RCAF Ground Observer Corps  

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

The Archives recently received a donation of three pins awarded to a local gentleman, Dean Kelly, for his work with the Ground Observer Corps at the Oshawa Airport in the 1950s.  The Corps was a civilian organization within the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and was tasked with helping to identify any potential enemy airplanes entering into Canadian airspace.

Post World War II, much of the Western world found themselves entering into a new type of war, the Cold War. There was concern that Soviet aircraft, specifically bombers, would enter North American airspace via the North Pole. To counter this threat, the RCAF developed a three-part early warning system with radar stations being constructed at strategic points across Canada. The Ground Observer Corps worked alongside these stations, which were considered early warning systems, to monitor the skies for Soviet aircraft.

The Corps began with a small group of officers but soon grew to approximately 50,000 volunteers. The members of the Corps were supplied with an RCAF radio and would often make use of their own personal items, such as binoculars, as they were tasked with reporting on any aircraft sighted with four or more engines. The observation posts, some of which were constructed by members of the Corps on their own time and at their own expense, were staffed around the clock. During WWII, the Canadian Air Detection Corps reported sightings of both German aircraft and surfaced German submarines, so volunteers with the new Ground Observer Corps knew that there was high potential for Soviet aircraft to do the same.

The formation of the RCAF Ground Observer Corps prompted the United States Air Force (USAF) to form their own Ground Observer Corps.  In 1955, the USAF ran an operation to test the effectiveness of the northern defenses. They sent an “enemy” force to enter Canadian airspace to see how quickly it was detected. The exercise highlighted the weaknesses with current radar systems, and it was the Ground Observer Corps who sent out the first warning, approximately three hours before the radar systems reported the attack.

The RCAF Ground Observer Corps existed for just over a decade as all operations were terminated in January 1964, and the focus shifted to improved radar capabilities.

The pins are now part of the Oshawa Museum’s archival collection and will help tell this interesting aspect of Oshawa’s history.

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