts on a 24-hour basis, often using their own visual or audio equipment such as binoculars or electronic amplifiers to assist them. Some even built their observation towers and huts of their own.

Because of their constant watch on the skies, the GObC also proved useful in aiding friendly aircraft in distress.

By the late 1950s, technological improvements in radar and the implementation of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system at radar stations made the Ground Observer Corps unnecessary. The GObC terminated operations of all squadrons south of the 55th parallel on 2 May 1960, including the Barrie Squadron.

The GObC squadrons north of the 55th parallel continued operations until 12 January 1964, when the remainder of the corps was terminated and a chapter in Canada’s military history came to an end.

The former No. 51 GObC Detachment office is now occupied by Mortgage Funding, a mortgage broker, who have been in this location since 1965.


This is an e-mail that I received regarding the Watching the Skies – The RCAF Ground Observer Corps article:

My Dad was on the Arctic Circle at an early warning line which later became known as the Dewline in the early 1950s as I understand it. He hardly talked about it but one of his few stories was roll call after the end of the war. Your response was either “In” or “Out” and he had no idea as to what he was going to say. When the word “Out” came from him, he said it was an awful sinking feeling as to what am I going to do now.

He was living in Calgary so he went back to see Mom and his little girl. Because the early warning system was a top secret service, Mom had not heard from Dad for almost six months and she had come back to Ontario (Minesing) to be with her Mom and Dad. Dad loaded all their stuff and came down to Ontario. He bought a farm which he took over in September. Nine months later, I was born. Quite a celebration I guess.

Thanks for the story (on the GObC).

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/watching-the-skies-the-rcaf-ground-observer-corps/

27 comments

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  1. lyall johnson

    i joined the GOC in 1958 or1959 as a grade 9 student in bradford ontario along with a school chum. i received my wings (brass enameled with fitting for buttonhole) and a certificate along with a USAF Aircraft Recognition binder As part of the the RCAF recognition for service, we volunteers got a flight in a C119 Flying Boxcar out of Downsview. The most memorable moments where a poor lady crying from being airsick, which caused a number of others to do the same. i remember on a exercise day we would call in all sitting, and if i remember, we would dial a number, the operator would answer, and are response would be “aircraft flash-PeterboroughDiamond!” Very exciting lyall johnson alliston ontario

    1. Bruce Forsyth

      Hi Lyall,

      Thanks for stopping by my web site. I hope I brought back some memories.

      Bruce

  2. Jean Ooostrom

    My mother and father used to tell us stories about being Ground Observers in Gananoque. Can you tell me whether they did it from their home or another location.

    1. Bruce Forsyth

      Hi Jean,

      Thanks for stopping by my web site. My understanding is people did their observing from wherever was convenient for them, whether it was from home or a more organized place.

      Bruce

  3. Jean Oostrom

    Thanks for replying. I think that the ground observers were a very important part of our military history.

  4. Wally Mills

    Hello I was in the GOC our call sign was “Juliet 25 Black” reporting to Sea Island, our lead was Ron Drew. I misplaced my wings years ago. Wally Mills

    1. Bruce Forsyth

      Hi Wally,

      Thanks for stopping by my web page. If you have any photos that you wish to share from your time with the GOC, you can e-mail them to me at bruce@militarybruce.com.

      Bruce

      1. Wally Mills

        Thank you, I made a mistake, “Juliet Echo 25 Black” forgot the Echo. Wally

  5. Robert Hunter

    Hi
    I was a member of the ground observer corps in Brockville, Ontario. The quarters where on the second floor of the Victoria Building (now city hall).. I spent many hours in the chart room where we spent our time talking to our Radar station at Falconbridge. I was a high school student who liked the RCAF that I joined in 1953 at 18. I still have my observer pin.

    1. Bruce Forsyth

      Hi Robert,

      Thanks for stopping by my web site and for the information. Do you know how long your GObC unit was active, the unit number and do you have any photos that you wish to share? You can send photos to bruce@militarybruce.com.

      Thanks,

      Bruce

  6. Bob Hunter

    I am not to sure how long GOC was in operation in Brockville. I joined the RCAF in 1953 until 1958 and it was still in operation then. Did not know it had a number. II only recall a Officer who went on to be in charge of a Emergency depot located in Brockville as part of the overall emergence measure that the government had in place at that time. This depot operated to my recollection until 1964.

    1. Bruce Forsyth

      Hi Bob,

      Thanks for stopping by my web site and for your story. I could do a lot more about the GObC on this web site if I had the time.

      Bruce

  7. Bob Hunter

    Hi Bruce,
    Just an aside are you aware that the Rcaf operated a Marine Operation until around 1964 and that one of its vessels made it to the near Arctic.
    I mentioned about being in the RCAF. I was stationed at CEPE Detachment Avro Aircraft Co, Malton, Ontario
    During the time that Avro was developing the Avro Arrow and was on site when Cf105, RL201 crashed. It was not a good day.
    Cheer,
    Bob

  8. Wendy Loader

    Thank you Bruce for your article. Between, 1958 and 1959, our father a WWII D-Day soldier volunteered as a GObC. He was stationed as I understand it at or near Fort Black, Saskatchewan. I remember him calling it, The Dew Line. I am interested in learning more about this time. Is there somewhere I may go to get names of volunteers?

    1. Bruce Forsyth

      Hi Wendy,

      The National Archives in Ottawa may have some information.

      Bruce

  9. John Rauchert

    I have my mother’s Wings and her Wings with the three year bar.

    My Uncle and her were both in the GOC at 12 mile south of Revelstoke, BC.

    We left BC in the late 1960s when I was only about 6 or 7 years old, but I was taught their call sign “Bravo Foxtrot 55 Black”.

    1. Bruce Forsyth

      Hi John,

      Thanks for telling your story. If you have any photos that you would like to share, please send them to bruce@militarybruce.com.

      Bruce

  10. Dave Hansen

    Bruce ,
    My name is Dave Hansen , I was a member of the RCAF GOC Southern Division from March of 1957 to June of 1960 when it was disbanded . I still have my insignia , Certificate of Appointment , letter of release and Certificate of Appreciation signed by Hugh Campbell , Air Marshal , Chief of the Air Staff .
    We trained and took part in exercises periodically and were asked to report any ” unusual ” air traffic in the proximity of our homes .
    I also have my Aircraft Recognition Manual 355-10 and some reporting forms .

    Dave Hansen

    1. Bruce Forsyth

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks for sharing your story. If you have any photos that you wish to share, you can send them to bruce@militarybruce.com

      Bruce

  11. Dave McKendrick

    Greetings,

    I just sort of stumbled on your site. I was in the GObC from Sep. 1955 to shutdown in 1960 at the Vancouver Filter Centre. I was age 14 to 18 in that time. A lot was coming back to me after attending a Celebration of Life for a dear friend of that time. We both spent a lot of our Saturdays at the centre and probably talked with some of the spotter sites mentioned above.

    There were quite a few teens at the filter centre at that time and the RCAF staff even hosted a couple of dances for us. It was so great to feel a part of something important outside of home and school.

    They also arranged “familiarization flights” as perks for the volunteers. These would be half hour flights around VR in a TCA Northstar. I would get a letter from the CO to take to my teachers and get the afternoon off. The plane would be full of retired folks and a few teens, like myself. I think we all enjoyed what we did together – young and old.

    Thanks for managing this site where we can acknowledge something that only a few of us seen to know of.

    Cheers, Dave McKendrick

    1. Bruce Forsyth

      Hi Dave, Thanks for stopping by my web site. I’m glad that you enjoyed it.

      Bruce

  12. Mal Jones

    Hi Bruce,
    A trip to Foymount On ( highest point in southern Ontario, site of obsolete radar installation and also location for 1997 CBC movie ‘Peacekeepers’ ) with friends brought back a few memories of my time with the GOC. I still have my 5 year wings. As a pre-teen, my father and neighbours became members and our home became an observation point about 25 miles north of Trenton Air Force base in an area now known as Trent Hills. I remember some nights of ‘ sky watching ‘ and making phone calls on a party line to a dispatch centre in Peterborough which had a huge map on the wall with pin locators that were inserted as calls came in.

    Great memories,
    Malyn (Mal) Jones

    1. Bruce Forsyth

      Hi Mal,

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story. It’s too bad the GObC seems to be somewhat forgotten about today.

      Bruce

  13. Verne 'Shane' Scoenberger

    Greetings to you Bruce, I was stationed in Vancouver and posted to the filter center on Howe street from 1957 to 1959. It was a great experience. We had a huge horizontal plotting board where all the activity was displayed as the sightings were reported. At times an NCO and an officer would make field trips around the province to set up new observers and visit established observers at their homes. We would have pre arranged meetings where the observers in a specific area were invited to attend to be instructed in aircraft recognition. We would show national film board promotional movies also. We had a great time and met all the very interesting and dedicated observers. We heard a lot of: ‘aircraft flash, single seaplane low’ in the Vancouver area. There was another Filter center in Prince George BC, some of the RCAF personnel, as myself had been posted from the Radar cite in Tofino so we knew most of the enlisted regular personnel. One of the airmen at Prince George was on a flight out of the civilian airport in a civilian convair airplane that “went down” shortly after take off, he was instrumental in assisting many passengers from the crashed plane. I have a great picture of the Vancouver RCAF crew with ‘our pet Julliette’ who had a TV program in Vancouver. One of our officers was great at public relations so he was able to arrange a few interesting ‘thingss’ in association with the GObC.. Verne

    1. Bruce Forsyth

      Hi Vern,

      Thanks for writing and sharing your story. The Ground Observer Corps unfortunately seems to be one of the forgotten parts of Canada’s WWII and Cold War defences.

      Bruce

  14. MAJOR IAN DAVIDSON NEWBY

    I worked at the Filter Centre at 543 Howe Street from 1957 until disbandment in 1960. We had a dinner and dance at the then new (now demolished) recreation centre at RCAF Sea Island to commemorate our stand-down.
    Because of my tender age when I signed up I have a certificate as “Junior Volunteer” signed by the CO, Squadron Leader Hoseason.
    I have all my insignia; wings with hour bars, blazer crest, some copies of “Skywriter magazine and some of our “tools”,
    Radar pip, yellow plastic with many different combinations of information that was used to prepare the tracking stand; Tracking stand with slide in aircraft reporting data; Red and green plastic arrows to indicate identification as friendly of hostile/unknown; single ear headphone and mike and a plastic armband for “Technical Advisor’ (yellow) and “Supervisor” (red).
    “Filter Centre”
    “Aircraft Flash” (example) “Mike Delta 23 blue”
    “Go ahead:”
    “One Bi Cargo High Flying South,” “I have more”
    “Go ahead”
    “This is a DC3”
    “Filter Centre, roger, out”.
    Many happy hours helping to keep the skies safe.
    Finally joined the RCAF Regular in 1961, and subsequently many years in the Army (28).

    1. Bruce Forsyth

      Hi Ian,

      Thanks for sharing your story. The GObC seems to be a forgotten part of our military history.

      Bruce

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