Thursday, 30 March 2017

RAF Saxa Vord - Northern Front Line of the UK Air Defence Region - Corporal Bob Abbott, RAF PTI


This is the second instalment of Bob Abbott's memories of Saxa Vord and I am grateful to him for sharing his recollections with us.

"I arrived on a posting to RAF Saxa Vord in June 1962.  Located further north than Leningrad and on the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, and Bergen, Norway, this northerly RAF Station was named after Saxa Vord, which at 935 ft (285m) was the highest hill on the island of Unst.
I was to discover that this radar station, with its Type 80 radar, was providing long-range coverage of the airspace to the north of Scotland.  The station's motto "Praemoneo de Periculis", Forewarn of Danger, reflected its role.  Because of its isolated location, my posting there in the summer of 1962 was initially for a limited tour of eighteen months.  Like quite a number of my RAF colleagues, who took to the Shetlanders and island life, I applied to extend my tour by six months.  It was during those extra six months that I was to meet the love of my life, ELizabeth MArgaret Leask.
The station was officially opened on 27 September 1957 as No 91 Signals Unit.  In the following years it was a vital part of Britain's air defence during the Cold War in a game of cat-and-mouse with the Soviet Air Force. 
 
During my time there it was the Fighter Command English Electric Lightning aircraft, from RAF Leuchars in Fife, that intercepted the Soviet TU-95 (NATO code name "Bear") probing flights, which had been spotted by the Saxa Vord radar head, and escorted them out of the UK area off interest.
Being a Control and Reporting Post(CRP)/ Reporting Post (RP), it passed its radar picture and information (along with RAF Benbecula) to the Master Radar Station (MRS) at RAF Buchan, which also received information from the Danish radar site on the Faroe Islands.
The Type 80 reflector was unfortunately lost when it was dislodged in a historic gale in January 1961.  I heard that when the radar head had collapsed in the gale that the anemometer had registered a 177 knot gust of wind.  The official photos of the incident showed radar metal mountings torn like sheets of paper and the scanner some distance from its turntable. The scanner was subsequently cut into pieces for disposal.

An urgent exercise by the contractors (mainly Currans & Decca) was mounted to reinstate the Type 80.  After flight trials the Type 80, with a new reflector, was accepted as serviceable on 11 Sep 61. During my time there in 1963 a Norwegian firm enclosed the radar with a radome constructed of perspex triangles on a neck of concrete.
My role on the Station, as the Cpl Physical Training Instructor, was to provide a voluntary programme of sporting opportunities to enhance the quality and lifestyle of the circa 120 personnel stationed there.  The following photo was taken from the water tower on the Domestic Site and shows the camp from the east.
 

The Water Tower, Sick Quarters and Officers' Mess at the eastern end of the Domestic Site:
In fulfilling this role the two years on Unst was to prove a very significant highlight in my 36 year career in the RAF.  Future articles will reveal that the memories still linger long, for it is people that make places.  I will never forget my RAF colleagues, the Unst and Lerwick folk, the frequent overland specials for football matches in Lerwick, and the badminton matches in the Unst community halls".  
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Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Posted to RAF Saxa Vord – Corporal Bob Abbott, RAF PTI - 1962-64


From Jun 1962 until Jul 1964 Cpl Bob Abbott served as the Physical Training Instructor at RAF Saxa Vord. His tour of duty was to coincide with some of Saxa Vords best sporting achievements, particularly in Basketball, Badminton & Soccer. An Admin Officer, known as Flt Lt  "Dickie" Bird, took a number of the photos used in this account and presented copies to Bob. The intention was to record the typical overland journey as experienced by RAF personnel posted to Saxa in the early 60's. The pictures in this account would have been taken in the first half of 1964, "Dickie" Bird being posted in as the Adjutant in Feb '64. "Dickie" used his own motor scooter to keep ahead of the "overland" and to preposition himself to take the photos. If anyone can identify individuals in the pictures I would be pleased to hear from them and the names will be included in a future amendment.

 Bob Abbott has already drafted the second instalment of the story of his tour on Unst and I look forward to issuing more of his material. My thanks to Bob for this very interesting chronicle of the trip to the most northerly inhabited island in the UK!

"In June 1962 the telephone rang in the Physical Fitness Flight at RAF Upavon, HQ Transport Command.  “You’re posted” said Jock Brown, the national service clerk in Station HQ.  “Where to?” I responded; “RAF Saxa Vord” says Jock; “Where’s that?” I said.  Jock retorts: “Come over and I’ll show you.”  Arriving at Station HQ Jock brings a chair around the counter and placed it in front of a map of the UK which stretched from the floor to the ceiling.

 Standing on the chair Jock reaches up and points to a group of islands away north of Scotland, where the wall met the ceiling.  Looking at me with a quizzical smile he tells me: “RAF Saxa Vord is near the north end of the island of Unst.”
 

The journey from Upavon to Unst was to take three days.  An RAF travel publication detailed three travel warrants required: the first one was for the train from Pewsey to Aberdeen; the second warrant for the North of Scotland, Orkney & Shetland Steam Navigation Company's MV St Clair’s 13 hour overnight ferry crossing from Aberdeen to Lerwick on a Monday or a Thursday; and the third warrant was for the John Leask & Son overland bus journey from Lerwick to Unst.


 Arriving in Aberdeen on the overnight train from Kings Cross I spent the day getting to know the granite city of the north, before heading to Matthews Quay to board the MV St Clair at the timetable sailing time, which varied depending on the tides.  The 13 hour crossing is the longest domestic ferry crossing in the UK.  The berth bunk bed with a blanket was a welcome respite from the rough sea journey to Lerwick.


Arriving in Lerwick,
 

I made my way to the John Leask & Son car park for the bus to Toft, the mainland ferry point to cross to Ulsta, on the island of Yell.  Around the bus was a hive of activity as mail, bread, milk, and a variety of parcels and luggage was loaded aboard.  This included numerous mail bags stacked on the seats of the bus, with just about enough seats for the number of passengers heading north.

The journey north was on single track roads with passing places.  The bus stopped along the way to deliver mail bags to various mail sheds, where postmen awaited their arrival.  One of the scenic places on the journey was Voe.
Arriving at Toft we piled into a nearby café for a welcome bowl of oatmeal broth soup, while the luggage was loaded onto the ferry.
 I often would assist with the loading and it was always a pleasure to meet and chat with other travellers, like my RAF colleague Dave Mawson, and the Methodist Minister, Rev Wesley Crocker, who was going to Unst to conduct the Sunday services at Haroldswick, the most northerly Methodist Church in the UK. 
 





Once the loading was complete the passengers boarded the ferry for the crossing to Ulsta, where the luggage continuing north was loaded onto the next bus.
The bus followed a route up the east side of the island, making deliveries as it travelled north: 


 
Eventually reaching  Mid Yell for a change of bus:

Then the journey then continued  to the Gutcher ferry point for Unst.  Yell is noted for its untold acres of peat.
 




Arriving at Gutcher the remains of the luggage and remnant of passengers boarded the ferry for the short crossing to Belmont on Unst. 

We were met by the bus for the final leg of the journey through Unst, calling in at the three main communities on the island: Uyeasound in the south, Baltasound mid isle, and Haroldswick in the north.

En route we passed the Loch of Snarravoe, with Yell visible in the distance:
and Numerous Shetland Ponies:
 
The view as we descended Setters Hill into Haroldswick was particularly memorable:
We stopped at the Haroldswick Post Office, the most northerly one in the UK, to deliver the mail:
After three days travel by train from Salisbury Plain to Aberdeen, an overnight ferry to
Lerwick, a nearly five hour journey, by four buses and two ferries to Unst, I finally arrive at RAF Saxa Vord, my home for the next two years.  It was to turn out to be one of my most memorable postings, as the lone Cpl PTI for the circa 120 personnel stationed there. "
 
 
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Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Saxa Vord - The ADGE Data Links Buffer System (ADLBS) and Ship S

In 2010,  when I wrote a piece about the Link 11 System at Saxa Vord, my understanding of the equipment I was referring to was sparse: http://ahistoryofrafsaxavord.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/link-11-at-saxa-vord.html   Since then I have learned a little and been helped a lot - I thought it was about time to try to rectify any misconceptions I may have caused.

In the mid 80's elements of the ADGE Data Link Buffer System (ADLBS) were installed at Saxa Vord. Some of the work included the erection of three tall towers. The tallest tower carried an antenna for a communications system known as IJMS (Interim JTIDS Message Specification, where JTIDS stands for Joint Tactical Information Distribution System). Another acronym which confuses things still further is used for the antenna on this tower, which is known as the UKAEGIS antenna (United Kingdom Air Environment Ground Information Segment).  Two more tall Towers were erected to carry Link 11 Antenna. 
Separately, a system called SSSB (Ship Shore Ship Buffer), designed by the defence contractor Rockwell Collins, was also installed.  The photo below shows the 2 Link 11 Towers, the UKAEGIS Tower in the distance between them and the site of the SSSB :

The tallest structure was the UKAEGIS Tower:
As far as I am aware it was actually mainly used in AWACS operations. The next picture gives a slightly closer view of the UKAEGIS Antenna:
 

The other two, slightly smaller, towers, carried antenna used to transmit and receive data and voice using Link 11 communications.

Each of these antenna was 9m long and weighed more than 500 Kg.

Link 11 communications normally employed UHF frequencies to communicate with airborne platforms like AEW/AWACS  or, HF frequencies with surface vessels.  ADLBS handled the UHF Link 11 communications using the antennas on the towers.  The longer range HF Link 11 communications were routed via a number of much lower antenna which were part of the SSSB; some of the SSSB installation can be seen below :

Another view of the SSSB masts, but from Zoom Earth:


In 1984 two concrete bases were constructed for the ADLBS shelters, these were known as the Link 11 shelter and the UKAEGIS shelter. The small building behind the UKAEGIS shelter hard-standing in the photo below used to carry the old Type 13 height finder, which was operational from Sep '57 until it was decommissioned in the middle of 1979. The base of the Link 11 Tower A can just be seen behind the Type 13 plinth.

The Link 11 comms were processed by Thorn EMI Electronics equipment in the Link 11 shelter; the IJMS comms were handled by NATO equipment located in the UKAEGIS shelter but were then fed through to the Link 11 shelter to be processed - hence the references to Link 11 and UKAEGIS on the sticker shown:

 The processed output was then routed to the Thorn EMI Electronics console for display:
 
There were considerable problems erecting a stable radome for the Type 93 radar but, before it was completed, the UKAEGIS and Link 11 Shelters were moved inside its plinth (probably in the early 90's, certainly before the autumn of 1993 when the Type 93 arrived on site).
Before the Type 93 was installed Unst suffered one of the worst storms in living memory, (New Year 1991/92).  Devastation occurred over much of Shetland and at the exposed Saxa Vord Top Site in particular. This next picture is from the Saxa Voice, the Station magazine, some years later. The Link 11, like much of the equipment on the Station, was off the air for some time. The remains of Tower A can be seen to the left of the Type 13 plinth in the following photo:
The extent of the damage is apparent in the next picture, of the 4 Saxa Domes (SATCOM, HF 200, S 649 & T 93), only the SATCOM Dome was left standing:
ADLBS was installed at RAF Buchan, RAF Saxa Vord, RAF Boulmer, RAF Neatishead and RDAF Faroes – originally the sites were all stand-alone.  In a subsequent upgrade, however, the five sites were networked together so that information could be shared between them.  Then, in an effort to reduce manpower required at Saxa Vord, the operator control functionality was re-located, so that Saxa Vord could be operated remotely from the mainland. 
The last radar was removed from Saxa late in 2005 and the station closed in April 2006.  Components  of ADLBS have since been removed from the site. However, the empty shelters are quite possibly still within the Type 93 plinth (although its associated  radome was demolished in 2014).
 
I am grateful to Cyde Walker (Thorn EMI, Racal, Thomson-Racal and Thales) and Pete Brindley, RAF for their assistance. Nevertheless, I accept full responsibility for any mistakes.
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