How the Battle of Britain inspired our Citizen Inspectors

The Citizen Inspector Network, a new conservation initiative which trains ordinary citizens to gather evidence of illegal fishing, is on target to become the world’s largest civilian fisheries monitoring network by late 2016. While the programme is innovative, the ideas which inspired it can be traced back to the Royal Observer Corps, a former civil organisation founded in 1925, which made its mark during the famous Battle of Britain, carrying out essential monitoring for enemy aircraft.

Let us bring you back to the start of the Second World War conflict. The year is 1940, at a moment when civilian observers in Britain were about to make history with their binoculars, notebooks and radio sets. Not much different from the tasks our Citizen Inspectors fulfil today, these ordinary people helped to realise one of the largest intelligence operations in history.

In 1940 the British experience a particularly warm summer. The threat of German invasion seems imminent and the country is on high alert, bracing itself for the oncoming onslaught. The Royal Air Force (RAF), which has been hastily strengthened with additional aircraft in an effort to bolster the country’s home defences, has a total of 650 fighter planes at its disposal.

Pilots scramble to their aircraft

British fighter pilots scramble to get their aircraft up in the air as fast as possible.

While during that summer over 40 new aircraft roll off the production lines every day, the RAF finds itself hugely outnumbered against the might of the German Luftwaffe. The Germans had steadily built up their air force since the early 1930s and their fleet now numbers a total of 2,800 fighter planes and bombers. Almost the entire Luftwaffe arsenal would soon fly across the English Channel to cause havoc and devastation in Britain’s towns and cities.

While seemingly outnumbered, the British are steadfast determined to defend their small island, at any cost. The government initiates numerous programmes to develop innovative methods to strengthen the nation’s defences. While not all of the ideas prove successful in the field, two developments in particular make a major difference to the ability of the RAF to efficiently deploy its fighter squadrons, which ultimately, against all odds, help Britain win the battle for air supremacy over European skies.

Tracking aircraft via radar

A member of the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) tracking aircraft via radar in 1944.

By the mid-1930s British scientists were quietly testing a new type of technology which allowed for the automatic identification and tracking of aircraft and ships over great distance. What later became known as radar, the system could detect the reflections of radio signals on moving objects, thereby establishing their location, distance, speed and heading.

After initial testing proved successful, a ring of early warning radar stations, also known as Chain Home, were constructed along the British coast. Now giving pre-warning of how many aircraft would be approaching and from which direction, the RAF could direct its few aircraft more strategically. Radar made the crucial difference in offering the RAF squadrons just enough time to get their fighters up in the air, able to intercept enemy aircraft before they had a chance to drop their deadly bombs.

Observer post

Members of the army and civilian observers at an early observation post.

However, as soon as a formation of German aircraft would cross the coast and head inland, the radar stations would cease to track them and formations could change course and altitude, thereby evading further detection. To solve this, the British had come up with a simple yet ingenious idea.

From 1917, during the First World War conflict, civilian observers were stationed out of monitoring posts to observe the sky for the growing threat of enemy aircraft. While the observers proved useful in spotting and reporting on air activity, it wasn’t until 1925, in the wake of the conflict, that the need for aircraft observation obtained official recognition.

Observers in action

Members of the Royal Observer Corps in action at one their observation posts.

A more official network was established that would spot and track formations and routes of enemy aircraft. Known as the Royal Observer Corps, the new organisation trained ordinary people, many of them older, First World War veterans, in the art of identifying aircraft formations from small ground stations. From 1939 onwards the Royal Observer Corps operated over 1,500 observation posts, stationed all over the country.

Any suspected activity in the air would be relayed to a central point known as RAF Fighter Command, where the intelligence would be analysed and plotted on large maps. This essentially allowed British commanders to track enemy attacks and deploy their small number of RAF resources far more effectively that previously possible.

Royal Observer Corps HQ

A Royal Observer Corps command centre, which collects and analyses the information

The Royal Observer Corps located and tracked hundreds of aircraft raids during the Second World War conflict and by directing allied fighters to victory, it caused such great losses to the German air force that it was soon forced to abandon its large scale bombing raids, meant as a prelude to a seaborne invasion that never happened.

In other countries, similar tactics were soon put into action to scale up aerial monitoring efforts. In Finland, the voluntary auxiliary military organisation Lotta Svärd, which was originally formed in 1918, had a large membership undertaking volunteer social work in the 1920s and 1930s. During the Second World War, it mobilized to replace men conscripted into the army. Amongst other tasks, the ‘Lottas’ served at air raid warning positions; observation posts that would spot aircraft crossing into the country from the Soviet Union.

Finnish 'Lotta's' at an aircraft observation post

Lottas observing aircraft activity at one their observation posts.

From a purely strategic point of view the conflicts during the 1940s teach us important lessons. The need to innovate and think up bold plans in the face of overwhelming opposition is a question that has been on the minds of military leaders throughout history. Could those strategic obstacles and the innovation which followed them guide us to tackle some of the growing challenges the world faces today? Could military history inspire new approaches to conservation, to help us track poaching and illegal overfishing more efficiently?

The Royal Observer Corps recruiting

The Royal Observer Corps recruiting for volunteers.

Since 2010 The Black Fish has worked at the forefront of driving innovation in conservation; testing the feasibility of new and creative ideas while running field investigations and enforcement campaigns in cooperation with authorities to expose and prosecute illegal fishing. In our recent projects we have revived some long forgotten and seemingly redundant ideas and tactics of decades ago, now readily deployable in the fight for environmental protection and the sustainability of the planet.

The global scale of destruction and conflict during the Second World War is luckily far behind us. However, the world, undoubtedly a safer and more peaceful place now, is facing new global challenges. While those challenges are of a different nature, what is not so different is need to direct limited resources to where they have the biggest impact. In this regard the odds of vastly outnumbered British fighter pilots is not so different from the world’s fishing inspectors currently struggling to take on the vast scale of illegal fishing and the organised crime activities that it facilitates.

A Citizen Inspector observing a port for illegal fishing activities

A Citizen Inspector monitoring vessel activity in a port suspected of harbouring illegal fishing activities. Photo by Kukka Ranta.

The Black Fish is looking for people to volunteer two weeks a year and join its Citizen Inspector Network as civilian fishing inspectors. We offer training, accommodation and a chance for you to actively help investigate and aid prosecution of fishing criminals. Are you interested? We look forward to hear from you!

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