You might already be aware of the underground bunker position that overlooks the Solent in Lepe Country Park in Hampshire, but if you’re not, it’s a fascinating part of our history. The official name of the Lepe Beach bunker is a ROC post, with this one in particular being the ROC 14 Group 46 Post, also known as Stone Point.
ROC stands for the Royal Observer Corps. They were a collection of part-time volunteers who were the UK’s eyes and ears in preparation for a nuclear strike during peace time and the Cold War period.
There were 1,500 of these underground monitoring posts built across the UK from 1955 onwards in the response to the threat of nuclear war. Many times they tended to be spaced roughly 8 miles apart.
In the video below you can see my interview with Stephen Hall. He was an ROC observer at the Stone Point and Lepe ROC post from 1987 to 1991. Lower down the page, you can also see his notes on his time in the Lepe ROC post bunker that he has kindly let me publish, along with photos from his collection.
ROC post diagram in the Lepe Beach bunker video thumbnail above by the talented Bob Marshall, historical illustrator.
Lepe’s hidden underground bunker from the Cold War
Here are some photos I took of the Lepe beach’s underground bunker in January 2021.
Whilst it might not look like much from above, down that hatch you see here is a long ladder which descends into a small two room bunker. There would have been one room for operations, and then a small toilet and storage room just as you enter the main room. But, it was small, particularly once desks, chairs, and bunk beds were in there.
If the missiles came, it was these guys who would spring into action. It was their job to send out attack warnings, provide aircraft recognition services, gather data on the position and magnitude of bombs dropped, and help monitor fall out activity.
But by the early 1990s the world started to change. The Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union broke apart, and the threat of Nuclear receded so much that the decision was taken to close the ROC monitoring posts down, including the one in Lepe Country Park.
As many of the ROC posts were in secretive locations on private land such as farms and hilltops, they quickly fell into disrepair. Some were destroyed and filled in, others were vandalised, and flooded, or simply left to rot.
There’s only a handful now left surviving. I’ve personally managed to visit a few in various states of decay – some are better than others as you can see from the footage in my video above.
Whilst all ROC posts were built to the same design and template, this one at Lepe is very different – because compared to others that still remain, it’s in amazing condition and inside looks like it might have done in the 1960s.
Part of that is due to the fact that unlike other ROC posts it’s not hidden away in the countrywide, open to the elements, and at risk of vandalism.
Instead, it’s situated in a busy country park and benefited from National Lottery Funding in 2015 for a complete renovation – returning it to how it would have looked in the 1960s period… the height of the Cold War.
If you are wondering, the periscope was added by Hampshire County Council to let people look down inside to see what it’s like. Unfortunately it’s not possible to go into it for tours and open days.
Memories of ROC 14 Group 46 Post – Lepe Country Park / Stone Point
Stephen Hall, ex-Leading Observer, ROC no. 116541
I moved to Southampton in March 1987 to start a new job as a Customs Officer, and was initially based at Fawley oil refinery. I’d been member of the Royal Observer Corps (see Wikipedia definition) since 1985, based at the coastal location of Porthcawl in South Wales. With the move to Southampton I was transferred to 14 Group and was posted to the Stone Point, Lepe ROC post as my primary wartime location – a similar sea-front position to my previous post.
ROC members were part time volunteers in peace time, paid only travel & subsistence, but we would have been called up full time if the government believed that war was looming. As a Civil Servant at the time, I was allowed paid Special Leave to take part in ROC duties and attend the annual residential training camp, which usually took place at operational RAF stations.
The ROC in the 1980s was primarily part of the UK’s nuclear attack warning & monitoring organisation (UKWMO) and we were officially ‘uniformed civilians’ rather than servicemen and women, but wore a uniform similar to that of the Royal Air Force. We had an RAF Air Commodore as our Commanding Officer, and had since the earliest days of the pre-WW2 Observer Corps worked closely with the RAF, acting as the eyes and ears for warning of enemy aircraft throughout WW2.
The ROC had initially been used as an organisation able to visually identify aircraft overhead and report their identity as friend or foe, & their position, height and bearing to the regional headquarters – you’ll have seen photographs of the WW2 operations rooms, with the staff plotting positions and calling on intercepting Spitfires and Hurricanes to scramble and defend the homeland.
Radar couldn’t always be relied upon, there wasn’t 100% national radar coverage, attacking aircraft learned how to fly ‘beneath the radar’, or indeed bomb or electronically ‘jam’ the system, so human eyes and ears were still needed as part of the UK’s integrated air defence.
Although after WW2 the role of the ROC evolved into a primary nuclear warning role, duties also included aircraft recognition, weather observations, and for coastal locations, identification of shipping too. More on that later.
Why did you join the ROC?
I had been an anti-nuclear activist in my teens, a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and had taken part in the anti-cruise missile marches of the early 1980s. I soon realised that the likes of CND were simply never going to be successful – in the Soviet Union any members of equivalent organisations would soon be rounded up and sent to the gulags – indeed after the Cold War ended our former opponents confirmed that they had regarded campaigners for unilateral nuclear disarmament as ‘useful idiots’ who were valued for making the job of potentially defeating NATO easier.
So, I wanted to do something useful if ever a nuclear conflict had occurred – what could I do to help save lives? Was there anything that might help alleviate the awful impact of a nuclear attack, even if all I could do was help just a little bit?
I learned that the Royal Observer Corps existed to give early warning of nuclear attack, sound the air raid sirens, detect where the bombs had detonated and to assess the power of the explosion, the amount of radiation that had been produced, and monitor which way the nuclear fallout was going to drift.
This data would help what remained of the authorities to evacuate, send help and medical aid, and for the armed services to know which airfields and bases might still be available.
What would a nuclear war have been like?
We all knew that in an all-out nuclear war, the beneficial impact of any form of civil defence in a small island like Great Britain would be minimal – a full-blown nuclear holocaust would have killed almost everyone, with those not mercifully incinerated in a flash of atomic fire dying horribly of burns, radiation sickness, starvation and break-down of civilisation in the following days and weeks.
Our usefulness and utility was designed for the scenario of limited nuclear strikes – just a handful of weapons being detonated over the UK, hopefully to be followed by saner minds in the governments of the combatants getting round the table for peace talks before it all deteriorated into Armageddon.
The general population of the country had little idea of the detailed planning that existed for wartime. In those pre-mobile phone or internet days, the telephone system, motorway network and freedom of movement would have been strictly for authorised users only, with martial law in place in many parts of the country – inhabitants of some key locations near US bases might have been surprised to discover that the local military police & ‘authorities’ were American, not British.
Remember that all of the WW3 scenarios worked in a similar manner – massive Soviet invasion of West Germany, the tanks rolling across western Europe until stopped by a combination of conventional, and eventually nuclear, weapons. Nobody thought the war would last more than a few days, weeks at most, before it went nuclear. No time to worry too much about peacetime luxuries like democratic process.
What was it like being a ROC observer at Lepe?
At that stage in life I was married but had no children – my wife as a hospital pharmacist had what would have been a wartime reserved occupation (not that anyone ever told them that) and would effectively have been ‘called up’ too, so we talked these things through and agreed that I would have reported for duty if ever called upon.
We operated the ROC posts on a wartime basis of 14 days-worth of food & water, and would have operated a shift system until bombing commenced, at which point whoever was in duty (a team of 2 or 3) would stay put – you had to assume that whoever wasn’t in the bunker when a nuclear weapon went off was already dead.
Most active ROC members were either side of the children stage of life – either younger members who single, or couples with no kids, or (the majority) middle aged or older. We often wondered who would turn up if we were ever called to do our job, even what would we do if we reported for duty and found the Lepe bunker occupied by frightened, or even violent & armed, civilians.
The ROC was officially unarmed, but off record many of us believed that in a real conflict, as had happened in WW2, side arms & small calibre weapons would probably have been issued. We had a good relationship with the police and local military units. Much was unsaid, these were the unspeakable plans for doomsday – nobody expected to have to answer to any court once The Bomb had been used.
In terms of the rank, the leader of the Post was a ‘Chief Observer’, more or less a Sergeant, second in command was the ‘Leading Observer’ (Corporal) and the rest were Observers. An Officer would be assigned to look after a cluster or two of Posts, our group of three posts was Lepe, Lyndhurst and one high on the ridge above Stockbridge – in wartime we could have used any of the three if our primary post was for any reason unusable.
Of our three, the Stockbridge had the most secure location but being so close to military installations would have been right under ‘ground zero’ in a nuclear war – at the Lepe ROC post we thought we might get inundated with irradiated seawater, sand & shingle thrown up by a shallow water nuclear burst in the Solent, a likely scenario in a nuclear attack, as well as air- and ground- bursts to destroy Fawley, Southampton and Portsmouth.
What equipment did you use at the Lepe Stone Point ROC position?
All of the ROC monitoring posts had a standard set of equipment that included a petrol-powered generator for charging the bank of 12 volt car batteries that powered everything, the technical equipment you needed to detect and measure nuclear explosions, and equipment to make the post tolerable for living and working in during warfare.
Facilities were very basic indeed – a latrine bucket rather than a proper toilet for example – and one of the nice things about Lepe was the nearby public toilets and washing facilities, for which we had a set of keys.
Most posts, ours included, had quite a lot of unauthorised additional equipment provided by the resident crew – camping equipment, better quality stoves, sleeping bags, reading material, survival equipment of various kinds. Observers often ‘acquired’ better kit to wear too – at 46 post in the late 1980s we all had full sets of armed forces-issue combat clothing, even respirators and NBC (nuclear, chemical & biological) protective equipment that was far in excess of the official issue.
Many of us had contacts in the armed forces or reserves who helped us find the extra things we needed. We certainly weren’t alone in that – posts across the country had all sorts of extra equipment stashed away for doomsday, usually with a nod and a wink from our superiors who rarely said ‘you can’t take THAT down there!’
What was a typical day like at the Lepe ROC post in Hampshire?
So what was a typical pattern of duty for ROC members? Most posts operated a weekly drill evening, either at the Post, or a convenient point nearby as space was at a premium down below. In the case of Lepe, we either met at the Air Training Corps facility in Hythe – particularly for things like training in aircraft recognition where we needed access to a projector and screen – or at the Post.
In the summer months we would meet more often at the Post – in the long evenings we’d cut the grass, conduct any repairs, practise getting the generator lowered in and out of the post, practise communications with headquarters and practise emergency drills like how to get an injured person in and out of the post – not easy!
Occasionally there would be all-night exercises, and weekend exercises where we’d simulate wartime conditions. One chap was fond of hiding up trees in Lepe country park and telling us that in a real war he could have shot us all as we unlocked and entered the Post at our leisurely peacetime pace – we worried about him!
Once on exercise we’d batten down the hatch, and would install an electronic chip sent to us to be inserted into the post systems to make the instruments give readings to simulate a nuclear attack. At a very public location like Lepe this could be interesting – in the late 1980s there were several re-enactments of the Schneider Trophy air-races, and hundreds of visitors would descend on Lepe to watch the aircraft flying over, turning tightly to head back across the Solent at low level – it was quite a sight.
On at least one of these occasions it coincided with one of our weekend exercises. We had our own keys to the carpark and would let ourselves in very early and park up close to the Post. We’d be in our uniforms – usually the combat versions – and would practise exiting the post to change the light sensitive paper in the Ground Zero Indicator – a simple pinhole camera that would capture the flash of a nuclear explosion – and make mock-radiation readings from the surface.
I recall the general public and tourists in Lepe Country Park – often queuing by a nearby ice-cream van – looking perplexed and rather astonished to see a uniformed young man, sometimes wearing a gas mask & radiation protective equipment, emerge from a green metal hatch in the car park and start taking readings.
In the end we had to put one of the ROC Observers in a deck chair up on the surface, to answer the many questions from a curious and rather worried-looking public!
Down below we’d patiently monitor the instruments, fully aware of course that it was an exercise, thought it could get quite realistic when the sensors started giving readings from the chip installed for simulating an attack, and the well-rehearsed routines would kick in.
We’d hear the reports streaming in from across the South to Winchester Control – clear calls of ‘Tocsin!’ to indicate an explosion, followed by the Bomb Power Indicator (BPI) reading, which measured the pressure wave from the explosion.
When it was our turn, we’d also message control with our own “Tocsin!” call, then after a one minute delay (I suppose the allow the fireball to begin to dissipate) one of us would scurry up the ladder and head outside to retrieve the GZI cassette papers, replace them with fresh ones, and transmit the details of the bomb spot(s) to control as a ‘NUCLEAR BURST’ message. The first sign of fallout detected by the Fixed Survey Meter would be passed as a ‘FIRST FALLOUT’ message. After this, radiation dose rates would be collected from posts on a regular cycle.
Over at control, all this data would be collected together so that coordinates of nuclear explosions (location, size & height) could be gathered, fallout patterns plotted, and the other data we submitted fed into the intelligence and situational awareness picture.
I mentioned that we still trained in aircraft recognition, and at coastal locations in ship recognition as well. I was particularly good in those arts, and ended up as a member of the UK’s national team competing against our Allies to see who were best in the Identification Friend or Foe business – we won often, and I have the trophies at home.
There was discussion of attaching ROC aircraft recognition specialists to RAF, Army & Navy anti-aircraft units to prevent friendly fire, but it didn’t come to anything when the cold war ended.
How did your time come to an end at the Lepe ROC bunker?
And so, the time came when our potential enemy collapsed almost overnight. We were thrilled to see the Berlin Wall come down, the whole of the Warsaw Pact collapse like a deck of cards, and even the mighty Soviet Union cease to exist.
The likelihood of us ever having to go back to ‘Attack Warning Red!’ rapidly receded, and to our surprise we were ‘stood down’ shortly after celebrating our Golden Jubilee (with a nice Royal Garden Party at Bentley Priory too) in 1990, with a handful of remaining specialist units winding down over the following year or so.
We had thought that as an organised, disciplined, uniformed organisation some 10,000 strong, all over the British Isles, with excellent secure communications equipment and volunteer spirit, that the ROC could have been re-purposed for a broader, non-nuclear civil defence role – but alas the bean counters in Whitehall wanted to see savings, the ‘Peace Dividend’, and although we were cheap to run, we were disbanded – but allowed to keep our uniforms in case we were ever needed again.
The network of posts and command bunkers were dismantled, even filled-in with concrete, and the ex-Observers found themselves with spare time on their hands, and I must admit some sense of disappointment that we had been thrown away. To rub salt in the wound, we found that as we were uniformed civilians rather than service men & women, local RAFA clubs didn’t regard us as eligible for membership and later when the Cold War medal was issued, we weren’t entitled to apply for it.
On the positive side, many ROC Observers went on to offer their volunteer services as instructors for the Air Training Corps, or in St Johns Ambulance, and a myriad of other part-time volunteer organisations that value their skills and spirit.
If the ROC and the post at Lepe Country Park had continued, change would have come eventually – the parameters we were trained to measure can now be easily measured by remote controlled and autonomous electronic systems of various kinds, so the national network of bunkers would likely have been phased out in any case.
The world is once more at a stage of rivalry between powerful nation states, with some noticeably unpredictable leaders, so perhaps once more the call will come to volunteers carrying out early warning or civil defence duties, but the tasks now will be different, and much more automated.
The youngest of the ex-Observers from Lepe are now in their late forties or early fifties. We did have youngsters joining right up until the end – at Lepe we had two young women still at sixth form college – and some young people joined as it gave them access to being able to join RAF sports clubs undertaking activities such as free-fall parachuting.
As for me, a year after stand-down we had our first son – I’d always said I’d leave if I had children, who can honestly say they would go to work in a nuclear bunker and leave their wife and child behind? Life went on in many excellent and interesting directions, I transferred from HM Customs to the Natural Environment Research Council, worked 27 years at the National Oceanography Centre, and since 2017 have been running an international marine science organisation based in 10 countries.
I look back on those times in the Royal Observer Corps and time spent at the Lepe Country Park Stone Point post with happy memories, thankful that our services were never needed.
New interview with Steve Doyle
A week after I interviewed Steve Hall I was able to speak to one of his colleagues, the other Steve… Steve Doyle. This let me gain even more insight into their role. You can watch it below.