Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Saxa Vord - The Second Commanding Officer -1959

I have been  delaying the release of this article in the elusive hope that a contemporary photo of the main character would be forthcoming.  Perhaps someone reading this will be able to help and a picture of John Tocher can be added later.

Squadron Leader John Tocher arrived on Unst in January 1959 and signed a certificate taking command of RAF Saxa Vord from Squadron Leader Gordon Millar on 8 Jan 59. This, in itself, is a revelation as many believed that the Unit was known as 91 Signals Unit until much later.

John Tocher, sometimes known as "Jock", had a distinguished RAF career, followed by  notable civilian achievements after leaving the service. He was born in the Scottish town of Crieff in 1918 and had 2 bothers and one sister. He joined the RAF as an apprentice and trained at the Electrical & Wireless School at Cranwell,  I believe starting as early as 1935. The first official mention I can find of him is as a Warrant Officer in the Technical Branch in Feb 43, with a service number of 50549. The next record I have seen was on his promotion to Flying Officer (probationary) in Jul 43. His technical training earmarked him for aircrew, especially with the advance in wireless and navigational aids resulting in the need for people with highly specialised skills. Tocher flew with a heavy bomber squadron and was the only crew member to survive when the aircraft he was flying in crashed. In the Kings Birthday Honours list in 1944 Tocher was "Mentioned in Despatches" though, as yet, I have been unable to locate the citation.
He continued to serve in the RAF after the war, being promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant in Jul 46. One of his tours of duty was at the Radar Research Establishment at Malvern and in 1949 he became an Member of the Institute of Electronic & Radio Engineers, (now amalgamated with the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers -IEEE). He married Jane (Known as Shena, a Gaelic form of the same name) and, in the early 50's, must have been posted to Norway. A daughter, Fiona, was born in Oslo during May '53 and Tocher was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader on 1 Jan 54. I'm not sure where Tocher served after Norway but, at one stage in his career, he was posted to RAF West Beckham - a Chain Home station just SE of Holt in Norfolk. He must have completed the West Beckham tour before arriving in Unst as Beckham closed in 1958 and he was quite possibly there even before his tour in Norway, as Chain Home stations often had a Flight Lieutenant Technical Officer in charge.

By the beginning of 1959 Saxa Vord had been operational for only 16 months using the Marconi Type 80 Search Radar - the most modern in the RAF inventory and highly classified.

The Admiralty had been testing anti-submarine equipment from Unst and had been carrying out highly classified trials from the island. With the perceived Cold War threat Saxa Vord was considered to be a "front-line" unit.
The new CO arrived on Unst in typical Shetland winter weather, it was cold, it was windy and there were flurries of snow. The men had little idea what the new boss would be like and, although Tocher was from Perthshire, the environment and conditions were probably something of a surprise to him. In Jan 59 there were 185 men on the Unit (13 0fficers and 172 other ranks). A large element of the strength was made up by men on national service. There were no official married quarters available for anyone except for the CO and a few for civilian employees of the Air Ministry Works Department (AMWD). The RAF leased a building known as the Admiralty Bungalow from the Royal Navy and Tochers predecessor had lived in it:

The late Ray Dawson, an MT Driver, was sent to Uyeasound to meet the boat the new CO arrived on (probably a "flit boat" from the MV Earl of Zetland).

 Ray parked the Land Rover he had been driving and waited to meet his new boss. Evidently first impressions were not too auspicious. A very smartly dressed gentleman disembarked and Ray saluted. Ray was asked if all the men wore similar clothing - to which he replied "In this sort of weather, Yes Sir" - Tocher was obviously unused to the issue Wellies, long white socks and Parka:

Ray was then asked where he'd parked the staff car, to which Ray replied that there were no staff cars on Unst, Land Rovers were the most suitable vehicles available. The following photo, taken by Ray, shows the bulk of service transport on Unst, including a water bowser:

A few servicemen wishing to bring wives and family found private hiring's, sometimes as far afield as Uyeasound. However, Tocher was unaccompanied and stayed in the Officers' Mess. Unsurprising in more modern times but his wife, with a 4 year old child, chose to remain south - a Commanding Officer opting to leave his family elsewhere was unusual in the 50's.  This marital situation seems to have led to a conflict of interest during his tour at Saxa.
A monthly summary of significant events was produced on each RAF Unit and forwarded to higher authority, in the case of Saxa Vord to HQ 13 Group. These summaries formed "The Operations Record Book", more commonly known as the Unit Form 540. Because of their historical significance these summaries were usually signed by the Station Commander. When researching the 12 months Tocher was on the strength of the Unit I was puzzled by the number of times that the summaries were signed by other officers, including twice by Bert Thornley, who was the Adjutant early in 1959:

Having made contact with some of the personnel who were on Unst during1959, the reasons for the lack of "autographs" became apparent.
With a wife and young daughter living in Norfolk, Tocher was taking his full leave entitlement and attending as many conferences/meetings in the south of England as  he could.  Indeed, it was to become a bit of a joke amongst the RAF personnel on Unst. An officer recounts the following story: " I sometimes draw cartoons and I did several at Saxa Vord. The one that I remember in the current context showed a road with two sheep side by side, a signpost saying ‘south’ and John Tocher running like mad in that direction. The caption was one sheep saying to the other, “You’re right, his feet don’t touch the ground.” That says it all, I think!"

Another anecdote about the CO, from one who served with him, also relates to time away from Unst: "When he was in the bar, he used often to wax lyrical about a restaurant near to where he lived which had good food and outstanding Stilton cheese – he was friends with the owner. He used to say that he would have some sent up. A few days after he had headed south on one of his trips, a packet arrived addressed to the Officers’ Mess, RAF Saxa Vord. When we opened it we found that it was a Stilton cheese.

So, we added it to our evening meals. In those days the Royal Army Service Corps refused to go as far north as Unst and so we were given cash. One of the officers was a chartered accountant doing his national service and he took over the duty of arranging food to be bought with this money. He was a real gourmet and dinners were very good and, at the end of the month, when it was a case of spend the money or lose it, a seven-course meal was not unknown. The Stilton cheese went very well at the end of these meals.

Then John got back from his trip south and on the first evening in the bar before dinner he told us that we had a treat in store. He had arranged for a Stilton to be sent up and, if we were very good, we might be allowed a little of it. Nobody had the courage to say anything and we went in to dinner. At the end of the meal the ‘waiter’ automatically brought in the cheese and placed it on the table. John looked aghast at the remains of his Stilton and we had a difficult evening thereafter"
A photo of the Saxa Vord domestic site, taken in 1957, is below. The Officers' Mess is in the bottom right with the Land Rover parked in front:
The Station Operations Record Book for Jan 60 contains an entry which says, "Squadron Leader J. Tocher, the Station Commander, was admitted to PMRAF (Princess Mary's RAF) Hospital on 2nd January, and was discharged on the 22nd January. At the time of writing he has been granted leave pending posting to a unit on the mainland." A similar story appeared in the Shetland Times dated 29 Jan 60:

At mid-day on Christmas Eve the phone on the bar rang and as I was the nearest person to it - I answered it. It was the AOC who said he wanted to speak to John. I explained that he had developed medical problems and had to go to the RAF hospital at Ely. The AOC rang off. That evening he rang and told us to assemble all of John’s possessions as soon and possible and to send them to the hospital. He wouldn’t be coming back!

We were later told that the AOC had telephoned the hospital and, finding that John wasn’t there, he rang his home number. You can guess who answered!".

Air Vice Marshal Harold John Maquire was the Air Officer Commanding 13 Group in Dec '59.

I am not able to comment on Tochers medical state but I do know that he had been in an aircraft crash earlier in his career. I also know that nowadays hospitals are keen to discharge patients to their homes over the festive period, if it is feasible (it helps holiday staffing in particular). However, I have been in contact with a number of people he was responsible for in 1959 and few of the other ranks can remember him and, amongst the officers I have been in touch with, his frequent absences have been a recurring theme. The chance to leave Unst and get home was as important to the other ranks as it was to the CO, as this slightly later photograph  suggests:

Aftermath.  Squadron Leader RW Lowden (service no. 54012, a Tech Signals officer) was detached to Saxa at short notice as a temporary CO. He was there until 11 Apr (just over 3 months), whilst a permanent replacement was appointed. Most of those people who served under Lowden remember him well, partly for buying the troops Champagne after they broke a world darts record!

There seems to have been little long-term disruption to the career of John Tocher. He was promoted to the rank of Wing Commander on 1 Jul 61 and from 1961 to 1964 he was in Cyprus, where he served as the Telecommunications Staff Officer at HQ Near East Air Force (NEAF). With the recent granting of independence to Cyprus (Oct 60) and continuing problems with EOKA, it is possible that he was without his family on this tour as well. His last tour, before retirement, was at HQ Coastal Command, Northwood. The date of his retirement from the RAF was 3 Nov 73.
He was a Chartered Engineer (C. Eng) and  became a Fellow of the Institute of Electronic Engineers (F.I.E.R.E)  in 1964 whilst still in the RAF. He wrote a number of technical papers far too complex for me to understand. After leaving the service he became a Technical Officer with the British Standards institution. Tocher died, aged 67, at Holt in Norfolk in Apr '86. Unfortunately, both his wife Sheena and his daughter Fiona have also died.

I would be pleased to hear from anyone who has pictures and stories of Saxa Vord from 1959, IN PARTICULAR, FOR MORE THAN 8 YEARS I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO FIND A USEABLE PHOTO OF TOCHER   FROM THIS PERIOD - (






Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Sqn Ldr STJ Hampson - Commanding Officer 1960/61

STJ Hampson joined the RAF in 1938 to train as a wireless operator. He had intended a career in the Merchant Navy once he had qualified and completed  his stint in RAF. The onset of WWII altered his plans and he found himself employed on early radar sites. During the Battle of Britain he was a  watch leader on the Chain Home site at Rye, on the south coast of England - where he was known as Syd. He spent much of the rest of the war on mobile radar units in North Africa and it was during this period he was commissioned as an officer into the Tech (Sigs) Branch of the RAF.
Subsequently he had some interesting assignments in the RAF which included RAF Netherbutton in Orkney, RAF Medmenham (HQ  90 Signals Group) and the Far East.  During his lifetime he also flew in a variety of aircraft types, such as Rapides, Sunderlands, Lancasters , Canberras and a Valiant.  He married Wendy after the War and she thought that the name Mike was more suitable for him - so that became his nickname amongst his peers.

Squadron Leader STJ Hampson took over as the Commanding Officer of RAF Saxa Vord on 5th April 1960. He replaced Squadron Leader RW Lowden, who had been sent to Unst at short notice as a temporary CO in January 1960 and who served less than 3 months on the Unit. Unlike his two immediate predecessors Lowden & Tocher, who stayed in the Officers' Mess,  Hampson was accompanied by his wife Wendy and they took up residence in the CO's assigned quarter, known as the Admiralty Bungalow. It should be noted that he was more commonly called "Sir" during his Shetland tour.
They had two children, Steve & Martin who were of secondary school age. They stayed at school on the UK mainland; however, they visited their parents on Unst during their holidays and became familiar with the Earl of Zetland and the overland journey. The following photo shows the Hampson family in Aug 1960, possibly with the Station Adjutant (J. Grant MBE) on the right:

The Hampson tour was memorable mainly for two major occurrences, the visit of the Queen and the destruction of the eighteen and a half ton Type 80 radar turning gear in high winds. Nevertheless, the 18 month tour featured a number of other notable events. The first few months of his tour would have seen numerous staff visits, including the AOC, Air Vice Marshal HJ Maguire (AOC 13 Group) arriving for his annual Inspection on 11 May 60 - just a few weeks after Hampson's arrival.

Following the AOC's visit there were a whole string of senior visitors prior to the Queens arrival in August.  Parts of the Station were still under construction. In June the Station Church was dedicated by the Rev Firth, it was in a wooden building near the new Gym  - the same wooden building  was also to accommodate  the "in-house" Radio Saxa Vord:

In June work on the construction of an RAF Education Section began and had to be temporarily halted for the duration of the Queens visit, as can be seen in the picture below:
In August 1960 the Queen visited Shetland and Orkney. The Royal Itinerary included Unst and RAF Saxa Vord and, although of short duration, it is remembered by many Unst inhabitants and servicemen to this day. Many pictures of the event were previously published on the blog years ago here: 
 I am grateful to Steve Hampson, son of the late Sqn Ldr STJ Hampson for allowing me access to his father's photo collection of the period. Many of the pictures are new to me and the first three  of the rehearsals by the pier at Baltasound, with Wendy Hampson acting as the Queen in two of them, are particularly intriguing:

The next sequence of pictures shows the gathering of the service and civilian participants in the proceedings:

The Hampson collection also includes some photos of the Queen which I hadn't seen before and so they are reproduced below:

After visiting Baltasound and RAF Saxa Vord the Royal party headed south to Uyeasound where they boarded a launch to take then back to the Royal Yacht Britannia. Although the weather had not been perfect, all those on Unst who were involved deemed the visit a great success. A few days after the Queen left, Sqn Ldr Hampson received a letter from an Assistant Under Secretary to Her Majesty who had been commanded to write to the CO, thanking him for the hospitality the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh had received, the arrangements made and stating that that they had been interested in everything they had seen. As Sqn Ldr Hampson said on a number of occasions afterwards, it had been the highlight of his career. At this stage the CO had spent less than 6 months on Unst - he had more than a year left at Saxa!
The next month, September, saw the annual Battle of Britain Parades. A small parade  would have taken place at the Church of Scotland in Baltasound but RAF Saxa Vord sent a large contingent of 5 Officers and 37 men to take part in the 1960 parade in Lerwick. The logistics involved would have been considerable and travel probably had to be spread over more than one day. I'm not sure whether or not the CO went to Lerwick but, at the time, there were only 13 Officers (incl the CO) on the strength of Saxa and it would have been a major commitment.
December brought festivities to various parts  of the camp. The following picture was taken at a Christmas function in one of the Messes. I am only able to identify 3 people in the picture - Sqn Ldr Hampson is making the presentation and the Flt with the beard!, standing in the doorway is Mike Daly, a Fighter Controller. The man in the kilt is Sheriff RJ Wallace who helped administer justice in the islands for 50 years.  Help in adding names for the two ladies and other serviceman would be appreciated:
A Christmas party for local children and "those of the few service men who are accompanied" was held on 22 Dec - over 100 attended.  Santa duly arrived on the Fire tender and distributed presents. The children were entertained by the personnel who could be spared from duty. On Christmas Day, the SNCO's relieved the airmen so that the men could all attend a traditional Christmas dinner, served by the Officers and the rest of the SNCO's.
RAF Saxa Vord had a very active Amateur Dramatics Club during this era. The main organisers were the  Education Officer, Graeme Buckingham and Mike Daly,  who was one of the sword-bearers on the  Guard of Honour when the Queen visited. Wendy Hampson was very involved in the drama productions and certainly took part in the two most remembered shows of 1960 & 61. The first of these was the pantomime "Cinderella", which was performed in the Airmen's Mess, Baltasound Hall and the Uyeasound Hall in Dec 1960. The cast list is below and it is followed by two photos from the production.

The second was a performance "Murder Trial" by Sydney Box in Lerwick as part of the Shetland County Drama Festival in early 1961 - the cast won the first prize for beginners! The performers can be seen on the stage of the Garrison Theatre in the next picture. Wendy is third from the right:
More photos of these shows appear here:   
In 1953 the first of a batch of new search radars was deployed in UK to help modernise the air defence system in the light of the Cold War. The main search radar involved had been codenamed "Green Garlic", later to be more commonly known as the Type 80.  A Type 80 was erected at Saxa in late '55/early '56 but this was damaged by gales in Dec 56 and had to be replaced with a modified, strengthened  radar - the Type 80 Mk 2 - which was in place when the Unit became operational in late '57. Despite recommendations from at least one visiting working party and from the Unit, higher authority chose not have a radome built. On 26 Jan 61, during severe gales, the 75'x 25' radar  reflector was dislodged, It was Sqn Ldr Hampson's watch!
After the gales

For the next 8 months the CO had plenty of worries, the only search radar left on site was the WWII vintage Type 14 and, for much of the time, cover in the normal Saxa area had to be provided by adjacent stations. The main radar contractors Decca, Marconi and Currans, were soon up on Unst to inspect the damage and replacements were arranged. Being so remote, the logistical problem was immense. In April a landing craft delivered a Leyland "Hippo" and 2 Coles Cranes to Baltasound Pier - essential for moving the parts of a new T80 reflector when it arrived. I believe that the vessel was HMAV Andalsnes (L4097), a Mk 8 Tank Landing Craft - a later picture of her from: is below:
The Leyland "Hippo" looked like this:

and the following image is of a Coles Crane arriving at Baltasound on Unst a few years earlier - incidentally the vehicle in the picture belonged to John Curran Ltd, the firm responsible for manufacturing the Type 80 turntable:

A short time later sections of the new T80 reflector were delivered to the Pier by The Shetland Trader, a cargo boat, and off-loaded for transport to the radar site:

Assembly of the equipment was a complex process, especially when allowances for the Shetland weather had to be made but, by 6 Sep 61, flight trials could commence.
Sqn Ldr Hampson was posted to RAF Coltishall on 22 Oct 61, then practically straight to RAF Laarbruch in Germany.  He subsequently completed tours at RAF Watton and MOD before retiring from the RAF in Apr 1971. Unfortunately, both STJ Hampson and his wife, Wendy, have died. I am grateful to his son Steve for allowing me to use photos from his father's collection.



Monday, 1 January 2018

Joseph Cross - 4159940 - 1955 to 58 (Advance Party)

Joe Cross was born 3 Jul 36 and was recruited into the RAF on 22 Oct 54. He was initially posted to RAF Cardington, Bedfordshire for the issue of kit, etc.

In the next picture Joe is in the rear on the left:

From Cardington he was sent to RAF Padgate, Cheshire, probably early in 1955 - where he would have spent 12 weeks learning the rules, drill and basic firearms skills. He would have been on one of the last recruit training courses at Padgate as the unit closed in 1957. From there he was posted north to Unst in the second half of 1955. At the time Saxa Vord was parented by RAF Bishopriggs in Lanarkshire,  the Unit did not become fully operational until Oct 57. Instead, the site was in the hands of the contractors with the Domestic and Ops sites still construction camps. Joe would have been posted in as one of an "advance party ", which would have been part of 90 (Signals) Group. The senior RAF serviceman on Unst for much of the time Joe was there was a secretarial officer called Flight Lieutenant C A Davidson who, as a Flight Sergeant, had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal in 1943 when flying with a Wellington Bomber Squadron. In Sep '57, just before Saxa Vord became operational,  the first CO from Fighter Command,  (Squadron Leader Gordon Millar) arrived and Davidson stayed on for a few months as the first Adjutant. There must have been a reasonable number of servicemen at Saxa before it became operational  as Joe was the goalkeeper in the RAF soccer team. According to one report there were about26 personnel in the advance party. including 1 Flt Lt, 1 warrant Officer, 5 SNCOs and 20 others but it is likely  that these numbers changed from time to time:

Another member of the "advance party" became well known to the civilian population of Unst and to many servicemen over the years. Sergeant Frank Brand, a fireman, spent  many years at Saxa Vord, both as a serviceman and as a civilian. He married a local girl and lived at Haroldswick for a long time before his death.

Some of the earliest buildings to be finished on the Domestic Site were the Billets - structures like the Gym and Education Section were completed later. The next photo shows Joe in his Billet with some of his contemporaries:

The fact that site construction was still in progress is noticeable in the following photo, taken by Joe from the Water Tower at the eastern end of the camp. The Gym/Ice Cap, Squash Court & NAAFI Shop have yet to be built and, in the foreground, a Land Rover belonging to Decca (one of the main contractors at the Top Site), can be seen. Also of note, the accommodation huts for the construction workers are just visible  in the distance on the left:
Joe's vantage point, the Water Tower,  from the east and with Station Sick Quarters in the foreground on the left:

Joe appears to have had a fairly active social life during his time in Shetland, visiting the island of Yell and attending dances and/or regattas at Mid Yell and Cullivoe (neither place would have had mains electricity at this early date). Joe also struck up a friendship with a chap called Archibald (Erch) Lennon. The picture below was taken at the Norwick beach and I believe it  shows Joe Cross (bottom left),  Willie Mouat,  Margaret Mouat, Erch Lennon(RAF), Gilbert Gray and Jack Stewart (RAF).

It is believed that "Erch" emigrated to the USA when he completed his RAF service. The next picture, also taken near Norwick, shows Joe on his own at the foot of some of the cliffs at Skaw:

The following  two photos are of a couple of Joe's mates "messing around" in the vicinity of the Domestic Site Fire Section. The hose is unwound possibly as the area was close to building work and the surroundings would have been in need of regular cleaning. The subjects of the pictures include "Lofty" Kent and another serviceman, whose name has been forgotten:

Upon completion of his service on Unst Joe returned to mainland Scotland and left the RAF. He had fond memories of Shetland and particularly of his time at Saxa but he never managed to make a return trip. Joe didn't really got into computers but in his later life his family  encouraged him to write to the Shetland Times, in the hope of rekindling old memories. This he did in 2014 and was subsequently contacted by phone & letter  by some of the people who had known him from nearly sixty years earlier. One Unst resident, Hunter Nisbet, who remembered him from the 50's, even called on Joe in 2016 when visiting central Scotland. Unfortunately,  Joe died  later that year.
My belated thanks to Joe and gratitude to Calum, his son, for providing most of the material in this article.