For the golfing enthusiast, a bunker is something to be avoided but in the case of the Dulwich and Sydenham Golf Club, a bunker of a very different kind could have helped save thousands of lives during a critical period of the Cold War. Here I refer to the Royal Observer Corps underground monitoring post which was located on the golf course between the years 1965 until its closure in 1991 when it was converted into a water tank designed to irrigate the course during summer months. Today, there is little sign of the ROC bunker or of the vital role it might conceivably have played in defending London from the effects of a nuclear attack.
The Royal Observer Corps had its roots in World War 1 when Britain was under attack from German Zeppelins when the London Air Defence Area (LADA) was formed with the role of providing advance warning of a raid. During the 1920s the voluntary Observer Corps was formed. Following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, it was soon apparent to the Government that urgent expansion of the Corps was required, including relocating its headquarters from London to RAF Bentley Priory. Key to this expansion was the ability of the General Post Office (GPO) to provide a communications network throughout the United Kingdom. A defining moment for the ROC was in 1941 when the Corps was granted the status, ‘Royal’ in recognition of its invaluable service rendered during the Battle of Britain.
By 1955, during the Cold War, a new role for the Corps was envisaged and this evolved into its primary function, to monitor fall-out in the event of a nuclear attack. In time, a massive programme of building underground monitoring posts was put in hand on a nation-wide basis. In all 800 bunkers were constructed. In May 1965 the Dulwich post was opened. Located at the top of Grange Lane - off College Road - it was positioned so as to provide a panoramic view of London. So what went on underneath the golf course?
Having completed two years National Service, followed by an additional sixteen years service in the TA, I was keen to remain in uniform and so I was attracted by a recruiting advertisement that, from memory, appeared in the South London Press asking for volunteers for the Royal Observer Corps - and I was so curious I thought I would give it a try. I found a very keen bunch of men and women at the instruction meetings which were held at Haberdasher’s Aske’s School near Queen’s Road, Peckham - with occasional visits to the Dulwich site.
After one or two meetings, I was sceptical as to whether ROC members would rush to the relative safety of an underground concrete bunker - leaving their loved ones to be incinerated during an nuclear attack. But I never voiced that opinion. I certainly had my doubts, although I did not question at the time whether the Corps was a very effective tool in defending the civilian population. Some of the large number of Civil Defence pamphlets/booklets issued by HM Stationery Office on the subject of possible nuclear attack offered advice which in my opinion was laughable!
Yet I cannot think that any government would undertake a costly building programme of underground monitoring bunkers without compelling evidence that they would provide invaluable information - thus saving lives. Since the bunker on Dulwich Golf Course could only accommodate two, or three operatives at a pinch, what would happen to the remainder of the unit - exposed to radioactive fall-out - or worse? In my brief time, I never raised that most obvious question, as I did not wish to be chucked out! It was what we would now term, ‘The Elephant in the Room’.
From memory, the Dulwich underground monitoring post was a pretty basic affair housing a complement of two or three operatives. Furniture consisted of two bunk beds, a chemical toilet and storage space for emergency food supplies and a couple of canvas chairs for seating. Lighting was provided by a single dimly lit bulb. Access to the bunker was via a steep ladder - topped off with a heavy metal access cover. Filtered air was produced by a special ventilator shaft. Lining the walls were the specialist instruments for monitoring fall-out. It was not a place that I would wish to stay for any length of time.
My stay with the Dulwich unit was brief as I moved to Horsham in Sussex in 1968. Here was an ROC Group HQ and Sector Control covering the South-East with a properly furnished control room - a much more sophisticated set-up. But my couple of visits to Dulwich golf course did provide an insight into the workings of the Royal Observer Corps - with its motto - Forewarned is Forearmed - and which was finally stood down in 1991 after twenty-six years of service in Dulwich; a remarkable example of the enduring esprit de corps of its members.