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Watching the Skies – The RCAF Ground Observer Corps

Published in the 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.

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