William Russell examines 70 years of service by the Royal Observer Corps, whose finest hour came with the capture of Rudolf Hess

THEY are the nearest thing still around to Dad's Army, the gallant 233 volunteers left in the Royal Observer Corps, which comes to the end of the road on Sunday.

Founded in 1925, the corps played a distinguished part in the Battle of Britain, but its finest hour arguably belonged to a Scot, Major Graham Donald, who was based at the Glasgow headquarters in New Temperance House, Pitt Street.

In 1941, during the night of May 10/11, a Messerschmitt 110 was plotted by the corps' post on the Northumberland coast and tracked as it flew north towards Scotland. The RAF rejected the corps' view that it was an ME110 and insisted it was a Dornier. A former officer in the Royal Naval Air Service, Major Donald stood his ground and when the plane crashed on Eaglesham Moors went to investigate.

He found the police baffled by their prisoner, who had baled out just before the plane hit the ground. The prisoner said his name was Horn and was demanding to talk to the Duke of Hamilton. Donald tumbled to the fact that it was Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy, but it took another 36 hours before the powers-that-be were convinced, and Donald got little thanks for his efforts since he had shown the intelligence services to be less than efficient.

The death sentence on the corps, given its nuclear warning role in 1955, was passed four years ago by the then Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker. As part of a review of Civil Defence needs following the end of the cold war, he decided the cost of its role, by then the monitoring of nuclear fallout, could no longer be justified. It was formally stood down on March 31, 1992.

But it was not the final curtain, because 233 volunteers at nuclear reporting cells located at 15 key military command centres, three of which were in Scotland, were kept on with the task of providing the national picture after an attack by nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

When the cold war was at its height, the ROC, which had about 10,000 members, had 275 monitoring posts in nuclear bunkers throughout Scotland alone. Across Britain there were some 870. Those in Scotland were put up for sale. The two top command centres, substantial underground structures in which Scottish Office Ministers would have taken shelter, found other uses. One at Livingston was turned into a rave nightclub, imaginatively called The Bunker, while the one at Anstruther became a museum.

Borders region turned the considerable bunker below the High School in Peebles into extra classrooms.

Formed in 1925, the corps was the result of experience during the First World War when the aircraft-spotting system proved inadequate. It was decided in 1919 by the then Secretary of State for War and Air, Winston Churchill, that it was essential to build on this experience. Six years and much talking later a committee under Major General C F Romer drew up the scheme which led to the establishment of the Observer Corps.

The members, recruited as special constables by the Home Office, were run by an Army major general and supplied information to the RAF, a typically pragmatic British solution. In 1929 the Air Ministry took over responsibility and gradually the network was extended to cover the whole country.

By the time war broke out in 1939 the ROC system was in place. During the Battle of Britain the corps played a vital role in spotting enemy aircraft, and when the flying bombs started to fall in 1944 it proved more effective than radar at spotting and tracking them. It acquired the ``royal'' prefix for its war-time contribution.

When the war ended the corps was disbanded, but peace in our time had not arrived - the Russians were a threat, and in 1947 it was resurrected.

During the war there had been tension between the ROC and that other band of volunteers, the Home Guard, and a splendid row - questions were asked in the House and letters written to the Secretary of State for Scotland - erupted between the Earl of Breadalbane and the Perthshire police sergeant in Killin who was accused of poaching the Earl's ROC members for the local Home Guard.

On Sunday 70 years of distinguished voluntary service will finally end. The corps' duties will pass to the RAF Regiment.

When the cold war was at its height, the ROC, which had about 10,000 members, had 275 monitoring posts in nuclear bunkers throughout